Camping in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, is not just an iconic American experience, but if done right, it can be one of life’s most memorable and wondrous events. There are two approaches to Yellowstone camping.
The most popular approach is to camp in an official national park campground, all of which are pretty much alongside a paved road. Otherwise known as “car camping”, this is the well-known scene of RV’s, campers, trailers and even an occasional tent. Nothing here much resembles wilderness, but at least some of the folks leave their fiberglass fortresses long enough to view the stars. Some people, by the way, don’t consider sleeping in a $90,000 mass of motorized upholstery surrounded by hundreds of other humans to be “camping”, but for now, let’s not quibble about terminology.
Another way to camp in Yellowstone is to get out into the backcountry and really explore this unique landscape as a backpacker. And what a landscape it is! From snowy sky-scraping peaks to rugged canyons to the vast high rolling interior plateau, Yellowstone’s backcountry diversity is enough to make one’s head spin. Think geysers and hot springs, huge lakes and amazing rivers, waterfalls, gigantic meadows and endless forests of deep green conifers punctuated by occasional white-trunked aspens. And then there’s the wildlife, which is probably unmatched anywhere in the temperate latitudes of planet Earth!
Best of all, about 95% of Yellowstone is roadless backcountry, true wilderness. And because most of the park boundary is bordered by large areas of designated national forest Wilderness with no intervening roads or fences, Yellowstone includes parts of some of the biggest blocks of contiguous roadless area left in the U.S. south of Alaska. In fact, the most distant location from a road in the lower 48 states is just outside the southeast corner of the park!
The best way to experience this world class wilderness is to go backpacking. There are many dozens of primitive campsites scattered around the park backcountry, and they are open to anyone who first obtains a permit from the Park Service. Big Wild Adventures knows these campsites and the Yellowstone backcountry better than anyone, and offers a variety of treks ranging from 5 to 10 days in length, in various parts of Yellowstone. Oh yes, each camp is used exclusively by the party that has reserved it for a given night.
Most campsites, not all, allow campfires in the designated fire-pits. Whatever you do, be careful with food! Don’t inadvertently feed a bear. A fed bear is a dead bear. Keep a fanatically clean camp, pick up, burn or pack out all uneaten food scraps, and hang all food and other odoriferous substances high in a tree or over the food storage poles provided at most camps. Hang food whenever you’re away from camp, and of course, overnight. Also, make certain that the tents are set up well away from the food area. A hundred yards is best, but absolutely, set up at least fifty yards from the tasty goods. And never ever, no matter what, bring food inside a tent!
To briefly speak of the unspeakable, human waste and toilet paper should be buried in a 6-8″ deep “cat-hole” at least 100 feet from water. Also, please make sure that you don’t answer mother nature in a location that would otherwise make a good tent site. Bury it well and re-landscape the site. Nature will do the rest!
Assuming you’re physically fit enough to get around the beautiful Yellowstone backcountry with a backpack and essential camping items, the rewards for your efforts will linger for a lifetime. There’s unparalleled magic in a crackling campfire with primordial wolf music in the distance, with twilight fading into a black night punctuated by impossible numbers of impossibly bright stars. To wake up on a frosty early autumn morning and experience the sudden bugling of a majestic bull elk out in the meadow next to camp…..Or to soak in a delicious hot pool next to a one hundred foot waterfall….
Regarding bears, particularly grizzlies, 33 years of guiding in Yellowstone have convinced me that it is much safer, by far, to camp in the backcountry than it is to stay in or near a developed campground. Unless of course, you remain safely locked inside your Winnebago at all times. And what fun is that? You might as well stay in Peoria. The reason the backcountry is safer is really quite simple. There are fewer people there, and therefore you inherit fewer mistakes made by those who’ve preceded you. Fewer people who are sloppy with food means that the odds of encountering a dangerously food and human-habituated griz are much lower in the back of beyond than in the crowded front-country.
One other thing. Wilderness camping in Yellowstone isn’t for the timid. It’s for those who prefer to go for the gusto, as they say. Sometimes it rains. Or snows, maybe even in July. Check with the National Weather Service before you head out, but be prepared for anything regardless of the forecast! Depending upon your trip plan, there may be rivers to cross or mountains to ascend and many miles to cover. I can’t guarantee that every minute of your adventure will be unrelenting fun, but I can guarantee this: The Yellowstone backcountry has a way of transforming people. Make the effort to get away from the civilized trappings of the developed front-country for at least a few nights, and you will come away with a new perspective, a new strength, a new attitude, and a new appreciation for life on this miraculous planet that can never be taken away, not even if you live another ten lifetimes.