Yellowstone National Park is the nation’s first national park and remains one of the country’s most popular and visited parks. It’s a vast, beautiful, and wild habitat known for spectacular geothermal features and an abundance of wildlife rarely found in other parts of the US.
Herds of massive bison wander through the park’s grasslands, and gray wolves roam the northern regions. Old Faithful might be the park’s most popular geothermal feature, but hot pools and spouting geysers dot the park’s landscape.
Spanning a huge area of 2.2 million acres, you might need multiple trips to experience everything Yellowstone offers. Here are some tips to help you plan your trip to this incredible national park that spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Why Visit Yellowstone National Park in an RV?
It might be easier to think of reasons not to visit Yellowstone. Seriously, the park is unbelievable. There’s so much to see and do, and its grandeur makes it an unforgettable experience.
One of the primary reasons to visit Yellowstone is the abundance of hydrothermal wonders. With over 10,000 thermal features, Yellowstone is the best place in the world to see geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents.
Over half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features are located in Yellowstone National Park. Even if you’ve never been to the park, you’ve likely heard and seen pictures of Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world. But, Yellowstone offers so much more than just Old Faithful.
The second most popular reason to visit Yellowstone is arguably the ability to experience diverse wildlife. As you drive through the park, it’s possible to see deer, moose, gray wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, bison, bears, and more. As with thermal features, Yellowstone National Park also has the largest concentration of wildlife in the contiguous United States.
Regardless of the reason for your visit, Yellowstone offers something for everyone, which is why it’s a can’t-miss national park. Because there’s so much to see, planning a trip to camp inside the park in your RV is the best way to maximize your time in Yellowstone.
When to Visit Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is a seasonal national park. At an average elevation of over 8,000 feet and surrounded by large mountains, access to the park’s interior is restricted to over-snow travel, and most facilities are closed.
Depending on the year, most facilities in Yellowstone are open from late May through early September. Before your visit, check the park’s website for the most up-to-date information regarding weather and seasonal closures.
Big temperature swings are common in Yellowstone, regardless of the season. So make sure you pack layers, rain gear, and a warm jacket for your visit, no matter the season. Snow and cold rain can happen in Yellowstone in any month of the year.
Yellowstone National Park in the Spring and Fall
Spring and fall can still be quite frigid in Yellowstone. Snow is common throughout these seasons, with the possibility of accumulations up to 12 inches in a 24-hour period. Daytime highs range from roughly 30 to 60℉, but nighttime lows regularly drop into the teens or single digits.
Yellowstone National Park in the Summer
Summer is the most popular time to visit the park. Unless closed for construction purposes, most facilities are open, and the weather is favorable. Daytime highs regularly reach the 70s and occasionally climb into the 80s at lower elevations.
Temperatures at night still dip, and the park cools off. Freezing overnight temperatures are possible in the park year-round. Afternoon thunderstorms are also common during the summer months, so prepare accordingly for any outdoor activities.
Yellowstone National Park in the Winter
Much of the park is blanketed by snow throughout the winter. Snowfall can be highly variable with each storm, but the park averages about 150 inches of accumulation each year. This total can be much higher at the park’s higher elevations.
Daytime temperatures rarely climb above 20℉ and can often remain in the single digits or closer to zero. Sub-zero temperatures are also common, especially during the night. Fun fact: Yellowstone’s current record-low temperature is a blistering -66℉.
Where to Stay for Yellowstone RV Camping
There are 12 campgrounds with 2,000 sites offered at Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park Lodges manages five:
- Bridge Bay Campground
- Canyon Campground
- Fishing Bridge RV Park
- Grant Village Campground
- Madison Campground
The park service manages the remaining seven:
- Indian Creek Campground
- Lewis Lake Campground
- Mammoth Campground
- Norris Campground
- Pebble Creek Campground
- Slough Creek Campground
- Tower Fall Campground
While this sounds like a lot, the spots fill up extremely quickly in high season. Fishing Bridge RV Park is the only campground that offers full hookups for RVs. Some of the campgrounds can only accommodate smaller RVs, so use the links above to check length restrictions and make sure your RV will fit.
