A Local’s Guide: What is the Best Time to Visit Yellowstone?
Yellowstone doesn’t read like a textbook. Whatever you’ve learned about the park, a visit is sure to surprise, especially in the “off-seasons”.
Table of Contents
Snow changes the acoustic properties of wolves howling. Their howl spreads further, wailing through a world seemingly standing still. In the absence of other sounds—noises of civilization, mostly—I can fully appreciate the moment. Frozen landscape, waterfalls tempered by cold, bluebird skies… a precious opportunity to practice solitude. It’s the kind of thing you become aware of when living somewhere for almost a decade. In fact, exercising awareness is a prerequisite for finding your way in Yellowstone. By paying attention, we uncover its dynamic nature, the wild soul, and our place within it. My beloved park is a teacher like no other, and each season has unique instruction to offer. If you were to ask me, what is the best time to visit Yellowstone? I’d have to say: ALWAYS.
Yellowstone Is a Pocket of Living, Breathing EarthYellowstone National Park occupies the northwest corner of Wyoming with borders bleeding into neighboring Idaho and Montana. At the northern edge of the park, you’ll find my town: Gardiner, MT. Living here has challenged me more than anywhere else I’ve been, and trust me, I’ve seen a lot. As a biologist and conservation ecologist, I’ve visited every continent at least twice, and lived in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea and Antarctica. In my eight years in Yellowstone—where I now run the guiding company, In Our Nature—I’ve stopped conceptualizing the park as a place. Rather, I think of it as the heart of a much larger system. In fact, the 20 million acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the biggest undeveloped tracts of land in the U.S., supporting the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states, vast untouched land, and—perhaps the quintessential image of the park—wild bison and grizzly bear populations.
Extreme geology and weatherEverything that makes Yellowstone complex makes living here that much more difficult. Much of the national park is part of the Yellowstone Caldera—a large geographic depression—which formed after a string of supereruptions that began over 2.1 million years ago. That volcanism is still a driving force in the park today. The magma simmering under Yellowstone causes all sorts of geological dynamism, regularly producing between 700 and 3,000 earthquakes each year. Most of them are not felt, but some damage our infrastructure. Many of the geothermal features within the park are all but regular, which means that boardwalks around geysers, steaming vents, and hot pools sometimes need to be rebuilt. Climate change—the overarching challenge of our time—is increasingly causing extreme weather events, such as a greater frequency of wildfires and floods. Changes in climate are also affecting the complex relationships among the many animals, plants and fungi that live here; threatening the persistence of some species. Compounding it all is an odd dichotomy: our struggles to preserve this wilderness are sometimes at odds with our desire to let humans interact with it—over 4 million people visit every year.
Your First Visit to Yellowstone: Where to Start?To begin answering this question one thing needs to be said: Yellowstone can’t be reduced to a top ten list—it’s far too complex for that. But it definitely has something for any visitor. Figuring out what to do in Yellowstone and what is the best time to visit, you’re faced with an endless conflict: there are just so many desirable options that it can be hard to choose any! Do you enjoy wildlife watching? Exploring geothermal features and understanding how they formed? Maybe you want to go off the beaten path and hike in a lesser visited part of the park? Like I said, there’s something for everyone, and because it is always changing in some respect, you can come back year after year and always encounter something new and surprising. With that, a good starting point is to try and figure out when to visit—something I’ll gladly help you with.
What is the Best Time to Visit Yellowstone? Let’s Break it Down by Season
Visiting Yellowstone in Winter
Other people’s off-season means more Yellowstone for you
Lots of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing options
Time when Western hospitality really shines through
Great wildlife watching opportunities at lower elevations
The cold may present a problem for some
Not a good time to visit some of the top attractions
What kind of weather to expect?Temperatures can get dauntingly low, with daily averages ranging between 3 and 27 °F (-16 to -3 °C). But let me just say: it is not that cold (really). What we get here is something I call the “dry” cold, which is different from the “wet” cold in coastal areas. From my experience, it’s enough to just bundle up really well and your clothes will retain your body heat very effectively. As for the snow, it usually doesn’t come in very high quantities, but it is regular. Another thing to keep in mind is that it often gets pretty windy. If you ask me, the less-than-ideal weather is a miniscule price for what you get, though.
