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Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide

Yellowstone National Park with GyPSy Guide Driving Tour App

Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide

Nestled into the northwestern corner of Wyoming are two of America’s favorite national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Yellowstone awes visitors with its otherworldly bubbling hot pots and steamy geothermal features as well as its spectacular mountain scenery, vast canyons, and abundant wildlife. Grand Teton wows visitors in its own way with its dramatically carved peaks and gorgeous alpine lakes and rivers.  

Visiting both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks on the same trip can feel like a massive undertaking. Although these two parks are technically neighbors, they are both huge and deserve at least a day to explore each and the more time you have the better. The key is to plan ahead, prepare a detailed itinerary, and make lodging reservations well in advance.

Contents

How to Get There

The majority of Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming although a small section of the park is in Montana and Idaho. The park has five entrances: north, northeast, east, south, and west, and all but the north entrance is closed to vehicles during the winter months. 

Bozeman, Montana is the closest major city to Yellowstone National Park and it’s about a ninety-minute drive, from Bozeman to the north entrance of the park. West Yellowstone, Montana is right outside the west entrance of the park and Cooke City, Montana, Gardner, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming also make excellent basecamps for exploring the park.     

Grand Teton National Park is located just north of Jackson, Wyoming and just south of the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Grand Teton has four separate entrances and several have limited vehicle access November through May. 

By Plane

West Yellowstone

The Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone (WYS), Montana is the closest airport to Yellowstone National Park. It’s only three miles from the West Entrance of the park. Delta and United are the only airlines that fly into West Yellowstone and several daily flights are available from Denver and Salt Lake City. 

Bozeman

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) is the closest international airport to Yellowstone National Park. From Bozeman, it’s a little more than an hour to the North Entrance near Gardiner, Montana, or a little less than a two-hour drive to the West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana.  

Jackson

The Jackson Hole Airport in Jackson (JAC), Wyoming is located at the base of the Teton Mountain Range, smackdab in the middle of Grand Teton National Park. Arrivals and takeoffs both offer an unforgettable view of the park’s terrain and the town of Jackson is just 20 minutes away. Some visitors may opt to fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho (93 miles/150 kilometers) or Salt Lake City, Utah (280 miles/451 kilometers).   

By Car

Most visitors arrive in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park by car. There is no public transportation in Yellowstone National Park, although private bus tours are available, and only limited public transportation available within Grand Teton National Park. Car rentals are available at all major airports around the Teton/Yellowstone area.  

Entrance Fees

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks each have their own entrance fee and each is good for seven days from the date of purchase. Passes can be purchased at all entrance gates and visitor centers. Discounts are available for current U.S. military members, seniors, and 4th graders (they can get a free annual pass good for their 4th-grade year and following summer). 

If you plan to visit both parks, consider purchasing the America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass. This pass provides entrance to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as all other national parks and over 2,000 federal recreation sites for a year at around the cost of purchasing individual Yellowstone and Grand Teton entrance passes. 

Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park Map

Where to Stay

Yellowstone National Park

There are many options when it comes to where to stay in Yellowstone National Park. Choosing where you want to stay will depend on several factors including how many days you want to spend in the park, which park entrances you’ll be entering and leaving through, how far in advance you can make reservations, and the level of comfort you desire.  

Hotel-style accommodations, rustic cabins, and luxury suites are all available inside the park boundaries. Lodging in Yellowstone National Park sells out incredibly far in advance. Reservations open May 1 for the following summer and it’s not uncommon for reservations to fill over a year in advance. Be flexible with dates and lodges for your best chance of securing a reservation.

Campgrounds and RV parks are great for those wanting to stay a little closer to nature. Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds and only five of them take reservations in advance. Arrive early in the morning, especially during the busy summer season, for the best chance of finding a spot at one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds if you don’t have reservations. If you’re traveling with an RV, be warned that many park campgrounds have RV length limits. 

