Like nearly all National Parks Yellowstone does not allow dispersed camping in the Park, you have to stay in a campground and pay for it. All the campgrounds in Yellowstone are $22 a day and they fill up fast–you’ll be lucky to get one. That’s a lot more money than I’m willing to pay so I was planning to find dispersed camping in the National Forests just outside the entrance. So far I’ve used all of the five entrances and did find free camping at all of them.
At the south entrance coming from the Grand Tetons I got lucky and found a Forest Service campground called Sheffield Campground just 3 miles from the South Entrance Kiosk. It’s a very nice campground but it wasn’t free, it cost $5 a night. It did have a clean vault toilet but it didn’t have water or trash. That was still a whole lot less than $22 a day in the Park so I stayed there for three days while I explored the Old Faithful area. The problem is it was 40 miles from Old Faithful so I had to drive 80 miles a day to save $17. To be honest, I spent more in gas driving back and forth than I saved in camping fees so it didn’t really make sense. But there were two reasons it was worth it to me: 1) I hate campgrounds and having so many people packed in around me, and 2) I think all the campgrounds in the Park were full so I couldn’t get in one even if I tried.
It’s a nice little campground, but it only has 5 sites. I didn’t have any trouble getting a spot but I’d bet that on weekends and later in the summer it will be full all the time—making it iffy whether or not you can get a site.
One of the bloggers I follow is Becky at “Interstellar Orchard” who I admire a great deal because she is a young, single female who has bravely rejected the rat race and is living life on her own term in a Cassita Travel Trailer. She supports herself by being a workamper in the summers and for Amazon in the winter. This summer she is working at Old Faithful in Yellowstone NP. So I emailed her and told her I was headed her way and offered to buy her lunch. Soon she wrote back and said she would love to meet with me. So I headed north to Old Faithful where I met her after work and we went for lunch; it was a real pleasure to finally meet her in person and not just follow her online. I invited her to attend the RTR and even lead a seminar. She wasn’t sure how that would work for her so she is thinking about it. I’d encourage all of you to follow her blog and write her and tell her you would love to meet her at the RTR! You’ll be glad you did.
I spent three days camped at the Sheffield campground and taking photos of Yellowstone. I have to be honest though, the insane traffic and large crowds ruin the experience for me so I got all the photos I wanted and got out of the Park as fast as I could.
Because most people love Yellowstone this may make some of you angry or disappointed with me, but I have to say I am not a fan. The southern area is mostly flat and not very pretty at all. The northern areas are mountainous and beautiful but the traffic is crawling along on them so slowly I can’t enjoy the view at all. Yellowstone is known for its wildlife, and there is lots of it, but every time you come across any there will be hundreds of cars parked all over the road and people stopped on the road or just crawling along at 5 mph so you can’t really see them. Again, the frustration level from the traffic ruins the experience of “wild” things for me. The Grand Tetons are much more beautiful, have just as much wildlife, and nowhere near the traffic!
Let me give you an example, one of the iconic things in Yellowstone is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and the waterfalls on them. I was going to go and get some photos of them but the traffic was so bad getting there and then the parking lot was a total nightmare of an insane asylum I just skipped right past it and did without. I’ve seen it before years ago and once in a lifetime is more than enough for me!!
So, as far as I’m concerned there is not really anything that warrants going to Yellowstone, except for one thing: the geothermal features. And I have to admit they really are unique and amazing. The geysers, like Old Faithful, are very cool, but if you’ve seen them once that’s about all you need. What I enjoyed a lot more was the hot springs with all their brightly colored bacteria growing in them. The water is extremely warm, but just short of boiling and that allows very brightly colored bacteria to grow in them—the color varies with the temperature of the water. I thought they were very cool and I’m really glad I got photos of many of them.
One of them is so spectacular it was THE shot I had gone to Yellowstone to get; it’s the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. As usual, I had bought guide books to learn where to take photos of in the Park and I knew that was the one I had to have. The problem is it’s so large that if you just walk along the boardwalk you can’t really get a great photo. Most photos you see of it are taken from airplanes. But the author of this book had found a way around that problem; there is a hillside just south of it and if you climb up the hill you get a terrific view and photograph of the Hot Springs.
To get there you take the Fairy Creek Trail until it’s just across from the Grand Prismatic hot spring. You can start climbing up the hill anywhere in there because it’s not an official trail so it’s not obvious. But enough people know about it that there is a faint trail at the bottom of the climb and there was even a traffic cone in the middle of the Fairy Creek Trail to alert people to it. Because it’s not a recognized trail it isn’t cared for, or even a real trail. The day I climbed it I bet there were 50 of us climbing up the side of this mountain and just wandering all over looking for the easiest way through all the downed trees from the 2008 wildfire. It’s fairly steep and all the downed trees make it difficult climbing. I’m surprised no one has been hurt so it seems to me the Park Service should turn it into a safe, groomed trail. I asked at the Visitors Center about it and the Ranger said they knew people climbed it, and it was legal to do so, but they didn’t recognize it as a formal trail.
Even as great as that shot is, unless you have a ton of patience and a very low frustration level, I suggest you skip Yellowstone. If you do go, try to make it as off-season as you can, spring and fall will have the fewest crowds and are the most pleasant; spring is best for wildlife and fall for colorful trees. I’d also plan to spend most of my time at the Grand Tetons and just take a few day-trips into Yellowstone to see its best features, like the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. I’ll tell you about dispersed campsites just outside the other entrances in a later post. You can camp in them for up to 14 days and take day-trips into Yellowstone every few days—you’ll need a day or two between trips to recover from the frustration of the crowds!
Something else you MUST do while you are there is to drive the Beartooth Highway Scenic Byway. I believe Yellowstone pales in caparison to its incredible beauty! Even if you have limited time, make sure you drive the Beartooth even if you have to skip some of Yellowstone—it’s worth it! I’ll post on it soon.