10 Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Every summer brings about interesting stories from Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.  The year of 2016 seemed to be the record year for newsworthy idiots in Yellowstone.  I hate to call people idiots but if the shoe fits, I will explain while later.  I can clearly remember reading four articles about tourists doing dumb things in Yellowstone National Park in 2016.  I was astounded that I had read about four major incidents before June of 2016.  I have visited Yellowstone, twice.  Once as a four-year-old and later, at nineteen years old.  I loved both my visits to the park and would have never thought to do any of the things that have made the news in recent months. Here is a list of things to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park.

I can’t decide if it has just gotten worse or is it just that after 46 national park my tolerance for “I didn’t know,” “There should be a sign” or “Other people are doing it”  has gone down. If you want to read more on thoughts about people in the national parks, check out our national parks are under attack.  I will admit that early visits did dumb things like feed the bears and what not but we have come a long way since then and should know better (and do better) than our ancestors.

Yellowstone isn’t a petting zoo.

All the animals in the park are wild.  This includes the bison, elk, chipmunks, and any other living non-human creature in the park.  Park regulations state that one should stay at least 100 yards (91 m) from wolves and bears and at least 25 yards (23 m) from all other animals.  I would stay 100 yards from all animals.  It is for your safety.  Don’t be like the women in the video above.  She is lucky she wasn’t seriously hurt by that elk.  On average, bison gore five people a year in the park.  There is no reason to be within 25 yards of any animal in the park.  If the animal approaches you back up.

I can clearly remember the first time I watched someone injured by an animal.  Although, I may just remember it because it was the first time I said the word “shit” and my mother has told the story often.  I was 8.  We watched a women walk-up to an elk to take a picture with it.  My mother leaned over to my father and whispered: “that women is about to get the shit knocked out of her.” This was not meant for my little ears.  A few moments later, the women put her arm around the elk.  He turned around and kicked her.  Eight year old me turned around and said: “that women sure got the shit knocked out of her.” The women walked away but she was bursied.  She got luck.  The elk could have attacked her with his antlers and done serious damage.

Let nature happen.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

This was taken on May 16, 2016. Please don’t put the animal in your can no matter what. Courtesy of Karen Richardson

The park is a nature preserve.  This means that nature should happen with limited human interface. It can suck, but it’s the circle of life.  Let things run their course as nature intends them to.  I know it must have been awful to find that wet bison calf standing at the side of the road.  The cafe is a wild creature and it is survival of the fittest. This sounds harsh but not every baby animal makes it at adulthood.

Do not interfere.  Do not offer food, comfort or warmth.  Do not touch.  If you see an animal hit by a car, please report this to the rangers.

If you are concerned about the welfare of an animal, let it be and alert a park ranger to its location.  Their job is to protect the park and the animals within it.  They will know how to handle the situation if there is anything that can or needs to be done.  Don’t put the animal in your car.  You are not helping it, in any way shape or form.  If the animal goes in the car, fingers crossed a zoo or animal rescue facility has space to take it, otherwise, park service will have to put it down.

In particular, if you see an injured wolf, grizzly bear, black-footed ferret or Canada Lynx, wolverines.  Please let park service know.  All of these animals are either endangered and extremely rare and park service should be notified of sightings.

Follow the trail.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

One of the many hot springs in the park. Stay on the boardwalks for your safety and the safety of the springs.

Yellowstone has marked trails for several reasons.  The first is that the boardwalks provide a safe area for visitors to get up close to the geysers and hot springs areas.  Without the boardwalks, walking through the hot springs is like traversing a landmine field.  No one knows what is underneath that crust: it could be solid rock or it could be a hole full of boiling water.  People have been boiled to death by falling into the hot springs.

The second is Yellowstone sees 3.8 million plus visitors a year.  If all 3.8 million people walk every which way, the parts plant life would be massacred.  Social trails would take over and would ruin the wilderness in popular areas.  Save a plant.  Stay on the trail.

The third is it only takes one person being off the trail to encourage someone else to go off the trail which then cascades.  Set an example and stay on the trail.

Use the pull offs.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

I pulled into a pullout to take this photo of grizzly bear.

Every day thousands of people drive through Yellowstone.  Traffic is a huge issue in general. The park has a couple unique terms for their traffic jams.  They have a bear jam, buffalo jam, and general animal jam.  The bear jam and general animal jam are created by a bear (or another uncommon animal sighting).  This sighting can cause people to stop their car in the middle of the road to watch this animal. This cascades and cause other people to do the same and then no one can go anywhere.

The park pullouts and the graveled sides of the road are there for a reason.  If you want to stop and look at something, pull over and then look at it.  Stopping your car in the middle of the road is both rude and disrespectful for other park visitors.

A buffalo jam is usually caused by the buffalo standing in the middle of the road.  They like to stand in the middle of the road and look at the cars.  They are big enough to get away with.  Usually, someone with a truck will get frustrated and play chicken with it.  The buffalo will move and allow traffic to pass.

It’s not a garden.

The flowers and plants that grow in Yellowstone are not there for you to pick to decorate your hotel room or save in a scrapbook. They are there to make produce seeds which will grow the next generation of other plants or provide food for the wildlife.  The wildflowers need to stay in the park.  They need to produce seed. Don’t gather the pine cone or basically anything in the park.  Everything that isn’t man-made is important to the life cycle of Yellowstone ecosystem.

Removing nature from the park ensures that the next visitor to pass that spot will not get the same enjoyment.

*** If you suspect a man-made object is older than 50 years old, do not touch it.  Note the location and let a ranger know it could be considered a historical artifact.

It is not your backyard.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

This cute furry little muskrat approached me for a handout.

