Tips for Solo Travel in Yellowstone National Park
My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was in 1987 for our first family vacation west of the Mississippi. Simply, it was love at first sight.
Since then, I have worked several seasons in the park and visited multiple times as a solo traveler. I received an email from a young woman wanting to plan a visit to the park in July and has asked for my advice.
Things for Solo Travelers to do in Yellowstone National Park
There are so many things for a solo traveler to do in Yellowstone that there probably isn’t enough time to do everything in a week or even a full summer. The most important thing to remember is quality vs. quantity when visiting.
The park is more than 2.2 million acres large and impossible to see it all in a week or even a summer. The best advice is to take time to get off the main road and on some hiking trails to experience the Yellowstone many visitors don’t take time to do.
Take a Hike. It’s estimated about 5 percent of visitors actually get off the main roads to see Yellowstone’s wilderness. A couple of my favorite hikes for solo travelers include Mount Washburn and South Rim Trail. Mount Washburn is a 3.1 mile, one-way hike up a mountain. It’ll take between 3 and 6 hours (round-trip) and well worth the view. The South Rim Trail is located at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and as the name implies, you follow along the rim of the Canyon.
Also, the brink of the Lower Falls (of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone) is another one of my favorites. I enjoy sitting at the brink and listen to thunderous sound of water. It’s a steep walk coming up but worth the view.
As for backcountry hiking, going solo isn’t advised.
Join a Ranger. Various ranger programs are offered throughout the park and are great for learning something specific and meeting other people. Programs include walks and talks out in the park with some taking place at visitor centers. There are also evening campfire programs at many of the overnight destinations. Ranger programs for the summer should be posted in May. If they still offer it, try the hike to the Petrified Tree with a ranger.
See Some Hydrothermal Activity. Yellowstone is full of geothermal activity and Old Faithful is a must-see because it’s an American icon, but it’s not necessarily faithful. Check with the Old Faithful visitor center upon arrival to see when the next predicted eruption is. In addition to Old Faithful, there are more than 10,000 other hydrothermal features to see including gorgeous hot springs, stinky fumaroles, mysterious mineral terraces and glumpy mudpots. In addition to the Old Faithful Geyser area, be sure to visit the Norris Geyser basin and take a walk along the Mammoth Terraces.
Take a Dip. There are few places to swim in Yellowstone and Boiling River located by the North entrance of the park, is one of those places. It’s a hot spring mixing with cold water of the Gardiner River. It’s illegal to swim in Yellowstone’s thermal features but since the spring is pouring into the river, it’s legal. Arrive early to beat the July crowds!
Giddy Up! The Roosevelt Cookout is a must and can be done either by horseback or wagon. I’d choose the one-hour horseback ride, two-hours is just too long for those not accustom to riding a horse.
Let Someone Else do the Driving. Navigating Yellowstone’s road during the summer can be slow going sometimes so let someone else do the driving and narrating. Book a tour with the Historic Yellow Bus and sit back, enjoy the scenery and learn more about the park.
Take a Scenic Drive. I always enjoyed the drive between Canyon and Lake areas, especially through Hayden Valley. In late July, expect bison to be in the midst of their rut (mating) when the herd comes together typically along and in the road. Lamar Valley is another favorite Yellowstone drive. It’s an opportunity to see bears, elk, moose, big horn sheep and possibly wolves. It’s probably the most under-visited drive.
Kick Back. Sitting in the lobbies of Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel are two of the most enjoyable things for me after a good day of exploring the park. I love the smell of the Inn with all the wood and listening to live music is so relaxing.
Getting to Yellowstone
If flying, there are multiple airport options with Bozeman, Mont., (BZN) to the north and Jackson Hole, Wyo., (JAC) to the south being my favorite and probably the closest. If airfare price is almost equal, I’d chose flying into Jackson Hole because it will provide an opportunity to visit the commercialized cowboy town which hasn’t lost its charm and drive through the Grand Tetons.
If time is not an issue, I would visit Grand Teton National Park for a night or two before heading into Yellowstone. For luxury, try Jackson Lake Lodge. If not staying here, it’s worth a visit to sit in the lobby and look out the huge window for a stunning view of the Tetons. Signal Mountain Lodge is comfortable and little easier on the budget with terrific location.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
The first-time solo traveler to Yellowstone will probably be comfortable staying in hotel-type lodging rather than cabins. It’s safe to stay in a cabin but staying in a hotel means there’s a central lobby to meet others throughout the day or unwind with an adult beverage.
It also means you don’t have to worry about coming face-to-snout with Yellowstone’s beasts when returning to your room at night. Not a common occurrence but there were several times bison prevented guests from either leaving or entering their cabins.
If arriving from the South, spend a couple of nights at Lake Hotel then move onto the north for Mammoth Hotel then head back south to Old Faithful Inn.
If you don’t mind sleeping in cabins, try Canyon Lodge because it’s centrally located within the park. In addition to different types of cabins, they offer hotel-type rooms.
There is so much to do and see and hope this assists you if planning a solo vacation in Yellowstone. Be sure to visit the Yellowstone National Park Service website and lodging and activity reservations can be booked with Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Book early, July is a busy time for the park.