Majestic waterfalls or erupting geysers? Technicolor hot springs or emerald blue lakes? Choosing between Yellowstone and Yosemite is no easy task, but we’ll try to make the decision a little easier.
Yosemite and Yellowstone are two of the USA’s most loved national parks. But how on earth are you supposed to choose between the two? It’s a tough one. Instead of leaving it to a spin of heads n’ tales, we’ve put together some information to help you decide which national park to cross off your bucket list first.
Best for landscapes
People didn’t believe the first explorer, John Colter when he returned from his expedition to Yellowstone with fantastic tales of this otherworldly land. They even mocked him, calling the park “Colter’s Hell”. From bubbling mud holes and steaming fumaroles to hissing geysers and rainbow-coloured hot springs, Yellowstone isn’t short of natural wonders that’ll blow your mind. In fact, it’s home to half of the world’s geothermal features. There’s also the gorgeous Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its cascading waterfalls and the lush Lamar Valley teeming with wildlife (more on that later).
You won’t find any weird and otherworldly sights in Yosemite, but you will find more idyllic landscapes. Yosemite was formed by glaciers millions of years ago. Over time, these glaciers carved out massive granite peaks and pretty alpine valleys filled with waterfalls and glistening lakes. It’s also home to giant sequoias, the tallest trees on earth, and the feeling of walking beneath them is hard to beat.
Yellowstone wins the prize for weird and wonderful. It promises to intrigue you and have you questioning if you’ve ended up on another planet. Yosemite, on the other hand, is where you’ll find more breathtaking landscapes. With its pristine lakes, wildflower-filled meadows and lush forests, it’s beautiful in a postcard-perfect sense.
Best for wildlife
Because Yellowstone is so vast and remote, it has the highest amount of wildlife in the lower 48 states. There are 67 species of mammals alone including black bears, grizzly bears and wolves. There are also seven native species of ungulates (large mammals with hooves) including moose, pronghorn sheep, elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer and bison. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see large herds of bison roaming the Lamar Valley. You might even find you get stuck in a bison traffic jam in the Yellowstone rush hour! You could also join a wolf tracker for the day to learn about these mysterious beings and maybe spot one in its natural habitat.
Yosemite is also home to an impressive range of wildlife including black bears, bighorn sheep, bobcats, mule deer and coyotes. But are you likely to see these big mammals in the park? It’s not as likely, particularly in the peak summer season. Yosemite is much smaller than Yellowstone and wildlife tend to hide from big crowds. Bird watchers are in for a treat, though. The high elevation means there are plenty of opportunities to see Stellar’s jay, sooty grouse, dark-eyed junco, ravens and more.
If seeing wildlife is at the top of your list, then you should probably go to Yellowstone. It’s bigger and there’s less foot traffic than Yosemite, so you have a much higher chance of spotting big animals.
Best for hiking
Yellowstone has over 1,000 miles of hiking trails that showcase the park’s geothermal features and incredible sweeping vistas over Wyoming and the Rockies. The terrain is quite different from Yosemite, and some might say the views aren’t as dramatic, but they’re quieter and you’re more likely to see wildlife.
With its giant granite monoliths, soaring peaks and 750 miles of trail to explore, there’s no denying Yosemite is fantastic for hiking. There are trails to suit all levels and abilities whether you want to put your stamina to the test by reaching the summit of the iconic Half Dome or go on a pleasant stroll through the valley to breathe in the fresh alpine air.
Yosemite has world-famous trails that attract hiking enthusiasts from near and far. That said, the trails are more crowded, so if you like hiking in solitude, you might prefer Yellowstone. When it comes to hiking in the backcountry, Yosemite may also be a bit safer as there’s less wildlife and the weather is more reliable.
Best for waterfalls
Did you know Yellowstone has 290 waterfalls? People often overlook this because the geothermal features steal the show. Some of the park’s most famous falls include the Upper and Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Union Falls, Terraced Falls and Cave Falls. Sure, they’re not as tall as Yosemite’s, but they’re just as enchanting.
Waterfalls are one of the main drawcards for Yosemite. In fact, 10 of them are taller than Yellowstone’s tallest waterfall. Yosemite Falls plunges over 700 feet and is one of the highest cascades in the world. There’s also the mystical Vernal Falls, Horsetail Fall and Bridalveil Fall.
This is a tough one as both parks have magical waterfalls. Yellowstone gets an extra point as the waterfalls run all year round, whereas Yosemite’s dry up in the summer leaving only a trickle. If you’re looking for massive cascades that leave you speechless, Yosemite wins the prize. If you’re not too fussed about height but you still want to enjoy the serenity of the water (with the added bonus of being able to see falls no matter what time you visit), go with Yellowstone.
Best for weather
Summer is the peak season in both parks. However, the crowds are considerably thinner in Yellowstone during the summer rush. Yellowstone has relatively short summers but they’re warm and fairly dry. Winter is long with heavy snowfall that restricts access to most of the park (unless you go via snowmobile), and spring and fall can be unpredictable with a mixture of warm, chilly and wet weather.
Located in California, the weather is generally a bit milder in Yosemite with drier and warmer weather throughout the year. Spring heats up quickly and fall is a slightly cooler extension of summer (making it prime time for hiking). There may still be the occasional thunderstorm in the summer but the temperature remains warm. Yosemite also experiences snowfall in winter, but it’s not as heavy and many of the trails remain accessible.
If you prefer warmer temperatures and more reliable weather, Yosemite wins. Yellowstone weather is known to fluctuate with sudden thunderstorms and temperature drops. Winter is the least popular time to visit both parks, but it’s a great time to plan a trip if you enjoy snowscapes, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Best for accessible travel
Both parks are fairly easy to travel to depending on where you’re coming from. Yellowstone is in a remote area of Wyoming. The closest airports to the park are Bozeman (North or West Entrance), Yellowstone (West Entrance) and Jackson Hole (South Entrance). Yosemite is located in California and the most popular travel route is to fly into Fresno, around a 2.5-hour drive from the park, or San Francisco which takes roughly four hours.
Many areas of Yellowstone and Yosemite are accessible for travellers with disabilities. Both parks have accessible trails, facilities and wheelchair-accessible accommodation in the park lodges. The National Park Service (NPS) also offers an Interagency Access Pass for free lifetime access to US national parks to people who are blind or have permanent disabilities.
Most of Yellowstone’s visitor centres and roadside attractions are wheelchair-accessible and all campgrounds (apart from Slough Creek, Tower Fall, Fishing Bridge and Pebble Creek) have at least one wheelchair-accessible campsite. Yosemite also has wheelchair-accessible lodges, campsites and visitor centres. It has more than 12 miles of paved trails along the Lower Yosemite Fall area where you can see most of the park’s main sights.
It’s impossible to say which national park is ‘better, and we’re not just saying that to be nice! Honestly, both parks are wonderful in their own right. If you have limited time and want huge peaks and jaw-dropping views, Yosemite may be the right choice. If you want to experience something totally different, Yellowstone could be calling.
Whichever park you visit first, we are certain of one thing: you’re going to have an amazing time.