What’s the Difference Between Yosemite and Yellowstone?
Travelers to California often confuse Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. Maybe it’s because the two names begin with the letter Y, or maybe it’s because the parks are equally famous.
Regardless, we are frequently questioned on the difference between the two parks, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. So here we go.
Yosemite is the first piece of protected land on earth, ever. It was first protected in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the preservation of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove (the big trees) from any commercial development, marking an important milestone in American, and world, history. Today over 15% of the earth is now protected. Because California was already a state in 1864, the local government was tasked with the job of maintaining and protecting the new park.
Almost ten years later, in 1872, a law was enacted to protect Yellowstone, which became the country’s first national park. The federal government had more of a challenge with Yellowstone, however. The land to be protected was part of Wyoming territory, not an official state yet, which meant there was no local government to oversee its protection. So instead, mostly from a lack of options, lawmakers were forced to create Yellowstone as a national park, protected by the federal government.
So which park was protected first? Yosemite. Which is the first national park? Yellowstone. Are you confused yet?
The National Parks’ Natural Differences
Yosemite is a giant granite slab in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range on the border of California. Pushed up by plate tectonics, eroded by weather, and shaped by glaciers, the park has some of the largest and tallest granite monoliths, or walls, in the world. You can stand in spots, such as at the base of El Capitan, Yosemite’s most famous wall, and wonder how something of such magnitude could be formed. When privately hiking in the backcountry, you can see even more granite formations, seemingly endlessly stretching over the horizon. Trees, waterfalls and wildlife seek solitude between these granite domes and cliffs, and hiking here will exercise calf muscles you never knew you had.
Yellowstone, on the other hand, is in the Colorado Rocky Mountain range and is an extinct volcano caldera. Because of that, and because the earth’s crust is thinner here than most other places on earth (only three kilometers thick instead of the usual 20), volcanic activity such as geysers and sulfur-smelling pools of red, blue, and turquoise water dominate the landscape. The cliffs are nowhere near as large as Yosemite’s, but its remote location gives Yellowstone a larger variety of wildlife, such as bison and elk, and draws way smaller crowds, especially on the trails.
Which National Park is Easier to Access?
California is the most populous state in America, with around 40 million residents. That means 40 million people are within a day’s drive of Yosemite, with many international travelers visiting on a daily basis from San Francisco. And recently, because Yosemite has been on the big screen, as featured in the movie “Free Solo,” the attendance continues to climb. You can reach Yosemite in less than one day from San Francisco, whether in your own car or on a tour.
Yellowstone, though, is in Wyoming, one of America’s least populous states, with few large cities nearby. That means many of the visitors to Yellowstone show up only for the national park. No big cities to explore, and no California coast road trip. It’s instead nature, the wild west of America and wildlife. And it will take way more time than only a one-day drive. You’ll most likely be flying to Jackson and then driving to Yellowstone.
Yosemite’s Wildlife vs. Yellowstone’s Wildlife
Both parks are home to a variety of birds. Both have bears. But Yellowstone’s wildlife is more varied than Yosemite’s. Why? Look at the list of Yellowstone’s creatures: wolves, elk, and bald eagles bathing in rivers; even when you drive through Yellowstone, it’s not unusual to see a one-ton bison in the middle of the road. The bear population is larger in Yellowstone as well, with both grizzlies and black bears, whereas in Yosemite you can find only black bears (because the grizzlies have been extinct in California since the 1800s.) This makes your wilderness hiking in Yosemite less scary, with bear spray rarely needed, but less wildlife sightings in the popular spots of the park.
Animals in Yosemite include bears, deer, bobcats, and snakes, but there are nowhere near as many around popular areas as in Yellowstone.
Accommodation in Each National Park
The accommodations in Yellowstone and Yosemite are similar, as in many other national parks in America. Both consist of a few rustic hotels, public campsites, an opportunity to camp in the backcountry with wildlife, and luxury accommodations. The high-end accommodation in Yosemite is The Ahwahnee Hotel, which has hosted royalty, celebrities, and presidents, whereas Yellowstone has the Old Faithful Inn, where you can stay adjacent to the famous geyser.
Because Yellowstone has fewer visitors than Yosemite, only 2-3 million per year instead of 4-5 million, you can usually find reservations more easily, although not guaranteed. With large crowds in Yosemite, though, especially in summer, you are forced to get creative, and maybe even book a private hike in the Yosemite backcountry, a true wilderness experience.
Which Park Would You Rather Experience?
We, of course, are biased towards Yosemite. This is our backyard, our home. And after spending years here, although we appreciate the beauty and remoteness of Yellowstone, we enjoy the city of San Francisco and the easy access to the wilderness in Yosemite. We have the tech and the trees. The beach and, after a half-day drive, the bears.
But really, as a diplomatic answer, there is no comparison. Yellowstone is different than Yosemite, as the Arches is different than the Grand Canyon. The same as Paris is different than San Francisco. Which national park is better? It’s all about what you enjoy, who you are with, the time of year, and what you choose to do.
Unfortunately, we do not offer tours of Yellowstone. It’s logistically unfeasible, and we enjoy Yosemite too much.