An Expert Guide to Camping in Yellowstone

Expert Reece Kothe profiles prime camping locations in the must-see areas of Yellowstone National Park.

Bright yellow plains backed by mountain scenery

Electric Peak. Photo by Harry Beugelink

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Very few national parks rival the raw, wild, and diverse beauty of Yellowstone National Park. From its world-renowned geothermal features to its vast array of flora and fauna, Yellowstone is an adventurer’s paradise. The nearly 4,000 square miles of rugged space that make up Yellowstone offer endless options for hiking and camping, covering a multitude of different geographies and environments. Home to hundreds of animal species, Yellowstone National Park is a carefully-preserved natural treasure that never ceases to inspire.

This guide will help you explore the best of what Yellowstone has to offer during the most coveted summer season. Listed below are four unique camping areas categorized by different regions of the park. These four regions consist of the high country, geothermal features, prized wildlife zones, and canyons and waterfalls (you may refer to relevant links below to inform yourself on current camping fees and regulations).

Go forth and enjoy these different regions and be good patrons of the land so that we may protect this beautiful place for generations to come!

High Country

The high country consists of alpine ecosystems home to delicate mosses and lichens and dramatic, sweeping skylines. Venture here to experience magnificent hard-sought views and gain a better understanding of the park’s geography.

1) Big Sky Country (Specimen Creek Trailhead to Black Butte Trailhead)

A view of cliffs on Sky Rim Trail

Sky Rim Trail. Photo by Reece Kothe

  • Campsites: WE5 and WE7
  • Best for: Big, open terrain
  • Location: The border between the Gallatin Mountains and Yellowstone National Park in the northern region of the park.
  • Distance: 17.6 miles point-to-point (park a car at either end)
  • Time to Complete: Two to three days
  • Elevation Gain: 3,800 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
  • Season: July through September

Campsites WE5 and WE7 are tucked away in the heart of the Gallatin Mountain Range in Yellowstone’s lesser frequented Montana region on the east Sky Rim Trail. Both these campsites are backcountry gems giving true meaning to Montana’s namesake, “Big Sky Country.” Vast, sweeping views await in this alpine paradise brimming with solitude and the lesser-known high country of Yellowstone. While hoards of people engulf Hayden and Lamar Valleys, head for this alpine oasis and you won’t be disappointed.

Enjoying WE5 or WE7 can be accomplished in the most desirable way via a point-to-point 17.6-mile trek from the Specimen Creek Trailhead to the Black Butte Trailhead. The eastern section of the Sky Rim Trail contains some of the most scenic sections of the entire trail, not to mention a summit of Bighorn Peak. WE5 and WE7 lie on the banks of Shelf Lake at the approximate half-way point of this trek.

Expert Insight: Plan accordingly for weather and make sure there is an optimal forecast. Much of the trek is heavily exposed. For all the necessary information on backcountry camping permits, including fees, visit http://nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm.

2) Electric Peak: The Monarch of the North (Glen Creek Trailhead)

Bright yellow plains backed by mountain scenery

Electric Peak. Photo by Harry Beugelink

  • Campsites: IG3 or IG4
  • Best for: Unprecedented views
  • Location: Northern Yellowstone near Mammoth
  • Distance: 20 miles roundtrip out and back
  • Time to Complete: Two to three days
  • Elevation Gain: 5,282 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult with a Class 3 scramble to the summit
  • Season: July through September

The summit of Electric Peak provides an excellent opportunity to explore the stunning alpine terrain of Yellowstone National Park, culminating with arguably the best view in the entire park. On a clear day, keep an eye out on the southern horizon for the striking outline of the Teton Range. Camp near the base of Electric Peak at either IG3 or IG4 after making the initial six-mile approach and summit the following day to enjoy this wild corner of the park to the max. Both these campsites offer easy access to Gardner Creek for quick water refuel if necessary.

Be Bear Aware Part of the trail enters the Gallatin Bear Management Area, which is a prime bear ecosystem for both black bears and grizzly bears. There are many bear management areas scattered throughout the park. For timely updates on these areas, refer to https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/bear-management-areas.htm.

