It’s the most common question, and maybe among the most difficult to answer because it so personalized. Yellowstone National Park is enormous—nearly 3,500 square miles (9,000 sq km)—and offers so much that it can be overwhelming to plan a trip. Deciding which season to visit is a good starting place.
Every Yellowstone season has advantages. Are you a hiker? Do you prefer a quieter experience with your national park? Are Yellowstone’s wildlife a priority? Yellowstone’s thermal features? Are you camping in Yellowstone or do you desire hotels with amenities? Are you planning on visiting Yellowstone with kids?
Of course, the best answer to when to visit Yellowstone is...all the seasons. But if you need to make a choice, read on for insights into highlights across the seasons.
Birthing Season / Spring in Yellowstone (late April to mid-June)
Spring in the Rocky Mountains doesn’t follow your calendar. Early spring can find huge remnant snow drifts at 7000-8000 feet (roadside elevations). However, if you’re prepared for diverse conditions this is a fabulous time to explore a quieter time in park. Because Yellowstone covers such a vast area, you can typically find drier hiking trails in the northern part of the park. Many trails to the south will be closed either for snow or bear management (a buffer for bears, and many other species). But Spring in Yellowstone is a chance to cover some of the major attractions--boardwalks like Old Faithful-- without the crowds. In the very early season, expect snow, muddy or closed trails, and fewer amenities like stores, open campgrounds, and ranger programs. Come prepared with what you need. There may not be a place to get food for many miles, but gateway communities like Gardiner, MT and West Yellowstone, MT offer picnic lunches, and plenty of snacks for the road. Park roads are open from Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and the Canyon by mid-April. The road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, and on to the Northeast entrance at Cooke City is open year round. Check road reports and opening and closing dates for the shoulder season.
While there may be fewer amenities, the trade off is viewing an eruption of Old Faithful without throngs of people on the boardwalk, and driving through park roads mostly clear of the traffic jams that can occur later in the summer.
The best part of spring in Yellowstone is the birthing season. Experience the park as it awakes: raging waterfalls, plants budding in their verdant greenery, and new life blooming across the landscape like sped-up film. View newly awakened Yellowstone bears, both black bears and grizzlies. Chicks, calves, pups, cubs, kits, kids, lambs and fawns go from wobbly and knock-kneed to bounding across their vast home in a few short weeks. A visit during spring in Yellowstone is a time of renewal and a reminder that life goes on. A private wildlife guided trip with Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone will ensure you can take advantage of these outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities and learn about their habitat, behavior and how they thrive in Yellowstone.
Hiking and Wildflower Season / Heart of Summer in Yellowstone(mid June to early August)
During my first summer in Yellowstone, we left late one evening from my home-base in Mammoth Hot Springs to a remote meadow that had us setting up tents in the dark. Crawling out of my tent the next morning, I gaped, then I guffawed, then I howled in spirited pleasure and shouted I GET IT! I finally “got” wildflower calendars and bookmarks. I spun in a dizzy circle surrounded by several miles of a gazillion wildflowers in every color and size. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrushes, smiling, sunshiny mules ears, royal purple larkspur, penstemen, bobble-headed flax, and silky phacelia that reminded me of fiber optic bouquets sold at the malls of my youth. Literally endless color and movement with the morning breeze, all of these flowers shouting their existence for nothing more than than the sky and my friends. Yellowstone’s wildflowers shouldn’t be missed.
Wildflower season also brings great hiking in Yellowstone, and the opportunity to cover ground in the park. Everything is open, and there’s far less (but some!) chance of snow or weather slowing you down. Yes, the park is busier, but with good reason. Summer in Yellowstone is a great time to access the most sought-after views and experiences. Visiting Yellowstone with kids on summer break allows you to walk the boardwalks at Old Faithful in the morning before the crowds come in, then take a private guided hike in the afternoon. The long days mean more time to play. You won’t run out of things to do in your 3500 square mile playground.
You might find trails you can hike as early as late April at the lower elevations (around Gardiner/Mammoth) but for more extensive day hiking in Yellowstone, wait till mid June to September, even early October. Yellowstone boasts over 1000 miles of hiking trails. Add in an off-trail ramble, and the possibilities are literally endless. High water fords can limit hikers sometimes till mid-July. Be sure to check out the National Park Service “Plan your Visit” page.
Other things to do in Yellowstone in summer include a boat tour on Yellowstone Lake, an Old West cowboy cookout at Roosevelt Village, complete with a stagecoach ride, grilled steaks, and cowboy poetry, or just finding time to experience the quiet forest and resetting your mind. There are also guided horseback rides, as well as flat- and white-water rafting adventures outside the park.
