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Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which national park should you visit?

A breathtaking view of Yellowstone National Park at sunset.
Irene Steeves/Flickr. / Flickr

When speaking of national parks, two often dominate the conversation: Yellowstone and Yosemite. While both are crown jewels of the National Park System, each offers a distinctly unique experience. These parks attract millions of visitors annually, but which one reigns supreme for the summer traveler? Let’s compare these iconic destinations.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone national park geysers
Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock / Shutterfly

Established in 1872 as the first national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park sprawls across three states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Covering over 2.2 million acres, it’s a vast land of natural wonders. Here’s what it’s famous for:

Geothermal geysers

Yellowstone is home to over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including more than 500 geysers. The star of the show is Old Faithful, a geyser famous for its predictable eruptions. Besides geysers, the park boasts multicolored hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots.

An abundance of wildlife

Yellowstone’s ecosystem is a sanctuary for a diverse array of wildlife. Visitors marvel at herds of bison roaming the valleys, spot elusive wolves in the Lamar Valley, and observe grizzly bears in their natural habitat. Just make sure that you’re following the rules when it comes to interacting with animals. The park is a living showcase of wildlife management and natural balance.

Unparalleled views

The park’s landscape varies from rolling grasslands to dense forests and high-altitude lakes. Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-altitude lake in North America, offering stunning views and fishing opportunities. Hiking trails range from easy walks to challenging backcountry adventures, catering to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Falls
Jeremy Lwanga/Unsplash / Jeremy Lwanga/Unsplash

In contrast, Yosemite National Park is predominantly in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, which covers nearly 750,000 acres. It became a national park in 1890, largely thanks to the efforts of naturalist John Muir. Here’s what it has to offer:

Stunning granite cliffs

Yosemite’s claim to fame is its breathtaking granite cliffs. Towering monoliths like El Capitan and Half Dome are not just sights to behold but also meccas for rock climbers worldwide. These formations are products of glacial activity, sculpting the valley into a spectacle of sheer cliffs and unique rock formations.

Waterfalls and sequoias

The park is renowned for its stunning waterfalls, particularly Yosemite Falls, which is one of the tallest in the world. Although summer often sees a reduction in water flow, the sight of these falls is still awe-inspiring. Additionally, Yosemite is home to ancient giant sequoias that reside in tranquil groves.

Trails and views

Yosemite’s trails are as diverse as its landscapes. From the easy path leading to Mirror Lake to the challenging ascent of Half Dome, the park offers hiking experiences for every level. Scenic spots like Glacier Point offer panoramic views of the valley, while the Tunnel View provides one of the most photographed vistas in the world.

Yellowstone vs Yosemite 

a view between a valley in Yosemite national park during February
Aniket Deole / Unsplash

When comparing Yellowstone and Yosemite, the choice boils down to your personal preferences and interests. If geothermal phenomena and a broader range of wildlife interest you, pack your bags for Yellowstone. However, if you’re captivated by majestic rock formations, waterfalls, and giant trees, Yosemite will not disappoint. Yellowstone’s sheer size means more ground to cover and a wider variety of ecosystems to explore. Yosemite, while smaller, offers a more concentrated experience with its iconic landmarks. Here’s a look into what it might cost to visit:

Travel costs

Yellowstone is located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho and may be more remote, depending on your starting point. Yosemite is in California’s Sierra Nevada, which is closer to major airports. Consider the cost of getting to these parks from your location, including flights, car rentals, and fuel.

Entrance fees

Both parks charge entrance fees. Yellowstone’s entrance fee for a private, non-commercial vehicle is about $35, according to the National Park Service. Yosemite has a similar fee structure, but it may require a reservation depending on what time of the year you go. Prices are subject to change, so it’s recommended that you check the current fees.

If you plan to visit multiple national parks or return within a year, the America the Beautiful Pass could be a cost-effective option at $80, covering entry to all federal recreational lands.

Accommodations

Both parks offer a range of accommodations inside the perimeter, from campsites to lodges. Prices can vary widely, with lodges typically being more expensive. Booking well in advance is crucial, especially during peak seasons. To avoid this, you may want to consider staying in nearby towns for potentially cheaper options, but factor in the travel time and costs to enter the park each day.

Whether you’re drawn to the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone or the granite peaks and waterfalls of Yosemite, both parks promise an encounter with America’s wild side.

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Sarah Joseph
Sarah is a lover of all things outdoors. With a bright sense of adventure and a heart for the mountains, she is always…
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