Last updated on April 28, 2023 by Wandering our World
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. These parks are brimming with breathtaking wildlife, awe-inspiring geological features, some of the best hikes on the continent and landscapes full of gushing waterfalls, 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.
For example, much bigger Yellowstone is probably better for wildlife lovers and multi-day hikes, whereas Yosemite – which is arguably more beautiful – is renowned for its massive waterfalls and birdlife.
But that’s just scratching the surface!
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!
- Which Has The Better Landscape?
- Which Has The Better Wildlife?
- Which Has The Better Waterfalls?
- Which Is Better For Camping?
- Which Is Better For Stargazing?
- Which Is Better For Hiking?
- Which Is Better For Families?
- Which Is Better For Photos?
- Which Has Better Weather?
- Which Is Better For Winter Activities?
- A Few Last Points
Which Has The Better Landscape?
Yellowstone: The Landscape
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, mud pots, colourful hot springs and the famous Old Faithful Geyser (picture below).
It’s almost other-worldly. That makes Yellowstone’s landscape very beautiful in a unique way.
Yosemite: The Landscape
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 beneath towering cliff faces and spectacular giant 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), as well as the famous El Capitan – a vertical rock face admired by climbers around the world.
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.
Which Has The Better Wildlife?
Yellowstone: The 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.
Yosemite: The Wildlife
That’s not to say Yosemite doesn’t have a great range of wildlife too. It does, but the wildlife that lives there – 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 there 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.
Which Has The Better Waterfalls?
Yosemite: The 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: The Waterfalls
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.
Which Is Better For Camping?
When it comes to camping, both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks are amongst the best camping areas in the country.
Both places have about 12 camping grounds, and where you want to camp depends on the scenery you’re looking for.
However there’s only one campground that’s open year-round in Yellowstone, which is the Mammoth Campground.
This campground is strategically located near the hot springs and visitors often see elks or bison. Other campgrounds are open seasonally.
One of the most popular campgrounds is the Fishing Bridge RV Park, where there’s a high chance of spotting grizzly bears. And for that same reason, it’s an RV-only campground so you’re better protected from these adorable but potentially dangerous friends.
Wild camping is not permitted in Yellowstone and you can’t camp for free, but there are many spots where you can camp for free just outside the national park.
Yosemite: For Camping
From pine trees to lakes, Yosemite’s campgrounds offer a great range of landscapes.
In particular, Tuolumne Meadows Campground next to Tuolumne River offers such an incredible view, making it one of the favorites.
There are several spots in and near Yosemite where you can disperse camp too.
In the park, you can disperse camp beyond the Half Dome/John Muir Trail junction or beyond Moraine Dome (toward Merced Lake). Outside, there are a handful of free campgrounds in Sequoia and Eldorado National Forests.
For both national parks, remember that campground reservations fill up very quickly. In the months of May to September, campsites can even fill up months in advance.
Which Is Better For Stargazing?
Stargazing can be done in both Yellowstone and Yosemite. To quote Coldplay, you’ll be able to see a sky full of stars in either park with the naked eye!
For many Yellowstone is the better stargazing location than Yosemite. That’s because its higher elevation gives the place a clearer sky and less light pollution.
In the months of April to October the sky is especially clear, and you can even see the Milky Way.
However, Yosemite actually has a fantastic stargazing program where guides will teach you all about the night sky.
The best spot there is argubaly Glacier Point, where there’s a telescope so you can see astronomical objects other than stars such as star clusters, gaseous nebulae, and planets.
Sentinel Dome is another spot for incredible stargazing. It gives you a 360-degree unobstructed view and is especially great for seeing meteor showers.
But remember to not go alone but instead with someone who knows the area. Bring flashlights and bear sprays when exploring either park after dark and ask rangers for advice.
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.
Which Is Better For Families?
Yellowstone: For Families
Both Yellowstone and Yosemite are family-friendly, offering fun adventures such as hiking, biking, fishing, and camping. So choosing between the two depends on what you wish to see.
In Yellowstone, kids will probably love Lamar Valley, where you can ride through a bison herd. The feeling of being within feet of these imposing creatures is unmatched, and here you can often see more than 20 of them.
There are several programs for children in the park too, such as the Youth Conservation Corps for teenagers interested in conservation, as well as Geology Road Tours, and Winter Wildlife Expeditions.
However something to consider is that the hot springs in Yellowstone are scalding hot. On top of that, there are bison, elks, bears, and even wolves here.
So if you’re traveling with children, make sure to keep an eye on them at all times. In this respect, Yosemite might be a safer choice for a family trip.
Yosemite also offers seasonal events and programs for families and children. For example, the Junior Ranger Program educates kids about the park in a fun way.
While in the winter, there’s the Winter Snowshoe Walk where park rangers guide children through the park’s winter ecology and wildlife.
And of course, there’s the Stargazing Program we’ve mentioned above. Not only will you be stargazing, but the guide will tell your kids all about astronomy.
Which Is Better For Photos?
Again, choosing the best national park for photos wholly depends on the scenery you’re looking for.
Yosemite has the more traditional stunning lush backdrop for photoshoots. But Yellowstone is perfect for those looking for unique, out-of-this-world photos featuring incredible features like misty geysers.
The most popular photography spots in Yellowstone include the Grand Prismatic Spring, Morning Glory, and the wildflowers adorning Dunraven Pass.
Yellowstone is also a hub for wildlife photography such as bison and grizzly bears.
In Yosemite, taking images of the mountains being reflected on Mirror Lake is probably the most popular thing for photographers to do.
Avid photographers can also go looking for unique shots such as a rainbow/moonbow over the waterfalls or even a firefall.
As far as regulations go, the two locations are more or less the same. You need a permit for commercial photography or if you’re bringing “unusual” or big photography equipment. Drones are prohibited in both Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Which Has Better Weather?
Simply put, Yellowstone’s weather is pretty unpredictable. So you should dress prepared for hot and cold weather, even during summer, because the temperature can fluctuate greatly within one day.
Bring your raincoat and umbrella because there’s always a chance of rain, with thunderstorms often occurring in summer.
Winters in Yellowstone can get pretty cold too. Temperatures drop to as low as 20°F, and the whole park turns into a winter wonderland with snow covering the landscape.
Along with the season, the varying elevations of Yosemite National Park add to the weather uncertainty. And just like in Yellowstone, temperatures fluctuate and there’s always a moderate chance of rain.
However, true to its location in California, it doesn’t get as cold as Yellowstone.
Because of this, most people will probably prefer Yosemite’s weather. Yosemite is also lush with dense trees, giving off a cooler and fresher atmosphere, especially compared to Yellowstone’s humid geothermal area.
For both parks, the peak season is summer because it offers the best opportunity to spot wildlife, see flowers, and have access to all attractions. The waterfalls also tend to be more powerful in the summer.
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.