A post covering a shorter period than usual and focusing on tips to cycle through Yellowstone area. If you are just looking for inspiration, there is still a bunch of pictures.
Best time to go:
Our experience was good as we went at the end of the season, which means there were significantly fewer people than usual. Enough people still to have most campgrounds almost full. It’s recommended to go to Yellowstone before Memorial Day (end of May) or after Labor Day (early September). In between, the summer season is really busy and I’d imagine you’d have a significantly different experience. It’s also most likely you’ll be potentially annoyed by forest fires in the area. The only trick with going there before the end of May or after early September is you’ll have to watch out for sudden weather changes, and you definitely don’t want to be caught in the snow, so the ideal window is actually quite limited.We were there in mid-September and it was a pretty good time (we didn’t see many animals though, see below), but it did get chilly (below 30F/0°C) at night. I can imagine than cycling/doing an expedition in Yellowstone in mid-fall if it’s doable (road closures) when everything is under the snow might definitely have its charms though, provided you have the right gear and information. I might go back to Yellowstone one day and explore on a snowmobile, who knows.
Also see https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm for interesting info about cycling in Yellowstone.
If you listened to what West Yellowtone’s tourist office has to say about cycling in Yellowstone you’d probably take a car to go in. It’s a scare really as there isn’t much to fear about cycling in Yellowstone, especially if you have a functioning rear view mirror.
They’ll give you a map to say which roads have been improved and which ones haven’t been- basically everything above Norris or Canyon Village was unimproved as of 2018. We ended up on most of the unimproved roads (except we didn’t get much further east than Tower Junction) and it was fine. Sure, better watch out for surface defects and sometimes there isn’t much shoulder but there’s a bit less traffic on that North section, and if you’ve cycled in a lot of different conditions there’s nothing really bad. It’s a good idea to watch out for cars everywhere in Yellowstone though as they don’t necessarily expect cyclists and might be distracted by wildlife appearing out of nowhere. On a side note, we encountered roadworks when we cycled between Norris and Mammoth and they didn’t let us through on our bicycles- we had to wait for 30 minutes for a pilot car to take us accross. All good, though I’m just not sure what they would have done if there had been a large group of cyclists then.
We were really glad to be on bikes though as we took over a very long traffic jam at the entrance…Cars had stopped to look at bisons not long before ! And most of the trails along the geysers basins and other natural wonders are pedestrian only but it’s generally easy to find a place to lock the bicycle nearby (after the end of the season, again).
How to plan your itinerary
Note that we started in West Yellowstone and finished at the South entrance. This is a good way to do it but you could enter and exit by literally any entrance, though it’s best keeping in mind where the passes are (you’ll see it on a cycling map of Yellowstone or when planning your itinerary on an app).
Depending on what and how much you want to see, and as well how much time you have you could take as little as 2-3 days going for example from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, then backtracking to Madison and do Norris-Canyon Village-Fishing Bridge-Grant Village and out through the south entrance, as Paul and Kelly did.
As a general information though, especially if it’s your first time in Yellowstone, it is said you’d want at least 2 to 3 days to see the park in a car minimum, and 5 days minimum on a bicycle to do most of the figure of eight and have time to enjoy what’s to see and where you are.
Who are Paul and Kelly by the way? Well, they were the cyclists we initially met at the same Warmshowers host in Calgary, ready to tackle the Divide ( see What’s Vipassana & an unexpected return to the Rockies). We met them again, with two other cyclotourists travelling with them, by chance in West Yellowstone. They had carried on on the Great Divide (though they didn’t start with the GDMBR extension) and gone through the smoke. We ended up all sharing the same campsite in Madison that night. This was a great idea given this campground is expensive so sharing makes sense, and coming from West Yellowstone this also allowed us to put all our stuff down at the campground arriving at lunchtime, before going with light bicycles to Old Faithful and back to the campground that day. A good idea to go faster on the bike and spend more time exploring the geysers, as well as seeing Old Faithful area (which is worth it) without having to backtrack too much given how the park is all in a figure of eight.
Here are pictures of a few of my favourites places in Yellowstone to give you some ideas:
I didn’t include pictures of Artist point there or of the Canyon near Tower Falls which are also really pretty. At least it leaves you a bit of suspense if you haven’t been to Yellowstone yet and seeing this!
We saw some animals but not as many species as we thought we would. We didn’t see any bears, wolves or moose. They might be more active in the spring or summer than fall.
We headed at the beginning of Lamar Valley but rapidly turned back given there was a good headwind that day and we thought we were a bit headed on a goose chase. There aren’t many geysers or natural features in Lamar Valley so we thought we’d spend more time with the geysers somewhere else than on a goose chase against the wind.
