Two Camps on Bad Roads: West Yellowstone, MT

My camp at West Yellowstone with the ton in the backfround.

My camp at West Yellowstone with the town in the background. Great camps like this one are very often along some real bad roads. In this photo I’m parked right by the road. This is the good part of the road and it still isn’t good.

(Because of a silly mistake on my part, this post is out of order. It should have come before my last post which  has me leaving West Yellowstone, MT and going to Cody. This one tells about me getting to West Yellowstone. Oh well, no real harm done.)

After my wonderful time on the Smiths Fork/Greys River Road it was the week of the 4th of July and it was getting hot. One thing I never do is travel on major holidays so I knew wherever I went I was going to spend at least a week there hunkered down from the insane crowds on the roads. To be in one spot that long it had to have 1) internet so I could work from camp and, 2) it had to be relatively cool. Because one of my goals is to drive all the entrances into Yellowstone NP, that pushed the town of West Yellowstone, MT to the top of the list. It was at high enough elevation to be cool and according to the MVUM there was plenty of dispersed camping on the hill to the south of town. I’ve found that if you can get up on a hill and get line-of sight to the town, you almost always have good internet.

My camp at Island Park, Idaho.

My camp at Island Park, Idaho. The clearing is just wide enough to turn around in with several cuts back and forth. I had a good 4g signal and there was a nice creek about 10 feet on the other side of the van for Cody to play in.

Then, after the Holiday traffic goes home, I could drive up US 191 to Bozeman, MT to do some heavy shopping. It has a Walmart, REI and a Smiths grocery store that is owned by Kroegers and I really like it. That road was also on my list of scenic drives to do in Montana so I could check it off my list. Finally, after all that I could drive its entrance into Yellowstone NP.

This will give you an idea of how tight and narrow the "road" is.

This will give you an idea of how tight and narrow the “road” is. The problem isn’t just the branches, an RV would be hitting the trees on both sides of the van.

So my mind was made up, that’s where I was going next. I stopped for gas at Alpine and there was a nice older gentleman filling up next to me and he was towing a 5th Wheel and we got to talking about our travels. He had just come from West Yellowstone and suggested I camp at Island Park, Idaho which is just south of West Yellowstone. He said it was in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest which had an abundance of dispersed camping in a beautiful area. I decided to give that a try and planned to go that way.

At Island Park I stopped at the Rangers office and asked about dispersed camping. He told me about a place that would work and I headed there. At Macks Inn I turned east onto FR 059 and drove until I came to FR 082, the Fish Creek RD. On the way I noticed a very faint trail that headed back into the woods and I decided to give it a try. It was very narrow and overgrown with saplings but I found a nice turn-around spot with enough room to camp. I checked my JetPack and I was getting 3 bars of 4g—I was home!

I stayed there for 2 nights but unfortunately I had foolishly not come with enough ice to last much longer in the heat. I decided that if I had to go into town for ice I might as well head up to West Yellowstone where it would be cooler and prettier. So I broke camp and drove to West Yellowstone.

Like all the small towns at entrances to National Parks, West Yellowstone is a giant tourist trap, but I think it may be more blatantly a tourist trap than any other town I’ve ever been to. There is virtually nothing there but places to buy tourist stuff, restaurants and motels. But, I still liked it none the less. I got my ice and did some shopping then headed up the mountain. Right away I was on a ridge looking down at the town with a strong internet signal, so that was good. But there were few roads and fewer campsites. I found one road about 2/3 of the way up the ridge and headed up it.

The road into my camp above West Yellowstone, MT was very rutted. I would not have tried to take any RV up it. I had no problem for most of it but Cody and I walked another mile or twp higher up it and it got progressively worse. Finally it got so ban my van could not have been able to get through it. However, even then I could have filled in the deep rut with rocks and gotten over it.

The road into my camp above West Yellowstone, MT was very rutted. I would not have tried to take any RV up it. 

Right away the road started to get rough. Obviously it got little traffic and the spring run-off from snow melt had left deep ruts all along the road which had exposed rocks poking through the road.  My van has high enough ground clearance that I’ve driven down many roads like this so it didn’t bother me at all, but if you aren’t familiar with that kind of driving, you could find it frightening.  I found a nice campsite with a great view looking down at West Yellowstone and it had 3 bars of 4g, I was home! The road was rough enough that it got very little traffic and when there was someone on the road they were crawling along and not flying down the road throwing dust and rocks at me and endangering Cody.

I was there for almost a week waiting for the 4th of July to get over and had my mountain lion encounter which I related to you in an earlier post. Finally the nightmare of holiday traffic was over and I left to continue my journey.

What stands out about these two camps was the road I camped on. Anything smaller than a van, like a car or SUV could have driven either road, but nothing bigger–and low-slung cars couldn’t make it without seriously risking their undercarriage. One car did make it up to my camp at West Yellowstone but there’s no doubt that she had dragged her undercarriage numerous times and maybe even did some damage. At Island Park the road was flat and smooth, but it was extremely narrow.

One question I get fairly often is “Can my RV go to the campsites you go to?” Quite simply, an RV couldn’t have driven either of these roads! RVs are too wide and long for Island Park and too low and long for West Yellowstone. When I think about the other camps I’ve been too, I don’t think an RV could make it to most of them. Some, like these two, it would not have been physically possible, but most of them it might have been physically possible but the the average person would take one look and not even consider driving it in an RV, even if it was physically possible.

The biggest problem with most RVs is the waste tank dump valves–they are usually far in the back and very low–a terrible combination when it comes to bad roads. The ruts and rocks on many roads I drive on seem to be spaced perfectly to rip them out from under an RV!

Nothing bigger than my van could have driven down this road. My front tire is 6 inches from a tree and the opposite rear tire is less than a foot from a tree.

