Ugh. Have you ever been to Disneyland on a really crowded summer day? Where it feels like you spend more time waiting in line than actually enjoying anything Disneyland has to offer? Well, that’s what Yellowstone feels like in July.
My original plan was to drive up from Idaho, find a campsite, then explore the park for a few days. I had heard campsites fill up quickly, so I tried to get there earlyish to nab a quiet one. But upon arriving at the gates, I learned that every single campground within the park had reached capacity by 8:30 that morning. Not only that, but many of the campgrounds just outside the entrances were just about out of space as well.
(Keep in mind that Yellowstone has 5 major entrances, is spread out over 3,500 square miles, and has 12 campgrounds containing over 2,000 individual sites. And most of these campgrounds only let you reserve a site when you show up in person on the day you want to stay… so it’s a bit of a planner’s nightmare. Not that I’ve actually been planning in advance.)
Anyway, no biggie. When you’re traveling like I am, you have to make peace with the fact that you won’t always get to do what you want. So, I figured I’d just wander around in the park for a few hours, find a hotel in a neighboring city, then come back the next day. But as soon as I drove into the park, I ran into something I hadn’t seen since leaving California.
Like… annoying traffic.
Like… traffic that makes your teeth clench, shoulders tense, and your hands tighten on the steering wheel until your knuckles are alabaster white.
“Why would there be traffic in Yellowstone?”, you may ask. Great question. The answer is that there are thousands – thousands – of tourists. But instead of describing the situation this creates, let me illustrate what it felt like to go various places throughout the park.
The Natural Wonders
(By the way, at the gates and on signs everywhere, they tell you under no circumstances should you approach the wildlife, let alone get out of your car1.)
The Gift Shops
I decided it wasn’t going to get any better, and instead of dealing with an increasingly frustrating situation, I’d just move on to my next destination. But at one point while I was stuck waiting in one of the obnoxious lines, I noticed that one of the park newspapers said that a valley (conveniently located on my route out of the park) was great for seeing wildlife at dusk. So, I drove over there, parked, and waited. Then waited some more. But this time, it was worth it.
Apparently no one reads these papers, so it felt like I had the entire valley to myself – except for the Bison who were wandering around doing Bison Stuff, letting me take pictures from a comfortable distance (and up on a cliff). #HoorayForReading
Despite the good experience in Hayden Valley, it was absolutely time to move on. So, I thought I’d just drive out of the park and find a hotel on the way to my next destination in Montana. This turned out to be way harder than I thought, as all the other people who couldn’t get a campground had to go somewhere.
I couldn’t get service on my phone, so I just kept stopping in town after town along my route. In every single one of them, there were no open rooms. Long story short, I ended up driving 80 miles out of the park (in the middle of the night) before I found a hotel with a single room available – a king suite. But it was 2AM by this point, so it sounded great to me.
It’s really a shame that Yellowstone gets so crowded. Probably like most people, I didn’t expect a national preserve to be brimming with tourists like an amusement park. But I guess I can’t really complain too much, as I was adding to that chaos by being there myself. I absolutely want to go back someday… but maybe not when everyone’s on their summer vacations.
Footnotes and junk.
1. OK, fine. Yes, I got out of my car too. But it was only after I got frustrated with the people in front of me who had abandoned their vehicles in the middle of the road to chase a bear into the woods. I sat there marveling at their foolishness until I realized that I could be a fool right there alongside them. Because I didn’t need to be faster than the bear… just faster than one of them.
2. I didn’t actually have a second footnote, but here’s a fun fact about Yellowstone. It was the first national park to have a United States President narrowly escape a bison stampede while camping overnight3.
3. OK, I just totally made that up. But it sounded interesting though, right?