Visit Yellowstone National Park without Making Headlines

Elk at Yellowstone

National Parks are not petting zoos. Follow these tips when you visit Yellowstone National Park to enjoy your experience without making the evening news.

Since its creation more than 100 years ago, America’s first national park is often in the news. Unfortunately, the stories aren’t always about the hundreds of animal species that roam the naturally wild 3,500-square-foot park. Nor are they about the park’s largest collection of geysers in the world. No, the stories are about humans behaving badly when they visit Yellowstone National Park.  From the father and son who put a newborn bison calf into their car (ultimately leading to its death) to the Canadian filmmakers who trampled on the Grand Prismatic Spring to the man who jumped out of his car and taunted a bison, the negative impact of their disrespect is profound.

If you’re one of the four million visitors planning to take in Montana’s raw, natural beauty with a visit to Yellowstone National Park this year, follow these three simple tips to prevent your name from appearing in the next negative headline from the park.

Have You Visited Yellowstone?

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1. Respect the Wild Animals

Yellowstone is not a petting zoo. It is a national park that allows wild animals to roam freely in a natural habitat. Keep your distance — 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other animals.  Close the distance between you and the animals using binoculars and a long camera lens.

A bison may look harmless enough, but he can jump up from a lush meadow and sprint after you at 40 mph in the blink of an eye. Usain Bolt clocks in at 28 mph, so don’t get cocky about your ability to outrun this 2,000-pound mammal, the largest land animal in North America! Both male and female bison have sharp horns for fighting, and they will use them to attack tourists that invade their space or get too close to their calves. Every year, tourists are gored by bison when they visit Yellowstone National Park, and some have been killed.

Sage Advice: Be sure to pack your National Park Passport so you can get it stamped when you visit Yellowstone National Park!

Bears are dangerous and can also outrun you. Before visiting the park, read up on bear safety so you know what to do if you are lucky enough to see a bear. If you encounter a bear while driving through Yellowstone, stay in your car!

Elk eating at Yellowstone National Park
This gorgeous elk cow was captured with a long lens from a safe distance.

Because you are keeping your distance and respecting the animals, this should go without saying, but do not feed the animals, try to pet the animals, back up to an animal for a selfie, or imitate other animals (like a wolf howl). Instead, quietly enjoy the opportunity to see a variety of amazing, wild animals in their natural habitat. Ultimately, this respect will result in greater interaction with the animals as they peacefully go about their day.

Related Article:  5 Reasons Why You Should Visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (Near Yellowstone National Park)

Most people visit Yellowstone National Park between May and August when the animals born in the spring are still quite young.  If you are lucky enough to see a baby bison, elk, bear, or other creature, expect that a very protective mother is nearby.

Sage Advice: Only have a day to spend in Yellowstone? Here’s a guide to the Grand Loop Driving Tour. If you have two days to spend in this national park, here are more things to do in Yellowstone.

Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
Grand Prismatic Spring, a scalding hot, 160-foot-deep, rainbow-rimmed hot spring.
Sage Advice:  Here are 24 other beautiful US national parks to visit once you’ve experienced Yellowstone.

2. Stay on the Boardwalks

With more than 10,000 geysers, mudpots, steam vents, and hot springs, when you visit Yellowstone National Park, you’ll see the world’s largest collection of geysers and geothermal water. The boardwalks in the geothermal areas aren’t simply a suggestion or for your convenience. They are for your safety and to protect the delicate area. While some of the pools look cool and inviting, they are the exact opposite, boiling hot.

Despite signs in multiple languages and illustrated warnings, I’ve watched tourists at nearly every geothermal area step off the boardwalk and into dangerous territory to take selfies, which is both destructive and dumb. More than 20 people have died from injuries related to the scalding water.

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If you plan to visit Yellowstone National Park with young children, pay extra attention to them on the boardwalk.  In a few cases, children have slipped or otherwise fallen off the boardwalks to injury and even one death.

This bison trotted up the Lower Geyser Basin boardwalk, parting the stunned visitors like the Red Sea. Then he hopped off the raised walkway, rolled in the dust, and just hung out by the Red Spouter geyser for a bit!

Last summer we faced an interesting dilemma while touring the geysers in the Lower Geyser Basin.  As we walked along the boardwalk from the Celestine Pool to Red Spouter, a full-grown male bison trotted up the boardwalk among the crowd of visitors. We couldn’t step off the eight-foot-wide boardwalk, and we couldn’t exactly give him his mandatory 25 yards of space. He stepped off the boardwalk by the Red Spouter and wallowed in the dirt, something that bison do to leave their scent and help remove their winter coat.  He then posed for many photos and watched all of us for quite some time.  (The four-foot-high fencing you see in the background of this photo actually encircles the Red Spouter.)

Related Article:  Everyday Postcard from Yellowstone National Park

3. Leave No Trace

The National Park Service’s Leave No Trace program includes seven points that help protect our vast, amazing wilderness. While I recommend understanding and taking all seven principles to heart before you visit Yellowstone National Park, these two points are the ones I want to reinforce:

  1. Dispose of your waste, and
  2. Leave what you find.

Be sure to put your trash, recycling, and food scraps in designated receptacles.  If you don’t see the appropriate bin, keep the items in your car until one is available.  It might seem harmless to leave a banana peel or apple core behind since they decompose, but they can attract bears (often resulting in the animal ultimately being killed) and are not part of any of the wild animals’ indigenous diet.

When you visit Yellowstone National Park you’ll likely encounter wildflowers, antlers, bones, rocks, pine cones, arrowheads, and other artifacts.  Not only is it illegal to remove any natural or cultural artifacts from any national park, but if each of the four million annual park visitors picked just one wildflower, that’s four million fewer flowers for the animals and insects that depend upon them. That’s also a lot fewer flowers for the other visitors to the park. Let those who come after you enjoy the same amazing experience by leaving everything as you found it. Capture the moment by taking pictures, writing down your experience, or sketching a picture instead.

While a few humans have recently made headlines for behaving badly, I believe that the majority of visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to experience and preserve its wild beauty.  I hope these three easy-to-remember tips will help you enjoy your experience to the fullest and stay out of the news.

Have You Visited Yellowstone National Park?

What are your favorite things to do in Yellowstone? What did you do and see when you visited? Any additional tips to pass along? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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