Setting Expectations while Trip Planning for Yellowstone
Updated: Mar 23
Yellowstone National Park often surprises visitors with its vast distances and remote access. It can take hours to get to the next store, restaurant, bathroom, or medical care. With record-breaking visitation, and so many people wanting to experience their national parks, it is up to us, the engaged visitor, to follow Leave No Trace ethics to preserve these rare and wild places for the future.
Leave No Trace (LNT) is a framework that can be applied to minimize our impact as we engage with our surroundings, wildlife, or other visitors. Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone adheres to and teaches these seven principles while on our private tours in Yellowstone National Park, but these practices can be taken home as a souvenir and applied anywhere.
This article covers each of the 7 principles and how they can apply to your trip to Yellowstone.
Plan Ahead & Prepare
The key to any great trip is preparation. Planning the broad strokes of your itinerary and being flexible to change can help make your trip a great success. Before you embark, take time to set your goals and expectations for the trip. This could be what you want to see, where you plan to go and how you want to spend your time. After you have decided what you want, ask: what do you need? Make sure the logistics are realistic. Questions may include: which entrance is your lodging closest to? How does that compare to where your tour guide is picking you up? Which areas of the park do you want to see? Would you like to spend the morning looking for Yellowstone’s varied wildlife? Would you like to avoid the crowds around certain thermal features? Make sure the lodging you book is located in the most ideal location for your priorities. Driving time in and around Yellowstone National Park takes longer than expected so make sure you have enough time to travel to your destination and set up camp, or before the restaurant closes their wait-list. Check the weather and pack layers. Food can be difficult or lengthy to find in the vast wilderness. Travel in your car and on the trail with water, snacks, essentials like a first aid kit and maps, and bear spray (even for more popular trails).
Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces
The goal of using LNT is to minimize the damage we can cause. Travel damage occurs when vegetation and organisms like cryptobiotic soil are trampled beyond recovery. If there is a trail, stay on it. Wet conditions are counter intuitive: if there is a mud puddle, walk through it rather than stomping around it to avoid eroding the vegetation and widening the margins. If you hike off-trail with a group of people, spread out and make it a game to not follow the same footpath. Organisms may be able to rebound from two feet but maybe not four or more. Even while in your vehicle, think of LNT ethics around durable surfaces. A paved or fully dirt pull off is best. Driving over sensitive sagebrush or grasslands can be a death sentence for that vegetation.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Yellowstone is an extremely arid climate. It can take several years or more for orange peels, pistachio nut shells, even toilet paper, to disintegrate: It’s more likely an animal will find it first.
If you have been to Yellowstone you’ll remember restrooms are limited. If you have never been, here is your forewarning. You may be hiking miles out from the trailhead only to get back to your car and drive extra miles to a pit toilet. Managing human waste is necessary to avoid polluting water sources, animals distributing it, or having other visitors step in it.
The rules to keep in mind are to find a place 200 ft away from a water source. If you are in a canyon pack it out with a commercial device, like a Wag Bag. For “number one”, maintain the distance from water sources, and remember TP must be carried out. For “Number Two”, the most widely accepted method of waste disposal are cat holes.
Find a space 200 ft away from a water source, use a trowel to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter, and cover your waste and the hole with dirt and debris when finished. If camping for multiple nights make sure you do not use the same hole twice and spread out your catholes. Do not bury your toilet paper but use a plastic bag you can dispose of properly. Toilet paper “blooms” are becoming more common in Yellowstone. It might take years for TP to disintegrate in Yellowstone’s arid climate. You must pack it out.
Poop-kits (trowel, toilet paper, plastic baggies for used TP, hand sanitizer) are encouraged for off-road hiking. If you are with a guide they will most likely be carrying one.
