Best Time to Visit Yellowstone
Find out when to visit Yellowstone National Park based on your interests and desires.
There are several things to take into consideration when deciding what time of year to visit Yellowstone National Park. The park is open all year long; although in the winter, just the road from the north entrance to the northeast entrance is accessible for private vehicles. First things first, you need to look at the weather and how that will affect any activities you want to do. Second, you need to assess your crowd tolerance—there are busy seasons and not so busy seasons, so you need to determine how willing you are to be around the crowds.
Below, we have broken down the most common “when to go” questions into categories that will hopefully help you determine the best time of year to visit the park.
Best Time of the Year for Sightseeing
When the best to see sights in Yellowstone depends on what sights you want to see. But generally, your biggest variety of sights will be available in the spring. The rivers and waterfalls are rushing due to the snowmelt, and the meadows and forests are green and full of life. Newborn elk and bison are learning to walk and explore in the springtime and are a joy to see. Spring is also a great time to be in the park because the summer crowds have not hit yet. Late April and all of May are the hotspots for sightseeing, but these months can also have adverse weather that can impact your trip. Snow is not out of the question this time of year and the temperatures can dip well below freezing at night. And while spring is the best season to view wildlife with their young whether it be bison, elk, or bears, it is also the time of year that the animals become more aggressive and protective of their young, forcing visitors to use more caution around them.
Winter is also a great time to sightsee in the park—if you can handle the bitter cold weather. In most of the geyser basins, and at Mammoth Hot Springs, the steam rising off the thermal features, combining with the cold air is pretty magical. Wildlife is also concentrated to the lower valleys in the winter, and makes wildlife viewing easy and plentiful, despite being less active to conserve energy and heat. Frozen waterfalls, snow covered meadows, and icy rivers all make for incredible sightseeing and give the park an ethereal feel as everything is hushed with the snow and lack of crowds. Your opportunities for photography also abound in winter as the bright snow contrasted with the brightly colored hot springs or dark coats of bison and wolves make for some excellent photos. Of course, winter comes with its drawbacks as well. A snowstorm or white out could prevent you from seeing anything at all while in the park and the increased dangers of traveling in winter coupled with the requirement for over snow travel on snow coaches or snow mobiles make the park difficult to visit for some travelers.
Best Time of the Year for Hiking and Backpacking
Because America’s first national park gets so much snow during the winter and it sticks around through the spring, summer and early fall are the best time for backpacking and hiking in Yellowstone. The weather is perfect in the summer and early fall with warm, sunny days and cool nights. Driving access to most of the park begins in mid April, but many of the trails will still be covered in snow by this time. By about July, however, most of the snow will be melted, and you’ll have access to many more miles of trails, including trails that take you to the high country. Even though summer is by far the busiest time in the park, going on a hike, or even better a backpacking trip, will immediately decrease your chances of running into crowds. The wildlife is also out and about this time of year, which many on backpacking trips see as a benefit (and rightfully so) because these animals are so impressive to see. However, the wildlife poses a risk to hikers as Yellowstone is the wilderness and the animals that live there are wild as well. With proper precaution though, hiking, backpacking, and wildlife viewing can be done safely.
Since this is such a common time to backpack, permits for popular backcountry campsites may be harder to get on a walk-up basis. Either be flexible with your itinerary or plan in advance and get a reservation for the site you want. There are so many great hiking trails in Yellowstone, you are bound to get a permit that fits your desires. You can also book a tour with a guiding company that will take care of all the logistics and permits for you. This is a great way to experience the back country or even just go out on a day hike without having to worry about the details, especially if you’ve never been to Yellowstone before or if you’ve never backpacked Yellowstone before.
Hiking is available for longer into the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) than backpacking is, as the closer you get to winter in these seasons, the more likely you are to run into snowfields on an overnight trip. But in spring and fall you can usually find hiking trails that are mostly clear of snow and that you can do in only your hiking boots without the aid of snowshoes or skis. Hiking and backcountry camping during the winter are both possible with the help of snowshoes or skies but they come with increased risk and require more gear and expertise to accomplish. Hikers and backpackers all times of the year should be aware of the dangers that they might run into when away from populated areas in Yellowstone, the three biggest of these that stretch across all seasons are wildlife, hydrothermal areas, and weather. Bears are not the only animal that can be dangerous in Yellowstone; more people have been injured by bison than any other animal in the park. It is very important to never approach or feed any wildlife you see. Many people have also been severely burned or died from coming into contact with one of the many hot springs and geysers throughout the park. Heed all warning signs and always stay on the trail in these areas. Finally, the weather can pose a threat no matter what time of year it is. Whether it is hypothermia in winter or heat stroke in summer, visitors should be aware of the forecast and understand how to prepare for the worst weather they might encounter.
