Our Adventures Gone Wrong: How NOT to See Yellowstone Park

Important Note: Okay. So generally speaking we like to keep things positive ’round here. Y’all know us. We’re really positive people and are almost always able to make the best of any bad situation we might run into out there on the road. After all, life’s too short to spend any kind of time dwelling on the negatives, whatever they may be and wherever they may happen! Besides, it’s all subjective anyway. Everybody’s experiences out there are different. We might think something totally sucks, but someone else might think it’s the best thing since sliced bacon. But every now and then, we’ll run afoul of lady luck and find ourselves in a situation we can’t wait to get out of. And when that happens, and we feel we can at least impart some useful information to you guys, we might feel compelled to share our experiences with y’all. And so that’s what our “Adventures Gone Wrong” series is all about. But we promise we’ll do our best to keep ’em all as fair and as objective as we can. Honestly. So here goes! And y’all let us know what you think!


[Post Updated March 22, 2017]

So this is gonna be a tough one.

We’re conflicted, you see. There are so many good things one could say about Yellowstone National Park. It’s a national – no –  a global treasure. And yet we’d feel like we weren’t doing our jobs if we weren’t completely honest with you guys about our time there. In everything we do and write and shoot and edit, we try to capture the genuine spirit of a place. We hope to give you an accurate idea of what each place we visit is like. Check that – actually, we hope to give you an accurate, objective accounting of our personal experience at a place. Experiences vary from person to person of course, so clearly our opinions may differ from yours. So with that in mind, we just try to give it to you straight.

And if we can be straight with you, we had a miserable time in Yellowstone. Just awful. For a lot of reasons. And we know we might catch some hell for sayin’ that. But that’s the way it was.

Full Disclosure

Okay, there are absolutely a few things about Yellowstone that we knew in advance would be a problem. And mainly, we’re talking about the crowds. You know, we could be smack-dab in the middle of the most beautiful place on earth, but if we’re surrounded by swarming crowds of people and traffic our shared instinctive reaction is to get the hell out of there immediately. Suffice it to say we get anxious in crowds, and it’s tough for us to handle. Well it just so happened that thanks to our schedule, the only time we could spend to visit Yellowstone happened to be right in the middle of summer, when the crowds and traffic are notoriously at their worst. Shit.

Our most memorable view of Yellowstone.

We could very well  have decided not to go of course and save ourselves the frustration, but when presented with the chance to visit Yellowstone for the very first time – regardless of the time of year – it’s very, very difficult to say no. After all, Yellowstone’s one of those magical places you hear about your entire life. Ever since you were a kid you’ve heard stories about the buffalo and the hot springs and Old Faithful. Right? So, given the opportunity, we made plans to visit for a couple of days as part of a big summer road trip a few years back, knowing full well we’d be driving into a situation that was gonna be tough for us to stomach. And knowing and accepting that, we tried our dead-level best to not let that color our overall experience or opinion of the place. We honestly did. It just didn’t work out all that well.

The other contributing factor here may very well be the time we allotted to spend in the park. Yellowstone is an enormous place after all, and it’s very true that you’ll need several days at least to fully experience all the wonders the park has to offer. Unfortunately we didn’t have that much time. We scheduled three days (two nights) out of our road trip to try and experience as much of the park as we could – which again, we knew would be tough. And as it turns out, once we arrived we couldn’t wait to leave. We spent only one night there (after paying for two) and got the hell out the next morning. So there’s that.

Lastly, we were driving into Yellowstone after spending three absolutely incredible days exploring the Grand Tetons and Grand Teton National Park. And after a lifetime of hearing how amazingly beautiful Yellowstone is, we fully expected the Tetons to pale in comparison. So the bar for Yellowstone was set pretty high. Too high, probably.

So suffice it to say we were setting ourselves up for disappointment in America’s premiere national park. And lo and behold, that’s exactly how it shook out.

Yellowstone: The Good

But let’s start on a positive note, shall we?

The best thing about Yellowstone is without a doubt the abundant, magnificent wildlife that at times feels like it’s no more than an arm’s length away. Take away the big crowds and you have an unparalleled wild animal paradise.

Within 30 minutes of our arrival into the park we came across a beautiful, majestic bull elk grazing in a pasture, completely unconcerned and undeterred by our presence no more than 100 feet away.  And he was the first of a countless number of elk we saw, just driving around the park. Same goes for the buffalo. They. Are. Everywhere. There were actually a couple of old buffalo who lived inside our campground, and wandered through the trails and very near the tents at all hours of the day. And yes, we did see a bear. About 150-200 feet off the road, foraging for a snack on the forest floor. And again, this is all within a matter of a few hours!

The landscapes and geothermal features of the park are indeed very cool too. But the way we saw it, after you’ve seen a couple they honestly all begin to look the same. Again, our opinion. It’s truly the wildlife that steals the show here.