Get the chills (from wildlife watching)A large portion of winter visitors come for the wildlife watching in Yellowstone. Winter is the best time to see wolves in the wild, as well as coyotes, bison, foxes, elk, and otters. The thing that makes observing wildlife interesting over and over again is their constantly changing behavior. I am positive that the lives of these animals are just as complicated as our own, if not more so. After all, they don’t have a warm house to return to every evening. One of the things that makes winter wildlife watching extra cool is the fact that it is the time of the year when carnivores have the healthiest, most luxuriant coat. Gorgeous! I’ll return to this topic throughout the article, but you can also check out my more comprehensive overview of the best places to see wildlife in Yellowstone.
Make use of the snowYellowstone’s Northern Range comprises only ten percent of the national park, but it includes some of the most scenic areas, such as Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs. Best yet, it is one of the only sections that is accessible year-round—just remember that this is winter and it is best if you have snow tires! Apart from the wildlife watching mentioned above, the Northern Range provides a beautiful and serene playground for a winter adventure in Yellowstone, such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. For those that like to move through the terrain with a bit more speed, backcountry skiing tours are available in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas. Lastly, for the cold-tempered and well-prepared, backcountry camping is permitted from mid-December to mid-March (with a permit).
Experience life on the rangeVisiting Gardiner, Cooke City, or any of the tiny Western towns north of Yellowstone this time of year yields a great glimpse into the local lifestyle. People who stay here throughout the year are characters with interesting stories to tell.
Visiting Yellowstone in Spring
Visit some of the top attractions
Great time for birding and seeing lots of baby animals
Wildflowers are in peak bloom at lower elevations in June
Grizzly and Black bears emerge from their winter sleep
Brace yourself for the mud in April and May
Correspondingly, hiking is best at low elevations, higher routes tend to remain snow-covered
What kind of weather to expect?Springtime in Yellowstone is between early April and late June. April can still be very chilly, with average daily highs and lows being 19 and 47 °F (-7 and 8 °C). In June, temperatures can range between mid-30s and 80+ °F (3 and 29.4 °C), and even up into the 90s (32 °C) at low elevations. However, the typical average high is in the 60s °F (16 °C). You should be prepared for all kinds of scenarios though, since weather can be volatile, especially in early spring! We get rain, snow, sunshine and even the occasional hot day at lower elevations. An important caveat to note: because Yellowstone is such a large park, with a variety of microclimates and a large elevation span (from 6,000 ft to over 11,000 ft), temperatures can vary widely. Generally, it can be up to 10 degrees difference per 1,000 ft.
Spring is the best time to visit Yellowstone for blossoms and babies!Yellowstone is known as one of the best places for wildlife watching, and the best time to see them in baby form is between late April and mid June. So, if you’d like to see adorable baby bison, wolf pups, or bears the size of human infants, this is when to plan your trip. This is also a great time to visit for ornithophiles (bird nerds).
Marvelous sights minus the crowdsThe first things that come to mind when people hear the word “Yellowstone” are typically geysers and hot springs, such as Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Steamboat Geyser. The mind might also conjure up other well-known sites like the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Hayden Valley or Lewis Falls. The problem is, most of these can get very crowded in the summer—especially the geothermal features in the western part of the park. However, this is generally not a problem in the spring. For early bloomers that want their trip to revolve around its most famous (and photographed) spots, I would recommend coming in late May or June as the best time to visit Yellowstone; there are fewer people, but you still get good (mostly) weather.
The in-between season (i.e. when mud is your bud)The beginning of spring is marked by the melting snow, which means that you can no longer snowshoe or cross-country ski at many locations. Once all the snow has melted, it gets real muddy real fast—and remains that way for quite some time. This is especially true at higher elevations, where hiking is nearly impossible. However, shorter boardwalk and low-elevation hikes are possible (such as what you’ll find hiking around the Mammoth Hot Springs area); just make sure you have appropriate footwear. Another thing to keep in mind is that some trails are closed to areas where bears are denning.
