Hey adventurers! It’s Kasey Austin – the President of Operations and self-proclaimed Yellowstone expert here at Austin Adventures! Yellowstone and its surroundings are where I plan year-round tours, guide group adventures and play on the weekends, so I feel like I know my stuff – at least a little bit!
Let’s get down to this business of answering our question: When is the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park? First, I bet you’re hoping I’ll give you a simple, solid answer like “September” or “wintertime when the park isn’t crowded.” And honestly, those were my first go-to answers, but after I sat down to think some more about my favorite time of year, I couldn’t nail down any one time to go. And truthfully, the best time to visit Yellowstone is all the time and anytime of year.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share some pros and cons about visiting during each of Yellowstone’s seasons so you can choose what time of year to go based on what it is you’re looking for: less crowds, wildlife opportunities, best time for photography, etc. Read on to discover more about Yellowstone’s seasons and what time of year you should check out our world’s first national park!
Winter (mid-December – mid-March)
I consider Yellowstone’s winter season to take place during the annual opening and closing of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the accommodation located directly across the parking lot from the Old Faithful Inn (and no, the historic inn is not open during the winter).
If you’re looking for a time of year where Yellowstone is practically barren of visitors, this is the season for you. Less than 3% of the park’s 4+ million visitors see Yellowstone during the months of December, January, February, and March combined!
Most roads are closed to vehicle traffic and the Snow Lodge can be accessed via the West, South or North entrances by snow coach. The only road open to vehicles is the road connecting Cooke City at the Northeast Entrance to Gardiner at the North Entrance. Having that road open is a win because this is a great time to go wolf watching in Lamar Valley, located just inside the Northeast Entrance.
In the winter, there is an almost overwhelming amount of things to do inside the park’s borders like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, ice skating, wildlife watching, and star gazing. Outside the park, there is even more to do including downhill skiing, dog sledding, sleigh riding, sledding, hot spring soaking, and more. If you need yet another reason, the scenery is beyond incredible – picture a mountainous snow-covered wonderland and pepper the scene with steaming geysers and brawny bison. Ahh, paradise!
Pros of Visiting in Winter
- More breathing room – less than 3% of park visitors visit during this time
- Winter activities abound and there’s something for everyone
- The wildlife is out, especially at lower elevations near the park’s West and North Entrances
- A stay at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge or Mammoth Hotel feels cozy and exclusive
- Abundant winter photography opportunities of snowy landscapes and frost-laden wildlife
Cons of Visiting in Winter
- Most roads are closed due to high snowpack
- Nearly all lodges and other facilities are closed due to road closures
- Accessibility can be challenging and expensive if you plan to make the trip to Old Faithful
- It’s….well, cold! (Battle against this by dressing in layers!)
- Bears are in hibernation but you can still see them at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
Spring (mid-March – mid-June)
Spring is a time when the park emerges from a cold, snowy winter and life starts to peek its way back into different parts of the park again. If you study Yellowstone’s wilderness closely, you can practically watch spring materialize before your eyes as a white landscape slowly but surely turns green, usually by the time June rolls around.
Green shoots of grass along with the first spring flowers – spring beauties, glacier lilies, and larkspur – start to pop up everywhere as snow melts away at the lower elevations. It’s a beautiful time when everything looks and smells fresh, ready for the start of a new season. The animal babies of the year— tumbling black bear cubs, knobby kneed bison calves, and white-spotted elk calves—start to emerge as the snow melts and are sure to tug at any animal lover’s heart strings!
The park is practically void of visitors (compared to summer) and you’ll find all the lodges and facilities start to open up on a staggered schedule as the roads are cleared of snow. You can keep an eye on the Park Road Status and the Lodge Opening and Closing Dates at these links.
Pros of Visiting in Spring
- Baby season! Wildlife babies are out and about and can first be seen April – June
- Park has very few visitors March – May; June starts to pick up as kids get out of school
- Landscape changes drastically from a winter wonderland to a bright, green terrain
- Bears begin coming out of hibernation anytime from March on and are readily spotted
- The first spring flowers begin to pop up out of the recently snow-laden soil
Cons of Visiting in Spring
- It can be too snowy for summer activities and not snowy enough for winter activities
- Trails can be quite snowy and/or muddy through June
- Lodges and facilities open on a staggered schedule which can make planning challenging
- Roads throughout the park open on different dates, conditions permitting
- Weather can be unpredictable with snow storms occurring through May (sometimes later)
Summer (mid-June – mid-September)
There’s no question about it – Yellowstone in the summertime means crowded boardwalks, shoulder-to-shoulder Old Faithful eruptions, and busy roads (especially during a bison or bear jam!) The kids are out of school and families arrive to Yellowstone’s entrances in droves.