One of many beautiful buffalo we saw during our visit.

But that’s not to say the wildlife is not also problematic at times, especially when it comes to traffic. Getting around Yellowstone (especially in the summer) is no easy task, simply because the park is huge and the few roads that wind through the park are mostly two-lane and narrow (without shoulders). So whenever an animal, typically a bear, is spotted alongside one of the roads, traffic comes to a near standstill as people slow down or pull over to get a glimpse and/or a picture, blocking one or both sides of the road. “Bear Jams” they’re called, and they are a regular occurrence throughout Yellowstone. And they suck.

We experienced a few “bear jams” during our short visit (although the animal in question was usually an elk), but we actually got caught up in something a bit more sinister: a rolling “buffalo jam”. We found ourselves stuck in a several-miles long traffic jam, only to realize when we got to the front of it that it was caused by a slowly migrating herd of buffalo making its way down the road. Which, yes, is cool. But as a result it literally took us two and a half hours to go 12 miles. Just sitting there. In the car. The whole stinkin’ time.

So, yeah. The whole wildlife experience is very cool, except for the traffic part.

Beyond that, we found the facilities and campgrounds to be really nice and extremely well maintained. We actually got really lucky because we rolled into the park without a campsite reservation, hoping we could get a decent spot at one of the first-come-first-served campgrounds. We arrived early in the morning and managed to plop down on one of the best sites we think we could’ve ever found, right next to a river in the Norris Campground. Giddyup.

But unfortunately aside from that, there wasn’t too much good news to report. So bear with us as we go to the dark side for a minute…

Yellowstone: The Bad

Okay. We’ll admit it right off the bat. The crowds did us in.

We thought we could handle it all. The people, the traffic, the mayhem, the noise. But when push came to shove, we just couldn’t take it. And that’s the main reason we decided to leave after only one night, even though we had already pre-paid for two (and had ourselves a pretty bitchin’ campsite). We woke up that first morning and figured – rightfully so – that trying to spend another day in Yellowstone was an exercise in futility, and would only worsen our experience and further stain our opinion of the place. We just didn’t have enough time to wander off the main roads and away from the main attractions and the massive crowds to see what else the park had to offer (which we understand is a LOT), so we decided to cut our losses, get the heck out of Dodge, and hopefully come back to Yellowstone another time.

The traffic, even apart from the “bear jams” and “buffalo jams” was just plain crazy. In the span of just a few hours that afternoon (after we escaped the buffalo jam) we saw no fewer than three car accidents – which, judging by the way the cars were positioned, were no doubt caused by folks rubbernecking or flat-out stopping in the middle of the road in order to get a glimpse or a snapshot of some animal. And again, because the main roads through the park are only two lanes, these accidents would stop traffic for miles, forcing everyone to sit in their cars for upwards of 30 minutes to an hour, waiting and stewing in frustration knowing that every minute spent sitting there was another minute taken out of the natural Yellowstone experience.

The crowds clamoring for a shot of Old Faithful.

Then of course there were the crowds at Old Faithful and the park’s other major attractions. It was madness. And it sucked every ounce of serenity and awe out of what would otherwise exist in a place like this. In the heat of the moment, all we could think was that Yellowstone was nothing more than a glorified, overcrowded, drive-through nature-themed amusement park. And to some extent that’s still the way we feel. Only a return trip, at the proper time and for the proper length, will ever change that. We hope.

Yellowstone: The Ugly

The one and only thing we witnessed in Yellowstone worse than the crowds and traffic, was the flat-out unbelievable behavior of some of the park police. Again we were there for a very short time, but more than once we found ourselves on the outside of a situation looking in, and thinking: You’ve got to be kidding! Why would they act that way toward people?

Not to take away from the importance of their jobs. At all. Definitely not! Believe us we can only imagine how frustrating and downright miserable it must be to try to keep any sort of peace and order among hundreds of thousands of excited, wildlife-loving camera-happy tourists. No freakin’ way we’d want that job. But you can still do your job effectively and professionally, without wildly yelling and screaming bug-eyed and red-faced at people, embarrassing parents in front of their kids, and basically treating people like dirt. We know because we saw evidence of that, actually, just a few days later in Glacier National Park – where faced with many of the same circumstances, the Rangers were stern but respectful, informative and very, very professional.  And people without fail respected and responded to them positively.

We certainly don’t want to paint all the Yellowstone officers with that same brush – but come on guys, you don’t have to be completely shitty to people to get your point across. Really.

Bottom Line: Don’t Do What We Did.

So herein lies the lesson of our experience, plain and simple: if you can’t do crowds, don’t do Yellowstone in the summer. Period. For real. And certainly, certainly, certainly don’t try to do it in a couple of days.