Be mindful that all off-trail travel in this region is prohibited. For your safety and peace of mind make sure to make plenty of noise, travel in a party of four people or more and carry ample bear spray. As long as you follow the proper guidelines and respect the bears’ space, you can enjoy the wild spaces they call home in peace. For more information on bear safety, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/bearsafety.htm.

Expert Insight: Make sure to stay well-hydrated at higher elevation to avoid acute mountain sickness and to ensure your body is functioning at its greatest level. Muscle cramping can be an indication of dehydration.

Geothermals

Produced by hot subsurface magma, geothermals are manifestations of heated groundwater as they interact with the surface of the earth, creating an array of eye-popping features such as geysers, hotsprings, and paint pots.

1) Norris Campground

A sunrise view of Steamboat Geyser

Steamboat Geyser. Photo by Peter Bowman

  • Best for: Car-camping/Basecamp
  • Location: Central Yellowstone
  • Distance: 2.25 mile loop
  • Time to Complete: One to two hours
  • Elevation Gain: 337 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Season: May through September

Located in the central region of Yellowstone, Norris Campground offers amazing access to some of the park’s must-see geothermal areas. Whether you are pulling up the RV, setting up base camp out of your car, or overlanding through the park, this is an excellent campsite for staging your adventures. For further information and relevant fees, refer to https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/norris-campground.htm.

Norris Geyser Basin (Norris Geyser Basin Loop) Norris Geyser Basin is a family-friendly option packed with a bevy of different geothermal wonders that are some of the highest in temperature and include rare acidic geysers. The basin is also the oldest geothermal site in the park, dating back close to 120,000 years! Norris Geyser Basin is a sight that everyone must witness. The tallest active geyser in the entire world, the Steamboat Geyser, has eruptions at heights up to 400 feet and is a spectacular site to behold. A majority of the basin can be toured via a short, 2.25-mile loop walk. Make this trek as a cool-down walk or a late-afternoon trip.

Expert Insight: This can be a highly-popular area so if you are able, visit in the early morning and during the week to ensure more breathing room and time to appreciate the beauty.

2) Shoshone Geyser Basin via Lone Star Geyser Trail

Water from Minute Man Geyser shooting into the air

The original Minute Man Geyser in the Shoshone Basin. Photo by Wildnerdpix

  • Campsites: 8R4 and 8R5
  • Best for: Backcountry geysers
  • Location: South-central Yellowstone
  • Distance: 18 to 27.3 miles, depending on how far you want to hike on the eastern side of the lake
  • Time to Complete: Two to three days
  • Elevation Gain: 2250 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Season: May through September

Explore the most extensive backcountry geyser basin in the world while paying homage to the largest, most pristine backcountry lake in the lower 48, all in one trek! With close to 500 geothermal features, Shoshone Geyser Basin is an awe-inspiring area. It takes nearly nine miles to reach this basin so crowds are sparse, allowing you to enjoy a private tour of Yellowstone geothermal gems. Make sure to allow two to three hours to explore the basin to fully appreciate each wonder. Camp on the shore of Shoshone Lake at either 8R4 or 8R5 and take in some of the finest views this expansive lake has to offer.

Expert Insight: Shoshone Lake offers some of the best brown- and lake-trout fishing in the entire region.

Wildlife

Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem support a vibrant community of North America’s most well-known wildlife. Although intriguing to look at, wildlife can also be dangerous and each animal must be respected and given the proper distance. You may refer to this link to understand the suggested proper safety guidelines for each animal: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/safety.htm.

1) Slough Creek Campground

Green plains dotted with bison

Lamar Valley. Photo by Susan Natoli

  • Best for: Wildlife watchers
  • Location: Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley

Slough Creek Campground is located in Lamar Valley, offering excellent car-camping for tents and smaller RVs. Camping here grants you amazing access to one of the richest wildlife viewing areas in the entire park! Lamar Valley is the serengeti of North America. Here you can view everything from bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, badgers, coyotes, osprey, bald eagles, grizzly bears, and if you're lucky, wolves (Listen carefully in the night to hear their songs).

Bring a spotting scope, binoculars, and a little patience, and you will be in for a treat. Go during the week and in the late summer to experience the valley with less people (less bugs too!). Hayden Valley is also an excellent place to view wildlife and is only slightly further to the south near Yellowstone Lake. For further information and relevant fees, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/sloughcreekcg.htm.