Your best hope to see wildlife in Lamar Valley would probably be to camp overnight in Slough Creek or Pebble Creek (though one of them doesn’t have hiker/biker sites and fill up very fast) and make friends with the photographers hanging around that area with big lenses and binoculars.
However we did see:
Be aware of the possibility of unpredictable wildlife to appear out of the middle of nowhere though. Above are elks at Mammoth. We almost cycled into a male arriving at them. The male in rut makes such a funny sound ! But you better watch out because you certainly don’t want to end up between the male and a female he is chasing then…
It’s a good idea to check before you go which campsites are still open if you’re off-season. An important information regarding Yellowstone’s campgrounds is that some of them are managed by a company called Xanterra. As of 2018 these campsites accessible to tent camping were Madison, Canyon, Grant Village and Bridge Bay. Why is it important ? Because they are more expensive than the others, and you might need to reserve, especially if you are in a group, which might work out better to save money in these campsites. We paid 18.90USD for 2 persons in a tent at Bridge Bay, and about 30USD at Madison, but we were 6 to share the site then. Some of these campsites have showers though, unlike the first-come first serve described below.
On the other hand, the first-come first-serve campgrounds (see them at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm) all have bicycle sites except Slough Creek and depending on the campground you’ll pay 5USD per tent or per cyclist.
In season, you could also try to ask around to share a campsite if campgrounds who don’t have bicycle sites are full.
If you are tempted to have a dip while in Yellowstone, there is a spot about 1. 5 miles past Mammoth Campground in direction of Gardiner called the Boiling River. There mix a hot spring and cold river water. You want to be careful where you enter and go though, as the flows change and more than often you feel alternatively way too hot and then way too cold ! Fun to try though.
You’ll also see stuff in the park which feels a bit strange as a European !
DON’T FORGET TO PACK (in addition to your usual gear) This probably sounds silly if you’ve been touring for a while, as you’ll probably have this somewhere in your panniers already or won’t want to bother with binoculars, but if you are just planning your first bike trip or planning a few weeks trip around Yellowstone this could be good to know:
- Lots of food as resupply options are quite limited and expensive in Yellowstone, more so if you go after the end of the tourist season as some general stores start to close. If you run out or crave some goodies getting out of the park at Gardiner and back in (show your receipt as you cycle past) is possible. There are good supermarkets/grocery stores in Gardiner. West Yellowstone and towns at the park entrances also have small supermarkets/grocery stores.
- Extra cash to have these 5USD notes ready to stick in a campground envelope if you arrive when the attendant isn’t around. There are some ATMs in the main sites but they might charge a fee to use them.
- Bike lights. You’ll probably get stuck admiring all the attractions until dark or after dark, and watching the sunset over a geysers bassin is quite a view). Also, if there are no attendants at the campground when you arrive again, you might cycle around looking for the hiker/biker site or your site if you’ve reserved.
- A Camera
- If you are on a short trip and are not bulk/weight conscious having a decent pair of binoculars could be a good idea to try to spot elusive wildlife.
- Some layers of clothing and a decent sleeping bag as there can be a lot of temperature difference between days and nights.
- Water. Well not technically to pack beforehand but just to remind you to stay hydrated and refill well at campgrounds and when you pass a resupply point, as Yellowstone is high elevation.
- If you are cycling solo, will need it afterwards anyway or somewhat really intend to get off the beaten track and go on a remote hike or gravel road, carrying a pepper spray may be smart. Otherwise, if you don’t think you’ll cycle through bear areas before or after Yellowstone and intend to explore around the main geysers basins etc between campsites (still a huge lot to do), most likely there’ll be a lot of people around anytime, so not sure I’d bother. Pepper sprays are not allowed anywhere on airplanes.
We cycled through Grand Teton in a day and a half and didn’t explore much so I don’t have as many tips as for Yellowstone. It’s also overall the same climatic conditions- which means we started to get seriously cold by the time we made it there !
For camping, in between Yellowstone and Grand Teton there are a bunch of free campsites you can find on Ioverlander near Flagg Ranch. There is also a very small store at Flagg Ranch. Colter Bay is one of the best resupply option. Once again, check which general stores are open if you go at the end of the season. There are also campgrounds in Grand Teton but I didn’t explore these.
I saw a mama black bear and a cub very near the road just before Colter Bay and there are often bears spotted in Grand Teton (maybe more than in Yellowstone) so usual bear precautions apply.
The Tetons are majestic mountains.
Going south, cycling through Teton Park Road after Colter Bay will be a nicer, more scenic route with less traffic. This road is closed from November to May though.
And I end this post with some Yellowstone GEYSERS VIDEOS !
A funny geyser (Norris Geyser Basin)