Visiting Yellowstone in Summer
Best time to go hiking in Yellowstone
You are more likely to have mild temperatures and dry weather
Massive aggregations of bison
Wildflowers continue to bloom at higher elevations through July
Some places get crowded
Not as many chances for animal sightings
Some days get hot
Wildfire smoke is increasingly common in late July and August
What kind of weather to expect?Average daily highs and lows through July and August range between 39 and 73 °F (4 and 23 °C). However, at lower elevations temps can reach into the 80s (29.4 °C) and 90s (32 °C)—as with spring—at lower elevations. Likewise, temperatures at higher elevations can go below zero. As you can see, it generally isn’t that hot, but there are definitely days that can be described that way—especially in recent years. Thunderstorms are common in June, July and August (always pack a raincoat!). Further, you should always have a plan for how to keep yourself warm if you’re staying outside during the night, especially in the high ground. Remember, most of the park is above 7,500 feet and snow can fall in any month. Again, an important caveat to note: because Yellowstone is such a large park, with a variety of microclimates and a large elevation span (from 6,000 ft to over 11,000 ft), temperatures can vary widely.
When is the best time to visit Yellowstone for hiking? Summer!Yellowstone National Park spans 2.2 million acres, meaning that it can never really get too crowded, except for a few areas. In large part, this is due to a restrictive backcountry permit system. Because campsites have a limited capacity each night, you need to be flexible when camping in Yellowstone—you have to plan months ahead and coordinate around the sites and dates that are available. On the flipside, things stay serene even during peak season (May 15 – October 31). If you don’t want to deal with all the logistics on your own, consider a guided backpacking trip in Yellowstone. Alternatively, day hikes from Canyon Village or around the Mammoth Hot Springs, with overnights in hotels and guesthouses, is another way to see the park without having to lug your camping equipment around. For some hiking recommendations, check out seasoned hiker, Ebony Robert’s, rundown of the best day hikes in Yellowstone.
Bison-speckled plainsAnother way to avoid the crowds is to go out at dawn for a wildlife watching trip to Yellowstone’s backcountry. The park’s grizzly bears and wolves are most active during the coolest hours of the day because they cannot take off their fur coat, making the sunrise over Lamar or Hayden Valley even more worth getting out of bed for! In early summer, you’ll also enjoy seeing baby bison, elk and pronghorn following their mothers and learning to choose the best meadows. Later in summer, it’s time for baby-making. Bison breeding season, or the “rut”, starts in late July and goes through the end of August. During this time bull bison attend (or harass) the female “cow” bison until they relent. Pronghorn and elk breeding season comes next. It’s like a wild(life) party scene. Summer is also a great time to see birds busy raising their young and the landscape clothed in wildflowers. It’s the perfect time to go for a day hike or take advantage of the most pleasant weather of the year to get way out in the backcountry.
Plan your trip way ahead (if possible)Since summer is the busiest season in Yellowstone, you need to consider a few things:
- Where exactly do you want to go?
- Where will you sleep?
- What will you see/do?
Visiting Yellowstone in Fall
September is the extension of summer
Another great chance to see some of the top attractions
Backpacking is still possible
The backpacking season is coming to an end
Roads close in November, except between Gardiner, MT, Mammoth, WY and Cooke City, MT
What kind of weather to expect?Temperatures change dramatically between September and November. While you can enjoy average daily highs of 63 °F (17 °C) in September, this drops to 34 °F (1 °C) in November. As for the lows, temps dip from 30 to 12 °F (-1 to -11 °C). Said another way, September is like a colder August, November is pretty much winter, while October features highly unpredictable weather and can be either warm or very cold (and snowy). One last time: because Yellowstone is such a large park, with a variety of microclimates and a large elevation span (from 6,000 ft to over 11,000 ft), temperatures can vary widely!
Best time to visit yellowstone for hiking without the crowdsThe first few weeks of September can be thought of as the extension of summer and the weather is still pretty good for getting into the high country. The top attractions at the beginning of fall are still popular, but do not see as many visitors as in July and August. Also, the trails are less busy with people (and mosquitoes), so September and October are a great time to go on half-day hikes in Yellowstone, or delve deeper into the backcountry, such as hiking in Bechler River Valley.
Note that these backcountry areas are fragile; they feature undisturbed streams, creeks, lakes, and waterfalls. In fact, 90% of the park was recommended for federal wilderness designation in 1972, however Congress has yet to enact this. In order to maintain the pristine nature of these special places for future visitors, please be mindful of your impact and abide by the Leave No Trace principles. If you’re unsure about how to tread lightly when heading into the backcountry, consider going with a guide who has familiarity with the area and can help minimize the effect of visitation.If you do head out during the fall, you may bear witness to several important milestones for the large mammals in the park. One, while baby elk are born in May and June, they are conceived during September and October, what is known as the rut, or mating season. Two, you might also see grizzlies enter their hyperphagia phase, which essentially consists of non-stop eating in preparation of hibernation. In fact, their caloric intake quadruples compared to their typical diet from May to September.
