Buy a Good Travel Guide: One of the best investments you can make is a good travel guide. We bought Yellowstone Treasures, which is available on Amazon.com or in most good book stores. There are several available. The more time you invest in reading a good guide, the better prepared you'll be to get the most out of your trip.
Plan Early and Stay at Multiple Location in the Park: Yellowstone is HUGE and traveling throughout the park is very slow. Its road are single lane AND whenever someone sees wildlife near the roads, they stop for pictures. It is common to encounter 10 to 30 minute delays as people observe the wildlife. It can take several hours to travel from the top of the park to the bottom. To make matters worse, the only time the park service can work on the roads is during the summer, which is the height of tourist season. So the bottom line is you have to allow lots of time for getting around the park.
The Park Service has a concessionaire, Xanterra, which runs all the hotels inside Yellowstone and several other national parks. As such, all the websites that provide information about visiting Yellowstone get much of their advertising from hotels and motels OUTSIDE the park. While these sites tell you how "convenient" it is to stay in these places, IT IS NOT. It doesn't matter which entrance you plan to stay in. If you're staying outside the park, you're guaranteed to have a long, inconvenient drive at the end of the day if you really want to see its many sights.
Incidentally, we learned this the hard way. We booked a condo for a week outside the park because we were told how "convenient" it was as a base for our vacation. We ended up staying there just one night.
The bottom line is that the best way to experience Yellowstone is to stay in the park. Unfortunately, space is limited. So you have to plan early. My advice is that you should plan at least 8 months in advance and preferably up to a year. You also should stay in multiple locations, so that you don't have long rides at the end of the day. There is a ton of things to see in Yellowstone. Even if you're spending a week there, you can't even come close to experiencing everything that Yellowstone has to offer.
As you plan your trip, you might stay one night outside the park at an entrance city, two nights in the Yellowstone area, one night in Mammoth, one at the Yellowstone Lake, and one in the Grand Tetons, and your final night outside the park for a one week trip. This holds true whether you have a camper or whether you're staying in the hotels.
What about cost? That's a good question. Xanterra, however, has three price levels of rooms available at most of the hotels. There are cabins in the range of $80 per night, mid-level rooms for the $140 range, and more luxurious rooms in the $200 per night range, which is roughly what you'd pay outside the park. The cabins are rustic and small, but they're clean, although you have to survive in a double bed. The hotel rooms are comparable to other good hotels, and aren't much more expensive than hotels in the gateway cities.
Don't Get Close To The Wildlife to Get a Picture: Take heed of this statistic: Every year about 100 people get gored by buffalos trying to get close to get a picture. Moose, bears, and even elk will also charge if you get too close and rile them. The fastest way to ruin your trip is to spend it getting multiple stitches from a nasty gash from one of the park's wild animals. While I got several close shots of a buffalo, I was very near a car door for each shot. In hindsight, however, it was still not a particularly smart thing to do. I was lucky. The next time, I might not be. Then again, I won't make the same mistake a second time.
Prepare to Walk a Lot, and Don't Plan Too Much in One Day: The Upper Geyser Basin, which is the Old Faithful area, is a loop about five miles long if you want to see most of the geysers, and you can extend that about another two miles to see them all. Even a simple, but amazing, stop called the Mud Volcano Area, which is just before the Hayden Valley, is about a mile, but it's up a steep hill. The famous travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs is also about a mile, but it's up an even steeper hill. The Norris Geyser Basin, which is another must-see, is about 2 miles with a couple of steep grades. Finally, Uncle Tom's Trail, which takes you to near the bottom of the Lower Falls, is 328 steps straight down the side of the canyon. While it's a tough walk back up, it's one of the most amazing views in the park.
In short, be prepared to walk a lot up and down some steep hills. As such, don't plan more than you can handle, especially since all these walks are in thinner air at high elevations. In one day, we started at the Old Faithful area at 7 am, stopped for a few scenic pictures, like one at the Continental Divide and another at Yellowstone lake, ate breakfast at the Lake Yellowstone hotel (8-9am), and then we toured the Mud Volcano area, drove through the Hayden Valley, hiked up and down Uncle Tom's Trail, walked through the Norris Geyser Basin, drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs, and, finally, toured the travertine terraces. We finished about 6 pm with a well-deserved dinner at the dining room at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. We regularly hike up local mountains where we live in Southern California, and we were TIRED!
In hindsight, it was probably a bit more than we should have tried, but we only planned on three days in the park when we probably should have planned on about five days. Incidentally, we didn't spend much time at Lake Yellowstone, which would have been nice. But there's so much to do that we just couldn't do it all. As an alternative, we stayed two nights at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Tetons National Park, including a float trip down the Snake River, a two hour trail ride, and a full day with a guide on a wildlife photo trip.
