You’ve found it! I am going to share 5 tips that I learned from my Yellowstone trip. What’s great is that all but one (and that one could too) apply to ANY other major trip like this. Keep reading, or look for my YouTube video that will be coming in the near future. I’ll update this post when it is done.
I am going to start at 5 and work my way down because, gosh darn it that’s how these things go.
5: Don’t Over-pack
Ok, I’m a little guilty here too. I wanted to stay as compact as I could, but I also didn’t want to be caught completely off guard. Then, I had my 10 year old daughter and her mother with. Don’t tell her I said anything, but if she is around she’ll bring the entire house with.
Now that I am back and unpacked (for the most part), it is amazing how much I didn’t actually use. I had a large black storage tote, which I was great since it had wheels and fit everything I needed for cooking and repair stuff. I never once got it farther than the back of the car. I had too much cooking stuff, which was convenient, but not really needed.
I will be going through what I had and what I didn’t use and removing what I didn’t use. I’ll ensure that I am much more critical of what I pack to keep things light. Also, the air mattress (queen size) will never come again. I have my small Klymit V insulated for me which was actually really comfy. They make a larger one if you need it for two people, otherwise just have each person get their own. It will take up far less room. Sure, it’ll cost more. However, the Serta air mattress we had ended up with several small holes which were hard to finally track down. They just are not designed for that sort of use. The only good thing out of bringing it was that I now have a 500w inverter for future use. Though it is only a modified sine and not a full sine…sigh.
With all that rambling, what I am trying to say is be very critical of everything you pack. You can bring some comfort things, but don’t bring too many. I am driving an Outback with a roof box,
so I have limited (though surprisingly roomy) space to work with. Aside from keeping space usage down, it will also reduce how much you need to pack/unpack to find things which was a problem.
4: Bring something for the kid(s) to do.
So, I brought an iPad with some movies and games loaded…That was a bad idea. Ok, maybe not “bad” just a crutch that I didn’t want to rely on. It quickly became a battle of “put down the iPad and look at the beautiful whatever it is we are looking at”. We talked about finding some road games to try like keep a list of things you see or places cars are from, but those lasted all of an hour or so.
We drove from Wisconsin out, and driving through Minnesota and South Dakota was…well…a bit dull. Sure, once we got closer to Badlands (which we spend a night/day at) it became more interesting; but, it was still boring. Especially for a ten year old. Next time, I will be sure to spend more time talking to her to find things to do so she isn’t nearly as bored. It doesn’t help that she is also one of those kids who just flat refuses to take a nap. Though, the trip back she actually did on the final leg.
3: Plan, but not too much
Ok, this one is a twofer!
First, absolutely have a plan for what you want to accomplish. We knew that we were going to stop in Badlands on the way, then spend 4 nights at Yellowstone, then stop at Devils tower and a hotel on the way back. While in Yellowstone we had each day with a general theme:
Driving Day and Stay at Badlands
Day 1 – Arrive and set up
Day 2 – Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic
Day 3 – Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Hayden Valley
Day 4 – Norris Geyser Basin and the North Entrance/Mammoth
Day 5 – Pack and Leave
Stop at hotel
Yeah, sounds pretty organized right? Well it was until it was not and we didn’t take into account our last tip. Keep reading for that.
We should have taken an extra day on the front end as well. It would have allowed us a little extra time to get things going and be able to change plans a little more effectively. While nothing was “bad”, tempers did flare a little bit with things. Honestly though, that was likely just me and my ex disagreeing.
You want to have a rough structure put together, but remember that things will happen. I was mentally prepared for not being able to see everything I wanted. I could spend a month there and not see everything I want to see. However, I had my daughter and she has a short attention span. While that is something we will work on as she grows up, you need to keep that in mind. Encourage exploring where and when you can, but know that you will also need to keep moving to avoid boredom and to not miss the major stuff.
2: Triple Check your cell service.
Ok, cell service just plain sucks out in Wyoming. I knew that going in. I did not expect it to be that bad. On one had, we were lucky to have both AT&T and Verizon on two different phones, but guess what. Even when we had signal, it didn’t do much. It was so congested we may as well not have even bothered. What sucks is that we could not get weather/radar. I’m a storm chaser, and I was insanely annoyed that I could not get radar data when I knew there was a thunderstorm coming in. Forecast had stated that it would be clear, then 2 of the nights were nothing but light rain all night. Luckily, we had good tents so we stayed nice and dry, but man that was annoying.
We did take the opportunity when available to use WiFi, but that was also a bit slow and unreliable. Be prepared to have absolutely no service. FYI, AT&T shows they have service in Yellowstone….they don’t. Well, occasionally I was able to get some signal and random emails and text messages showed up, but it was not consistent.
1: Change campsites! (Mostly specific to Yellowstone)
Yellowstone is huge. No really, it is just freaking gigantic. I thought I was prepared for it knowing that getting from our campsite in Grant Village to Old Faithful would take about 45min. To go from Grant up to Mammoth is a solid 2hr+ drive. It really is massive, here is a map to prove it, and it won’t do it justice.
When planning my trip, it chose to stay at Grant the entire trip. That was a bad idea as i spent a huge amount of time driving around. The thought was that I didn’t want to pack up every night and set back up again. Here’s the thing though; you have to anyways. With the policies around keeping things in vehicles for bears, the only thing that did not get packed every day when we left was the tents and chairs. My tents don’t take much time to pack up. The time I saved by not packing was far overshadowed by the insane drive times. My suggestion is reserve a campsite for each area/day you want to visit. Also, as the normal suggestion says, ensure that you reserve early. Campsites fill up insanely quickly. This year has been a record attendance year for Yellowstone because of everything being shut down last year with Covid.
I will say that traffic itself was not actually that bad. The busier places like Grand Prismatic, and Mammoth were insane. Norris wasn’t bad, nor was getting through Hayden Valley. We only ran into a few bison jams, and several young bison like this one!
While I had all 3 days planned out, I should have just reserved the campsite for each area. It would have saved us a ton of time and allowed us to spend more time exploring rather than driving.
Those are my 5 big lessons from this trip. While these pretty much all apply to any big trip you take, this is what I learned from Yellowstone. The biggest theme to keep in mind is to set realistic expectations and be prepared to change your plans. Things will not go the way you want no matter how much you prepare. The most you can do is put a plan together with some wiggle room and know who your companions are. That will help set the tone for the entire trip and make it more enjoyable for everyone.