Beginner’s Campground Guide: Canyon at Yellowstone National Park

Between the cost of indoor lodging and the insanely nice campground amenities, it’s a no-brainer to camp for at least part of your trip to Yellowstone. The Canyon Campground is located on the eastern side the park and is named for its proximity to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

None of the campgrounds at Yellowstone are particularly private, and Canyon wasn’t an exception. Since that’s par for the course at the park, consider that Canyon is located near lots of amenities and some of the most stunning scenery. In addition to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, it’s an easy drive to the Lamar Valley for wildlife watching. Plus you can reserve your campground ahead of time so you don’t have to freak out about nabbing a first-come, first-serve site.

Directions

Yellowstone National Park is in the northwest corner of Wyoming, and the Canyon area itself is almost 10 hours from Denver.

map of yellowstone's roads figure eight beginner's guide
The figure eight formed by Yellowstone’s main road system. Canyon is on the east central side of the eight. Old Faithful is on the lower west side, and the Lamar Valley is up off of the northern west side.

The drive has stunning scenery and is totally manageable from a road quality perspective, but obviously, that distance is a haul. We stayed overnight in Riverton, Wyoming to split it up. Lander is the more popular stopping point, but despite what the sign says, it isn’t a more direct route to Yellowstone. The difference is maybe ten minutes. We were looking for an IHG hotel to book with points and there is a very nice Holiday Inn in Riverton, so that’s where we headed.

Campsites

Canyon is a huge campground with several loops. Unfortunately, you don’t get to pick where your campsite is when you make a reservation. We were on the E Loop, which was a nice distance from the main road without being too far from the campground services building. None of the campsites are particularly private, but the more we drove around, the more we realized that was just the norm for Yellowstone.

beginner camper points to the E Loop of the Canyon Campground in Yellowstone National Park

All the campsites have fire rings and picnic tables. There isn’t a designated tent pad area, so you can set up shop wherever is the flattest. The campground is heavily shaded thanks to being in a huge forest of pine trees.

Firewood and kindling can be bought at the campground services building where you check in. For some reason, we couldn’t get ANYTHING to stay lit our first night, so we ended up having to run to the general store that’s part of the Canyon Village area. You can get firestarters and a lighter there, plus literally any other item you might need. On one late-night run, we bought a memory card, ice, beer, and aforementioned fire supplies. It’s amazing.

Campground Fees and Reservations

It’s Yellowstone. You’ve got to book EARLY. September is considered the less-busy season, and we still were booking our reservations a year in advance. Again, you can’t pick what specific loop or site you want, but you can specify you’d like a tent-only campsite so that you don’t end up on a loop with a bunch of RVs and trailers.

If you’re also planning on camping in the fall, you are making a little bit of a gamble on the weather – it can get down to freezing by mid-September. Fortunately, hotels and campgrounds both have really lenient cancellation policies (seven days in advance).

We booked a campground and a hotel, and then made our final call when we could see the 10-day forecast. Our line in the sand was temperatures below freezing, which we weren’t forecasted to have. So, we canceled our reservations at the lodge and committed to camping. Our wallets breathed a sigh of relief since the lodge would have been $200 or more per night.

We did end up having one night that got down to freezing, but it was totally doable. I just bundled up and snuggled into our double sleeping bag.

Campsites at Canyon are $30 per night, which is pretty standard for a national park. Your campsite fee also includes one shower per night, so it’s a pretty good deal (particularly when you’re staring down a $260 per night hotel room). Keep in mind you also have to pay to get into the park. Information about entry fees can be found here.

Toilet Situation

Freaking AMAZING. There is full-fledged indoor plumbing, electricity, hot water, the whole nine yards. Everything is clean. It’s amazing.

buffalo safety wildlife watching sign in yellowstone campground bathroom
Plus, the bathroom has helpful tips and tricks for wildlife watching.

Showers are also available back at the campground services building. Loop E is about five minutes from the building with summer camp-style showers – a bunch of stalls all in one bathroom. In the middle of the bathroom, there are sinks, mirrors, and electrical outlets.

