Yellowstone National Park encompasses a massive area and is the most-visited national park in the country. Thousands of people come here to camp every week of the busy summer season. It is essential to understand the characteristics of all 12 campgrounds and the quirks of the Yellowstone system to have the optimum camping experience.
The first thing to consider is location. Yellowstone is a huge park with popular features spread out over hundreds of square miles, and it can take two hours to drive from one area to another. If seeing wildlife is a priority, then one of the small campgrounds in or near the Lamar Valley would be best--Tower Falls, Slough Creek or Pebble Creek. The geyser basins are best served by the large campgrounds, Madison and Norris. The Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon areas have Fishing Bridge RV Park, Grant Village, Bridge Bay, and Canyon--all very large campgrounds.
Next, the type of camping desired is critical. For campers with large RVs who want full hookups, the only option is the popular and expensive Fishing Bridge. Tent campers or others who want generator-free quiet and isolation would like the three Lamar Valley campgrounds or the larger but out-of-the-way Lewis Lake or Indian Creek. RV campers who don’t need hookups but need some room for a large rig would be best served at Mammoth, Madison or Norris.
Finally there is the big question: How can I make sure I can get a site at the campground I want? All five of the largest campgrounds (accounting for about 80% of the campsites in the park) are on a reservation system managed by Xanterra Resorts. During the months of June, July and August, these campgrounds are basically booked up for months in advance, so early reservations are essential. A handful of sites come available every day due to cancellations, but these cannot be reliably counted on. The remaining seven campgrounds are all on a first-come, first-served basis. Every day a significant potion of these sites turn over, but it is essential to arrive at the campground early (before 8 a.m.) to snag one. The park’s camping website gives an up-to-date status of these campgrounds, including what time the campground filled on the previous day.
A side note in case all else fails: Baker's Hole Campground is a Forest Service campground just outside the west entrance to the park. If a campsite in the park is not available, this marvelous first-come, first-served campground is generally available (but get there early!).
Camping in Yellowstone can be a marvelous experience that is unlike anywhere else. The park’s wild animals have become accustomed to people, and it is not uncommon to see elk, moose or bison walking near or even through an campground. In spite of the crowds and the traffic jams, Yellowstone has an effect on people, and no one who really reaches out to meet the park half way--by hiking some trails or camping in one of its campgrounds--will leave the park the same person who entered it.