Camping Yellowstone National Park; Yellowstone may well be the most famous national park in the world; in any case, it can proudly lay claim on being the oldest, established back in 1872 to protect its geological wonders. Of course, this hefty park—the second-largest in the Lower 48 and core of the much bigger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—showcases far more than the planet’s greatest collection of geothermal wonders: It’s also a temperate-zone Serengeti, thronged with bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn, mule deer, grizzly and black bears, pumas, bobcats, wolves, wolverines—well, the faunal lineup goes on and on. And as jampacked as the park’s road network may be in the height of summer, Yellowstone also boasts vast, rarely visited (and unquestionably grizzly-ruled) backcountry.
Yellowstone camping options are markedly diverse, ranging from decked-out campgrounds within easy reach of sit-down meals and showers—the Yellowstone front-country is as well-developed as U.S. national parks come—to farflung sites embedded in big Rocky Mountain wilderness. Here we’ll consider some of the best spots for tent-camping in Yellowstone, which remains one of the globe’s most amazing—and precious—wildlands.
Yellowstone has a dozen developed front-country campgrounds. Seven—Mammoth, Norris, Tower Fall, Indian Creek, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Lewis Lake—are first-come, first-served campgrounds administered by the Park Service. Five—Madison, Fishing Bridge, Bridge Bay, Canyon, and Grant Village—are reservation campgrounds run by Xanterra Parks and Resorts.
As far as front-country camping goes, Mammoth (85 sites, $20 per night) is one of the standouts for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s the only Yellowstone campground open year-round; it’s situated in the lowest, driest part of the park where snowfall’s much more modest. The semiarid setting, with its juniper, limber pine, and Douglas-fir, is unique among the park’s developed campgrounds, and the views are broad—sweeping from the crest of Mount Everts across the Gardner River Canyon north to alluring Absaroka summits like Monitor Peak and Sheep Mountain. Elk commonly thread through the campground as they travel between the Gardner River and the lawns of the Mammoth Hot Springs; in autumn, rutting bulls sometimes bugle right among the campsites.
And Mammoth’s a great hub for hiking. A short and steep path switchbacks up to Mammoth Hot Springs from the campground, and from there you can stroll the famous travertine terraces or strike into the Gallatin foothills. The Beaver Ponds Trail, a gem, loops through rolling aspen groves, mixed-conifer woods, and sagebrush grasslands strewn with boulders and roamed by moose and black bears.
Tower Fall (31 sites, $15 per night), named for a spectacular nearby waterfall, is another good choice for Yellowstone car-camping given its strategic location. It’s just a few miles south of Tower Junction, which is roughly midway between Mammoth and the park’s Northeast Entrance; the route in between travels the Northern Range, one of the premier wildlife-viewing areas in North America. And south of Tower Falls, the Grand Loop Road ascends the flanks of the Washburn Range; this high-elevation drive is one of the best parts of the park for seeing grizzly bears.
Way down south, meanwhile, Lewis Lake (85 sites, $15 per night) provides a jumping-off point for Yellowstone’s big southern backcountry, as wild and trackless as the Lower 48 gets. Nearby paths such as the Pitchstone Plateau and Heart Lake trails explore the expansive lodgepole-pine outback. The campground itself—which, importantly, is often among the last to fill up during Yellowstone’s busy season—offers easy access to the eponymous lake (open to kayaks, canoes, and motorboats) as well as Lewis River Falls, with bigger Shoshone Lake a hike or paddle away. Moose are common sights here. Lewis Lake is also the closest Yellowstone campground to Grand Teton National Park to the south, so it’s possible to day-trip to that great mountain kingdom.
Bridge Bay (432 sites, $22.50 per night) and Grant Village (430 sites, $27 per night) are, as Xanterra properties, more heavily developed, but ideal for anyone interested in exploring Yellowstone Lake, one of Yellowstone’s most astonishing landmarks. (You can reserve campsites at these and the other Xanterra-run campgrounds online at the company’s website.)
Slough Creek (23 sites, $15 per night) and Pebble Creek (27 sites, $15 per night) are relatively primitive front-country campgrounds serving as gateways to northeastern Yellowstone’s glorious Lamar Valley and its surrounds. Slough Creek’s particularly popular among fishermen, given the trout-rich waterways readily at hand. Bison and pronghorn are easily seen in the Lamar (packed with ungulates in wintertime), which is also traditionally one of the most fruitful places for glimpsing wolves and grizzlies; binoculars or spotting scopes will bring the bighorns of Specimen Ridge and the mountain goats of Barronette Peak into thrilling focus.
Backpackers in Yellowstone must stay in designated backcountry sites (except during the winter), a management strategy partly aimed at reducing bear/human conflicts. To protect yourself and park resources, you definitely need to bone up on Yellowstone backcountry rules and regulations; also, swaths of the park are seasonally closed because of bear activity, so plan accordingly.
Given the scale of the wilderness and its hazards (big rivers, high-country thunderstorms, dangerous thermal areas, grizzly bears, bison, etc.), backpacking here isn’t exactly a “walk in the park,” so to speak. That said, backpackers enjoy an entirely different side of Yellowstone: primal country not only far removed from the road system but seemingly far removed from the 21st century.
In southern Yellowstone, fine backcountry sites mark the shores of Yellowstone, Shoshone, and Heart lakes, dot the upper Yellowstone’s meanders in the gloriously remote Thorofare region, and explore the waterfall- and lake-heavy southwestern quarter. Elsewhere, there are notable concentrations of backpacking sites around the Canyon area; in the Gallatins of the northwest; and along many Northern Range rivers, with the route down into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone one of the park’s wilderness classics.
Yellowstone’s an unforgettable and multidimensional destination for any outdoor enthusiast. Whether you’re a car camper, a backpacker, or both, the world’s first national park is still one of the great places anywhere for a night under the stars.