More than 200 years ago, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the U.S. While there are now more than 50 others across the country, Yellowstone still stands as one of the most iconic landmarks in North America. Whether you are planning to go see the park as a college student, a parent with your young family or as a retiree, there is plenty to see and do during your trip. Because the park is so massive – nearly 3,500 square miles stretching across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – it would take you months or years to see everything Yellowstone has to offer. Because it's unlikely you have that kind of time to spend, here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of your trip:
Make a plan
Yellowstone is not the kind of place that lends itself to you simply showing up and seeing what happens. First of all, it's hard to overstate how truly huge the park is and how many options it provides. Whether you are planning on going on a guided tour or striking it out on your own, you need to know where you have to be at, what time and how to get there. If you do decide you want to do a guided tour or, really, just about anything short of driving or hiking around, it's likely you'll need to make a reservation. Tours, hotels and even camp grounds require you to call ahead to hold your spot, and they often sell out months in advance.
Get out of your car
Two of the biggest mistakes made by tourists are not dedicating enough time for your trip and just driving around the park. Even if you're not an avid outdoorsman, there are hundreds of places you can only access on foot, so bring along your hiking boots. It's also worth nothing that if you do leave your car in a lot while you are out enjoying the wilderness, you need to keep security in mind. Bringing along a lockbox or mini safe is one of the best ways to keep important belongings like cash, paperwork, electronics or firearms safe.
Leave the beaten path
One of the biggest draws of Yellowstone is the wildlife, and for good reason. There are more than 400 species that can be found in the park, from bison to grizzly bears. While it would be difficult to get through a trip at Yellowstone without spotting a single four-legged resident, you'll have to get off the roads for the best wildlife spotting.
Use caution around the wildlife
Always remember that you are not in a zoo. If you see a grizzly bear, don't forget that it is actually an extremely deadly predator, not a pet or an ornament for you to admire. Keep at least 100 meters away from potentially dangerous animals like bear, bison, wolves and moose. That said, there are plenty less-dangerous animals you will likely spot, depending on where you are in the park. There are more than 30,000 elk, so it's likely you'll spot them from your car. Bighorn sheep, bison and moose are also reasonably easy to find, as are birds like trumpeter swans, pelicans and sandhill cranes. If you're lucky, you may also see foxes, otters, coyotes and marmots. Big cats like lynx and mountain lions are present, but notoriously difficult to spot.
Avoid the camping crowds
Camping is an extremely popular activity for many Yellowstone visitors, which means designated camp grounds also tend to be fairly crowded. If you're looking to avoid the crowds, you have a few options. You can apply for a backcountry permit and strike out on your own or you can simply camp outside the park. Though the park is massive, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is even larger – there are plenty of campgrounds outside of the official borders that will give you the experience without the crowds.
As with any kind of outdoor activity, preparation is key. Bear in mind that most of the park is more than 7,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, weather can change at the snap of a finger, so you have got to be ready for virtually any weather. Remember, snow in the middle of summer is not out of the question. Must-haves include rain gear, sturdy boots, hats and gloves. Remember to bring along plenty of water, food and sunblock, as well, especially if you're planning on hiking.
Shake up your trip
Not only is Yellowstone park enormous, but it is extraordinarily diverse. While you can find iconic landmarks like Old Faithful in the southern region, a trip to the northern region will lead you to Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America. In the southeast section is Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude late in the continent. Limiting yourself to one area of the park will result in you missing out on some of these natural wonders.