Camping, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Under the Stars: My Guide to Camping in Yellowstone National Park

I’ve been lucky enough to spend fifteen nights over three trips camping within Yellowstone National Park, and it finally dawned on me that maybe I should write a little review of the campsites I have stayed at! You won’t see me calling this “the ultimate,” “most inclusive,” or “bestest ever” guide to Yellowstone campgrounds, but mostly just my own thoughts and opinions on the places I have personally experienced! I have not stayed at all twelve of Yellowstone’s campgrounds, nor have I yet experienced any backcountry camping. Hopefully that changes eventually, but for now, I think it would be odd to include places I haven’t camped. Oh, and I suppose I should note… I only tent camp, and these reviews will be written from that perspective. If you are looking for specific information on RV and camp trailers in Yellowstone, I’m not your girl for that!

Campgrounds I have stayed in 2020-2022:

  • Madison Campground
  • Canyon Campground
  • Grant Village Campground
  • Slough Creek Campground*
  • Lewis Lake Campground*

Other campgrounds in Yellowstone:

  • Bridge Bay Campground
  • Fishing Bridge RV Park
  • Indian Creek Campground*
  • Mammoth Campground*
  • Norris Campground*
  • Pebble Creek Campground*
  • Tower Fall Campground*

Campgrounds in Yellowstone are either run by the National Park Service (NPS) or Yellowstone National Park Lodges (Xanterra), a commercial concessionaire. The NPS campgrounds tend to be a bit more basic with the offerings, and are also cheaper in price. Luckily (in my eyes), the NPS started allowing their campgrounds to be reserved in advance in 2021, ending the whole “show up at 6am and wait for a site to empty” methodology that had been used previously by visitors. Xanterra campgrounds all take reservations. I have marked NPS campgrounds with a ‘*’ on my list above.

It is worth noting that “wild camping,” car camping, or simply sleeping in a vehicle in parking lots, trailheads, picnic areas, or pullouts is not allowed within Yellowstone. You must stay in a designated campground, backcountry site, or lodging facilities if you want to sleep in the park. Please be respectful of NPS rules and follow this.

So why camp in the park? Mainly, Yellowstone is a LARGE park. I think everyone underestimates the sheer size of the park, myself included. Camping within the park means less time spent driving in and out, and less time dealing with entrance station traffic. It also affords the chance to experience some amazing things, such as brilliant night skies not undermined by light pollution, and the bugling of elk in the early morning hours. And well, camping is awesome! I’ll take camping any day over a hotel room. It is also much more cost effective when compared to lodging prices.

Madison Campground

I’m going to kick things off with the campground I have stayed at during every trip to Yellowstone!

Madison Campground in my opinion is probably the best for being “centrally” located within Yellowstone since the Norris Campground hasn’t been open for a few years. The campground lies at Madison Junction, and is 14 miles east of West Yellowstone, MT, and 16 miles north of Old Faithful. You can easily reach Mammoth, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Canyon area of Yellowstone from this campground, along with the geyser madness that is the Old Faithful area (including Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser basins, Biscuit Basin, Fountain Flats Drive, and Firehole Lake Drive). If the location wasn’t enough, Madison offers the most flexibility for those traveling later in the fall season and wanting a central campground, staying open until mid-October.

Features
Elevation: 6800 feet / 2073 meters
Cell Service: No
Showers: No
Laundry: No
Restroom Facilities: Flush toilets with running water sinks in heated facilities
Dish washing sinks with running water
Small camp store selling ice, snacks, toiletries and medicine, etc.
Bear storage boxes at sites
Special to note: During the busiest season, prepare to sit in traffic forever in the evenings if you’re trying to get back to this campground thanks to the backups in West Yellowstone and Madison Junction. Sometimes your best bet is a bit of an adventure in the oncoming lane to get back to the campground. This also means there is a bit of highway noise that can be heard in the campground.
Resident bison: Tyson the Bison is the resident bison. For reals. There is a resident bison!

Though I have stayed at Madison the most, it is not my favorite campground in Yellowstone. But I cannot beat the location! Plus my 2022 trip was falling at the end of the season, so I was left with two options for camping – Madison and Lewis Lake. I love waking up and having only a short drive to get to the geyser basins to the south or east. Just because it is not my favorite does mean I do not like the campground, to clarify!