Outside the Park

It can sometimes be difficult to secure lodging reservations inside the national parks, especially during the peak summer season. Luckily there are numerous options for all budgets and tastes right outside Yellowstone. 

West Yellowstone, Montana is the closest town to Old Faithful and you’ll find plenty of lodging, dining, and other attractions here. The town of Gardiner, Montana is situated near the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and also offers several lodging options. Cooke City and Cody, Wyoming both make great basecamps for exploring the eastern side of the park.  

Read more about Where to Stay in Yellowstone and compare comfort and convenience with rustic and staying outside the park and day tripping.

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When To Visit

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are open year-round, although access is limited during the winter months. July and August are by far the most popular times to visit. Fewer crowds make April through May and September and October some of the best times to visit.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, always be prepared for cold temperatures. It’s not unusual for nighttime temperatures to drop into the 30s even in the middle of the summer. Thunderstorms occur often in the Tetons during the summer months and the higher elevation trails often remain snow-covered until late May or early June.   

Winter can be a wonderful time to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Many of the park roads are groomed for cross-country skiing and wildlife sightings are much more common. A winter visit takes a bit more planning considering services are extremely limited but it will be worth it when you find yourself watching Old Faithful erupt in the quiet of winter with very few other people around.   

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How to Avoid the Crowds

Visiting outside the peak summer season is the best way to avoid the crowds. If summer is the only time you have to travel, you can still escape the crowds by visiting the popular attractions early in the morning or late in the evening, hiking lesser-known trails, and exploring the backcountry. Stay in the park if you can to avoid the long commute into the park each day and don’t be afraid to ask rangers or other locals for advice on things to do off the tourist trail. 

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What to See and Do in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is massive. It’s America’s second-largest national park outside of Alaska and it’s larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The park is best broken down into 7 regions and many of the park’s must-see sights are spread out across the park.

NORRIS

The Norris Geyser Basin is located in the west-central region of the park, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the West Entrance of the park. It’s the hottest and oldest of Yellowstone’s thermal areas and home to numerous hot pots and geysers. Norris Geyser Basin lies at the junction of three major faults so it’s a very active earthquake area. 

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Norris Geyser Basin Museum

The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is a great starting point for learning about the hydrothermal features in the Norris Geyser Basin. The museum overlooks the basin and many of the area’s top hiking trails start from here.   

Steamboat Geyser 

The Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest active geyser and plumes can reach over 300 feet in the air during major eruptions. Major eruptions are rare and unpredictable but have become more frequent in recent years. Even though it’s unlikely you’ll catch a major eruption, Steamboat Geyser is still worth a visit. Minor eruptions occur often and on the off chance you catch a major eruption, it would be the experience of a lifetime. 

Artists Paint Pots

This worthwhile jaunt to a series of colorful mud pots and pools starts just 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south of the Norris Geyser Basin. This lollipop-loop boardwalk path passes around numerous bubbling mud pots, steaming vents, and small geysers. 

MAMMOTH

Mammoth Hot Springs lies at the northern end of Yellowstone National Park. The springs here are very different from the other geothermal features in the park and are a definite must-see for first-time visitors. Here you’ll also find the rather large Albright Visitor Center and several services including hotels, cabins, restaurants, and a general store.  

Mammoth Geyser and Hot Springs

This fascinating complex of colorful terraces and springs is unlike any of the other geothermal features in the park. Thermal waters rise up through the limestone and deposit colorful stripes of minerals in interesting formations often described as a cave turned inside out. You can wander around the steaming springs on boardwalk paths or take a drive around the terraces and view the springs from several viewpoints. 

OLD FAITHFUL

Yellowstone’s Old Faithful area contains the highest concentration of steam-spouting geysers in the park. Old Faithful is the iconic Yellowstone geyser everyone comes to the park to see but there’s much more to see and do in this region of the park.      

