Yellowstone National Park (YELL) defines “beautiful but deadly,” making these safety tips paramount in the world’s first national park.
Ready to take Yellowstone for all its worth? The most iconic of national parks is atop the bucket list of millions worldwide, but the park is not to be explored lightly. From scalding thermals and geysers, raging rivers and waterfalls, to gargantuan cliffs and remarkable, potentially deadly wildlife, Yellowstone National Park demands a knowledge of park safety – or YELL may take you for all you’re worth.
To help fellow Outsiders enjoy and explore our beloved first national park safely, we’ve gathered paramount Yellowstone safety information for you below – straight from the park – and condensed it.
If You Read Anything Before Entering Yellowstone National Park, Make It These Six Safety Tips:
- Give yourself time to adjust to high elevation: Most of the park lies more than a mile above sea level, so give yourself time to adjust to the elevation before engaging in any strenuous activity.
- Never approach or feed wildlife: The animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be. The safest (and often best) view of wildlife is from inside a car. Always stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals, including bison and elk.
- Stay on boardwalks and trails in thermal areas: Hot springs have injured or killed more people in Yellowstone than any other natural feature. Keep your children close and don’t let them run.
- Use extreme caution with all bodies of water: More than 100 people have died in Yellowstone’s lakes and rivers. Cold water makes hypothermia a year-round risk, and spring snow melt makes rivers dangerous to cross. Read more hypothermia and stream crossings on our backcountry safety page.
- Never park in the road or block traffic: Use pullouts to watch wildlife and let other cars pass. Stay with your vehicle if you encounter a wildlife jam.
- Beware of dead trees: Wildfires have left thousands of standing dead trees that can fall with little or no warning. In 2015, a falling tree killed someone on a hill near the Midway Geyser Basin. Avoid areas with large numbers of dead trees, and watch for dead trees along trails and roads, or in campsites and picnic areas.
In a place as magical as Yellowstone, it feels impossible not to veer off and experience the beauty of the wilds. But perhaps more than any other national park, it is imperative to stick to walkways, trails, boardwalks, signs, and regulations. It will save your life!
And as always: If you have an emergency, dial 911 or notify any park ranger.
Unique Challenges of Yellowstone: Winter & Backcountry
- Winter brings its own set of challenges, including sub-zero temperatures, icy roads, and blinding snow storms. Read more about staying safe while enjoying Yellowstone’s quiet season.
- Backcountry travel holds its own set of safety tips and regulations, which you can find courtesy of YELL here.
In-Depth: Yellowstone Thermal Areas Safety
There are two features Yellowstone National Park focus on when it comes to safety: Thermal Areas and Wildlife.
For thermal areas, the park cites (and examples from the past show, such as below), “Boardwalks and trails protect you and delicate thermal formations. Water in hot springs can cause severe or fatal burns, and scalding water underlies most of the thin, breakable crust around hot springs.”
- Swimming or soaking in hot springs is prohibited: More than 20 people have died from burns suffered after they entered or fell into Yellowstone’s hot springs. Do not touch any thermal features or runoff
- Toxic gases may accumulate to dangerous levels in some hydrothermal areas: If you begin to feel sick while exploring one of our geyser basins, leave the area immediately
- Always walk on boardwalks and designated trails: Keep children close and do not let them run on boardwalks
- Pets are prohibited in thermal areas, period
- Do not throw objects into hot springs or other hydrothermal features
In-Depth: Yellowstone National Park Wildlife Safety
As for wildlife, the park details that visitors should “Never feed wildlife, even birds and squirrels. Animals that become dependent on human food may become aggressive toward people and have to be killed.”
The megafauna of Yellowstone can prove particularly dangerous – and fatal – to visitors. Fatalities have occurred from grizzly bears and bison, and injuries from elk also occur. In addition, animals can carry diseases that can be transmitted to people – so it is always best to keep your distance.
YELL Bear Safety:
- All of Yellowstone is bear habitat, even the boardwalks around Old Faithful (and other thermal areas).
- Never pursue a bear to take its picture. When viewing bears along roads, use pullouts and stay in or near your car.
- Keep all food, garbage, and other scented items stored in bear-proof containers when not in use.
- If a bear approaches or touches your car, honk your horn and drive away to discourage this behavior.
- Follow the best practices for hiking in bear country: be alert, make noise, hike in groups, do not run, carry bear spray and know how to use it.
- If you see someone hurt by a bear, witness aggressive bear behavior, or see a bear obtain or try to obtain human food or garbage, call 911 immediately or notify any park ranger.
YELL Bison Safety:
“Bison have injured more people in Yellowstone than any other animal, are unpredictable and can run three times faster than humans. Always stay at least 25 yards (23 m) away from bison,” the park asks.
YELL Elk Safety:
- In the Spring: Cow elk are especially fierce and protective around their calves in the spring. Around Mammoth Hot Springs, they often hide calves near cars or buildings. Be cautious when exiting buildings or approaching blind corners
- In the Fall: Bull elk battle for access to cows and challenge other males during the rut – or mating season. They also charge cars and people who get too close.
To stay safe around elk:
- Always stay at least 25 yards (23 m) away from elk.
- In an elk charges, get away! Retreat to shelter in a building or vehicle or behind a tall, sturdy barrier as quickly as possible.
YELL Wolf Safety
As the park cites when it comes to wolves, “There has never been an attack in Yellowstone.”
This is a distinction worth upholding, however, which means we humans must remain vigilant around the wolves of Yellowstone National Park. This means never allowing wolves to become habituated to our presence. Two habituated wolves have been killed in the park
To Preserve the Wolves of Yellowstone National Park and Explore Safely, Please:
- Remaining at least 100 yards away when watching or photographing them.
- Telling a ranger if you see wolves near developed areas or approaching people.
- Keeping your dog leashed at all times when it’s outside a vehicle.
If a wolf approaches you and shows no fear: Stand tall and hold your ground. If the wolf approaches you, wave your arms, yell, and flare your jacket. But if that doesn’t discourage it, throw something at it or use bear spray. Group up with other people, continue waving and yelling, and tell a ranger as soon as possible.
For much more on the wildlife of YELL and corresponding safety, see: Yellowstone National Park Wildlife: Animals You’ll Spot, Where to Best View Bison, Bears, Elk, Wolves, and Wildlife Safety.
Stay safe out there and enjoy Yellowstone National Park, Outsiders!