Overall, the sites at Madison are close together, and with that there is a lack of privacy. When I booked a small tent site in 2021, my site was so small that my neighbor’s firepit was about ten feet from my tent! I learned my lesson in 2022, and booked a large tent site, which allowed for more space from neighboring sites.

There is amazingly easy access to the Madison River from this campground, so perfect for those who love fishing, or just want to unwind along this great river.

Sites stayed in:

  • E184: This is a large site found in the mixed RV/tent section. At first I was worried about being around RVs, but all the campgrounds in Yellowstone have quiet hour rules that limit generator use, so this site was quiet. This site has trees (hammock time!) but really is otherwise open and sunny. It was just a short walk to the bathroom and dishwashing facilities
Madison Campground #E184 in August 2020
  • G252: This is a site in a tent-only loop that is billed for “small tents.” My REI 3+ tent nearly maxed out the tent pad! I felt like the neighboring site was practically on top of mine, with their firepit being uncomfortably close to my site (to note, my asthma is incredibly reactive to any campfire smoke, which is always a challenge for me in campgrounds, so needless to say… this was not an ideal situation). I had just a short walk up to the bathrooms. Good trees for putting up a hammock. Not that this has anything to do with the campsite, but I found a six pack of beer left in my bear box when I stayed, a nice surprise!
Madison Campground #G252 in September 2021
  • G263: This is a site in a tent-only loop that is billed for “large tents.” This was definitely a spacious site, thought it is open with no trees for shade. It really did not feel private at all. (I was envious of the site behind ours, which had a tent pad protected by trees.). It is a short walk down to the bathroom and dishwashing facilities. Not a lot of tree options for a hammock, but it rained while I stayed here so it was not a concern!
Madison Campground Site #G263 in October 2022

Canyon Campground

Canyon Campground is another centrally-located option, especially now that Dunraven Pass has reopened in 2022 after years of construction. What leans me towards saying Madison is a bit better in this category is Madison’s proximately to the geyser basins, which are my favorite things.

Features
Elevation: 7900 feet / 2408 meters
Cell Service: Yes, but can be spotty depending on your campsite location
Showers: Yes (but I have not experienced them as they were closed 2020 & 2021)
Laundry: Yes
Restroom Facilities: Flush toilets with running water sinks
Dish washing sinks with running water
Canyon Village is nearby with general store, restaurants, fuel station, visitor center, reliable cell service, etc
Bear storage boxes at sites

What I love about Canyon is how easy it makes exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the early morning and evening hours when summer crowds are a bit less. I’ve shown up in afternoon, checked in and set up camp, enjoyed some food, and then headed out on the North Rim Drive and was able to enjoy things without shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and waits for parking. I was also able to quickly get to Artist Point on the South Rim in the wee morning hours, and had the place to myself for twenty minutes before others arrived. Another great thing is though Canyon is a large campground similar to Madison, the sites seem to have more privacy. Maybe it is the trees?

Sites Stayed In:

  • D88 – This site is in a tent-only loop near the end. I was across from the bathroom facilities and dumpsters, but this didn’t really cause any problems, and I enjoyed the short walk to use the facilities and to wash dishes. This site fit my 3+ person tent perfectly, but would not be great for anything much larger in my opinion, as it would be a tight squeeze. I had tons of mature lodgepole pines, so I enjoyed some hammock time after dinner.
Canyon Campground #D88 in August 2020
  • F111 – This is in a mixed RV/tent area at the start of the loop (which means, because of the one-way nature of the loop, you have to drive alllll the way around when leaving). Because this loop is further “up” the campground, there is less traffic noise from the road that runs to all the loops. My site was on a very short hill up from the parking area, and I felt like I had some space to myself. However, the site did seem uneven. I thought about placing my tent further back, but it would’ve put me closer to the neighboring site’s fire pit than I preferred. So I dealt with a bit of unevenness. There are plenty of trees for hammock time. The bathrooms and dishwashing was just a short walk across the loop road.
Canyon Campground Site #F111 in September 2021

Grant Village Campground

I really wish I could have had more than one night when I stayed in Grant Village Campground, as I absolutely loved this campground! I snuck in on the second-to-last night of the season in 2021.