Old Faithful Geyser

Old Faithful is often considered the world’s most famous geyser and its eruption schedule is highly predictable. The time between eruptions varies but since the year 2000, recorded intervals have ranged between 44 minutes and two hours. Rather than watch Old Faithful erupt from the crowded boardwalk surrounding the geyser, consider hiking the Observation Point Trail and watch it erupt from a viewpoint high above the entire geyser basin.  

Grand Prismatic Spring

The Grand Prismatic Spring is arguably Yellowstone’s most fantastic natural feature. It’s the third-largest hot spring in the world and deeper than a 10-story building. Extremely hot water bubbles up through cracks in the Earth’s surface and as it spreads out and cools on the spring’s surface, the water takes on different colors depending on the bacteria that inhabit each temperature ring environment. You can view the spring from the boardwalk or hike to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook and view it from above.  

CANYON

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Visitors are often surprised to learn there’s a Grand Canyon inside Yellowstone National Park. Carved by the Yellowstone River as it eroded through softer rocks and colored by steam vents and hot spring waters dribbling down the canyon walls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a dramatic sight. 

You will witness 2 powerful and thunderous waterfalls that flow over ledges in the canyon. Multiple viewpoints on both side of the canyon provide unique perspectives of the Upper and Falls of the Yellowstone River.

Canyon Visitor Education Center

The Canyon Visitor Education Center houses some of the best displays on Yellowstone’s geology in the park. Here, you’ll find a huge topographical model of the entire park, which can help you visualize the park’s different regions and diverse terrain.  You can also watch a film about the geology of the park and view real-time earthquake data being collected in the park. 

Artist Point 

Artist Point offers one of the best views into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and it’s one of the most photographed spots in the park. From here, you can see the Yellowstone River plunging 308 feet (93 meters) over Lower Falls and beautiful colors etched into the canyon by hot mineral waters.  Artist Point is best viewed in the early morning. 

LAMAR

Lamar Valley is the ultimate location to see wildlife. Try many of the roadside pullouts and ideally use binoculars for your best chance of spotting grizzly bears or even wolves. Large grazing animals like bison and elk are often feasting on the fertile, grassy plains fed by the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

WEST THUMB/YELLOWSTONE LAKE

Yellowstone Lake

The massive Yellowstone Lake dominates the southeastern corner of the park. It’s the largest freshwater lake in the U.S. above 7,000 feet (2134 meters) and is a popular spot for fishing, paddling, and wildlife viewing.  Though the view is dominated by a calm lake, thermal activity is not far away, Mud Volcano and Sulphur Cauldron boil away, with sounds and smells that stimulate your senses.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Along the western shore of Yellowstone Lake, the West Thumb is home to the deepest part of the lake and a unique collection of geysers and hot springs. Some are situated right on the lake shore such as the Fishing Cone, a small hot pool where fishermen use to boil their fish.  

Tower-Roosevelt Area 

Situated in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Tower-Roosevelt area is a quieter region of the park known for its lack of crowds and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.  

Tower Fall

Tower Fall plunges 132 feet (40 meters) down a narrow chute flanked by eroded volcanic rocks. It’s the major natural attraction in the area and it’s easily seen from the viewing platform just a short walk from the parking area. If NPS designate the trail open, you can also view the waterfall from below by taking the 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) round-trip hikes to the base of the fall.

Petrified Tree

This petrified tree stump located near the Lost Lake trailhead is ten of millions of years old. This roadside petrified tree is easy to see but if you want to see more, you can hike along Specimen Ridge, which contains one of the largest collections of petrified trees in the world. 

Where To Spot Wildlife In Yellowstone National Park

Expect to see wildlife throughout the Park, even areas that seem over crowded with visitors.  Take a couple of minutes and review a few steps to best protect yourself (and the wildlife) while enjoying Yellowstone.

If you are really hoping to see a bear or wolf while in Yellowstone, we have a whole blog dedicated the best spots to see wildlife in Yellowstone.