Staying Outside the Park
The good news is that there are a great number of campgrounds outside the park to choose from if you aren’t able to reserve a site in advance. Here are several options to choose from with their proximity to the nearest park entrance:
Be aware that these drive times may vary with seasonal road closures.
- Ponderosa Campground: Located in Cody, WY, about one hour from the park’s east entrance station.
- Snake River Cabins & RV Village: Located in Jackson, WY, about 1.5 hours from the park’s south entrance station.
- Fox Den RV Campground: Located in West Yellowstone, MT, about five minutes from the park’s west entrance station.
- Yellowstone’s Edge RV Park: Located in Livingston, MT, about an hour from the park’s north entrance station.
There are also dispersed RV camping (boondocking) spots throughout the park’s national forest. You can find these spots by using official US Forest MVUMs (motor vehicle use maps) or further researching dry camping near Yellowstone.
Tips For Your RV Camping Stay
- Reserve campsites as early as possible. Without a reservation, your odds of showing up and finding a campground are minimal.
- Reservations can be made through Yellowstone National Park Lodges (for the first five campgrounds listed above) or Recreation.gov (for the other seven).
- Camping or overnight parking is prohibited everywhere other than designated campgrounds.
- Campfires are always prohibited in Fishing Bridge RV Park. Depending on fire danger, fires could also be restricted in other campgrounds.
- You’re allowed a maximum of six people per campsite.
- Stays are limited to 14 days from July 1 through Labor Day and 30 days the rest of the year. But there are no such limits for Fishing Bridge RV Park.
Check the park’s website for more camping tips and regulations to plan your visit.
How to Get Around Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, but technically, it resides in three states, with three percent of the park in Montana and one percent in Idaho. The expansive nature of the park can require a lot of driving if you want to see attractions in different sectors of the park.
There are five different entrance stations, and since the park covers around 3,500 square miles, it takes several hours to drive between the stations. Therefore, bringing your own vehicle is highly recommended for exploring the park.
This will be easier if you’re towing a travel trailer or 5th wheel that you can park and leave at your campsite. For those traveling in a larger RV, towing a toad or dinghy gives you a smaller vehicle to explore the park once you’ve checked into your campground. Just be aware that the maximum vehicle length for all park roads is 75 feet.
Before your visit, make sure to check the status of the park roads you plan on using. This will help you avoid detours that can sometimes cost hours. Additionally, anyone traveling with a GPS unit in their RV should utilize GPS coordinates for navigating to park attractions instead of relying on the unit’s built-in locations.
It can take hours to travel the 50 miles from Old Faithful to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone because of traffic from the number of tourists in the park. Herds of bison and other wildlife crossings tend to slow your travel down, and it’s not uncommon for an entire herd to block the road for a long period of time.
So, plan to travel slowly throughout the park. Some companies provide guided tours if you’d prefer to sit back and enjoy the ride. Check the park’s list of road-based tour providers for more information.
Places to Go
Did we mention that the park is massive?! Well, there’s a ton to see and plenty of places to go to experience the natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park. Here are a few of the most popular locations:
The Visitor Centers
Even if this isn’t your first time visiting Yellowstone, stopping by one of the visitor centers is the best way to get the most accurate information on everything from road construction to where and when the last wildlife sightings occurred.
Fortunately, there are a total of 10 visitor centers, information stations, and museums that will provide information and resources to help during your visit. Check the locations of the centers listed below to find the most convenient stop for you.
- Albright Visitor Center
- Canyon Visitor Education Center
- Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and Trailside Museum
- Grant Visitor Center
- Madison Information Station
- Museum of the National Park Ranger
- Norris Geyser Basin Museum
- Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
- West Thumb Information Station
- West Yellowstone Visitor Info Center
Canyon Village and the Yellowstone Grand Canyon
Yes, Yellowstone has its very own Grand Canyon! It’s not quite as large as its counterpart in Arizona, but it spans roughly 20 miles from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area. The Yellowstone River has carved the canyon over centuries.