Features
Elevation: 7800 feet / 2377 meters
Cell Service: Yes, but can be spotty depending on what you are wanting that service for. I could place a voice call from my campsite.
Showers: No
Laundry: Yes
Restroom Facilities: Flush toilets with running water sinks
Dish washing sinks with running water
Grant Village general store, restaurants, and fuel station located nearby
Bear storage boxes at sites

I stayed in the tent-only loop, and had a very large, private campsite, J350. After a cramped three nights at Madison, I felt like I had serious acreage! The site was covered in mature lodgepole pines, so I could enjoy some hammock time. I also had some protection from the rain that fell later that night. Probably the biggest downside to this particular campsite was the distance to the bathrooms and dishwashing station. I ended up just loading my dishes in my car, and when I headed out for some exploring, stopped by to wash my dishes on the way out. That is just my laziness coming through.

Being Mid-September when I stayed here, the elk rut was going on, and there were numerous elk in the campground. I included a photo below of a big bull that was napping in the campsite next to mine!

Slough Creek Campground

I was able to nab one night at Slough Creek Campground in September 2021 in the minutes the campground went live for reservations. As an NPS site, Slough Creek is a little more bared-bones when compared to the commercial affairs, but is perfect for unwinding along Slough Creek with a good book and beer in hand! Slough Creek Campground is also a short drive from the wildlife-laden Lamar Valley and Tower Junction.

I want to note that this area was heavily impacted during the June 2022 flood and it would be wise to check official sites for up to date status on this campground.

Features
Elevation: 6350 feet / 1905 meters
Cell Service: Yes – The most amazing, fast 4g LTE service ever which actually annoyed me as I wanted to disconnect from the world
Showers: No
Laundry: No
Restroom Facilities: Vault toilets
Bear storage boxes at sites
Badgers

Yes, I’m serious about the badger. My campsite had a badger living in it! I’m terrified of badgers, and this definitely spiced up my visit. I reserved site #6, which was an open site on the banks of Slough Creek. I spent most of my visit down by the creek in my chair reading, watching ducks, and soaking my feet in the water (while scrolling on my phone due to the amazing cell service). I had just a short walk to the vault toilets and the potable water spigot. This was not my first pick when I was reserving a site, but considering the whole campground for the entire season sold out within about fifteen minutes when reservations opened, I took what I could get and had a lovely experience!

Lewis Lake Campground

Lewis Lake Campground is the second late season option if visiting into October (as Mammoth is closed in 2022), and is located eight miles north from the south entrance station. Due to its southern location, Lewis Lake is often billed to be a bit quieter than other campgrounds in Yellowstone since it is not as centrally-located. I can see how location could be a deterrent, but I thought it was a great choice for a first and last night option (when you live seven hours away, sometimes you just don’t want to drive any further than you have to that day!) if coming in through the south entrance. It was just a short drive to Grant Village and West Thumb Geyser Basin. Also, the campground is not far from hiking options like Riddle Lake, Heart Lake, Dogshead, and the Lewis Lake Channel. And, of course, there’s Lewis Lake!

Features
Elevation: 7800 feet / 2377 meters
Cell Service: No, though I had service at the boat ramp on Lewis Lake
Showers: No
Laundry: No
Restroom Facilities: Vault toilets
Bear storage boxes at sites

I love Lewis Lake Campground! Both nights we stayed were great in nice, private campsites. Because NPS lets you reserve a specific site, I was able to check out some reviews and photos online before I made a reservation. This is a big perk to the NPS campgrounds, as the Xanterra campgrounds assign you a spot and you do not get to pick. We were able to take a nice evening stroll down to watch sunset on Lewis Lake. If you are a boater, Lewis Lake will also be very appealing since the boat launch is right at the entrance to the campground.

Sites stayed in:

  • Walk-in #7: This campsite was fun! But it came with a hill climb. The picnic table and bear box is maybe twenty feet from the car up the hill. The tent pad? Ha, put on your climbing shoes! Okay, that is a bit dramatic, but it is up a steep hill. The perk to this is the utmost privacy. The tent pad was even. Plenty of trees and shade. Vault toilets were just a short walk across the road. It should go without saying, this campsite is definitely not accessible, and might not be the best for those with mobility difficulties. I would definitely stay in this particular campsite again!
  • #B48: I am sad I really could not do this site justice. Arrived after dark, and left early the next morning! But it was a large site and had good privacy, especially since the tent pad is set back from the parking area, picnic table, and bear box. The vault toilets were just a short walk away. I was not disappointed, and would choose this site again, and maybe spend a bit more time in it!

Interested in reading more about my adventures in Yellowstone? All posts related to Yellowstone can be found HERE!

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