Camping holidays in Yellowstone

Back in 2015 I travelled around the US for six months with my family, for the most part using the country’s fantastic network of campsites. I can well remember stocking up on equipment at a gigantic Bass Pro camping shop, and being knocked sideways by what equipment was available to buy if you had the money, or the space in your car. I remember reading in a tent by torchlight in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a thunderstorm raged outside, and waking up to find ourselves almost floating away. We toasted marshmallows around the fire while watching Close Encounters on a Wyoming campsite, with the actual Devil’s Tower looming overhead as it simultaneously appeared on the screen.

And in Yellowstone, because we were camping inside the park, we were able to drive around Lamar Valley at sunset when many animals were most active, and catch an early performance of Old Faithful before the big crowds arrived.
So I’m reasonably well qualified to tell you that camping in the US, and especially Yellowstone National Park, is an experience you’ll love.
Yellowstone was America’s first national park, established in 1872. The approach may be heralded with a drive through Montanan ‘Big Sky Country’, fitting scenery for a place as epic in every sense of the word as Yellowstone.
It’s likely that Yellowstone camping holidays will also visit a handful of other national parks that are close by, such as Grand Teton and Glacier. Once you arrive in Yellowstone itself you’ll usually spend at least a couple of days, maybe three or four, touring the various areas of the 9,000 square kilometre park, often on foot. You’ll have plenty of free time to join ranger-led hikes and talks; to photograph the unique geothermal landscapes such as hot springs, mud pools and fumaroles, and to track wildlife including bears, elk and moose with specialist wilderness guides.
And then every evening you’ll return to your well-equipped campsite and a comfortable tent, cook and enjoy a meal with your fellow travellers. Afterwards you’ll sit around the campfire into the evening, sharing stories and spotting constellations in the brilliantly clear skies, sometimes hearing wolves howl off in the distance. Camping is definitely the most memorable way to experience Yellowstone, with just a thin piece of canvas between you and the Great Outdoors.

What does camping in Yellowstone involve?

There are 12 permanent campsites inside the park, and several on the outskirts too. Not all of the sites inside the park allow tent-camping, for instance if they’re in known grizzly territory only vans are allowed. There’s also around 300 backcountry campsites, some a kilometre or two from the road, others much further away. To camp in the backcountry requires a permit which has to be obtained in person no more than 48 hours in advance, so group tours camp instead on permanent sites which are often very well equipped. All will have drinking water, some will have firepits, and some have hot showers, even restaurants, shops and laundromats. It’s not luxury, but it’s sure not spartan either. On occasion groups may opt for a ‘wilderness-style’ camp where it’s available.
Camping in Yellowstone is obviously less expensive than staying in a hotel nearby, but carries with it plenty of other benefits too. For one, if your group are early risers then you can hit up the most popular sites, such as Mammoth Springs and Old Faithful, before the big crowds arrive. For another, site fees and anything else you buy at the campsite provide funds directly to the park, helping them in their conservation efforts and paying ranger salaries.
And make no bones about it, the ranger service is one of the greatest assets the US national park service has. When camping you can join a ranger-led talk around the campfire on subjects ranging from bear behaviours to geothermal geology. If you’re holidaying with your family then the kids can develop an interest in astronomy with stargazing talks, or learn what a wolf’s coat feels like. America’s national parks face threats ranging from over-visitation to underfunding, and exploitation for natural resources is putting precious wildlife habitats at risk. Holidaying responsibly, spending money in the parks, using the ranger service, all demonstrate the parks’ value and the need to preserve them.

Yellowstone camping & bear safety

These opportunistic omnivores are a pressing concern on every Yellowstone campsite. Yogi was smarter than the average bear, but you’ve still got to be careful with your pic-a-nic basket. If ursine intruders start to persistently come around campsites looking for food then it’s likely they will have to be killed sadly, and that goes for cubs too, because the safety of people always needs to come first. So follow the clearly marked rules on bear safety at every campsite, especially on food storage, and never feed any Yellowstone wildlife. They don’t need it and it definitely doesn’t benefit them long-term. Yellowstone camping trips are likely to use a range of different sites – some, such as Grant, typically open later than others, closer to summer, because grizzly and black bears are known to frequent the area in spring.

Our top Yellowstone Holiday

Camping tour of Yellowstone, USA

Camping tour of Yellowstone, USA

Wildlife, thermal pools, mountains and walking in Yellowstone

From £2379 to £2479 12 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2021: 30 May, 11 Sep
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Yellowstone or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities

Yellowstone campgrounds have quite a short season; they are generally open between May and September. Small group camping holidays operate in those two months as well as June, so avoiding the busy summer. Sociable affairs, as your group travels from place to place in the same vehicle (though with time in each park to do your own thing), camping holidays tend to be around 12 days in length.

There are several clear advantages to booking with a responsible operator. For one, all of your sites are reserved in advance, no hassle for you. For another, as they use specialist local tour leaders and guides you’re supporting employment. And for another, they may support organisations such as the American Hiking Society, which aims to keep the country’s incredible network of trails accessible to all.
As to what camping in Yellowstone actually involves, you can expect high-quality, two-person dome tents, field kitchens and camp chairs to be provided, as well as all the other equipment you’ll need, from inflatable sleeping mats to stoves and cold food storage containers. Solo travellers will need to pay a supplement if they want a tent to themselves. The only things you’ll need to bring with you are a sleeping bag (four-season, ideally) and a pillow – no need for you to get lost for hours in a mega camping store like I did, fun as it was.
There is always an element of pitching in when it comes to camping holidays, that’s part of the fun of it. So the tour leader will organise rotas for food shopping, meal prep and cleaning up afterwards, and you will be responsible for erecting and disassembling your tent at each park. Expect to have it down to a fine art by the end of your trip.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Julie Rotter] [Top box: Jacob W. Frank] [What it involves: Neal Herbert] [Practicalities: Neal Herbert]
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