Visiting Yellowstone National Park is a bucket list experience for most RVers. Founded in 1872, Yellowstone Park was our country’s first National Park. More than 200 years later, Yellowstone still stands as an icon of American wilderness and rugged beauty.
This 2.21 million acre park is located on a geothermal hot spot and one of the most diverse landscapes in our country. Visitors can marvel at the brightly colored yellow rocks in Yellowstone Canyon, watch the Old Faithful geyser erupt, or observe wildlife in its natural habitat.
We visited Yellowstone in our first year as RVers. We were so excited about visiting this iconic park but quickly became overwhelmed by its size and all there was to see and do. Which is why we created this guide.
To help you make the most of your trip we’ve created a guide to visiting Yellowstone in an RV. It will give you the lay of the land, including where to camp, and how to get around. As well as share some of the top things to do in Yellowstone. Let’s dive in!
Quick facts about Yellowstone National Park
Ancestral Lands: Newe Sogobia (Eastern Shoshone), Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and Shoshone-Bannock tribes.
Closest towns: Gardiner, Montana, and West Yellowstone, Montana
Size: 3,472 sq. miles or 2,221,766 acres
Annual Visitors: 3.1 million in 2022
Visitor Centers: There are ten in total. Below are the largest and most popular:
- Albright Visitor Center (open year-round)
- Canyon Visitor Education Center
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Old Faithful Visitor Center
- West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center
Drive time through the park: 5 to 7 hours (with brief stops)
Getting around Yellowstone in an RV
Yellowstone National Park is massive. It’s as large as Deleware and Rhode Island combined.
We had no idea how large of a park it truly was until we arrived. With that being said, visitors should carefully plan where they are camping based on what they want to do in the park, and what is open for the season.
Yellowstone is broken up into four sections:
- North (wildlife and geothermal activity)
- East (wildlife and canyon)
- South (Yellowstone Lake)
- West (geothermal activity)
There are several “big destinations” in each of the areas. But we’ll talk more about those in a bit.
Few campgrounds are directly next to the big attractions directly. Meaning you’ll need to drive your RV from spot to spot or have a tow car for exploring.
Driving in Yellowstone can be a slow process. The entire loop in the park takes around five to seven hours to drive with infrequent stops. Road closures for repairs from June through September can cause delays in getting from point A to point B. In addition, you will likely have slowdowns from animal sightings and bison traffic jams (yes, bison traffic jams are 100% a thing).
Assume it will take longer than expected to get to your destination and don’t expect to drive the whole park in a day.
How long do I need for an RV trip to Yellowstone?
Because of its size, we do not recommend visiting Yellowstone if you only have a day or two. You can see the highlights in that short period, but you will not be able to enjoy it fully. We recommend staying at Yellowstone for at least three days if not more. However, five to seven days would be ideal especially if it’s your first time.
When to visit Yellowstone in an RV
Summer (June through September) is the best time for visiting Yellowstone in an RV. July and August bring the warmest weather making these months the most popular time for visitors. June and September can be very cold after dark, with some snow lingering in early June. Bring layers with you if they plan to explore the park in the early mornings or evenings during these months.
If you want to camp in Yellowstone during peak summer season we highly recommend making a reservation in advance. You can make reservations up to six months in advance and these spots will go quickly. If you aren’t able to snag a reservation right away. Consider signing up for Arvie. This service will automatically search for cancelations for you and book your spot based on your desired dates and RV’s needs.
RV campgrounds in Yellowstone
There are twelve RV campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park boundaries. All of these are reservable up to six months in advance either through the National Park Lodges system or Recreation.gov. The only campground that offers first-come-first-serve camping is Mammoth Campground which is limited to vehicles under 30 feet.
The size of your RV will greatly determine where you can camp. If you have a big rig, like a class A or fifth wheel, you will need to park at one of the newer resorts in the park. These campgrounds will have more amenities but are often farther away from some of the top destinations.
A lot of RV campgrounds in Yellowstone prohibit the use of generators. This could force you to structure your trip around recharging your batteries if you don’t have an RV solar setup. Additionally, many campgrounds close down for renovations in the summer which can limit your camping options. Check the National Park website for the most up-to-date information before planning your trip.
|RV size limit
|Central and east
|Fishing Bridge RV Park
|60 ft. +
If you aren’t able to snag a camping reservation and are relying on a first-come-first-serve camping spot at Mammoth. Get there before the sun rises to snag a spot in line. There is no guarantee you’ll get a spot, but the earlier you arrive the better your chances are.