Best Time of the Year for Wildlife Viewing
Most wildlife give birth in the spring, making this a great time of year for wildlife viewing. In areas like Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley, bison calves are seen scampering along with the herd. And in Mammoth, elk calves are learning to walk and explore. (It is important to remember to keep a good distance between yourself and a cow elk, as they are very protective of their calf.) The last of both grizzly bears and black bears should be coming out of their dens in mid April, many of the females with cubs. While bears are one of the most sought after wildlife sightings, it is important to give these creatures the respect and distance they deserve. Bears can be aggressive if they have gained access to human food or are defending cubs. Never approach or feed any bear you encounter. Many of the smaller animals are also out and about during this time of year and you can see beavers in the rivers building dams and river otters also frolicking in the icy water. The park has many other more elusive animals that visitors seldom get to see like mountain lions, bobcats, wolverines, red foxes, and Canadian lynx. Your best chance to see any of these animals or the evidence of their presence in the tracks is up in the high country as they seldom come near populated areas. Another good time of the year to watch wildlife is in the fall. Mating, also called the rut, occurs this time of year; the bull elk, bull bison and bighorn rams can be seen in certain areas strutting around and defending their harem.
Lastly, winter is a fantastic time to view wildlife. Winter is a magical wonderland in Yellowstone, full of snowy forests, iced geysers, frozen waterfalls, and hanging icicles. The wildlife concentrates to lower elevations, so bison, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, foxes and coyotes are abundant in the valleys and can be viewed when skiing and showshoeing. An icicle-covered bison trudging through a snow-covered meadow is a marvelous sight. The snow can also be a benefit to those looking for wildlife as it preserves tracks much better than dirt and also makes the animals with dark coats such as bison, elk, and wolves stand out against the bright snow. The downside to wildlife viewing in winter is that bears are hibernating. While it is not impossible for a bear to come out of its den in the winter, it is very unlikely and most visitors don’t see bears when visiting in winter. As the best place to see them in the lower 48 states, many visitors come to Yellowstone and want to see one of the resident wolf packs. Your best bet to see these creatures is in Lamar Valley and Hayden valleys at dawn and dusk. They can be viewed year round, but are less often viewed in summer as a lower elevations are too warm for them and they retreat to the high country.
Best time of the year for snow sports
You might be thinking, “Isn’t the only time of the year for snow sports winter?” Well, that is true, but when during winter is best for snow sports is worth mentioning. Your opportunities for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing abound in Yellowstone and these activities can be very rewarding for those who are willing to put up with the temperatures. But unlike many other national parks, Yellowstone has a very distinct transition from winter to spring and fall to winter, and what many people normally view as winter months may be unavailable for winter sports due to changing weather and the National Park Service’s efforts to get the roads clear for spring. Typically by November 11 every year, all roads close to private vehicles except the road from the northern entrance to the north eastern entrance. At this time of the year, no private vehicles or over snow vehicles are allowed on these roads. Conditions permitting, on December 15 most of the roads will open to over snow vehicles such a snowmobiles and snow coaches. It is during this time, from December 15 to March 15 that snow sports are available in the park. In early March many of the roads close to over snow traffic, and the rest of them close on March 15 until early April or April 15 when many of them open for private vehicles. These dates are typical opening and closing dates and may fluctuate based on weather and conditions, but you can read online the current conditions for this year. While there may still be snow other times of the year such as mid fall or late spring, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are not recommended during these times because the snow will be slushy and many areas will very often have ice as the warmer temperatures during the day melt the snow only for it to refreeze overnight. It is also very likely that you will run into areas that don’t have snow at all and then your skis and snow shoes will be useless. Thus the transitions from fall to winter and winter to spring, while there may be snow, or not recommended for snow sports and are sometimes inaccessible to both over snow traffic and private vehicles due to road closures for plowing.
Best Time of the Year for Fishing
The best fishing in Yellowstone shifts as the seasons shift. Most rivers have their own seasons, so below are the best times to fish in each of the main fishing rivers in Yellowstone:
Late May to late June: the West side of the park is where you want to go this time of year. The Madison, Gibbon, and Firehole Rivers are flowing very well and are stocked with trout in late May through late June. The fishing season opens Memorial Day weekend, so you’ll want to be in the West.
Late June to early July: this is when fishing transitions from spring to summer, and you’ll want to focus on the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers and Trout Lake.
Early July through August: the North side of the park is where you’ll want to be in mid-summer. The Gardner and Lamar Rivers, Slough and Soda Butte Creeks are successful fishing.
September: as the weather becomes cool again, the Madison River becomes a great place to fish again, as well as the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers.
