The United States is home to some of world’s most beautiful national parks, and without a doubt Yosemite and Yellowstone are two of the best. Both parks are brimming with incredible history, breathtaking wildlife, and landscapes full of gushing waterfalls and dramatic mountains and valleys. So it’s no surprise that making the choice between visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite is so difficult.
Thankfully we know both national parks well, and from personal experience can tell you that there are some important differences between each.
Below we compare Yellowstone and Yosemite so you can decide which park you would like to visit first. We look at what wildlife you’ll see, which one is better for hiking, what winter activities are on offer and more!
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which has the better landscape?
Both parks have landscapes that will make you want to keep pressing that ‘take photo’ button on your phone!
The landscape in Yellowstone National Park was formed due to a severe volcanic eruption that occurred around 2 million years ago. The result of that eruption is what we see in the park today: massive rock formations, ridges, and rolling hills that are sprawled out across 3500 square miles of vast remote wilderness. In fact Yellowstone is nearly three times larger than Yosemite.
Wild and remote are probably two of the best adjectives to describe this park. The landscape is huge swathes of terrain untouched by humans, and scattered amongst it are spectacular geothermal features like bubbling hydrothermal basins and colourful hot springs. It’s almost other-worldly. That makes Yellowstone’s landscape very beautiful in a unique way.
However the terrain at Yosemite is arguably more stunning. The rock formations and towering dramatic peaks that surge above the valleys, rivers, huge waterfalls, and forests here are something special. One of the best ways to describe it, is that everywhere you turn looks like something from a painting. It’s a much more lush landscape than Yellowstone too.
So if you prefer to walk among wildflower meadows, beneath towering cliff faces, and below soaring sequoias, then you should choose Yosemite. This national park also has many lakes, and incredible waterfalls that are some of the largest in the world (more on that later).
But if you are feeling more adventurous, then the much larger Yellowstone National Park may suit you more. This park is a paradise for people looking to get out into the wilderness and feel miles away from civilization. So if you’re someone who loves dispersed camping and multi-day hikes, then Yellowstone may be the better choice than Yosemite.
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which has the better wildlife?
If wildlife is one of your main priorities when deciding between Yellowstone or Yosemite, then Yellowstone may be the better choice for you.
That’s because the huge, unspoilt terrains in Yellowstone are the dwelling place of nearly 70 species of mammals, including around 4000 bison that wander throughout the park. Yellowstone is also a prominent nesting spot for bald eagles, so look out for them soaring above your head!
In fact, because Yellowstone is a more remote and bigger park than Yosemite, there’s lots of room for wildlife to live here. The result is that it’s possible to see elk, grizzlies, wolves, moose, and even coyotes here, as all of them have made Yellowstone home.
That’s not to say Yosemite doesn’t have a great range of wildlife too. It does, but the wildlife that live here – like deer, black bears, bighorn sheep, mules, and foxes – are often harder to find. That’s because this park tends to receive a large number of visitors – and in a smaller area than Yellowstone – and subsequently the park gets quite busy. The animals that live here try to stay away from the areas that are most often visited by people.
However one thing we do have to mention is that Yosemite has a huge variety of birdlife, and its elevation is ideal for bird watching.
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which has the better waterfalls?
Yosemite’s fame mainly comes from the many stunning waterfalls in the park. In fact it has 18 waterfalls that are larger than the biggest cascade in Yellowstone!
The tallest waterfall on the continent is the Yosemite Falls which is an incredible 739m tall. Seeing it up close and personal makes you realise just how powerful nature can be.
Believe it or not, there’s another five waterfalls over 500m tall in Yosemite!
Our top tip: If you want to see the waterfalls at their most powerful, then visit Yosemite in late spring/early summer. That’s when they tend to have more water.
Yellowstone also has many cascades, with 45 named waterfalls, and many more smaller unnamed ones that are dotted around the park. For hikers and walkers, you’re almost always guaranteed to come across waterfalls when hiking around Yellowstone. While they’re not as impressive as the ones in Yosemite, they’re still extremely pretty.
In fact when considering just height, Yellowstone’s waterfalls are much smaller than the ones in Yosemite, with the highest standing at 94m. However, the number of waterfalls in Yellowstone is very impressive.
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which is better for hiking?
Both national parks are superb hiking destinations. No wonder too, as they represent some of the best landscapes in the USA.
However if you’re going to the park without a car, then Yosemite will be the better choice. That’s because there’s a shuttle service available in the park that can take you to many of the most popular trailheads.
However the easiest and most accessible hiking trails in the park can get very busy, and you’ll have to hike out of the Yosemite Valley to get away from the crowds. The grasslands in the park tend to be quieter, and have several hiking trails too.
The much larger Yellowstone National Park has trails that feel more remote, and are far less busy, however you will almost always need a car to get to the trailheads.
Yet the result is a feeling of really hiking in nature. That’s aided by the over one thousand miles of hiking trails and paths in this national park, so it’s almost impossible not to find areas all to yourself.
You can also camp and hike in Yellowstone to make the most of your time. (Related: Camping in Yellowstone).
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Which is better for winter activities
It’s tough to decide which national park is better for winter activities as Yellowstone and Yosemite are amongst the top parks for adventure activities – even in the snowy season!
Both parks have opportunities to use snowmobiles and go cross-country skiing during winter.
Yellowstone also does all-terrain van tours that allow you to roam this wild and rural park in utmost comfort. These vans have winter treads that allow them to traverse the snow and give you a chance to see bison and elk up close.
Yosemite has other winter activities like snowboarding, skiing, and ice-skating – all great family activities.
Yellowstone vs Yosemite: Accessibility
If you’re thinking of whether to tour Yosemite or Yellowstone, then which one you visit may depend on where you’re living. However in general, Yosemite tends to be more easily accessible than Yellowstone.
It only takes around three hours to reach Yosemite National Park from San Francisco, while if you are coming from Las Vegas or Los Angeles by car, it might take between 5-5.5 hours. In addition to this, flights to San Francisco are available from all over the United States.
Yellowstone can be a little problematic to reach. You need to take a flight to Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone Wyoming (mostly via Salt Lake City). That’s why in general, it is not as simple as just jumping in the car and going for a trip to Yellowstone.
Nonetheless if you do choose this option, the road to Yellowstone takes you past the Grand Tetons and the Beartooth Highway – making this a very good road trip!
A few last points
Every year, millions of tourists visit these exceptional national parks. However there’s things to keep in mind for your visit to either Yellowstone or Yosemite:
Do not approach wild animals. They might hurt you. This applies to taking pictures with them as well.
While following a trail, don’t go off track and explore things on your own. The trails have been designed in a certain way because not all terrain is safe to access.
None of us wants to show up and discover that a certain part of the park is closed. Make sure to check timings and accessibility so you don’t get disheartened later.
As human beings, we are entrusted with a moral responsibility to keep our surroundings clean. The same applies when we visit Yellowstone and Yosemite. Treat the land well and leave it in the same condition that it was when you arrived.