Every summer, our family packs the truck with camping gear, hitches up the camper, and heads out on our annual Great American Road Trip. The goal: experience as much of our national treasured lands as we can before time and the vacation budget forces us to turn back for home.
These trips range from 2,000 to 6,000 miles and span from 2 to 4 weeks, requiring a healthy smattering of preparation and planning to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.
At the forefront of planning is narrowing down our options: Where do we want to go THIS time?
This continent is richly endowed with some of the most magnificent landscapes around the globe, and the hardest part is choosing which to experience now and which to save for another time.
For many, no choice is more of a dilemma than the one between the United States of America’s two most iconic national parks.
Both Yellowstone and Yosemite offer an incredible array of natural wonders, from steaming geysers and bubbling hot springs to towering waterfalls and soaring mountains.
But which park is the best to visit?
In today’s post, we offer an insightful comparison of Yellowstone and Yosemite, based on key factors like natural wonders, wildlife, the best time to visit, accessibility, activities, lodging, and more.
- Yosemite vs Yellowstone: A Summary Comparison
- Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks: A Detailed Comparison
- Best Time to Visit Yosemite and Yellowstone
- Weather Conditions in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks
- Family-Friendly Features of Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park
- Geology and Natural Wonders Of Yosemite and Yellowstone
- Family-Friendly Hiking Trails in Yellowstone vs Yosemite
- Lodging in Yosemite vs Yellowstone
- Popularity and Crowds of Yosemite vs Yellowstone
- Wrapping Up Yosemite vs Yellowstone
Yosemite vs Yellowstone: A Summary Comparison
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick overview of the unique characteristics of each park. We’ll go into more detail further on.
Yellowstone National Park
Every year, millions of people flock to Yellowstone to see its stunning natural attractions. From the soaring peaks of the 13,775-foot Grand Tetons to the explosive Old Faithful Geyser, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
The park is located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, covering over 2 million acres (3,125 square miles), and is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including bison, elk, grizzly bears, and wolves.
The park features a large number of geysers, hot springs, prehistoric mud pits, as well as the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest super-volcano in North America and also home to Old Faithful, one of the world’s most iconic geysers.
Established in 1872 as America’s first national park and, in 1978, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Yellowstone attracts 4 million visitors each year, who come to appreciate its natural beauty and unique geothermal landscape, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of the most incredible scenery on Earth.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is smaller than Yellowstone at 750,000 acres (1,169 square miles), known for its dramatic waterfalls, majestic mountains, shimmering granite cliffs, and giant sequoia trees.
Yosemite is also home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, deer, and coyotes.
Yosemite Valley, a seven-mile-long gorge carved by the Merced River, is one of the most iconic landscapes in the park.
Half Dome, a granite monolith that rises more than 4,000 feet above the valley floor, is another popular destination. Visitors can hike to the top of Half Dome or enjoy views of it from Glacier Point, a lookout point that offers sweeping vistas of the Sierra Nevada.
Yosemite is also home to El Capitan. Rising 7,573 feet from the valley floor, it is one of the world’s tallest granite cliffs.
Climbers from all over the world come to test their skills on its sheer walls.
Humans have been visiting Yosemite for centuries. The Ahwahneechee tribe lived in the area for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in the 18th century.
Today, Yosemite is a popular destination for hikers, campers, and rock climbers from all over the world. Every year, millions of people come to enjoy the park’s unique beauty.
With its towering peaks and pristine forests, Yosemite National Park is truly a national treasure.
Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks: A Detailed Comparison
Taking a closer look, let’s compare these two national parks in more detail.
Best Time to Visit Yosemite and Yellowstone
Most families have a specific time of year that they can travel; so, selecting which park is best will begin with an understanding of how the seasons affect the park closures, tourist traffic, and climate.
Yellowstone National Park is open all year, but the peak season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
During the summer months (June, July, and August), the park receives over half of its 4 million annual visitors from all over the world. Crowds during this time are just the norm.
This is also the time when most of the park’s attractions and activities are open.
However, summer is also the rainy season in Yellowstone. July and August are the wettest months, so visitors should be prepared for thunderstorms and possible road closures due to flooding.
Still, all that rainfall fuels the waterfalls into thunderous cascades!
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall offer milder temperatures and fewer crowds. Spring is a good time to visit Yellowstone if you want to see baby animals, as many species give birth in April and May.