There are alternative options if you are unable to get a reservation or you get a first come first serve spot at Mammoth. The north, east, west, and south entrances of the park have campgrounds to accommodate overflow from Yellowstone.
Most have electricity or water on site and are cheaper than the dry camping spots within the park. The negative is that you are outside of the park. Even though we were only 10 miles from the West Entrance at our campground, Rainbow Point Campground. It took us nearly an hour to reach Madison Campground (the most western campground in the park) each day.
Campendium has an extensive list of paid and free camping options outside of the park boundaries.
What to bring
You need to pay to enter Yellowstone National Park whether you are camping in the park or not. A National Parks pass will gain you entry or you can pay for the number of days you are visiting. If you plan to stay 3 days or more it’s normally more cost-effective to buy the annual pass, which is $80 at the time of this writing. You can buy your pass before your trip or if preferred you can buy it at the entrance of the park.
Since you are visiting Yellowstone in an RV, it’s a good idea to provision before arriving. This includes stocking up on groceries for your trip. The biggest town is near the park in West Yellowstone which is near the western entrance. Here you can find several restaurants, smaller grocery stores, and other shopping.
There are camp stores within the park where you can purchase basic food and pantry items if you need something. The seasonal camp stores can be found at Canyon Village, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge, and Tower Falls.
Hiking is a popular activity in Yellowstone National Park. We highly recommend having your favorite hiking gear with you. We personally never hike without a quality backpack that can carry water like this Camelback. We also love these Merino wool socks, hiking boots, and this hat from REI.
Yellowstone National Park has high bear activity and requires you to carry Bear Spray with you at all times on the trails. Don’t forget to grab yours before arriving!
The weather can change quickly in Yellowstone. No matter where you’re going, you should have a light jacket with you and a poncho in the event of rain. The nights will get cool even in peak summer months. So, bring a heavier jacket and pants to keep warm in the evenings and early mornings.
Wildlife is another huge draw of visiting Yellowstone National Park. You’ll want to have a good pair of binoculars to see the wildlife from afar. Of course, if you have a good camera you’ll want a proper long lens to capture the animals you’ll see. We saw the most insane camera setups at the park. Some were owned, but many were rented specifically for this trip.
You can rent professional camera equipment including lenses from Lensrentals. Prices are super affordable and they have a wide range of inventory to choose from.
Safety in Yellowstone
Before we begin, it’s important to emphasize that you are in the wild when visiting Yellowstone. You are responsible for your safety and well-being. Including bringing the right gear with you on hikes and staying safe outdoors.
Do not feed or touch wild animals. Always keep a safe distance from animals, geothermal areas, and cliffs. Stay on all boardwalks, sidewalks, and paths. The landscape here is delicate and the geothermal areas are extremely dangerous.
Around 50 people die visiting Yellowstone each year. Most deaths are from touching, attempting to swim, or accidentally falling into the geothermal springs.
What to do in Yellowstone
Our travel guide to visiting Yellowstone in an RV is broken up by the geographical area. We feel it’s much easier to plan your trip this way. If you are camping or staying within the park, you have the advantage of being much closer to each destination and reducing some drive time.
If you have the chance, break up your trip into different campgrounds. This means you’ll be driving less distances each day while still enjoying the diversity of the park.
The west side of Yellowstone is where most geothermal features can be found. The park itself has over 10,000 formations ranging from geysers to mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles. Accounting for around half of the world’s geothermal activity.
If you only have a short time at the park, I’d recommend spending it here. After all, it’s not often you get to see geothermal features like these. The list below is going from southwest to northwest of the park.
Old Faithful is by far the most popular and well-known feature in Yellowstone National Park. This geyser was named Old Faithful because its eruption pattern is super reliable. At least for now. Since 2000 Old Faithful erupts every 45 – 120 minutes, shooting water as high as 185 feet into the air. It’s not the largest geyser in the park, that title goes to Steamboat Geyser, but it’s still impressive to see.
Seeing Old Faithful erupt was the highlight of our trip. We loved it so much that we stayed for two eruptions. Old Faithful is located in the southwestern part of the park and is a huge hub. There is a hotel/lodge, restaurant, gas station, post office, visitor center, and gift shop.
That means it has a lot of people and a lot going on. Visit in the morning so you have time to hang around if you missed the eruption after you arrived. The visitor center has some useful information and a video on Yellowstone that’s worth a listen.
The National Park Service has a page for predicted eruption times for Old Faithful, so plan accordingly. You can also call Yellowstone (307) 344-7381 and push the correct extension to hear the next predicted time of eruption as well.
