Hey adventurers! It’s Kasey Austin – the VP 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.
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,
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
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
- 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 –
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. You can check out more of Yellowstone’s Day Hiking Trails at this link.
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 –
- 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
- “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 –
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
- 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
- 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 where and when to go, your Yellowstone experts are here to provide direction. See you on the trails!