Flexibility is keyOnce we’re in October, it is much more important to be flexible with your choices. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend anyone plan a backpacking trip in October. You may need to allow flexibility if weather comes in, but you may also have wonderful cool dry days and cold nights. If you’re planning a visit around this time, you should keep a close eye on the weather forecast and plan your trip accordingly. Day hikes are generally a better option, but you should mind the elevational gradient—use caution when hiking up high, given the colder weather and susceptibility to changing weather conditions.
Winter is on the horizonAll the roads south of Mammoth Hot Springs and all the entrances (except for the northern one) get closed in the first couple of weeks of November. This marks the beginning of winter. So if you’re planning a November visit, you can expect it to be very much like a visit in the winter months, but you may still have some good hiking opportunities in low elevation, weather permitting.
Additional Information to Help You Plan Your Visit to Yellowstone
Do I need a guide to enjoy Yellowstone National Park?You can certainly visit Yellowstone without a guide, but you will get SO much more out of your experience by spending some time with one. Consider this: the Greater Yellowstone Area is home to 400 animal species, 200 miles of roads and over 900 miles of hiking trails. If your goal is to see bears, wolves or other animals, the vastness of the park can make it difficult to be in the right place at the right time if you go out on your own. Participating in a wildlife watching tour in Yellowstone with a guide who has intimate knowledge of the park, where animals tend to roam, and where food sources are, will substantially increase your chances. If you’d like to go beyond the boardwalks, guided day hikes in Yellowstone are a great opportunity to learn about natural history and ecology, adding depth to your experience beyond just pretty views. Going on a backpacking trip is another instance where hiring a guide makes sense; they can help secure permits, provide equipment so you don’t have to travel with it, and organize an itinerary catered to what you are most interested in. Your guide will help you avoid conflicts with bears and help you store your food, waste and other attractants safely. Given that it is a matter of life and death for you and the bear, hiking or backpacking with a guide, if you are not familiar with bear safety measures, is strongly recommended. Your guide will teach you about ways you keep yourself safe, they will have bear spray, and instruct you how to use it. Bear encounters can happen anywhere, so it is important to never hike alone and always carry spray. With all that said, if you just want to do some sightseeing and stick to the boardwalks, you generally don’t need a guide.
Safety AdviceIt goes without saying that you should never get close to Yellowstone’s animal residents (stay at least 100 yards back from big animals such as bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards from all other wildlife). However, if the animals are changing their behavior because of your presence—regardless of the distance—move farther away. One advantage of going on a wildlife watching adventure in Yellowstone is the usage of spotting scopes, provided by the guide. If you’re planning to go anywhere away from sightseeing areas, you should familiarize yourself with these comprehensive guidelines on bear safety provided by the Yellowstone National Park Service (they also have a series of wildlife safety videos). When at the park, be sure to check in at the visitor centers for updates on animal activity. Another important piece of safety advice has to do with orientation: you should always carry a map of Yellowstone (and know how to use it!). If you’ll be using your cell phone, make sure you’ve downloaded some for use offline, like this one from the National Parks Service. The NPS has also released an app for visiting the park that makes planning your trip easier. Not: there is no cell phone reception in most of Yellowstone.
Packing list for your trip to YellowstoneFor a day out during the warmer months, here is a list of the equipment you need to bring. Your requirements will change if you plan on backpacking, are going during the winter, or want to participate in water sports while in the park.
- Day pack large enough to carry all the items listed (around a 25-40L bag)
- Hiking poles — optional
- Water bottle or hydration bladder (3L capacity)
- 3L of water (the minimum amount you need to bring)
- Lightweight hiking boots or shoes with good grip
- Spare clothes for layering
- Waterproof rain jacket
- Toiletries (sunscreen, hand sanitizer, bug spray, toilet paper, etc.)
- Bear spray — provided by the guide
- Bug spray — optional (must be DEET free!)
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Camera — optional (but recommended)