Upper Geyser Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin is the area that surrounds Old Faithful. Most people park their cars, watch Old Faithful erupt, then leave abruptly and call it a success. But there is a lot more to experience here.
If you have some extra time or want to take full advantage of Upper Geyser Basin take a nice walk along the Lone Star Trail. It’s 5.3 miles roundtrip and is nearly completely flat the entire trail, with over half of the trail being paved cement or wooden walkways. If you have more than a day or two this is definitely worth your time.
Biscuit and Black Basin
This will be a quick stop along our western route through Yellowstone. If you’re super short on time you can skip these, but if you’re dedicating a full day to the West side of the park definitely stop here and take in the area.
Midway Geyser Basin
Midway Geyser Basin was one of our favorite parts of Yellowstone. Specifically, Grand Prismatic Spring. You’ve probably seen a photo from National Geographic of a geyser bursting with colors. This is where you’ll find it.
Grand Prismatic Spring is home to a range of bacteria and thermophiles. This heat-loving algae displays a different color based on the temperature of the water coming from the spring. The colors are so vivid. As the steam rises it carries the colors with it making a rainbow in the mist. It really is something special.
There are a ton of other geothermal formations here as well. Like hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots. But Grand Prismatic is the main attraction by far. We also really enjoyed watching the geothermal water cascade into the Firehole River down below. This place gets busy. So come early or come late, but no matter when you come – you don’t want to miss it.
Lower Geyser Basin
Lower Geyser Basin was our first stop when visiting Yellowstone. After visiting Midway Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, and Norris Geyser we realized how small the Lower Geyser Basin really is. If you’re short on time you can skip this. But we absolutely loved our walk through here. And were in awe of how beautiful the springs were.
Artist paint pots
Artist paint pots can be a quick stop on your trip. The hike to see the paint pots is only a one-mile round trip. There are stairs and a somewhat steep hill, so make sure you can make it to the top. Here you can find a great example of Liz’s favorite type of geothermal activity, mud pots.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is a massive geothermal area with a wide range of formations to admire. We walked around the boardwalks for nearly three hours. We loved learning about the different geysers and how this area of Yellowstone is constantly changing.
This is also where you will find Steamboat Geyser. Steamboat geyser is the largest geyser in all of Yellowstone. Since 2018 the geyser has erupted unpredictably after a 3.5-year dormancy. It has minor eruptions with water spewing as high as 6 feet and major ones which can shoot up to 300 feet high. We were there just 4 days after its first eruption in 2018 which had a lot of people talking.
The east side of Yellowstone National Park has much less geothermal activity. Although there is evidence if you look closely. This part of the park is more of the traditional forest and mountain experience you would expect from northern national parks. On the east side, you can enjoy beautiful mountains, grassy meadows, canyons, waterfalls, lakes, and rivers.
This is the second most popular area of Yellowstone. And in our opinion, it is a must-see. Even if you’re only there for a short trip. The list below is going from southeast to northeast on the east side of the park.
Hayden Valley is a passage from the southern part of the park headed toward Canyon Village. The valley is known for its abundant wildlife. If you’re looking to see Bison in their natural habitat this is a great place to stop.
If you do this drive at sunrise or sunset your likelihood of seeing other animals will increase. Wolves, elk, and pronghorn deer can also be sighted here. But you are guaranteed to see a bison (or several hundred) when visiting Yellowstone.
Located in Canyon Village, this iconic canyon is aptly named for the yellow stone that can only be found in this area of the park. We’ve seen canyons all over the world now, but Yellowstone Canyon is truly amazing! The waterfall creates a permanent rainbow as the sun shines through. It turns what is already a beautiful scene into a killer one.
There are two drives you can make, the North Rim and South Rim which offer several vistas and overlooks. Stop at every overlook you can. The view changes so much from each vista point. However, if you’re tight on time, Artist Point, Lookout Point, and Inspiration Point are the highlights.
The South Rim Drive was under construction when we were there so we missed out on Uncle Tom’s Trail which we heard has pretty epic views.
There are several hikes down into the canyon to give you up-close views of the waterfalls. Yes, waterfalls are plural, as there are several. The hikes are often short but steep. If you prefer to enjoy the beautiful canyon from one of the vistas, there is no hiking or steep walks involved and plenty of overlooks for you to enjoy it from.
If you’re physically able or have the extra time, we suggest going the extra mile (or two or three) and getting to see Yellowstone Canyon from every possible view. That’s how we got that incredible photo with the waterfall. Plan to spend a decent amount of time here. It could easily take up an entire day if you really wanted it to.