Yellowstone’ wildlife is still active in summer months, and we’ll get out early to catch them at their best. Heading out for a Yellowstone Wildlife Tour means we’ll catch the wildlife early, then perhaps wander off the road for the chance to experience the vast wilderness that is Yellowstone.
One of the best parts of visiting Yellowstone in summer is that all of the roads, stores, lodges, campgrounds and restaurants are running at full capacity. If making life a little easier, and if cutting down on drive time by staying in the park is important, this is your season. At approximately 45° Latitude, our summer days are very long. Expect light from 5:30am till dusk at 10pm, allowing for full days to cover road or trail miles.
The Rut (Mating Season) / Fall in Yellowstone (late August to November)
Days shorten and cool, while crisp nights offer a starry wonderland. Aspen leaves turn into a riot of trembling gold, and many species begin their annual courtship rituals. The “rut” or mating season, is the time to listen for bison bellowing across the valleys, eerie elk bugles echoing through the forest, or watching a bull gather his harem, spending far more time herding them and fending off interlopers than actually mating. Later, catch the bighorn rut when the rams rear back and clash with such tremendous force one can hear it hundreds of feet away.
Bears are still out and active. In fact, they are in “hyperphagia”, a super eating frenzy while they fatten up in preparation for denning. They may be seeking whitebark pine nuts in the high country, or grazing on the last of summer’s grasses. Their prey, including calves or fawns of the year, are now strong from a summer of good eating and harder to catch.
Fall is the time Yellowstone takes a breath and starts to prepare for the long winter. While it is still a popular season, the crowds thin out, and the park becomes easier to navigate. This is the season for dressing in layers, as we’re on alert for our first snows. It is also some of the best hiking weather of the year. The days are cooler, and the sky is the most intense blue. Expect frosty mornings, shorter days, and fewer crowds.
Be aware of road closures, both seasonal or from an early snowstorm. Most park roads close on November 1, 2022, but the the northern access through Lamar Valley from Gardiner, MT to Cooke City, MT remains open year round.
The Quiet Time / Winter in Yellowstone(November to early April)
Are you seeking the least crowded time to visit Yellowstone? Or perhaps some of the best wildlife watching? Winter is your season. It is the best time to see Yellowstone’s wolves and other wildlife against a white canvas, noticing even the slightest movement across the valley. It is a time grazers spend all day seeking food below the snow that if not nutritionally dense, hopefully at least takes the edge off. Predators know their prey are at their weakest, and take advantage of the long winter to fortify their carnivorous diet.
While summer sees record-breaking visitors, only a fraction will make their way to Yellowstone in winter. The only year-round entrance to Yellowstone is through Gardiner, MT at the north gate. The road is plowed to Cooke City, MT and takes you through Lamar Valley, the best place to see wildlife in Yellowstone. To access the geysers, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, or other parts of Yellowstone’s “interior”, you’ll need to be on a snow coach or snowmobile. Most park roads are not plowed from late November till mid-March, allowing for access on snow vehicles only. While more difficult to access, it is also the most magical time of year in Yellowstone, when the intersection of hot water and freezing temperatures creates stunning snow and ice structures. The lack of crowds and hushed landscape reminds us of the intrinsic value of a large, intact ecosystem.
World-class cross-country skiing awaits the more active visitor, with both machine and skier groomed trails to choose from. Snowshoeing is another favorite past time, and a great way to get off the road for a truly remote experience. With so few places left in the world to discover quiet solitude, it’s a wise adventurer that takes advantage of such a large swath of open space. Hire a guide trained in wilderness medicine and landscape knowledge, and after a morning of finding wildlife we’ll choose the perfect trail for an unrivaled connection with Yellowstone.
So which season to choose? With school and work schedules, as well as travel availability and preferences, there really isn’t a bad time to visit. Consider your priorities, which of the five gates you’d enter from (some are closed seasonally), and how active or road-based your group will be. Bear in mind in-park lodging can fill quickly, though it’s always worth looking for cancellations. Gateway community Chambers of Commerce in Gardiner, West Yellowstone, Cooke City, Jackson or Cody also offer options for lodging, meals, activities and amenities.
No matter which season you choose to experience in Yellowstone, you can’t go wrong immersing into one of the world’s most fascinating and treasured places. Consider taking a guided trip with Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone for a much better understanding and appreciation of this vast landscape. The natural history, human history, geology, wildlife, and flora come alive with an experienced Yellowstone guide to help create context and to take the guesswork out of where and when to go to get the most from your experience.