There are multiple waterfalls along the canyon, and Canyon Village is the best place to start before you head to North Rim Drive. This area also includes Hayden Valley, one of the park’s best places to spot newborn bison and elk calves during the spring and early summer.
Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone Lake, and Bridge Bay
Constructed in 1937, watching fish from the Fishing bridge is almost as fun as watching the people that are watching the fish! Due to the decline of the lake’s cutthroat trout population, fishing hasn’t been allowed from the bridge since 1973.
Yellowstone Lake was the result of a major volcanic event that formed a caldera that later collapsed and was then partially filled by the 136-square mile lake. Nearby, the gurgling Mud Volcano is one of the more unique hydrothermal features in the park.
Madison and The West
The Madison area and the western part of the park are where you’ll find attractions like the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Midway Geyser Basin. Fairy Falls, standing at the height of 200 feet, is one of the most breathtaking waterfalls in the park.
There are plenty of opportunities along the Madison and Firehole Rivers in this area if you’re into fishing. You’ll also have the chance to drive through the 800-foot thick lava flows in Firehole Canyon or explore some of the smaller hydrothermal features this area offers.
Tower–Roosevelt and the Northeast
The Tower area was one of the first parts of the park explored by European Americans. In fact, early paintings of Tower Falls by Thomas Moran and other artists were instrumental in the establishment of the park in 1872.
The Yellowstone River cuts through this part of the park, and hikers can explore alternate views of the terminus of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. The northeast is also home to Lamar Valley, which is one of the major summer grounds for bison and elk, as well as their natural predators–grizzly bears and gray wolves.
West Thumb, Grant, and the South
The main draw of the West Thumb and southern part of the park is the largest geyser basin along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. This area was formed by a large volcanic explosion approximately 150,000 years ago, and the heat source for the geyser basin is thought to be relatively close to the surface–about 10,000 feet down.
Learning about fire ecology and exploring the park’s cultural heritage are also reasons to visit the West Thumb. There are several Native American hearth sites in this area, and the Grant Visitor Center offers informational exhibits detailing the role that fire has played in the formation and ongoing management of the park.
Things to Do
It’s tough to cover all of the things to do in Yellowstone, but our goal here is to highlight some of the most popular activities to give you some ideas for your trip.
Experience Yellowstone’s Incredible Thermal Features
Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful is probably the most recognized feature in the park, and no trip would be complete without seeing it. An eruption is quite fascinating. The geyser erupts about every 1.5 hours and can shoot water nearly 200 feet in the air!
Old Faithful is one of only six major geysers that are predicted regularly, which is remarkable considering there are over 500 geysers in the park. Its regularity is the basis for its name and one of the reasons that developers were able to build viewing areas and lay the foundation of the village and visitor center that exists today at Old Faithful.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. There are 150 geysers in one square mile, so there are lots to see other than Old Faithful.
Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the park and one of the most interesting sites you’ll ever see. The colors are so intense and beautiful that it’s hard to believe your eyes. The hot spring is between 200 and 330 feet in diameter and over 120 feet deep.
Be aware that parking at the hot spring is limited and doesn’t have enough capacity for Yellowstone’s large crowds. Get there early to get a parking spot or plan some extra time to wait for a spot to open.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
The Mammoth Hot Springs are located near the park’s northern entrance, and the springs offer visitors unique viewing experiences. You can walk along boardwalks above the hydrothermal features and get an up-close and personal view of the hot spring terraces.
In the winter, you can even snowshoe or cross-country ski along the Upper Terraces as you inhale whiffs of sulfur. If you want a preview of this interesting park attraction, check out the webcam for Mammoth Hot Springs.
Norris Geyser Basin
Take a stroll along the boardwalks at Norris Geyser Basin and enjoy the oldest, hottest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. Hike the ¾-mile Porcelain Basin Trail or the 1.5-mile trail that goes around Black Basin.
Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world, is also located here. Although eruptions are uncommon, seeing one will be something you remember for the rest of your life–if you happen to be one of the lucky few.
