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Trout Lake, Yellowstone National Park | © Always Shooting/Flickr
Trout Lake, Yellowstone National Park | © Always Shooting/Flickr
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The Dos and Don'ts of Etiquette in Yellowstone

Picture of Courtney Capellan
Updated: 13 June 2017

Today’s unprecedented access to information makes traveling something you can actually study for. For big city trips, you brush up on phrases in the local language. You map out the “safe” neighborhoods. You research what’s culturally appropriate and pack accordingly. For off-the-beaten-track wilderness travel, however, the playbook is less clear but no less important to consider before you go.

Adventure seekers from all over the planet travel to Yellowstone National Park to witness nature in all its majesty. Practising good etiquette makes for a more enjoyable, immersive experience for you and those you encounter along the way.

Here’s a broad look at what you should and shouldn’t do while visiting one of Earth’s most critically acclaimed destinations.

Do respect the elevation

The body’s ability to acclimate to high altitude varies from person to person. Most backpacking treks in Yellowstone take place at 6,000 feet or higher. If you aren’t physically conditioned you may be more susceptible to altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). High blood pressure and heart conditions don’t react well in thinner air. Respect your doctor’s advice before deciding to summit Yellowstone’s great heights and drink plenty of water. Also, being closer to the sun’s intensity increases the risk of skin damage and skin cancer. Wear a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen with high SPF.

Do trust an expert

Yellowstone is not the place to have an ego. Some consider group tours to be equivalent to hand holding. In reality, choosing a guided expedition is a sure bet when it comes to accessing uncrowded or lesser known spots. Local guides know the areas better than your best guess. Also, they understand seasonal cues such as migratory patterns and weather conditions. Human intuition is invaluable when it comes to safety. A guide will recommend designated campsites and they’re often equipped to have dinner prepared and waiting for you there after a long day. Many companies provide meals and supplies as part of their packages, saving you precious time and energy.

Working with people who know the area before your trip is especially good etiquette. Lodging and transportation in Yellowstone can be difficult to acquire if you’re unfamiliar with the Park. Experts may offer suggestions or alternatives based on your preferences and timeline. Don’t like the idea of being grouped with strangers?  Smaller group tours and personal guides are also available for your best Yellowstone experience.

Do drive carefully

Yellowstone Park is massive. That’s why many visitors see the sights by car. Drive cautiously and be on the lookout for frequent animal crossings. Let them pass. (Remember, you’re in their backyard!) Never “follow” wildlife by car. Aside from the obvious, this includes maneuvering in front of animals, parking or blocking them on their way. Sadly, tourists are more guilty of this than you might expect.

The Park’s speed limit never exceeds 45 mph and driving slowly reduces your chances of hitting, injuring and killing an animal. Slowing down to enjoy the scenery? Use pull-outs so as not to disrupt the flow of traffic. Exhaust fumes are never desirable so cut the engine when you stop and turn off headlights. Avoid parking on wet, marshy vegetation that may be sensitive habitat.  

Don’t be a distraction

If you’re in search of solitude, you’re in the right place. Freedom from technology is a big draw for most Park visitors. In this regard, good etiquette can be subtle. There’s a difference between the photographer quietly positioning himself for the best angle to capture the sunrise – and the herd of camera clicking tourists loudly organizing themselves for the best pose (right between you and your view of the sunset). Bring your camera but be mindful of those around you and respect their right to peace and quiet. Turn down the volume on your portable stereo. Try singing around the campfire instead! Most folks depend on phones and digital navigation at home, but this is remote country. Cell services are unreliable so trying to find a signal will only be a distraction. It’s probably best to prepare for your trip as if you didn’t have it.

Do clean up 

You’re meant to have fun and get dirty. You’re in the Wild West, after all. On the other hand, good etiquette requires you clean up after yourself so empty trash in Park provided bins. Sometimes those aren’t available, or they’re full so you’ll have to take the garbage with you. Always wash dishes in designated campsites where you can dispose of the water in provided drains.

Don’t smoke 

Leave your cigarettes behind. Fellow travelers will appreciate it, not to mention Mother Nature as well. Smoking isn’t allowed in most parts of the Park anyway, including the visitor centers, ranger stations, and trails. Smoking is especially prohibited in thermal areas. Sulfur deposits are found near geysers and hot springs (some of the most exciting attractions of the Park) and if they catch fire will emit toxic, sometimes lethal fumes.

Don’t overestimate how much you can carry

There are thousands of miles of trails and the tendency for those unaccustomed to backpacking is to overpack. The problem is, a few extra pounds on your back can really take its toll. Think of that extra outfit, the pair of shoes, or extra large cookware as accessory details. Leave them at home. It’s helpful to practice carrying your load around before you hit the trails to ensure the weight is evenly distributed on your body and that you can walk with a full range of motion. Being prepared, without being overly prepared, is good etiquette. It earns you (and your companions) more time trekking and less time complaining.

Don’t get personal with the animals

Yellowstone is not a zoo. It may be your top priority to spot grizzlies, bison, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions and other creatures found in Yellowstone. That doesn’t mean you’ll get to shake hands with them. A good rule of thumb is, if an animal notices you, you’re already too close. It’s unsafe and against the law to feed animals in Yellowstone so if you must come into contact with an animal, consider a Yellowstone horseback-riding adventure.

Although it’s uncommon to be killed by animals in Yellowstone, it does happen. For safety’s sake, get familiar with courses of action for different situations and always keep your distance. For example, if a bear is more than 100 yards away, back away slowly to avoid arousing its attention. If a bear is within 100 yards of you, retreat silently and slowly so it can recognize you as a person and not as prey. Most guides endorse bringing bear spray, which functions like mace or pepper spray. Getting up close is different than getting personal.

Don’t ignore the code

Did you know the National Park Service is a government agency? Its purpose, beautifully (and officially) expressed, in the Organic Act of 1916 is: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Don’t forsake the contributions of so many people and institutions working to keep the world’s first National Park in unparalleled, pristine condition. Tread lightly wherever you go and resist snatching “souvenirs”. Respect the rules and regulations wherever you hike, camp, fish, float or explore. Obey posted signs and take advice from authorities seriously. Respect the code and you will be rewarded with enjoying all that Yellowstone has to offer.