Yellowstone, pandemic style
August 7, 2020 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I've never been to Yellowstone and have little idea what the experience is like. Haven't had a vacation in over eight years and am not going into a pandemic-riddled Midwest winter without some kind of minimalist trip. (If you feel judgey about that, please keep moving and don't harsh my squee.)

Please share current (under SARS-COV2) anecdotes and/or resources for visiting Yellowstone National Park and/or the area. How can we assess the safety level of specific spots? What can we do on such a trip to make it as safe as possible?

For example, going later -- Sept/Oct. What else?
posted by dancing leaves to Travel & Transportation around United States (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
All of the major national parks are going to be very busy right now and through the early fall. Reports I have seen suggest there are larger number of domestic visitors. Of course, as international travel is restricted, there are also fewer numbers of international visitors. Visitation to Yellowstone in particular was down, but now seems to be approximately what it was last year. A good way to assess the situation is to check out the webcams.

Of course, Yellowstone is vast, and there are going to be places that are packed with people and places that are empty. At the major attractions (Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, etc), movement is restricted - everyone must walk on walkways and cannot venture off the path. This does create a tremendous amount of crowding and bottle necks. On a busy day it is like waddling through a packed line at Disney World. Now, you are outside, and hopefully everyone is wearing a mask. So your risk is not greater than if, for example, you have been protesting, and most accounts seem to suggest that protests did not cause a large increase in covid infection.

It is possible to largely avoid all others at Yellowstone, if you are willing to do the lesser trails and backcountry. I have always preferred these areas anyway, since being alone in the vast wilderness of Yellowstone is an amazing experience, and while the major attractions are very cool, you certainly don't get that sense of the wild when they are so packed with visitors. So depending on your comfort and skill level, you can get permits and hike and camp in the backcountry, which is an amazing thing to do in any year.

If you don't want to go full backcountry, there are still plenty of places in Yellowstone that will not have tons of people. In fact, most of the non-major-attraction areas can be pretty quiet. Most people who visit Yellowstone like to do the drive tour to the major attractions, park, walk the walkway out to the attraction, and return to their car. But there are tons of trails to explore that are not part of the major attraction network. IME, the West entrance tends to be the busiest. The other entrances are less busy (except the North entrance area close to Mammoth Springs). There are places all along the major roads where you can pull off and go for a hike or explore the area.

This is all to say that I think it is quite possible to visit Yellowstone safely. It just depends on where in Yellowstone you go. There are no ugly places in Yellowstone. You can close your eyes and point at the map and it will be some place very amazing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:29 AM on August 7

Visited last year, and I noticed that before 8AM, and after about 5PM, the hot springs, shoreline picnic spots, and trails were sparsely populated.

The visitor density falls of rapidly the farther away you get from roads.
posted by nickggully at 10:34 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Regarding weather - the only time i went to Yellowstone/Tetons was the week after labor day . . . and it snowed.

There will be way fewer crowds though.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:02 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

At every Nat. Park I've visited, rangers are a fantastic resource. So read up before you go, but have a masked, 6' chat with a ranger about getting more remote and seeing cool stuff safely. It's not remote, but on the advice of a park worker, we saw old Faithful erupt at night by moonlight with bonus lightning storm in the distance. There were maybe 25 people present.
posted by theora55 at 12:35 PM on August 7

My sister just went! Maybe four weeks ago. She said it was probably about as crowded as it would be in the off-season during a regular year. Definitely not a lot of solitude but it also wasn't packed, and certainly it wasn't so dense that she felt any worry about being able to socially distance. She called on the way there about campsites and was able to reserve one, which is DEFINITELY not usual for July but she assumed she lucked out with a recent cancellation, as usually you need to book many months in advance and probably most were reserved well before the pandemic began.

She was passing through the state as part of a cross country move which meant it felt safe and uncrowded enough that she was ok leaving all her worldly possessions in the car while sleeping in a tent nearby.

In short, unless things have changed a lot since a month ago it seems like it was a really lovely time to go to Yellowstone. Good luck and hope you snag a last minute cancellation too!
posted by potrzebie at 1:06 PM on August 7

Nthing what people say about heading for the less-traveled areas. I've not been to Yellowstone, but I have been to Yosemite a couple times, which is a similarly popular place; however, the things people really want to see are all just a fraction of the park proper, and most of them tend to be in one concentrated spot. I've heard it said that Yosemite is about the size of the state of Rhode Island; if that's the case, then it's like the big things you think of when you hear "Yosemite" are all in West Providence, and that leaves the whole rest of the state.

Case in point - I went to one scenic overlook that gives you a view of the same picture of the valley you see on all the postcards, and that was always super-crowded. However, that same day I drove about 45 minutes east along a road that cuts through Yosemite and saw equally amazing views of different parts of the park - and I was often the only one there.

The top five attractions in Yellowstone are probably going to be crowded no matter what. But the park is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, and there are going to be other wonderful things to see everywhere you go. Find a spot to stay just outside, make little day trips to the back roads, and enjoy it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 PM on August 7

For example, going later -- Sept/Oct.

In October, some facilities of the park will be closed, or starting the process of closing, and there will be less Park Ranger tours (although this year they all might be gone already). Check out the Operating Hours and Seasons pages.

The weather might convince people to stay away, or it may not if schools and business are still closed. It might be hard to stay six feet away from people on the trails and boardwalks. Stepping off the former is highly frowned upon and in the latter may be fatal.

When I went to Yellowstone in early October, it was pretty quiet other than at Old Faithful, where there were at least 50 people waiting around. And it was snowing at the time. But most hiking trails were completely empty.
posted by meowzilla at 2:15 PM on August 7

Weather can definitely be a consideration and assorted park stuff will start closing in the Sept/Oct/Nov timeframe. You'll need to decide what you want to see and get out of a visit to Yellowstone.
99.9% of Yellowstone will be empty. It will be a question of if your goals overlap with what will be available.

The above is roughly true for all National Parks. They are enormous but most people cluster to all the handful of the same places. For my time in Sequoia NP, there were people on the trail around the most famous trees. Take a side trail off of that and we saw maybe 2 people in 4-5 hours. Similarly at Kings Canyon NP, I could see all the infrastructure that would support crowds but we saw maybe a dozen people...all day.
posted by mmascolino at 2:18 PM on August 7

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