Expert Insight: Wolves and other predatory animals are most active at dawn and dusk. Winter time is an excellent season to see wolves, as they are juxtaposed brilliantly against the white snow.

2) The Thorofare and South Boundary Trail: The wild, untouched, southern land of Yellowstone (Nine Mile Trailhead)

A grassy plain with mountains in the background

Hiking the Thorofare. Photo by TheSteve

  • Campsites: 5E6, 6B2, 6Y5, 8C9, 8C7
  • Best for: Seasoned backpackers seeking an untouched experience with wildlife
  • Location: South Yellowstone
  • Distance: 67.5 miles point-to-point
  • Time to Complete: Six to 10 days
  • Elevation Gain: 5,700 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Season: July through September

Beginning on the southeast side of Yellowstone Lake, this 67.5-mile point-to-point adventure weaves its way through some of the most pristine wilderness in the entire park before ending near the south entrance. This journey is best for highly-experienced adventurers due to its length, the remoteness, and the route finding. Seldom-seen landscape awaits on this wild, remote trek packed with wildlife. Be alert and vigilant so that you may be respectful to the wildlife. Each campsite selected above offers highly-pleasant environments and views, enriching this trek even further. Keep an eye on the trail for both wolf and grizzly tracks because they are often abundant.

Expert Insight: Allow ample time on this journey to fully experience the power and grace of this wilderness. It might also be handy to pack a more sophisticated GPS to ensure you do not lose your way; the trail can at times be faint. Also, packing a bear horn would be advisable.

Canyons and Waterfalls

The movement of water is one of the most powerful forces of nature and has the capability to sculpt entire landscapes, producing epic waterfalls and canyons. Here are some of the best in Yellowstone.

1) Black Canyon of the Yellowstone: A picturesque canyon with few crowds (Blacktail Creek Trailhead to Hellroaring Trailhead)

A view of the suspension bridge over Hellroaring Creek

Suspension bridge over Hellroaring Creek. Photo by Kelly vanDellen

  • Campsites: IR1 or IY9
  • Best for: Early-season backpacking with ample solitude
  • Location: North Yellowstone
  • Distance: 15 miles point-to-point
  • Time to complete: Two to three days
  • Elevation gain: 2,750 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Season: June through October

Explore this impressive canyon and experience incredible backcountry camping in a land teeming with wildlife. The Black Canyon features a cool suspension bridge and dramatic rocky walls remaining undiscovered to most of the masses. Birds of prey are plentiful, so keep an eye out; especially for osprey and bald eagles. Each campsite is nestled snugly near the river, providing excellent views. If you fly fish, bring your rod. Some of these sections offer excellent brown trout and rainbow trout fishing.

Expert Insight: Spend extra time exploring this area by adding on an additional day or two. Scour the hillsides for big game and be mindful of animal carcasses.

2) Tower Fall Campground and Tower Falls Trail

An upper view of Tower Falls

Tower Falls. Photo by GizmoPhoto

  • Best for: Easy access to a breathtaking waterfall
  • Location: North-central Yellowstone
  • Distance: .09 miles roundtrip
  • Time to Complete: One hour
  • Elevation Gain: 250 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Season: June through October

Tower Fall Campground is conveniently located near one of the most picturesque waterfalls in the park. Tower Falls has captivated all who have admired it, including legislators who would go on to create Yellowstone National Park. The rocks that encompass the waterfall were produced by lava flow, creating a unique backdrop that catches the eye. Stand in awe at the overlook via the Tower Falls Trail as water plunges over 130 feet to the rocks far below and appreciate the natural wonder that helped create the world’s first national park. For current information and relevant fees, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/towerfallcg.htm.

Expert Insight: Catching the waterfall at first light is a sight to behold.

If you have any questions on gearing up for your next adventure to Yellowstone, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free advice and gear recommendations.

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Written By
Reece Kothe
Reece Kothe
Camping & Hiking Expert
My love for the outdoors has produced many adventures. By the age of 16, I successfully summited all of Colorado's 14ers. I have also completed the Colorado Trail among other notable treks. I continue to explore Montana and the Bozeman area through hiking, backpacking and climbing. Through my time i...
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