There’s a reason Yellowstone is so popular in the summer: the park is most accessible at this time of year and the scenery is at its absolute finest with colorful wildflowers taking over the hillsides, vibrant sunrises and sunsets gracing the wide open skies, and brilliant white snow capping the mountaintops. Wildlife is readily seen across the park throughout the day; however, the wildlife enthusiasts who venture out at dawn or dusk are bound to get lucky with sightings during the coolest parts of the day when animals are most active, especially in areas like Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Yes, Yellowstone is crowded in popular areas like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but I’ve found that most trails in the park are completely deserted. Whether this is due to most visitors’ shortage of time, lack of trail knowledge, or fear of bears (or maybe a combination of all three) is beyond me, but there are miles of backcountry (and frontcountry!) trails that rarely see hikers.
Pros of Visiting in Summer
- Great weather includes cool, brisk mornings and warm, sunny afternoons
- Everything is open – roads, entrances, lodges, restaurants, trails, etc.
- Wildflowers pop on the open hillsides June – August
- Wildlife abound and are best seen at dawn and dusk when temperatures are cool
- Limitless activities will keep you busy from sunrise to sunset
Cons of Visiting in Summer
- Crowds are at their peak all summer long which can impact experience at popular sites
- Afternoon thunderstorms can put a damper on outdoor plans
- “Wildfire season” can severely alter air and view quality, although timing is unpredictable
- There’s almost too much to do – don’t over plan and keep in mind travel time can be long
- Pre-planning and booking is essential as lodging and campsites can fill up a year in advance
Fall (mid-September – mid-December)
Fall in Yellowstone is one of my absolute favorite times to visit “Wonderland.” The kids have gone back to school and parents have resumed their normal work schedules. Yellowstone itself seems to sigh a huge breath of relief as the summer crowds dwindle and nature can get back to doing its thing without the presence of millions of people milling about.
The animals look their strongest and healthiest after a summer spent grazing, browsing, and feeding on the park’s rich lands. The antlered male ungulates (hoofed mammals) display striking racks, and the male elk put on quite the show competing for females’ attention bugling and fighting other males during the rut.
The change in fall colors is drastic but brief, and if you catch the timing just right, you’ll walk away with incredible photos of a golden season. During the fall, roads and lodges begin to shut down on a staggered schedule throughout September into October, but the weather is often quite pleasant as the winds die down this time of year and the sun shines brightly. Snow is likely, oftentimes beginning in September, but that just adds to the beauty of Yellowstone during this special time of year.
Pros of Visiting in Fall
- It’s an experience in and of itself to hear an elk’s bugle during the fall rutting season
- Wildlife appear to be at their healthiest after a long, prosperous summer in the park
- Bull elk, moose, and deer showcase their handsome antlers
- Beautiful photography with the changing colors of the aspens – especially north part of park
- Crowds die down to practically nothing once September rolls into October
Cons of Visiting in Fall
- Roads begin to close down for the season and sometimes close in the blink of an eye
- Unpredictable weather – you never know when the first snow is going to fly!
- Advanced planning required for staggered lodge and facility closures
- Just like the spring, trails can get very muddy or snowy
- Many of the businesses at the park’s “entrance towns” close down for a much-needed break
Regardless of what time of year you choose to visit Yellowstone, all seasons have something exceptional to offer the wildlife enthusiast, the budding photographer, or the intrepid adventurer. Each season holds dear memories to me, and my only hope is that you get out there to experience Yellowstone at any time of year with you and yours. (Bonus points if you make it to Yellowstone multiple times during different seasons!)
Austin Adventures offers scheduled and custom Yellowstone vacations year-round, so if you need help deciding the best time to go yo Yellowstone, your Yellowstone experts are here to provide direction. See you on the trails!