It is not your backyard. Childen should not be free to roam around.  They can get into trouble really fast.  They can pick flowers, feed the animals or run into the geothermal fields and risk being boiled to death (not joking). Watch your kids, trees aren’t their jungle gyms and rocks aren’t for throwing.

Do not let feed the small wildlife such as birds, chipmunks, and any other animal in the park.  I love Park Services new slogan “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear.”  Once an animal learns that humans equal food, it’s behavior is forever changed.  There is no going back, and relocating the animal doesn’t work.  Park service has tried this.  The bears usually bet the rangers back to the campground. Additionally, many wildlife can carry diseases such as plague (black death), hantavirus, and/or rabies.

Also, the levels of sodium found in most human food is really unhealthy for the small furry rodents

It is not a compost facility.

I think sunflower seeds and pistachios should be banned from the park (mostly for the feeding aspect).  I hate walking up the trails and seeing the seeds spread out along the trail.  Yes they are biodegradable but that’s not the point.  The goal is to protect the environment and the shells are not native or natural in that environment.  This also goes for fruit as well. Banana peels, orange peels, and apple cores belong in trash cans.

Plus if you don’t sunflower seeds your kid will not think about feeding them to the mini-bears (aka chipmunks and squirrels).

Follow the “Leave No Trace” philosophy.

It is a not a landfill.

I wish I didn’t think it was odd when I return from a hike and don’t have someone else’s trash with me.

Alas, it is an odd hike when I don’t clean up someone else’s trash. Pack it in, pack it out.  I don’t care what it is. If you insist on hiking with your baby have a plan for the carrying out the diaper.  Don’t leave it on the trail for someone else to carry out.  There is a special circle in hell reserved for the person who left their diaper on the side of the trail Memorial Day Weekend 2016 in Pinnacles National Park, CA.

Don’t throw anything you brought with you out in the park (unless it’s in a trash can).  I don’t care how small, don’t do it.  If it came with you on your hike, take it out with you.  I don’t care what it is don’t throw it out.  I have found everything from empty bottles of water to small candy bar wrappers to a full baby diaper.  If you see trash on the trail pick it up and carry it out.

Lee H. Whittlesey wrote a 292-page book about deaths in Yellowstone.

Death in Yellowstone National Park isn’t an uncommon occurrence.  It is common enough that someone wrote an entire 292 page book on it.  It is called Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, 2nd Edition. It covers deaths in the park of all manor.

Some are accidents, some are deliberate, and some are downright terrifying.  The book covers deaths from the first US occupation of the park to modern events.  It details various ways people have managed to get themselves killed in Yellowstone National park. People have jumped into hot springs and been boiled alive.  Twenty people have died that way in the park (that we know of). People have died eating a poisonous cousin of the parsnip.  They are gored by bison.  People down in the rivers, they fall off cliffs.

I am not trying to scare you away from visiting the park but make you aware of the dangers in the park.  The book makes a intresting read about stange and dark ways people manage to kill themselves.

It is not Disney World.

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At the end of the day, Yellowstone National Park is NOT Disney World.  It is not a controlled environment designed for you to have fun.  The animals are not animatronics.  The plants aren’t grown specifically for your enjoyment.

The park makes for a great vacation but remember that it is a wilderness area.  It is possible to have an amazing time and see the wildlife while still respecting the park and not causing any damage to the park and its wildlife.

What other things do you think visitors need to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park?


34 Replies to “10 Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park”

  1. Rachel

    These are all great things to be mindful of when visiting Yellowstone, or any national park for that matter. Each is important to preserving the beauty of these parks, and is something to keep in mind when visiting. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Pingback: My First Cross Country Solo US Road Trip

  3. Ruth

    Thank you, thank you for this post. I have to agree with everything you have expressed in here. If you have the opportunity to visit a National Park or another natural setting, please follow the rules and indications. There is a reason why they are in there. I believe we can enjoy a place and make appropriate use of it at the same time.
    Ruth’s current road . . . Most Picturesque Towns of TenerifeMy Profile

  4. Jenna

    Great tips!! People definitely seem to need reminders about all these tips this year. All the stuff that has been happening there lately does seem to be so crazy and more than usual! I hate it when people throw sunflower seeds out all over as well–leave no track is definitely the right philosophy to have in mind!
    Jenna’s current road . . . Canoeing at Moraine Lake in Banff National ParkMy Profile

  5. Vicki Louise

    Great round up and valid reasons why people should be more considerate when visiting national parks. We are so lucky to be able to share these parks with the wild animals and people think its their own backyard or that these animals are pets need to be educated otherwise!
    Vicki Louise’s current road . . . 48 Hours in Budapest: The HighlightsMy Profile

    • Jennifer Post author

      I agree. I will often just pretend to be taking pictures of flowers to hide the fact I have gotten an interesting animal so no one bothers it.

  6. Lara Dunning

    I think you are right, we are only seeing the beginning of the stories to come. The parks are going to be packed this year because of the anniversary, and I for one will most likely not go during the peak seasons. This post includes lots of useful tips for any park-national or state. Thanks!

  7. mark wyld

    I must say there really must be some clowns who visit the national park. You would think common sense would tell you what to do in the situations you have listed. People should be fined and fined heavily, it is a pity that stupidity is not a crime. National parks are classified so they won’t be touched and destroyed by humans i think people forget that,
    mark wyld’s current road . . . Gippsland National ParksMy Profile

  8. Erika Bisbocci

    Yellowstone always seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons. People trying to pet wildlife, straying from the trail etc. I wish everyone would follow the guidelines you’ve posted. I actually heard of a family a few years ago that put peanut butter on their child’s hand to get a picture of her with a grizzly. Needless to say, it didn’t end well….Good reminder that nature is never Disney World!
    Erika Bisbocci’s current road . . . St Lucia on a Budget: Around SoufriereMy Profile


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