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Yellowstone Essentials: 12 Basic Things You Need to Know

Read this before you plan your visit to the park.

This remote steamy landscape in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho became the world’s first national park and is one of America’s most famous thanks to the Old Faithful Geyser and the brightly colored Grand Prismatic Spring. Come to Yellowstone National Park to see grizzly and black bears, thousands of wild bison, packs of wolves, giant waterfalls and the largest concentration of active geysers on Earth. But before you head to the park, here are a few basic Yellowstone essentials you need to know.

Think big.

At more than 3,400 square miles, Yellowstone is huge. It can take hours to drive from one part of the park to another and speed limits are 45 mph or slower on all roads. Not to mention notorious bison jams often cause delays. Plan your trip strategically so you don’t spend all your time driving.

Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful Geyser (Photo: Getty Images)

Get your pass.

You can buy a $35, 7-day pass at a park entrance station, or use your America the Beautiful or other interagency annual pass to get into the national park. If you’re planning to visit Grand Teton as well, an America the Beautiful pass is the way to go to avoid paying double entrance fees. Here’s how to get your pass.

Watch your step.

Yellowstone’s thermal features are fatally hot. Always stay on trails and boardwalks, keep small children close to you and never enter a geyser, hot spring or other thermal feature for any reason. It’s also illegal to throw things inside them.

Grizzly bear sow and cubs near Roaring Mountain in Yellowstone
Grizzly bear sow and cubs near Roaring Mountain in Yellowstone (Photo: NPS/Eric Johnston)

Be bear aware.

If you’re lucky, you might spot a grizzly or black bear in Yellowstone. While majestic, these creatures can be dangerous. Stay alert at all times, especially when hiking. Carry (and know how to use) bear spray, always hike in groups and make noise to ensure you don’t spook a bear. Store all food and scented items in bear-proof containers.

Bottoms up!

Drinking plenty of water is key to staying hydrated and warding off the effects of hiking at high elevation. Bring at least two liters of water per person with you when you hit the trails.

Give wildlife space.

The park’s incredible wildlife can be dangerous. Stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from other wildlife like bison and elk. Bison may look docile, but attacks occur every year. Never touch or feed wildlife.

Hiker at Trout Lake in Yellowstone
Hiker at Trout Lake in Yellowstone (Photo: Grant Ordelheide)

Lace up.

Leave the flip-flops at home. Closed-toed shoes with good tread like hiking boots or tennis shoes will protect your feet and give you a good grip on slippery or uneven trails in the park.

Keep it beautiful.

With 4.8 million visitors in 2021, every piece of trash adds up. Skip the plastic water bottle and refill your reusable at the park’s filtered filling stations. Pack out everything you pack in when you hit the trails. Yes, that means everything, including TP. Learn more about Leave No Trace.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone (Photo: Grant Ordelheide)

Hike Smart.

Afternoon thunderstorms are common in Yellowstone in the summer months and lightning can pose a real danger to hikers. Hike in the morning and plan to be back at the trailhead by early afternoon. If you hear thunder or see dark clouds building, turn back immediately.

Know your Fido 411.

Dogs are only allowed on leash in campgrounds and parking lots. It’s best to leave furry friends at home so you can explore more of the park than the roads. Never leave your pet in the car as temperatures can become dangerous, even on a mild day.

Skiers on the boardwalks near a steamy Grotto Geyser
Skiers on the boardwalks near a steamy Grotto Geyser (Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

Plan ahead.

Except for the northern ones, all of Yellowstone’s roads close in the winter months from late October or early November to late April or early May. During this time, the only way to access the inner park is by snowcoach or snowmobile.

Know where to stay.

There are six areas of the park with hotels or cabins. At the North Entrance, you’ll find Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins. Near Tower-Roosevelt, there’s the Roosevelt Lodge Cabins. The closest lodging to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is Canyon Lodge and Cabins. On the shores of Yellowstone Lake, you’ll find the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins and the Lake Lodge Cabins. The furthest south lodging is the Grant Village Lodge. At the Old Faithful complex, you can stay at the historic Old Faithful Inn, the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. In the winter, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only open accommodations.

Reservations open 13 months in advance at and fill quickly.

Many visitors choose to stay in gateway towns in Montana like Gardiner, Cooke City, Silver Gate and West Yellowstone, or Jackson and Cody in Wyoming.

Yellowstone also has 12 campgrounds. Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds or in the backcountry with a permit.