How Much Time Do You Need to Visit Yellowstone National Park

You need a minimum of three full days to see all the main sights in Yellowstone and four is ideal. The park is so large and diverse you could easily spend a week here and still feel like you didn’t get to see everything you wanted to see. If you only have one day, you can still enjoy some of the park’s main attractions but try to stay at least one night inside the park so you can start your sightseeing first thing in the morning. 

One Day in Yellowstone National Park

If you only have one day in Yellowstone National Park, head straight to Old Faithful first thing in the morning. Better yet, spend the evening in Old Faithful Village and you’ll wake up within minutes of many of the major attractions. Grand Prismatic Spring is a must-see and you won’t want to miss the view from the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook.

Spend the afternoon exploring the bubbling hot pots and pools in the Norris Geyser Basin or take the hike to Lonesome Geyser.  

Two Days in Yellowstone National Park

With just 2 days to explore Yellowstone, there are 2 strategies to consider.

The scenic drive around Yellowstone is shaped like a figure 8.  Devote one day to exploring the Lower Loop highlight Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Norris.  

On the other day, sightsee around the Upper Loop featuring Mammoth Hot Springs and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This loop also features some of the best wildlife viewing locations.

The alternative is to focus on Yellowstone’s most unique geothermal features, spending the first day seeing all the sights around Old Faithful including Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and the geothermal features in the Lower Geyser Basin.

Then spend the next morning in Norris Geyser Basin before driving to Mammoth Hot Springs and hiking the boardwalks around the travertine springs. Then take the trail to the top of Bunsen Peak or go for a swim in the Boiling River.   

Three Days in Yellowstone National Park

With three days in Yellowstone National Park, spend the first two days touring the Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs areas and then concentrate on the Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Village areas on the third day.

Head to the Lamar Valley at sunrise for your best chance of viewing wildlife and then take in the sights at Tower Junction including Tower Fall and Petrified Tree.

Spend the afternoon at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and head to Hayden Valley at dusk for more chances of seeing wildlife.   

Four Days in Yellowstone National Park 

With four days in Yellowstone National Park, enjoy the sights around Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs area the first two days and then you can more leisurely explore the Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Village areas.

Linger a bit longer in the Lamar Valley and take the hike along Specimen Ridge or wander along the Lamar River.

Spend your fourth day taking in all the sights in Canyon Village including both the North Rim and South Rim drives, visiting Artist Point, hiking the Mud Volcano Trail, and viewing wildlife in Hayden Valley. 

Five Days in Yellowstone National Park

Spend your fifth day in Yellowstone National Park at Yellowstone Lake. Rent a kayak or take a boat tour and don’t miss the lakeside geysers in the West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Then spend your final afternoon in the park returning to the area of the park that most intrigued you and delve a little deeper. Perhaps take in the sunset at Artist Point or go on a wildlife viewing tour in the Lamar Valley.    

Best Hikes

There are plenty of boardwalk trails or longer hikes throughout Yellowstone.  Here are some of the best short hikes.

Porcelain Basin Trail, Norris Geyser Basin

The Norris Geyser Basin area is split into two areas, Porcelain Basin and Back Basin, and each has its own set of trails. Porcelain Basin is an open, treeless basin with colorful, steamy geothermal features nearly everywhere you look. The entire trail is about one mile and follows two boardwalk loops.

Back Basin Trail – Norris Geyser Basin

The Back Basin Trail passes by the Steamboat Geyser and travels through a wooded area with more isolated geothermal features. The entire loop is about 1.75 miles (2.8 kilometers) or you can opt for a shorter loop that visits Steamboat Geyser, Cistern Spring, and Monarch Geyser.

Artists Paint Pots – Norris Geyser Basin

This worthwhile jaunt to a series of colorful mud pots and pools starts just 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south of the Norris Geyser Basin. This lollipop-loop boardwalk path passes around numerous bubbling mud pots, steaming vents, and small geysers.