Leave At Least a Full Day for Old Faithful Area: Old Faithful goes off every 45 to 90 minutes. If all you want is to see that one geyser, you can do it in less than two hours. The Old Faithful area, however, has dozens of geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal phenomena, like fumaroles. The Upper geyser basin is about a five mile walk, and there's also the Midway Geyser Basion and Lower Geyser Basin that are just a few miles away by car. You need at least a day, and preferably two, to do the area justice, especially if you like seeing the geyser's erupt.
In particular, while Old Faithful is the best-known geyser, it is not the only one that blows. The other geysers put on spectacular shows as well, but just not every hour or so. In our one afternoon and evening in the Upper Geyser Basin, we saw Daisy Geyser, Beehive Geyser, and Castle Geyser blow, and we also just missed Grand Geyser, which is the world's tallest predictable geyser. Grand Geyser had a window of from 4 pm to 8pm when we were there, but we had dinner reservations at 5:30 pm at the Old Faithful Inn. Grand erupted at about 6:20 pm just as we were walking out of the restaurant. While we saw it at a distance of about 1 mile across the geyser fields, it was too far away to see it up close or even get a decent photo.
Basically, seeing geysers is an act of patience. For example, we had a two hour window for Daisy Geyser, and we rested quietly in the warm sun for about 1-1/2 hours until it erupted. So if you want to see multiple geysers erupt, you need to bring a good book and add a day to your trip.
Go On At Least One Wildlife Safari or other Guided Tours: We went on two wildlife safaris when we were there. One was a half-day safari in the Lamar Valley area looking for wolves with Safari Yellowstone, and the other was a full day in Grand Teton National Park with Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures. We spent $670 on the safaris, but found them to be worth every penny. Our wolf experience with Safari Yellowstone was amazing. We ended up spending about two hours with several experts observing one of Yellowstone's wolf packs, including a park ranger who has been following the wolves for more than a decade, and we also had a close bear encounter as well. While we were observing the wolves about a mile from the main road, there was a bear peaceably sleeping in a nearby tree.
Our Grand Teton safari was also remarkable. We spent the day learning tons about the Grand Tetons, including the geology, history, flora, and fauna. It also led to one of the best photos that I've ever taken. But let me tell the story this way. When we were floating down the Snake river a day earlier, our guide told us about ospreys, which are also known as fishing hawks. Ospreys have polarized eyes that eliminate glare from the water, and also have talons that rotate, so they can orient the fish they catch to be parallel to their line of flight. Ospreys are so successful that they catch a fish about 70 percent of the time they dive. In contrast, he told us that bald eagles are so much less effective catching fish, that they will chase ospreys to try to grab the fish away from them.
While it's one thing to talk about eagles chasing ospreys, it's another thing to see it. For example, during the entire float down the Snake, we saw one osprey in a tree, and one eagle in a tree at a distance. We certainly didn't expect to see an aerial chase between an eagle and an osprey. However, when we went on our wildlife safari with Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures, we stopped near a river bend where they frequently spot moose and birds like eagles and osprey. I looked up and saw two big birds. Our guide, Taylor Phillips, looked at it and told us it was an amazing sight -- an eagle chasing an osprey. It was close enough so that I turned my camera -- a Nikon D40 -- and shot away. While it was in single shot mode, not continuous shooting mode, I still got the following shot:
Here's the best way to describe it:
Wildlife safari to the Grand Tetons National Park: $420
Nikon D40 camera: $400
200 mm telephoto lens: $200
Picture of a bald eagle chasing an osprey for the fish in its talons: priceless
For the rest, there's Mastercard.
Don't Carry Too Much Camera Equipment: There's one more "Don't" that I'd like to mention. This one is from one camera buff to any others who might be reading this site. While Yellowstone is a photographer's paradise, don't succumb to the temptation of walking around with a ton of equipment. I saw far too many amateur shooters in the middle of the day weighed down with backpacks full of gear and a tripod.
The biggest problem you're going to have in Yellowstone is to much glare from the geothermal areas and sun that is too bright during the mid-day hours, so use a polarized lens. Unless your hands shake, don't even bother with the tripod during the day. You don't need it. Carry one extra lens at most -- and even that's probably not necessary. When I was in the geothermal areas, I used an 18-55 mm lens, and on my wildlife days, I used my 55-200mm telephoto. I missed a grand total of less than three shots when I came across a couple of bears on hillsides when I had my 18-55 mm. But even if I had my telephoto, I didn't have enough time to switch it anyway.
In short, since you have to do a lot of walking, just go with one lens and shoot what you see. When you're in the geothermal areas, use a wide angle. When you're in wildlife areas, go with the telephoto. That's my take on shooting at Yellowstone.