Good ol’ Yellowstone. Not the largest or the most visited of the 62 National Parks, but it is the very first in America and possibly one of the most diverse parks one can explore. Yellowstone National Park set forth a worldwide trend that rippled across the globe to protect, preserve, and save these natural wonders for future generations.
Larger than the state of Rhode Island and expanding to 2.2 million acres, this spectacular park sees over 4 million visitors annually. Between the months of July and August alone, Yellowstone will see over 43% of its yearly visitors. This time also happens to be one of the best windows to hike and backpack in the park.
Below, I've listed ways you can avoid the crowds, as well as some insider tips on finding a few lesser-known areas of the park.
● START EARLY
Luckily in the summer months, there are more hours of daylight. This means you can utilize this time. I advise getting an early start before the crowds flock. Doing so will allow you a chance to not only have the greater possibility of seeing wildlife, but to also have the opportunity to watch the sunrise and enjoy the park in the quiet morning space. Parking lots start to fill by 9:30am in the busy season, so tackling the more popular sights and hikes first thing in the morning will set you up for success.
● GO IN THE OFF-SEASON
It is possible to Backpack and hike in Yellowstone during the quieter months. Most roads will remain open until early to mid-September, depending on conditions. Always check the weather and park service website before taking off on a Yellowstone endeavor. Be prepared for the possibility of four seasons in a day, but you won’t be hiking on the trail as much with Jim, Tammi, Bob, and family. June and September may require further planning and preparation with snow potential, but these months have significantly fewer visitors. Do you enjoy snow travel? If so, winter in Yellowstone is a spectacular way to see the park with the aid of snowshoes or cross country skis. Check Yellowstone National Park's website for further details on winter trips.
● GO AT DINNER TIME
The park starts to get quieter during the summer months around dinner time/ 6pm and onwards. In July and August, the sun won’t set until 8-9pm, which leaves a few hours left to roam in the park with daylight on your side. Plus, the wildlife will be having their dinner. Packing along a picnic dinner is a great chance to enjoy the park and your food in a quieter setting.
● USE LESS VISITED ENTRANCES
There are five entrances to the park. The lesser travelled roads into the park are coming in on 89 (The South Entrance), 20 (The East Entrance) or 212 (The Northeast Entrance). The Northeastern region of the park holds the famous Lamar Valley, which is a great spot for viewing wildlife. The East Entrance is closest to Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake in North America and second highest in the world. The South Entrance is great if you are planning to visit Teton National Park and can take you to a main junction to head towards Lake Yellowstone or the larger geyser basins. Arrive at the park entrance early to avoid waiting in a long queue.
● PLAN AHEAD
Planning and preparing for a trip, especially in such a vast area will help you avoid the crowds and allow for proper time management within travels. Taking care of logistics and researching prior to your arrival will help reduce stress and allow more time to thoroughly enjoy the park. Booking all accommodation, backcountry permits, and transportation far in advance is necessary in the busy months. Packing everything you need for the journey with organization is super helpful to reduce delays on the trip. Knowing before you go--learning about the park, researching the regions, familiarizing yourself with maps, understanding regulations, river crossings, weather, safety, and Leave No Trace principles prior is additionally helpful to maximize time inside the park.
● HIKE LESSER-KNOWN TRAILS
Get off the beaten path in Yellowstone and you will quickly have space to enjoy the park without human stampedes. This park contains over 1,000 miles of trails and 300 backcountry campsites. Only a very small percentage of annual visitors roam off the boardwalks in the park, so you will quickly enjoy the escape from the crowds when you start hiking. If you plan to go with a guiding service, try to find companies that offer smaller group led tours. Note: In grizzly country, it is always recommended to hike in parties of three or more. Proper planning and preparation is crucial for backcountry outings and it is important to know your limits.
Here are a few less-crowded day hikes in Yellowstone:
LONESTAR GEYSER: There’s Old Faithful, but then there is another fairly faithful geyser that is less known called Lonestar. This is a 5-mile round-trip hike that meanders along the Firehole River. This trail can also be biked; cross-country skiing happens in the winter on this trail, as well.
CLEAR LAKE AND RIBBON LAKE TRAIL: This hidden gem in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone region starts at the busy Artist’s Point access near Uncle Tom’s Trail. The trail takes you along sweeping views of the canyon and then heads into some great geothermal features and beautiful lakes. This is a moderate 5.8 mile hike.
MYSTIC FALLS: This short, 2.4-mile there-and-back trail also follows the Firehole River. You can add on an additional 1.5 miles onto this trek by taking the switchbacks to the Upper Geyser Basin lookout. It starts at Biscuit Basin, so it's a great hike to add onto the geyser area boardwalk.
ELEPHANT BACK LOOP: This is a 3.7-mile loop located in the lake district. It is a horse and hiking trail that takes you up along an “Elephant's Back” with good views, wildflowers, and a panoramic scene of Yellowstone Lake from up top.
Below are a few less-crowded backpacking trips in Yellowstone:
THE THOROFARE: This 68.2-mile trip (which typically takes 6-7 days) is in one of the most remote areas of the park. It has the farthest-away dwelling from any road in the contiguous United States! Trips typically begin and end at Bridge Bay where there will be a motorboat drop-off and pick-up on the other side at the Southeast Arm area. Great views, open plains, mountains, wildlife, and adventure awaits.
THE BECHLER RIVER TRAVERSE: This awesome hike typically begins in Wyoming and ends in Idaho. It can be hiked in either direction, however. This 35-mile point A to B style trip is rated moderate. There are beautiful lakes, geothermal features, unique geology, rivers, waterfalls, wild berries, and soaking in natural hot springs along this trek. This hike is not to be missed!
MARY MOUNTAIN: This trail can be done point to point (20 miles) or as an out-and-back (40 miles). 1-3 days. There are also many junctions along this route to extend the journey. Open meadows, creeks, pine trees, mountains, and potential to see wildlife here. After just a few miles on the trail, it feels as if you are really out in the rugged wilderness. This trail is rated difficult and may be a harder trail to follow at times.
Do you enjoy kayaking or canoeing? If so, a backcountry trip starting at Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake may be right up your alley. Don’t enjoy carrying a heavy pack, but still want a wilderness experience in the Yellowstone Backcountry? Try hiking with llamas. They are not only a friendly furry trail companion, but will help carry your load. Yellowstone additionally has biking and horse-back riding trails that are two more great ways to avoid the crowds. Whatever your adventure in Yellowstone may be, just make sure a few of them are on a dirt trail. I promise it will be worth it and lead you to some amazing views and special areas in the park!