Fall is ideal for wildlife watching, as this is the time of year when animals are preparing for winter (like Grizzlies) and are often seen grazing in open areas.
If you want to avoid the crowds, the best time to visit Yellowstone is during the winter months from December to February. During this time, the National Park Service closes most of the park’s roads due to snow, but visitors can still access the park by snow coach or snowmobile.
Although winter is the off-season in Yellowstone, this is one of the best times to see the park’s wildlife as they congregate around the few open watering holes.
In October, roads begin to close for the winter in all areas except for the Mammoth area to the Northeast entrance.
Yosemite National Park is also open all year, but 75% of the park’s annual 4 million+ visitors descend on the park between May and October. This is also the time when most of the park’s attractions, roads, and activities are open.
Crowds during the summer months can be heavy, so visitors should be prepared for long lines and limited parking. The best time to avoid the crowds is during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
During the spring, Yosemite’s waterfalls are at their peak flow due to the melting snowpack. This is also a good time to see baby animals as many species give birth in April and May.
Fall is an ideal time for hiking, as the temperatures are cooler and the leaves are changing color.
If you want to experience Yosemite in its winter wonderland glory, the best time to visit is from December to February. During this time, most of the park’s roads are closed due to snow, but visitors can still access Yosemite Valley and Wawona by car.
Tire chains are often required on park roads.
Although winter is the off-season in Yosemite, this is one of the coolest times to see the park’s waterfalls as they are transformed into icy sculptures.
In April, a few roads begin to open as conditions allow.
Weather Conditions in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks
The weather in Yellowstone and Yosemite can vary greatly depending on the time of year and elevation.
In Yellowstone, the average high temperature in July is 86°F (30°C) and the average low is 44°F (7°C).
In Yosemite, the average high temperature in July is 101°F (38°C) and the average low is 54°F (12°C).
As you can see, it is typically hotter in Yosemite than it is in Yellowstone.
At higher elevations, such as in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley or Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, temperatures are usually cooler than at lower elevations.
In the winter, both parks experience much colder temperatures, with lows sometimes dipping below 0°F (-18°C).
Visitors should be prepared for extreme weather conditions no matter what time of year they plan to visit Yellowstone or Yosemite. If camping in the off-season is on your agenda, make sure you have the right gear for camping in frigid temperatures.
Family-Friendly Features of Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park
If there are young children in your family, planning any trip requires additional considerations. Both parks also offer a variety of kid-friendly attractions and activities.
When visiting Yellowstone National Park, be sure to take advantage of the many ranger-led programs that are offered throughout the year. These programs are designed to educate and entertain children of all ages.
Some popular ranger-led programs include Junior Ranger activities, Junior Ranger stations, geology talks, and guided hikes.
In Yellowstone, kids will love seeing the park’s iconic wildlife, exploring the geysers and hot springs, and hiking along plenty of trails and walkways suitable for little legs and strollers. Opportunities for camping, fishing, guided tours, and becoming a Junior Ranger abound.
In Yosemite National Park, families can enjoy ranger-led programs such as Junior Ranger activities, kid-and-stroller-friendly hiking trails and walking paths, camping, fishing, and even swimming in the shallow, gentle-moving Merced River during the summer months (flooding can occur in Spring).
Walking among Mariposa Grove’s infamous Giant Sequoias is one of my oldest son’s favorites as well as the heart-stopping views from Glacier Point that families with strollers can easily navigate. Hiking into the spray of Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Valley, through the wildflower fields of Tuolumne Meadows, or inside the museums of Yosemite Village are all things families can enjoy together.
Of the two parks, if your children are too young (or unaccustomed to hiking) for moderate-to-difficult hiking trails, Yellowstone offers more to experience and see without muscling through a strenuous hike to get there.
In Yosemite, the best experiences are had by the few who are willing to venture beyond the popular, easier trails, making it better to visit as your kids (and you) become better able to enjoy more technical hiking.
Geology and Natural Wonders Of Yosemite and Yellowstone
Yellowstone is home to the largest super-volcano in North America (4th largest in the world) and is largely geothermic with geysers, hot springs, boiling mud pots, and scorching fumaroles.
Families with young children can enjoy the thunderous falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone via several easy trails, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and the geysers and hot pools along the Upper Geyser Basin Trail. Also, include Mammoth Hot Springs on your tour.
