Intermountain Region

Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park

I am typically someone who camps in the backcountry. I place everything that I need in my backpack and I head off to some remote wilderness destination. In the Summer of 2014, I tried something different. I decided to visit a few National Parks and National Monuments in the Western part of the country. Instead of strapping on my backpack and heading to the wilderness, I decided that I would stay in developed campgrounds which were accessible with my car. Car camping at Yellowstone National Park was a new experience for me.

Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park – The Story Begins

This story begins with my nephew and his girlfriend.

My nephew and his girlfriend had spent their early courtship years working for two seasons as park rangers at North Cascades National Park (which is located in the State of Washington). When they chose to become married, only one location on the planet seemed appropriate for their wedding —North Cascades National Park. The couple asked me to officiate at their wedding ceremony. I said “Yes”.

North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located 2,100 miles away from my home. After weighing all of the possible travel options, I decided to spend two weeks driving to North Cascades and back. I planned to stay at some hotels along the way. However, I also planned to stay overnight at some established campgrounds located in National Parks. I had never done that before.

My first destination was Yellowstone National Park. My plan was to spend part of two days doing a quick exploration of Yellowstone and the adjacent Grand Teton National Park. I also decided I would try my hand at car camping at Yellowstone National Park.

I had never visited Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. Both parks were on my “bucket list”. Thus, I was thrilled to finally see these two destinations.

Arrival In Jackson Hole, Wyoming

After a few days of driving I arrived at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center. This is a wonderful place to stop for maps, information, and free public restrooms. The visitor center is located on the edge of the National Elk Refuge. I arrived at the visitor center at approximately noon. I picked up maps and literature. I familiarized myself with what the surrounding area had to offer. I then headed out of town on Highway 26 (which is also part of Highway 191 and Highway 89) and drove toward Grand Teton National Park.

Exploring Grand Teton National Park

Car Camping at Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park, South Entrance Sign

Along the way, I saw a large wooden sign that said, “Grand Teton National Park”. The sign, and the surrounding territory, captured my attention. So, I decided to stop and take some photos. I was not alone. Approximately twenty other people had a similar idea at the same time. Apparently, many people are attracted to this sign. How many signs have their own parking area and are noted as a point of interest on Google Maps?

After taking photos of the sign, I spent a wonderful afternoon driving around on the roads of Grand Teton National Park. Almost everywhere that I looked, there was another tremendous sight to see. I frequently found myself pulling over along a roadside (or pulling into a small parking area) in order to enjoy the view and take photos. I was having great time.

I need to reiterate, exploring nature and a National Park from the inside of a motor vehicle was not something that I was accustomed to doing. I am a backpacker. I go into wilderness areas and explore places on foot. Exploring a National Park in a car was a new experience for me. I didn’t think that I would like it—but I did.

Grand Teton National Park is gorgeous—even from the inside of a car. Jagged, snow-covered, mountain peaks tower above the surrounding countryside. Clear mountain lakes and steams add to the overall beauty. It was a thrill to see the mountains and sky reflected in the lakes.

The constant presence of such grandeur can cause a visitor to sometimes overlook the smaller (and somewhat less majestic) aspects of the park. There are countless fields and meadows filled with grasses, plants, and flowers. Birds and butterflies flit about from place-to-place. Elk and bison graze in the fields and slowly make their way through the park. If you are lucky, you might see a pronghorn, mule deer, moose, or a marmot. Don’t let the huge mountains and sparkling lakes distract you from seeing these smaller —but equally impressive—wonders that Grand Teton National Park has to offer.

One of my biggest regrets, from this this entire trip, is that I did not spend more time at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This is especially true for Grand Teton. One brief afternoon is simply not enough time to fully explore Grand Teton National Park.

Exploring Yellowstone National Park – Day 1

Late in the afternoon, my car transported me along Highway 89 from Grand Teton National Park into the adjacent Yellowstone National Park. I entered Yellowstone via the park’s South Entrance.

Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds. Five of them require advance registrations. The other seven are first come, first served.

I made my way to the Lewis Lake Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Lewis Lake Campground is one of the seven campgrounds at Yellowstone which does not accept advance reservations. I went to Section C of the campground and drove my vehicle right up to an empty campsite.

I then walked over to the self-check in area. I registered myself as being in campsite C-28. I filled out the registration slip. I placed my $10 nightly fee (and the registration slip) into the envelope which was provided. I dropped the envelope into the “fee vault”. I then returned to my campsite and clipped my copy of the registration slip to the post at my campsite. Registration was really that simple. (Note: The campsite fee at Lewis Lake Campground in 2020 is $15 per night).

Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park
Lewis Lake Campground, Yellowstone National Park

I found it interesting that there was still snow on the ground at some of the campsites — even though it was late June. I had been fortunate enough to secure a campsite that was snow-free. I quickly set up my camping hammock in the campsite. (The hammock has a tarp and bug netting). I then got back into my car to explore Yellowstone for the rest of the evening.