Admittedly we did it all wrong. And we fully realize that for [most] of the bitching we’ve done about our short time there, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves. We imagine that for folks with kids, or folks who don’t mind doing the tourist thing around lots and lots of other people, it would be a completely and totally different experience. Otherwise, we hope we’ll be able to save some folks like us from the frustration that we felt, and the time and money we spent.

Sadly, we’re not in much of a hurry to get back. We’re still kind of jaded by the whole experience. We will hopefully return to Yellowstone some day, but it’ll for dang sure be at a different time of year and for at least several days.

If there’s a silver lining to all of this – and there certainly is – it’s that leaving Yellowstone a day early meant we’d be able to spend an extra day up in Glacier. And as miserable as Yellowstone was for us, Glacier was just absolutely incredible. Tell you about that another time, if you’d like.

Alrighty then. Got any stories/tips about Yellowstone you’d be willing to share? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear ’em!

Cheers y’all! Safe travels…

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23 Comments

  1. I really appreciate this information. We’ve begun planning a trip next summer (from Georgia) to the area including Yellowstone. We’ll be arriving there at the end of the first week of June. From what I understand, that’s before the huge crowds. We also plan to visit Teton as well. We have four kids and will be traveling via motorhome. I’m dreading the 4500 mile drive over three weeks, but willing to bear it. I’d appreciate any advice for the Tetons visit. I’ll be reading your accounts on the blog. Thanks again!
    John Richardson – PBandJAdventures.com

    • Thanks John! We actually visited the Tetons and Yellowstone in mid-to-late June, and Yellowstone was (clearly) pretty crowded by then. Can’t imagine what it must look like in late July and August! But again, I think if you allow yourself plenty of time to explore Yellowstone you’ll have a much better experience. And in any event, the kids WILL absolutely love it. Get ready to take lots and lots and lots of photos. 🙂 As far as the Tetons are concerned, we found the area much less congested (except for the town of Jackson), wide open and absolutely beautiful. If you can, be sure to take in the Jackson Rodeo because the kids especially will enjoy it, and it’s just such a cool western setting. The fishing’s great, the wildlife is amazing, and it was overall just so much more relaxing.
      Since you’re traveling by RV, I’d really encourage you to follow and get in touch with our friends Nikki and Jason Wynn (www.gonewiththewynns.com) who can absolutely tell you more about that aspect of it! (See Nikki’s comment below.)
      Cheers! Keep in touch.

  2. We spent 10 days in Yellowstone in early June. I think the experience would have been similar to yours had we been any later. In fact, the first 3-5 days were great but the last weekend before we left the crowds nearly doubled. While we loved Yellowstone (it’s so weirdly cool) we were ready to get out of there before the crowds came. Like you guys we LOVED the Tetons (and Glacier). 🙂

    • Nikki Green

      Thanks for the comment Jenn. Glad to hear you guys got there in time and had a great trip. We’ll definitely try again when the crowds are a tad smaller. I’m sure the experience is quite different! The Tetons and Glacier were amazing and we’re super excited we got to experience them. That part of the world is simply gorgeous and we can’t wait to go back! Cheers!

  3. We are in the planning stages of a grand adventure and will definitely hit Yellowstone Park. After reading your blog we will not be visiting in the summer, but when do you think would be a good month?

    • Nikki Green

      Hi Liza. From the little research I’ve done, it looks like the best times to go are late May and sometime after Labor Day (if we’re talking about crowds that is). We know there are so many amazing things to see in the park. But unless you’re really patient and have lots of time, Summer just isn’t a good time (in our opinion). We’d absolutely love to go back when the crowds aren’t so bad. We just know the entire experience would be completely different. Be sure to let us know how your trip goes! Cheers 🙂

  4. Diane McCleskey

    We went to Yellowstone in Sept. a few years ago and the crowds were not bad then at all. Really enjoyed it and would love to go back sometime. Hope you guys get to have an awesome Yellowstone experience someday.

    • Thanks for the comment Diane! Glad you guys enjoyed Yellowstone. And we definitely want to go back sometime when it’s not so crazy. September sounds nice!

  5. All my fears are coming true reading this…thank you. LOVE wild life, LOVE nature. Won’t do crowds. Shut the gate people, after a reasonable amount of two leggeds are there.

    • We’d love to try it again during a different time of year. We know it’s beautiful. We know the wildlife is spectacular (from a distance of course). We just can’t do crowds 🙁 We hope you get to experience it without all of the madness one day!

  6. I loved reading this. It just confirmed what we already thought about including Yellowstone in our trip next summer. You guys are funny, too!

    • Hi Tim! So glad you enjoyed the post. Hated to write negative things about Yellowstone, but gotta be real. We’d love to try again (in a different month of course), because we’ve heard and read GREAT things about Yellowstone. We’d love to be able to do a follow-up post on how wonderful it is in the spring or fall. Maybe we’ll get that chance soon. Hope you guys have a fantastic trip this summer – wherever the road takes you! Cheers!