Finally, wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant in Yellowstone, especially on a drive through Lamar Valley where bison, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and wolves are often spotted. Grizzly bears and bald eagles can also be seen by the watchful explorer.
On a cooler note, Yosemite Valley’s vast granite rock formations were thrust upward by tectonic activity deep in the earth and carved by glaciers over millions of years.
Yosemite is home to popular geologic wonders such as Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls (the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet).
In Yosemite National Park, the geology is more subtle as is the wildlife but no less grand. With more than 4 million visitors each year, Yosemite Valley is one of the most popular destinations in the park, and for good reason.
Yosemite Valley is home to some of the most iconic main attractions in the park including Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls.
But there’s so much more to see in Yosemite than just the Valley.
Glacier Point offers one of the most breathtaking panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and serene Tuolumne Meadows is a high-country meadow located east of Yosemite Valley and is the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada.
In the heat of the summer, the chilly waters of glacial Tanaya Lake offer pleasant beaches and crystal clear waters.
Yosemite has its wildlife-viewing opportunities as well: keep your eyes peeled for black bears, mule deer, coyotes, and bobcats.
Family-Friendly Hiking Trails in Yellowstone vs Yosemite
Hiking is without a doubt the most popular activity in both parks, and for good reason. The trails offer stunning views of some of the most iconic landmarks in each park as well as opportunities to see a variety of wildlife.
In Yellowstone, there are many easy and family-friendly hiking trails that offer incredible views without much effort.
Some of our favorites include:
- Mystic Falls Trail
- Black Sand and Biscuit Basin Trails
- Geyser Hill Loop Trail
- Harlequin Lake trail
- Ice Lake
- Undine Falls
- Wraith Falls
- Trout Lake trail
- Porcelain Basin
- Tower Falls
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Uncle Tom’s Trail
- Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace
In Yosemite, while there are plenty of short and easy hikes, the majority of the popular trails are on the longer side and require a bit more effort to complete.
That being said, some of our favorite family-friendly hikes include:
- Lower Yosemite Falls
- Glacier Point Trail
- Mariposa Grove
- Mirror Lake
- Sentinel Meadow – Cook’s Meadow Loop
- Tenaya Lake Trail
- Taft Point and the Fissures
- Wapama Falls Trail
- May Lake
- Olmstead Point Nature Trail
Always remember, for short or long hikes, easy or strenuous, pack plenty of water, snacks, and a First Aid Kit.
Lodging in Yosemite vs Yellowstone
When planning your trip, one of the most important things to consider is where you will be staying.
Both parks offer a variety of lodging options available including hotels, motels, cabins, lodges, and campgrounds.
Yellowstone operates 9 lodges that provide over 2,000 rooms. All of these are open from late Spring through Fall; however, only Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are open in the winter.
In Yellowstone, 12 campgrounds can accommodate RVs, trailers, and tents. All of these campgrounds are open from late Spring through Fall with 7 remaining open on a limited basis in the winter.
Visit the park’s website for more information.
In Yosemite, there are 10 lodging options available including hotels, motels, bed and breakfast inns, and housekeeping camps.
Of these, the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, Housekeeping Camp, Wawona Hotel, and Yosemite Valley Lodge are open year-round while the other lodges operate on a seasonal basis.
There are 13 campgrounds in Yosemite National Park that can accommodate RVs, trailers, and tents. Of these, 6 are open year-round while the others operate on a seasonal basis.
Visit the park’s website for more information.
Popularity and Crowds of Yosemite vs Yellowstone
Both Yosemite and Yellowstone are immensely popular parks and receive millions of visitors each year. However, because of its size and the number of things to do, Yellowstone tends to be more crowded than Yosemite.
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, the best way is to visit Yosemite in the shoulder seasons (spring or fall) or head to one of the less-visited areas of the park such as Tuolumne Meadows or Glacier Point.
In Yellowstone, the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons as well. However, because the park is so large, it’s easier to find a less-crowded spot even during peak season.
Some of our favorite places to avoid the crowds include Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Lamar Valley.
Wrapping Up Yosemite vs Yellowstone
So, which park is the best to visit? That depends on what you’re looking for.
If you want to see America’s iconic geysers, hot springs, and abundant wildlife, then Yellowstone is the place to go.
If you’re more interested in majestic waterfalls and towering mountains, then Yosemite is the better choice.
Whichever park you choose, you’re sure to have a great time and an unforgettable experience.
Now, get out there!