I saw quite a few elk. They were grazing in fields and meadows. I went to Kepler Cascades and enjoyed the scenic overlook and the 150 foot waterfall. I spent considerable time visiting the area around the famous geyser, Old Faithful. I saw Old Faithful erupt twice that night. Late in the evening, I slowly made my way back to the Lewis Lake Campground. I stopped for a while and admired Lewis Lake.

I returned to my campsite at approximately 9:00 p.m. I quietly cooked a late dinner. I properly cleaned up my area (in order to discourage bears and other animals). I was in my hammock before 10:00 p.m.

Camping at Lewis Lake Campground

Car campers at Lewis Lake Campground

Camping at Lewis Lake Campground was very different than most of my previous camping experiences. I wasn’t backpacking and camping in some remote wilderness area. My car was located approximately 50 feet away from my hammock. Thus, I kept most of my gear, food, and supplies locked safely in my car while I slept. The only things not in my car that night were my hammock, sleeping pad, down quilt, flashlight, car keys —and me.

The temperature that night got down to 33 degrees (according to the National Weather Service). That is one degree warmer than the temperature at which water freezes. It was a chilly night. However, I slept soundly. My hammock “cocoon” was safe and warm. My top quilt was rated for approximately 15 degrees. I had ample insulation beneath me via a thick and reflective sleeping pad. I was wearing merino wool thermal clothing, down booties, and a wool cap. I was very comfortable.

All was well, until the moment that my bladder and body felt the call of nature at approximately 5:30 a.m. That unfortunate development meant that I had to leave my warm cocoon and venture out into the freezing Yellowstone temperatures for a walk to the privy.

I don’t care who you are. If you take a short walk in freezing temperatures, and then sit on the cold seat in a National Park outhouse, the experience is going to wake you up. There would be no more sleeping for me on that morning. I tried to go back to bed for another hour or so. However, sleep would not come. By 6:30 a.m., I knew it was time to get rolling.

I soon learned some additional benefits of camping near one’s car. I was able to break camp fairly quickly and quietly. I only partially deflated my sleeping pad and placed it in the backseat of my car. I likewise placed my sleeping quilt and hammock in the backseat without fully packing them. I did not have to spend time struggling to squeeze them into tiny stuff sacks in order that they would fit into a backpack. It was not very long before I was on the road at Yellowstone. The car’s heater was soon churning out some much appreciated heat on that chilly morning. You can’t have those types of benefits when you are backpacking deep in the wilderness.

Exploring Yellowstone National Park – Day 2

I spent the morning exploring more of Yellowstone. My first two stops were the Black Sand Basin and the Midway Geyser Basin. Both areas have boardwalk trails through large fields filled with hot springs and geysers.

I had previously disliked the early morning cold temperatures. Now, the cold air was a wonderful bonus. The hot pools and geyers released steam and fog into the cool morning air. At times, it seemed as if people on the boardwalks were walking among the clouds. It gave a very surreal feeling to the whole early morning experience at Yellowstone. Very small crowds were another added benefit of being there relatively early on a cool morning.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

After visiting the basins and geysers, I continued to drive around Yellowstone for the rest of the morning. I spent time looking at Yellowstone Lake. I drove through Canyon Village and the Mammoth Hot Springs areas.

I saw Old Faithful erupt once more. I spent time watching, and photographing, a herd of wild bison roaming freely throughout the park. I observed the Madison Canyon elk herd.

By early afternoon, my time at Grand Teton and Yellowstone had come to an end. I was back on the road and driving toward the State of Washington, North Cascades National Park, and my nephew’s wedding.

Final Reflections On Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park

If I were to change anything regarding this trip, I would have spent more time at Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. I would have spent at least one full day at each of these two National Parks. I might have even wanted to spend two days at each.

On this trip, I did get out of my car and walk around a bit. I did some limited exploring by foot. However, if I were to do this trip again, I would spend even more time walking and hiking on some of the shorter trails. I would venture farther away from parking lots and roadways. This would permit me to explore more of the interesting nooks and crannies of these two beautiful national parks.

This was my first visit to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It was also my first time “car camping” at a developed campground. Overall, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I was able to cover so much more territory with my vehicle than I would have been able to cover on foot as a backpacker. Setting up and taking down camp was extremely easy. I didn’t have to worry about the weight and bulk of my gear or how to safeguard my food from animals. Registering at the campground, and paying the campground fee, was easier than I had envisioned. I saw plenty of other people at the campground. Yet, it didn’t feel overcrowded, nor did it distract from the camping experience

I would certainly go car camping at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks again.

Note: This was a guest post written by John Prain. Thanks to John for his contribution! If you’d like to read about my first camping experience, read my article entitled A First Time Camper In America’s National Parks.