Lower Terrace Interpretive Trail – Mammoth Area

Hiking the Lower Terrace Interpretative Trail is one of the best ways to see the area. This 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) round-trip trail winds through the lower travertine terraces and gets you so close to the features you can almost feel the heat bubbling up from the ground. By far one of the most popular trails in the park, visit at sunrise to avoid the crowds and enjoy the sun rising over the mountains and lighting up the steam rising up through these gorgeous mineral-laden springs.

Bunsen Peak Trail – Mammoth Area

For amazing views of the Mammoth Hot Springs area, hike the Bunsen Peak Trail to the top of an ancient volcano. The trail climbs 1,300 feet in just over two miles and provides amazing 360-degree views of the Mammoth Hot Springs area, Gallatin Mountain Range, and Yellowstone River Valley.

Grand Prismatic Overlook – Old Faithful Geyser Area

This 1.2-mile (1.9 kilometer) out-and-back trail climbs 105 feet (32 meters) to a viewpoint overlooking Grand Prismatic Spring. The trail begins from the Fairy Falls trailhead, 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) north of Old Faithful.

Lone Star Geyser Trail – Old Faithful Geyser Area

This gentle, partially paved trail follows an old fire road along the Firehole River to a solitary geyser standing in a clearing in the forest. Lone Star Geyser is about 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) round-trip from the trailhead and it is one of the few trails in the park that allow bikes. Lone Star erupts about every three hours.

Fountain Paint Pots Trail – Old Faithful Geyser Area

This Fountain Paint Pots Trail in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin features all four types of hydrothermal features found in the park. You’ll see mudpots, geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles all on this short half-mile long boardwalk loop.

Mount Washburn Trail – Canyon Area

Many of the hikes in the Canyon Village area are of the longer and more challenging variety and  Mount Washburn is one of the area’s most popular. The mountain sits at 10,243 feet (3,107 meters) and is the home to one of the three fire lookouts in the park. There are several routes to the summit including the 6.2-mile (10 kilometers) round-trip hike from Dunraven Pass or the 5-mile (8 kilometers) round-trip route from the Chittenden road. 

Mud Volcano Trail – Canyon Area

This 0.6-mile (1-kilometer) loop trail passes by some of the most interesting gurgling mudpots in the park. Here you’ll find Sulphur Cauldron, one of the most acidic hot springs in the park, and Churning Cauldron, a turbulent hot pool that spews muddy water into the air.

Storm Point Trail – Yellowstone Lake Area

This 2.3-mile (3.7-kilometer) loop trail travels through an open meadow and leads to a rocky promontory with great views of the lake. Grizzly bears frequent the area so the trail is sometimes closed in late spring and early summer.

Elephant Back Mountain Trail – Yellowstone Lake Area

This lollipop loop trail is 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) long and offers gorgeous panoramas of Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding forest. It’s a great option for those looking to get a break from the crowds and enjoy some fantastic mountain scenery.

Lamar River Trail – Tower-Roosevelt Area

The Lamar River Trail meanders along the rolling hills and meadows of the Lamar Valley and is an excellent spot to view wildlife away from the busy roadside pull-outs. The trail follows the Lamar River for several miles and you can hike as far as you like before returning the way you came.

Awesome Experiences

Biking – Yellowstone National Park

There is a LOT of walking in Yellowstone National Park, so it’s nice to switch things up and ride out to see a few geysers quickly.   You can do this at a few select locations within the Park.  One is at Upper Geyser Basin – Old Faithful.  Rent bikes (or bring your own) from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.  Follow the 2 mile paved path from Old Faithful to tick off Morning Glory Pool, Castle Geyser, Daisy Geyser and Riverside Geyser.  Stick to the permitted paved paths – bikes are not allowed on boardwalks.

Soak in the Boiling River – Yellowstone National Park

Where the Boiling River meets the Gardner River near Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the few spots you can legally swim in the park (check current conditions). Hot water from the Boiling River and cool water from the Gardner River mix here, allowing for a pleasant bathing experience. It’s a 0.5 mile (0.8 kilometers) walk to the swimming area and the swimming area is open year-round except during the spring runoff season, typically late April through early July. 

