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Ins and Outs of Camping in Yellowstone National Park

Camping in Yellowstone National Park is surely the quintessential American experience.

The family in the station wagon, setting up the tent, building a fire, making s’mores, slapping mosquitoes after a hard day of sightseeing… you get the picture.

But how do you go about getting a campsite? Can you reserve sites in advance? Why can’t we just pull off the road and camp anywhere we want?

Camping in a roadside pullout will probably get you a knock on your car window by a law enforcement ranger and possibly a warning or even a citation.

Yellowstone’s social scientist Ryan Atwell said in an interview earlier this summer that out of bounds camping creates “sanitation issues.” Translation: peeing—or worse—outside your car in the middle of the night really isn’t cool. And people eating or cooking in their vehicles can create a bear attractant, unsafe for you as well as the bear.

Up until not so long ago, all of Yellowstone’s campgrounds were on a first-come, first-served basis. You had to show up at your preferred campground early in the morning and cruise the campground loops until you saw someone packing up to leave. Then you could call dibs on the site and pay for it at the camper services booth.

Today, the National Park Service shares some campgrounds with Park concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts, allowing Xanterra to put some campgrounds on its reservation system, http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/.

Of the Park’s 12 campgrounds, Xanterra operates five where you can reserve a site in advance: Madison, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Bridge Bay, Canyon, and Grant Village, according to the park’s website, www.nps.gov/yell.

The other seven are still first come, first served: Mammoth, Norris, Tower, Indian Creek, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek and Lewis Lake.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can now check online at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm to see what time the campgrounds all filled today and yesterday. The reservable campgrounds show fill times early, between 6 and 7 a.m. But the others show a variety of last-camper-in times.

The lovely and ever popular Norris campground filled around 7 a.m. recently, while the lovelier and more remote Pebble Creek filled between 10 and 11 a.m. on two recent back-to-back days. What makes these campgrounds lovely? They’re smaller and tucked away among the trees some distance from the main road.

Most campgrounds are open by Memorial Day and close sometime in September or October with a few exceptions.

lewis lake campground 2013

Mammoth Hot Springs, at the lowest elevation, is open year-round. Lewis Lake campground is open until Nov.7. We were scratching our heads recently, wondering why Lewis Lake (pictured above), on the South Entrance Road and situated at 7,800 feet, was open so late into the fall. It’s far from any development, and it gets cold up there early. So what’s the story?

Park spokeswoman Charissa Reid said Lewis Lake stays open late for a couple of reasons. First, because of its high elevation there can still be a lot of snow on the ground in June, so it opens a little later than other campgrounds.

“It opens later so it closes later,” Reid said.

It’s also the only campground open that late at the southern end of the Park. Fishermen like to stay there to fish for brown trout, she added.

And in recent years, late fall weather, even at high elevations, can be relatively mild, Reid said.

The opening and closing dates were established during the tenure of former Superintendent Mike Finley, Reid said, and haven’t changed much over the years.

And in case you were wondering, the concession-operated campgrounds aren’t any swankier than the others—all of Yellowstone’s campgrounds offer basic amenities, but nothing fancy. Some campgrounds have flush toilets in the restrooms, some just offer vault toilets. Pay showers are nearby most campgrounds, but not right in them. Campsite prices vary based on amenities.

More information on campsites, regulations—especially concerning camping in bear country—and specific amenities at each campground can be found at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm.

So make your reservations or plan to take your chances for getting a Yellowstone campsite. Just don’t forget the marshmallows.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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