With 2.2 million acres and 900 miles of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of wilderness to explore. Yellowstone has it all, whether you prefer hiking through the forest, around lakes and rivers, or through canyons!
Keep in mind that many of these hikes are at high elevations that hold snow until June and late July in some areas. So you’ll want to be prepared for cooler temperatures and harsh trail conditions.
Here are some of the most popular day hikes in Yellowstone National Park:
- Mystic Falls Trail and Fairy Creek (3.5 miles and rated moderate)
- Canyon Rim North Trail to Inspiration Point (7.9 miles and rated moderate)
- Artists Paintpots Trail (1 mile and rated easy)
- Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn (6.8 miles and rated difficult)
- Bunsen Peak Trail (4.4 miles rated moderate)
- Lava Creek Trail (8 miles rated difficult)
Yellowstone is home to several of the most famous trout streams, including Yellowstone, Gallatin, Snake, and Madison. In fact, anglers from across the world visit Yellowstone specifically to fish, and they are an important part of the park’s native fish conservation goals.
Cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and arctic grayling are some of the native species that are crucial to the park’s ecology. Before you head out on the lakes and rivers, read up on Yellowstone’s specific and strict fishing regulations.
Guided and private horseback riding trips provide Yellowstone visitors with an incredible, unique, and memorable way to explore the park. Some outfitters offer day trips and even overnight backcountry trips. Yellowstone National Park Lodges also offers one-to-two-hour rides at Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon.
Consider exploring Yellowstone’s beautiful lakes and rivers by canoe, kayak, or motorized boat. With a permit and inspection, you can bring your own watercraft. Otherwise, the lodges provide rentals at Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. You can also book guided services from these companies.
As we mentioned, there are many things to do in Yellowstone. So, here are a few other resources you might be interested in:
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Besides the obvious tips of getting your accommodations booked well in advance and remembering to bring your camera and binoculars, here are a few more tips for visiting Yellowstone:
- Stop at a Visitor Center upon arrival. With it being such a big and complex park, a lot is going on, and updates will be helpful. Rangers will give you the best tips for what to do during the specific times you’re visiting and your preferred activities.
- Consider seeing the top attractions, such as Old Faithful, in the early morning or evening to avoid crowds. These are also the best times of the day to spot wildlife.
- Keep food, garbage, and other smelly items inside your vehicle and sealed inside a camping cooler. A cooler in the back of your truck isn’t enough.
- Don’t forget to spend time stargazing! Go outside after dark, with a flashlight and awareness of wildlife, and either walk or drive a short distance away from your campsite or lodge. You’ll enjoy a dazzling night sky.
- Make sure your RV furnace is in good working order before your visit. Cold nights can require heat to keep you comfortable.
- Pack for all seasons! Bring layers as the days can be hot, and the nights can get chilly, even in the middle of summer.
- Visit nearby Grand Teton National Park while you’re in the area. It’s only a short drive, and you absolutely won’t regret it!
Brief History of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone became a national park in 1872 and has been captivating visitors ever since. But the human history of this part of the country dates back more than 11,000 years, as you’ll find if you visit the park’s archaeological sites and explore the oral histories at park visitor centers.
The Tukudika is arguably the most well-known group of Native Americans that lived where the park exists today, but many other tribes or bands hunted and gathered throughout the park seasonally.
The first European Americans arrived in this area in the early 1800s, and the first organized expedition remarkably occurred just two years before the area was designated as a national park.
The construction of a railroad through the park was completed in 1883, which marked a drastic improvement in visitor access. The first automobiles weren’t allowed into the park until 1915, which further increased the park’s visitation and made visits more economical.
Interestingly, the park was established well before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Prior to that, the park was managed by the US Army from 1886 through 1918, and this is one reason why some people claim that Yellowstone is not only America’s first national park but may also be the first national park in the world.
Tucker Ballister is a Technical Content Writer for Camping World and a lover of the open road. You can check out more of his adventures and outdoor advice at thebackpackguide.com.