Fishing is a very popular activity in Yellowstone and some guests visit the park just to fish. Fishing licenses are sold at any of the visitor centers or at the fly shops outside the park. Most lead tackle is banned due to the risk of lead poisoning to the waterfall that live in the park. Ask a ranger for more details about whether or not your tackle is allowed. There are also multiple tour companies that offer fishing and boating tours in the park. While fishing might seem like an anomaly of an activity in a park that is trying to promote and maintain the natural habitat as it is, anglers can actually help in promoting the natural fisheries of the park by removing invasive species. Fishing regulations are often constructed so that recreational anglers can remove non-native fish from Yellowstone waters, allowing native fish to thrive. Recreational fisherman can also contribute to the scientific effort of monitoring the fisheries in the park by filling out the Volunteer Angler Report (VAR) which is returned to the park and is a report about where are you fished and what species and size of fish you caught. This information is indispensable to scientist working in the park, as the increased information is much more than they could gather on their own. If you are planning on fishing in the park, please take the time to fill out the VAR, available online or as a physical card you can pick up with your fishing license, as it will greatly help conservation efforts in the park.
Best Time of the Year to Avoid Crowds
Yellowstone National Park is visited by an average of 4.3 million people each year. One million people visit in July alone, often creating long lines of traffic, crowded viewing of famous sites, and circling around parking lots like a vulture waiting to get a spot. The increased crowds in the summer can definitely make the park feel less like a wilderness than you might have hoped for. And while it’s not impossible to enjoy a trip to Yellowstone in the summer, it definitely has some downsides and you may not be able to do as much as you would like because of delays on the road due to unexpected events like a bear on the side of the road or a car accident.
In contrast to the huge crowds of summer, just .3 million people visit Yellowstone during the entire winter season. This makes winter by far the best time of year to avoid the crowds. With lots of snow and less people, the park truly becomes a winter wonderland. And in many places, you will have it all to yourself. Of course, much of the park during the winter is only accessible with over snow vehicles and the vast majority of the park is an accessible to any kind of vehicle from the middle of November to the middle of December and then again from the middle of March to the middle of April. Yellowstone in the winter is also bitterly cold, with heaps of snow and whipping winds, and it may not be for everyone. Visitors should be prepared for the worst weather they might encounter, and this may mean getting additional gear and clothing that you don’t already have to be ready to face extreme conditions. This can be cumbersome and perhaps impossible for some guests, so if winter isn’t an option for you, late fall and early spring aren’t as cold, and still provide a much less crowded park. Of course, these seasons also come with their own issues, mainly the fact that the park is transitioning through seasons. Late spring and early fall are also options, and while it will be more busy than winter, it will not be nearly to the level of summer especially after schools go back in session.
If summer is the only time of year that fits into your schedule, here are some tips to avoid the crowds:
1. Go on a hike: taking just one step on a trail eliminates a lot of the crowds, and Yellowstone has over 1,000 miles of trails to choose from. Yellowstone backpacking trips especially are sure to get you away from the crowds.
2. Get an early start: the earlier you start, the more of the park you’ll have to yourself.
3. Have a plan, but also be flexible: know where you want to go before you begin driving, but also enjoy the scenery if you get stuck in a bison jam.
4. Avoid the busy eateries at mealtimes: there are plenty of beautiful places in the park that make perfect picnic spots.
best time of the year to see hydrothermal features
Yellowstone sits atop a super volcano with shallow magma only a few miles beneath the earth’s surface, so the hydrothermal features consisting of super heated water from magma beneath the earth’s crust are active year round. Hot springs, steam vents, mud pots, limestone terraces, and geysers all abound in Yellowstone and the park is the greatest concentration of these kind of features in the world. You will be able to view these features all throughout the year, although some seasons of the year are better than others for certain kinds of photography. Winter, as a matter of fact, is one of the best times to view these features for two reasons. The first is that there are far less people in the park, and thus far less people to get in between you and the hydrothermal features or to get in your pictures. During the summer, many of the famous sites like Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful geyser basin are swarmed with people and it can be difficult to get a good view of these amazing sites. But in winter, the crowds are lessened, partly due to the fact that you have to take over snow vehicles to get to these sites in winter. The second benefit to seeing these features in winter is the contrast the snow provides for photography and for sheer beauty. The colder temperatures make the steam rising from these hot springs and geysers even more impressive and the bright white snow stands in greater contrast to hot springs that have brilliant colors of blue, green, orange, and yellow. These colors are caused by thermophiles, micro organisms that thrive in extreme temperatures. The shades of these colors that you often see in hot springs such as Grand Prismatic Spring, represent the difference in water temperature as these micro organisms can only survive in very specific temperatures. Where one color ends is where that species of microorganism is no longer able live in the water temperature and thus gives way to a different species that exhibits a different color.
Spring and fall are good times to view hydrothermal features in Yellowstone simply because there are less crowds and you will be able to get a better look at these amazing features. While the geysers and hot springs will still be active in summer they can be obscured by all the people.