If you’ve never gone on a white water rafting trip, Yellowstone River is the place to try it out. Since we were tight on time and focused on doing a majority of free activities. We opted to skip the river trip. When we visit again this will 100% be on our list. You can also relax near the Lamar River and do some fly fishing.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is located on the northwest side of the park. It’s the only major geothermal area outside of the Yellowstone caldera previously discussed on the west side of the park. Mammoth hot springs geothermal formations are not only unique because of their location, but also because of how they are formed.
Unlike the geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots you’ll find in the caldera. Mammoth Hot Springs is mostly made up of terraces, specifically travertine terraces. Travertine terraces look like a geothermal set of stairs with water gently trickling down. The travertine is a brilliant white with steam gently rolling off into the air.
There is an upper terrace that you can drive through. And a lower terrace that is made up of boardwalks weaving through the hot springs. Most of the lower terrace has stairs, so if you are not physically able just do the upper terrace. Although you will only see a fraction of the geothermal features at Mammoth. Mammoth hot springs have limited parking so we suggest you come early or late.
Tower Roosevelt & Roosevelt Falls
Tower Roosevelt and Roosevelt Falls are one of the lesser-visited attractions in Yellowstone. It’s known mostly for its beautiful waterfall. But the area also has several hikes, picnic tables, and lodging. Since there is simply so much to do in Yellowstone, this is an area that is often explored if people have more than 4 or 5 days. Or are returning for a second, third, or fourth time to Yellowstone.
This wide-open prairie is located in the northeast area of the park. This is where we opted to view wildlife and saw lots of bison, elk, and pronghorn sheep. We unfortunately didn’t see any of the more elusive animals like a wolf, fox, and grizzly but we did get some pretty epic views of wildflowers, mountains, and endless green hills with buffalo sprinkled throughout.
The south side of Yellowstone National Park is home to Yellowstone Lake. This tranquil and forested area has some areas of geothermal activity. Many people skip over this area when visiting Yellowstone, but it’s a beautiful stop that should be considered depending on how much time you have.
The list below is going from southwest to southeast.
West Thumb Geyser Basin and Grant Village
If you’re driving into Yellowstone from Grand Teton National Park this is a great place to make a quick stop. Walk around the boardwalks of West Thumb Geyser Basin and enjoy the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.
It’s one of the only areas of the park where you can enjoy a beautiful lake view in addition to geothermal formations. If you are short on time, just make a quick stop here on your way to Yellowstone Lake or as you enter the park from Grand Teton.
At a whopping 136 square miles of lake, Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park. You can find beautiful lake views, a quiet place to escape the hustle and bustle of the park, and fun recreational activities for the whole family.
Boats, kayaks, and canoes are permitted on this lake. We would have loved to spend a day on the gorgeous water taking in the views and seeing this park from a different perspective. Swimming is not recommended, as it stays around 41 degrees even in the summer.
If you’re lucky you might see a beaver or a moose here. Shoshone Lake (also on the south side of the park) is supposedly a great place to see Moose in the early morning.
Top things to do in Yellowstone if you are short on time
If you’re visiting Yellowstone in an RV you should dedicate the proper amount of time to see and do as much as possible. However, if you absolutely don’t have the time, then these would be our top things to do in Yellowstone.
- Grand Prismatic Springs (Midway Geyser Basin)
- Old Faithful (Upper Geyser Basin)
- Mammoth Hot Springs OR Yellowstone Canyon (your choice because both are breathtakingly beautiful and unique)
- If your main goal in coming to Yellowstone is to see animals, then do Hayden Valley early in the morning.
If you want to see animals
A lot of people come to Yellowstone to experience the wildlife that is rarely seen outside of these park boundaries. There are hundreds of bison throughout the park in addition to black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, marmots, bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, moose, bald eagles, and fox to name a few. There are two main areas to view wildlife, although most parts of the park have some animal or another throughout.
- Lamar Valley (Northeastern Part of Yellowstone)
- Hayden Valley (Eastern Part of Yellowstone)
If we could only choose 3 geyser basins
It’s such a shame not to be able to see all of the geyser basins when visiting Yellowstone. Every single formation is unique and beautiful in its own way. This is definitely not a “see it once, don’t need to see it again” kind of thing.
If you’re short on time and simply don’t have the ability to see all the geyser basins these are our top 3.
- Grand Prismatic Springs (Midway Geyser Basin)
- Old Faithful (Upper Geyser Basin)
- Norris Geyser Basin
Visiting Yellowstone National Park is sure to be a trip you’ll remember for years to come. While many revisit the park to explore it more intimately. This guide should help you plan your first RV trip to our country’s first national park.