Yellowstone National Park Packing List

Warm Clothing Layers: Temperatures can fluctuate wildly in Yellowstone National Park so dressing in layers is key. Be sure to pack light layers for the daytime and warmers layers for the evening, including hat and gloves. You’ll be surprised how cold it can get, even during the middle of the summer. 

Rain Jacket: Bring along a lightweight rain jacket or poncho to stash in your daypack in case it starts to rain on any hikes. 

Good Hiking Shoes: There are plenty of hikes in Yellowstone to enjoy. If you plan to stick to the boardwalks and paved trails, any good comfortable walking shoe will do. Bring along a sturdy pair of hiking boots or trail shoes if you plan on doing any of the longer, more difficult hikes. 

Sun Protection: The high elevation sun can be strong so you’ll want to make sure you come prepared with sunglasses, sunscreen, chapstick, and a hat. 

Binoculars: Binoculars are a must if you want a better chance of spotting grizzlies or wolves from a safe distance. A spotting scope is even better for visitors serious about finding wildlife. 

Bear Spray: Bear spray is a must if you plan on doing any hiking in Yellowstone National Park. Park staff advise all hikers carry bear spray and know how to use it. You can find bear spray in camping stores or rent some in Yellowstone’s Canyon Village or gear shops in Jackson, Wyoming.  

Reusable Water Bottle: Staying hydrated is important at altitude and dehydration can be a problem if you’re not drinking enough water in the high elevations of Yellowstone. Carrying a reusable water bottle or hydration bladder while hiking is a must.    

Chair and a Book: If you plan on waiting it out for a geyser to erupt, it’s nice to be comfortable and have a game of cards or a good book to while away the time. 

DC Charger:  Your battery will drain quickly using location services for the tour.  Bring a dc car charger and or a portable battery charger to ensure you keep your cell phone and camera fully charged at all times.   

Lunch, snacks and water: There are services inside the park, but it’s best to bring your own.  If you get that ultimate wildlife watching opportunity from your car or suddenly Steamboat Geyser erupts, you can still enjoy without getting hangry. 

Plastic bag: We always like to take along a plastic bag to pick up any trash we find along the trails or boardwalks. #leaveitbetterthanyoufoundit

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Top Travel Tips for Yellowstone National Park

  • Make a List of the Top Sights You Want To See: Yellowstone National Park is huge and it can be overwhelming to think you need to see everything in one trip. Many first-time visitors greatly underestimate the size of the parks and overschedule their days. Make a list of the sights you most want to see and plan to tick off only a handful of them each day. Leave plenty of room in your schedule so you can explore unplanned sights that lure you in along the way.
  • Expect Driving Distances to be Much Longer Than They Seem: Although The Grand Loop, Yellowstone’s main road, is only 142 miles, (229 kilometers), don’t expect to be able to drive the entire loop in one day. The speed limit is only 45 mph and traffic typically moves much slower. Traffic jams are common and wildlife sometimes necessitates short-term road closures.
  • Book Accommodations as Far in Advance as Possible: Book camping or lodging reservations as soon as you know your travel dates. Reservations often fill a year in advance.
  • Check Yellowstone Camping Availability Online: The Yellowstone National Park camping website offers up-to-date information on campground availability including their current status and the time the campground filled the previous day.
  • Gas Up and Shop Outside the Parks: Food and fuel are much less expensive outside the park so gas up and grocery shop before you venture into the parks.
  • Don’t Fear But Be Prepared For Bears: Don’t let a fear of bears keep you from hiking or camping in the park. It’s very unlikely you’ll run into one but it’s best to be prepared just in case. Avoid hiking at dawn or dusk, hike in groups, make some noise, and carry bear spray. Also, follow all food storage guidelines when at camp. This protects both people and bears. Bears that become conditioned to human food often become aggressive and need to be put down or removed from the park.

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