      • Thanks for the reply, Nikki! Like you, we hate crowds. The majority of our trip will be tons of back roads in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, so I imagine that a stressful visit to Yellowstone and the crowds may not fit into our agenda. I look forward to reading many of your other entries.

  7. Chris VanderHart

    The one & only time I’ve visited Yellowstone was when I was on a ski trip with about 15 skiers & patrollers. We took a guided snow cat bus from West Yellostone and it was fabulous in every way. Tour guide shared so much information & entertaining stories. The buffalo herd surrounded the bus; we saw elk, wolves, bald eagles, deer, but no bear. We could walk and view the attractions without huge crowds. Loved every minute–a Winter trip is the way to go.

  8. Diane McCleskey

    I would like to hear about Glacier.

    • We loved, loved, loved Glacier! But a lot of that could be because everyone else was in Yellowstone. 🙂 It wasn’t crowded at all and you could truly enjoy and appreciate the scenery and each animal sighting. It was just an incredible experience for us. And after reading so many great posts about Yellowstone, we’ve decided it must all have to do with timing. We know we would’ve enjoyed Yellowstone so much more if it hadn’t been so crowded. We’re currently working on a post for Glacier and hope to have it up sometime soon. Thanks Diane!

  9. We camped there the 1st part of Sept. 2016. It wasn’t bad then but heard about the crowds in the summer. Didn’t sound fun. There is a y mile one way dirt road we took early evening. It was very quiet. We had a bear walk up the road rite in front of our car, saw a female moose, and a red fox! Saw multiple bears other areas of the park, on the north side. Guess they were fattening up,for winter.,we downloaded an ap called gypsy guide. It was free but u would want to down load it before u go as it takes a while. Don’t need signal to run it runs off your gps on your phone. As u drive around the park it narrates what is coming up and gives u info on it. We found it very interesting and we saw some things we mite have missed if we hadn’t had it. We stayed 7 days I think, so had plenty of time to enjoy. We had a great experience. I would definitely pick off season, which since we no longer have children at home we prefer no matter where we go to avoid crowds.

    • Thanks for all of your wonderful advice! Sounds like you guys definitely did Yellowstone the right way! Too cool! We’ve got to schedule a return trip soon and do it the right way ourselves! So glad you guys had such a fantastic trip and thanks for reaching out! Cheers!

  10. Laura Nicolas & Christophe Poch

    Hello Nikki, grettings from Tahiti, we are a family of 4 who love hikking and wildlife spotting and were planning a trip to Yellowstone for the last weel of june; but after reading your blog we are thinking about travelling somewhere else :-)… could you give us your advice… do you thing that the last week of June could be considered as peak season, or the crowds arrive in July? Thank you! (we have visited many countries the way you do, we may have some good advices for your future trips, feel free to ask)

    • Hello! Great to hear from you! Oh gosh, we certainly hate to say don’t go to Yellowstone (because we definitely didn’t do it the right way), but if you’re not a fan of crowds and long waits, I would say June-August just isn’t the best time to go. Since writing this post, we’ve gotten lots of good feedback from people who say they planned it out right, spent enough time, stayed off of the main roads, and still had a great time during the summer. So it definitely depends on researching those things ahead of time. We’ll certainly do that next time we go, but we still wouldn’t go again in the summer months. We would highly recommend Glacier National Park (we left Yellowstone and went to Glacier) especially to hikers. Great trails, absolutely beautiful scenery, wildlife, and great camping too. We stayed at Many Glacier and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Every turn on the ‘Going to the Sun’ road brought another breathtaking view. We also really enjoyed Yosemite National Park (although we didn’t go during the summer months). It was beautiful and offered great hiking opportunities as well. Again, I don’t want to say ‘Don’t go to Yellowstone’, but I do think it’s important to research ahead of time if you decide to go. Please keep us updated! We hope you have a lovely trip! Do you guys live in Tahiti?

  11. Sorry to hear about your bad experience. I worked in Yellowstone Park in 1980 at the Old Faithful Lodge. Yes, loads of tourists asking, “When is Old Faithful going off?” If you hike for 10 minutes on a trail, you will see almost no tourists. Early summer could be bad weather. Maybe late summer would be nice or early fall. I’m like you, I hate crowds. Disneyland is my idea of hell. I hope you have a better experience next time. I’ve heard snowmobiling in Yellowstone in the winter is wonderful.

    • Hi Diane! Thanks so much for the feedback. We definitely did Yellowstone the wrong way, and would love to try again. We’ve heard WONDERFUL things about snowmobiling in the winter. That sounds WAY more our speed! We’ve got to get back up there and do it right! Hopefully sooner than later! Cheers! 😉

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