I’m almost always willing to head down a marginal road because if I come to a spot that I’m afraid to go over, I can always just put it in reverse and back out. It’ll take time and be tedious, but it’s no big deal. However, if it’s an RV that just barely fits then it goes from being a minor inconvenience to a major hassle, a hassle I’m not willing to put up with.  If I were pulling my trailer, it would be much worse!! I never just head down a narrow forest road while towing a trailer!

This is my MV 30 re-inflating my tire. I now have a MV 50 which is a little more powerful. They are both 12 volt and are powered by your battery

Another reason I go down bad roads is I’m confident if I do get stuck or get a flat back there I can probably get myself out. Here are some ways I do that:

  • Fixing a low or flat tire: I always have Fix-a-Flat with me! It’s an aerosol can that both inflates and fixes your tire. I’ve had great luck with it and never go anywhere without it! Neither should you! You do have to alert the person fixing the flat that you used it, but it will get you back to him! Get it from Amazon here Fix-A-Flat Aerosol Tire Inflator for Large Tires
  • Air down your tires: Nothing will help as much as airing down your tires to either 15 or 20 pounds, or even lower. Very often that’s all you need to do to get unstuck. But then you have to re-inflate your tires and I always carry a MV 50, 12 volt compressor for that. I recommend you do as well. Get it from Amazon here:  MV50 SuperFlow High-Volume 12-Volt Air Compressor
  • Carry a “Portable Tow Truck”. I love these things; they are long pieces of plastic that you wedge under your tires and then you can get unstuck. They work! The nubs on one side dig into the ground and the nubs on the other grip the tire. Highly recommended! Get it from Amazon here:  Portable Tow Truck

Thanks for supporting this site by shopping Amazon from these links. Even if you don’t buy these items, I will make a little from anything else you do buy–and it will cost you nothing!

This is my “Portable Tow Truck.” I’ve used it to get unstuck before.


I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

24 comments on “Two Camps on Bad Roads: West Yellowstone, MT
  1. Rob says:

    I parked on a road last night that an RV or anything towing a trailer would not have made it, it was a drive-back out kind of road.

    A great reminder about the unstuck stuff, the last time I got stuck I needed a highlift jack, a guy in a jeep came by & had one.

  2. hotrod says:

    A small trailer, like you have, could handle such a road? Would love to have one as well but I see limitations with it. Often thought just a 4×4 truck with a camper top might be my choice and go minimalist style. I like the idea of back road isolation.

    • Lucy says:

      Bob, I’m wondering if an Oliver elite II ( 2-wheel ) fiberglass trailer would handle that rough road.

      U’re having too much fun, not fair ! just kidding.

      My regards, Lucy.

      • Bob Bob says:

        Lucy, I’m sorry, I know nothing about that trailer so I can’t even speculate.

        The issue wouldn’t be so much the rough road, it would be getting it turned around. If that trailer is light enough that you could unhitch it and turn it by hand then I would say yes.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hotrod, yes, my 6×10 cargo trailer could handle the road. The problem is getting it turned around. I have a long van and then you throw in a trailer in a winding narrow road. Where I was camped I think I could have turned it but it would have taken some work. There were no other places to turn it and the road got too rough to continue in another mile so I would have had to back it down that very rough, narrow winding road.

      It would be a nightmare and I wouldn’t consider doing it. Because I am a walker anyway, I would have taken Cody and we would have walked it before trying to go down it.

  3. There have been times I’ve headed down narrow “roads” like those, all the time thinking, “Please please please let there be somewhere I can turn around.”
    Al Christensen recently posted…BugsMy Profile

  4. Tina says:

    Hi Bob,

    Great post and good information. That’s why I want to get a van or something small to get back in to those places. Can’t wait to buy your new travel books.

    What is the metal handle for on your sliding door? Does the plastic one no longer work.



    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Tina! I’ve had quite a bit of trouble with that door, including the plastic part breaking. I’ve gotten it so it works just fine but the mechanic suggested the handle so that i put the least stress on the door I can. I think it does help. I use the door handle to release the catch and then use the handle for the force to move the door.

      I hope it helps!

  5. Richard McBeef says:

    Bob, this was a great post. However, it lacked a noticable amount of cute pictures of Cody. 😉

    Is there any way you can make a post about cute little Cody sometime? He is so darn adorable . I am so jealous of you for being his friend/master!

  6. Carla says:

    I got myself down a few roads nearly that bad last year. I appreciate your recommendations for items to get unstuck, because I did have a few close calls. I have fix a flat for truck tires, but now I know what two other purchases I need to make before heading to RTR in January. Thanks, Bob.
    P.S. Since I used to live in MT, I had been to “West” many times, but had no idea there was some boondocking so close to the expensive-to-stay towns you’ve shown us.
    Carla recently posted…FREE ebook Sunday & Monday, Aug. 23 & 24My Profile

  7. Calvin R says:

    This is a great illustration of the phrase “nine miles of bad road.”

  8. John Dough says:

    Hey Bob,
    Please keep the pictures of Cody coming.
    I think every post should have at least one or more dog pic.
    It’s cool to see him enjoying himself, he’s a handsome fella.

  9. Cae says:

    I’ve got a 4×4 pick up truck and I just bought a very high clearance trailer for such roads. It can handle pretty rough roads.. But I will scout the tough ones first before just driving in.

    • Bob Bob says:

      CAE, some of those off-road trailers are pretty amazing. The big problem is coming to a dead end and not being able to turn around. Backing it out can be pretty unpleasant, especially when it was unpleasant going in forward.

  10. Cae says:

    Excellent point

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks CAE. I’m not very good backing a trailer so it’s a big deal to me. But some people are so good it wouldn’t really matter.

      Still, it’s something to avoid!

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