Yellowstone Is More Popular Than Ever—Here’s How to Enjoy It Without the Crowds

Few people venture far beyond the parking lot, but less-crowded wonders await those who do.

Yellowstone Is More Popular Than Ever—Here’s How to Enjoy It Without the Crowds

You have to walk a few miles to see Lone Star Geyser, but it’s worth it.

Photo by Handcraft Films/Shutterstock

On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park made history when its 2.2 million acres were preserved as the world’s first national park. With active geysers, boiling pools, and sightings of bears and bison, Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary as popular as ever.

That popularity comes at a cost. In 2021, Yellowstone welcomed a record 4.8 million visitors, up from 4 million in 2019, including more than 1 million in July alone. It was the most-visited month in park history. Park employees speculate that visitation may spike even higher in 2022, when Yellowstone’s anniversary puts the park back in the spotlight.

With careful planning, it’s possible to enjoy Yellowstone in tranquility. Travelers entering via Yellowstone’s east or northeast entrances, where traffic tends to be low, find shorter wait times. Those who arrive in the shoulder season months of May, September, and October can avoid the crowds typical in summer. And midweek visits tend to be less popular than those on weekends.

But perhaps the best strategy for finding solace in Yellowstone is to head out onto the park’s trails—rather than simply pulling over on the road or sticking to parking lots. From bubbling mud pots to exploding geysers and roaring waterfalls, some of Yellowstone’s most spectacular sites are accessible on foot. And chances are you’ll have the place all to yourself.

Lone Star Geyser

  • Distance: 5 miles round-trip
  • Difficulty: Easy

According to the National Park Service, most visitors to Yellowstone venture no more than half a mile from their vehicle. The Lone Star Geyser, one of 500 active geysers in the park, rewards those willing to lace up their hiking boots. An abandoned roadbed 3.5 miles south of Old Faithful marks the trail’s beginning. After winding beneath towering lodgepole pine and Douglas fir and along the banks of the Firehole River, the trail reveals a solitary 12-foot-tall grayish cone. Read a book or picnic on a carpet of pine needles to await the show, which happens every three hours. When it blows, the Lone Star shoots a 45-foot plume for 30 minutes.

Find Lower Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Find Lower Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Photo by Nina B/Shutterstock

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

  • Distance: 5-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Waterfalls and backcountry mud pots draw hikers to a lesser-known Yellowstone trail combination that begins at Uncle Tom’s parking lot. Memorable views of the Upper Falls, the Lower Falls, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone mark the start on the South Rim Trail. Swaths of orange and green minerals stain the canyon’s honey-colored walls, and curls of steam rise where fissures allow subterranean heat to escape.

Shortly after the forested trail departs Lily Pad Lake, a barren backcountry opens up, where you can hear the murmuring of boiling mud and smell the sulfur of hissing fumaroles, a handful of Yellowstone’s 10,000 hydrothermal features. Stay on the path—there are no guard ropes here—to walk through quiet meadows where the resident elk herd grazes. If you still have energy, follow Uncle Tom’s Trail (1 mile round-trip, 500-foot descent) for terrific views of the Lower Falls.

Petrified Forest

  • Distance: 4 miles round-trip
  • Difficulty: Strenuous

Some 50 million years ago, lava engulfed more than 40 square miles of deciduous forest in what is now northern Yellowstone National Park. What remains of that petrified forest—one of the world’s largest—sits atop Specimen Ridge. A short trail to the petrified forest leads from Yellowstone’s northeast entrance road near the Lamar River. Walk through a meadow of thigh-high flat grass and sage popular with nervous pronghorn to the base of Specimen Ridge, where the trail turns sharply upward. The going is tough, the trail sometimes fades from view, but press on and you’ll reach an exposed rock outcropping that reveals the remains of Yellowstone’s ancient trees, their growth rings visible all these millennia later.

You’re unlikely to encounter anyone else at Trout Lake.

You’re unlikely to encounter anyone else at Trout Lake.

Photo by Sergioboccardo/Shutterstock

Trout Lake and the Beartooth Range

  • Distance: 2.5 miles round-trip
  • Difficulty: Easy

The Beartooth Mountains form a spectacular backdrop to Trout Lake. Located 10 miles inside Yellowstone’s northeast entrance, the Trout Lake trail climbs gently through fir and spruce trees on its way to the lake. Only 12 acres in size, this small lake doesn’t have many visitors beyond the occasional angler. And that’s precisely the reason to visit.

Old Faithful

  • Distance: 1-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Many of Yellowstone’s most popular attractions can be appreciated in tranquility if you’re willing to seek out an alternate viewpoint. Even Old Faithful. North of the Old Faithful viewing area, a bridge leads over the Firehole River and upward, to Observation Point. Climb up the 200-foot rock outcropping to reach the overlook, with sweeping views of the entire upper geyser basin: Beehive Geyser with its namesake cone, royal blue Doublet Pool and golden Aurum Geyser, and Chinese Spring, named for an Asian laundry that once operated here.

You can also see Old Faithful in action every 90 minutes. The world’s most famous geyser shoots 8,000 gallons 180 feet in the air, and you can watch the spectacle in silence from Observation Point.

>> Next: Finding Blissful Solitude in Yellowstone National Park in the Winter

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