The showers were was packed the night we went and I was pleasantly surprised that the hot water didn’t quit on me. This was especially impressive considering every shower was full and had been going non-stop for at least an hour. There was (of course) a line for the women’s shower and not the men’s, but I only waited about 15 minutes. Despite the insane amount of women cycling through there, the bathroom was clean and hair-free. My husband reported the men’s showers were also spotless!

Nearby Activities

Well…you’re in Yellowstone. There are a lot of nearby activities. You’re an hour from the Lamar Valley (crazy good wildlife watching and beautiful hikes), Old Faithful, and Yellowstone Lake. You’re right at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and to get there from the southern entrance you get to drive right by Yellowstone Lake.

We saved Old Faithful and all geyser activity for the second half of the trip since we were staying at the Old Faithful Inn and stuck to the canyon itself and the Lamar Valley during our stay in Canyon.

grand canyon of the yellowstone lower falls north rim
These views are around the corner from the campground…if you’re into that kind of thing.

You’re around the corner from the hike to Artist’s Point. We enjoyed doing the hike past the overlook at Artist’s Point, but actually liked the views from the North Rim Drive overlooks more than Artist’s Point itself. Make sure you don’t skip Brink of the Upper Falls and Brink of the Lower Falls. Both are short trails (the lower falls is a bit more difficult since it’s straight down and then back up) with out-of-this-world vantage points on two humongous waterfalls.

Shortly before our trip, I read the book American Wolf and became completely obsessed with the Yellowstone wolves. We got up before sunrise for wolf-watching in the Lamar Valley, which was 100% worth the 5 a.m. wake-up call. We just drove until we saw wildlife watchers and their scopes, pulled over, and took out our binoculars.

wildlife watching lamar valley yellowstone wolves beginner'sg uide
The view without binoculars or scopes is obviously not great. All those brown dots are bison, and somewhere amongst them were the pack of wolves we were watching.

The binoculars did basically nothing, so, fortunately, all the wildlife watchers are happy to share their knowledge and high-powered viewing scopes as long as you’re courteous and respectful. We saw an entire pack of wolves thanks to their skills and equipment, so I can now die happy. We napped off the early start later on – the campsite was completely dead during the day so we had no trouble finding some peace and quiet.

Other Intangibles

Canyon Village is basically its own town. You’re nestled in the woods when you’re camping, but at the same time, you’re a five-minute drive away from a massive visitors center, lodge with restaurants, fully-stocked general store, and gas station. Driving out into the middle of nowhere gets a lot less intimidating when you have that kind of supply available.

Speaking of things that are intimidating, you get a TON Of warnings about bears. The only wildlife we saw in the campground were deer and ravens, but that’s because everyone was following the rules with keeping food and toiletries locked up. Follow the rules, but don’t let the warnings scare you away completely. We didn’t see any bears the entire time we were in Yellowstone.

We ate at the campsite both nights, so I can’t speak to the quality of the restaurants but our general experience with food at Yellowstone was that it was pricey and just okay (we ate at the Old Faithful Inn area restaurants later on). Loop E had a very nice dishwashing room with two huge sinks and lighting, so cooking at the campground was much less work than I thought it would be.

There is no cell service or wifi unless you want to buy it at one of the lodges. We enjoyed the time to unplug and waited until we were at Old Faithful to buy wifi, and only did so we could check in with our pet sitter and family. I highly recommend going dark as much as you can!

Overall Impression

Yellowstone absolutely lives up to the hype, and camping there saves you a ton of money. Canyon’s central location and fantastic amenities don’t make you feel like you’re roughing it, but you certainly aren’t sacrificing any solitude or time in nature for the little luxuries.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Martha Irmer says:

    I just love reading your descriptions of your adventures! Excellent writing and high quality photography. So proud of you!!

    Love, Aunt Marty

    Like

    1. Laura Cardon says:

      Thanks so much Aunt Marty!! Jan (Billy’s mom) got us a camera for our honeymoon last year and we’ve really liked getting into photography a little more. Obviously I inherited any eye that I have from you!!

      Like

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