Best time of the year to visit with kids
The best time of the year to visit Yellowstone with kids is pretty much the same as the best time of the year to visit Yellowstone without kids with a few additional complications. All the same reasons to go to Yellowstone in the late spring or early fall still apply when you’re bringing the family, but there are some other things that you should take into consideration when deciding when to visit Yellowstone with kids. The obvious reason to go in the summer is because that’s when the kids are out of school, but that’s also when everyone else will be visiting the park so think about the little ones’ tolerance for other people and for sitting in long lines of traffic. It might be worth it take your trip as soon as school gets out, so that you can beat as many of the crowds as you can. While winter or spring break can seem like a good option to visit Yellowstone with the family, you should take into consideration the extreme weather and conditions that these times of the year can bring to the park. You will need good snow gear and adequate layered clothing to keep you and your family safe. This can be expensive if you don’t already have the gear and frustrating for children who want to play but are too bundled up in snow gear. In addition, if a winter storm sets in, consider how the little ones will do cooped up inside the lodge for a few days while the weather prevents you from being outside. You should also think about what activities you want to do. While some families might not be up to taking the kids hiking or snowshoeing, other adventurous parents who would be glad to introduce their kids to such activities at a young age, would be wise to think about how much the kids could handle as far as weather (cold or heat) and exercise. Yellowstone also poses some dangers due to hydrothermal areas that kids may not understand. Many people have been severely burned and died from coming in contact with the hot springs and geysers, so make sure to keep hold of your little ones in these areas and never leave kids unsupervised. It is also not wise to let kids hike separated from the group, even by as little as 5 yards due to wildlife that can be aggressive.
It is well worth the challenges to take your kids to Yellowstone as it is an experience they will likely remember for the rest of their lives. When to go depends on what the family wants to do and how much you think your kids can handle. Assess your options based on information for all the seasons, and then make the decision that is right for your family.
Weather and Temperatures
Below is a table of the average temperatures and days of precipitation at Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs for each month. Keep in mind that these are just averages, and that the park can be much warmer or colder than these temperatures. Weather in Yellowstone, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, can be unpredictable and change quickly. Snow seemingly out of season in May and June and afternoon thunder showers can come up quickly and post serious risk if you’re not prepared. Always be prepared for the worst weather you might encounter and carry layers so that you can regulate you body temperature as the temperature around you changes. It is very important to check the forecast for the specific place you will be visiting before you go out each day. If you can’t find a weather page for the area you are visiting, you can always look at the weather at the nearest visitor center or ask a ranger once you get to the visitor center. Make sure to check the road conditions and know when roads will be open to private vehicles, to over snow travel, or are closed altogether. When visiting in any season, it is important that guests look at the weather as well as what activities they want to do and consider whether they have the gear necessary. Do you have warm clothes that will retain their warmth when wet if you encounter snow? What about good snow boots or will you need to rent snowshoes or skis? If you’re planning on camping in the park, is your sleeping bag and sleeping pad rated to a low enough temperature to keep you warm at night. Most cases of hypothermia in the park occur when the temperature is between 30° and 50° F, so make sure you understand how to recognize this condition and what to do if it happens. Don’t let the possibility of bad weather deter you from visiting Yellowstone, but if the weather turns bad while you are out and about and you are not prepared, you should know when to turn back for your own safety and for the safety of those with you.
|Month||Yellowstone Lake||Mammoth Hot Springs||Days of Precip|
|Avg Hi||Avg Lo||Avg Hi||Avg Lo|
|January||22°F (-5°C)||2°F (-16°C)||30°F (-1°C)||11°F (-11°C)||9 Days|
|February||26°F (-3°C)||2°F (-16°C)||34°F (1°C)||13°F (-10°C)||8 Days|
|March||34°F (1°C)||9°F (-13°C)||41°F (5°C)||19°F (-7°C)||8 Days|
|April||41°F (5°C)||18°F (-8°C)||50°F (10°C)||27°F (-2°C)||10 Days|
|May||51°F (10°C)||27°F (-3°C)||60°F (15°C)||35°F (2°C)||9 Days|
|June||62°F (16°C)||34°F (1°C)||70°F (21°C)||42°F (5°C)||8 Days|
|July||72°F (22°C)||40°F (4°C)||81°F (27°C)||49°F (9°C)||5 Days|
|August||70°F (21°C)||38°F (3°C)||79°F (26°C)||47°F (8°C)||5 Days|
|September||61°F (16°C)||31°F (-1°C)||68°F (20°C)||39°F (4°C)||5 Days|
|October||46°F (8°C)||24°F (-4°C)||55°F (13°C)||30°F (-1°C)||8 Days|
|November||32°F (0°C)||13°F (-11°C)||39°F (4°C)||20°F (-6°C)||8 Days|
|December||22°F (-5°C)||4°F (-15°C)||30°F (-1°C)||12°F (-10°C)||10 Days|
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