Leave What You Find
One of our goals as guides is to give visitors the sense of discovery. Leaving what we find allows others to experience it too. If you pick up a rock or a bone try placing it back where you found it, like the piece of a puzzle. Avoid writing and drawing in the snow or carving into wood so others can experience the solitude of the landscape. Do not pick wildflowers-- imagine if everyone who visited Yellowstone in a summer picked a bouquet -- there may be no flowers for others to see. Instead, bring markers or crayons with you and a piece of paper and draw a bouquet you can actually bring home with you. In Yellowstone and some other public lands, it’s not just a good idea: it’s the law. It is illegal to remove natural objects and cultural artifacts. Think of those flowers as bear, bird or insect food. Bones and antlers are a calcium source for smaller animals. Interesting rocks like petrified wood are a finite resource, and literal tons have been removed from the park in the pockets of visitors. Cultural objects have much more significance in the context of where they’re found. If you find a particularly interesting piece, take a photo and possible GPS coordinates, and report it to the nearest Visitor Center.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Yellowstone is a fire-adapted ecosystem but with historic dry periods and fire bans, gas stoves are recommended for heat and cooking. If you do want to build a fire, be sure to check current fire danger with a park ranger or the local Forest Service office. A true LNT fire shows no sign of having a fire. However, if using an established pit with stones already assembled do not scatter the structure after use. Wood should be no more than wrist-thick, and fires should be small. Even in campgrounds with established fire pits, think of the air quality and how much you really need a fire. While fire has been a part of the human landscape as long as we’ve existed, in an era of record-breaking drought, uncontrollable fires across the west, and increased use, consider enjoying the stars rather than a campfire.
Respectfully watching wildlife requires quiet observation. If we stop to see wildlife, speak in hushed tones even if the visitors next to you are speaking with their outside voice. Don’t slam car doors. Set a good example. In Yellowstone, the legal distance is 100 yards from wolves and bears, and no closer than 25 yards (about the distance of two school buses end-to-end) to elk, bison and other wildlife. Do not disturb the wildlife for a better look or a quick picture. The animals in Yellowstone are wild and are a risk if humans threaten their perceived safety. Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Even if you are further than the legal distance, if an animal stops eating or nursing their young, or moves off, you are too close. When camping, pick your site with a buffer area in mind for animals to access the water source and hang your food, toiletries and other odorous items 100 yards from where you set up camp.
Driving around Yellowstone, you may become part of a bison jam. The direction the bison are traveling affects how you respond. If you are driving the same way as the bison, take a deep breath and become part of the herd. Drive at a speed that matches the bison, then increase your mph a little faster to create momentum through the herd but not so much to make them run. Every calorie counts, and as visitors we don’t want to stress or change the behavior of wildlife. If the bison herd is walking towards your vehicle, stop your car and move along after they pass. Turning off the car and rolling down your window will give you an intimate experience of the herd soundscapes.
In Yellowstone, on average, one large mammal a day is killed by a vehicle, and countless smaller ones. Drive with caution.
Never feed wildlife...it is a death sentence for them. Even smaller mammals like squirrels become dangerous when fed (and they carry diseases like plague.) Keep a clean camp or picnic area, and be sure to never leave scraps or crumbs for animals to find. It’s a quick road from a bear, fox, wolf, or any of our animals receiving a food award to their death.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Yellowstone National Park has had record breaking visitation numbers the last few years. Be courteous to other visitors. Everyone wants to enjoy their experience. LNT applies to the roadways too. You never know what may come into view driving down the road. If you spot something you want to take a photo of, don’t stop in the middle of the road. Pull to the side and be sure all 4 tires of your vehicle are on the right side of the white line. Not only will this eliminate the risk of getting a ticket, and minimizes the risk causing an accident, it avoids gridlock on our narrow, windy park roads.
While hiking, practice trail etiquette. Hikers descending yield to ascending hikers. All hikers yield to horseback riders and on National Forest land, bikers yield to both hikers and horseback riders. While passing hikers in the opposite direction, pull off the trail and pause rather than causing both groups to trample vegetation adjacent to the trail. Allow a faster group to pass by without having to go off trail.
Your decisions matter!
In order to maintain wildness in one of the last, most intact ecosystems in the world, every decision we make counts. Following these guidelines ensures an unrivaled experience full of discovery and wonder for all who visit Yellowstone today, and those who will visit in the future.