So you’ve decided to visit Yellowstone, and you’re excited to see all the famous things you’ve heard about, like Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the wildlife. One of the first things you need to decide is WHEN you should plan your trip?
The best time to visit Yellowstone is early to mid-September because the weather is reliable and it is less crowded than in the summer months. It’s the right mixture of good weather and fewer crowds. Also, in Mammoth, the elk are in the rut, the mating season.
Yellowstone has an average elevation of 8,000 feet, so summer comes late and winter comes early. The travel season is short. April showers may bring May flowers where you’re from, but Yellowstone is about a month behind.
In this article we will cover
- Road closures and openings
- What to expect each month of the year
- Final takeaways
How many visitors does Yellowstone get?
Any discussion of when to visit Yellowstone must start with the crowds. As with most of the parks in the west, the crowds continue to increase. This is all the more reason you need a game plan, which our itinerary provides.
Yellowstone receives about 4 million visitors per year, but almost all of them visit in the six months from April to October. It was the sixth most visited National Park in 2019.
The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic caused a dramatic change in the numbers: the park still had 3.8 million visitors, but they were spread out differently. Because the park was closed in April and most of May, visitors were “scrunched” into fewer months, with September and October being significantly more populated than usual.
This chart shows the number of visitors, in thousands, to Yellowstone in recent years.
You need to understand that Yellowstone is high in elevation, so the temperatures are likely colder than what you’re used to. Even in summer, mornings are chilly. If you’re camping, you must be prepared for extreme cold and possible snow. Find out more about the weather here.
Road closures and openings
Yellowstone shuts down almost completely for about 3 months out of the year: November and March/April. However, the northern road, from Mammoth to Lamar Valley & Cooke City, is open year-round. The other roads open at different times in the spring. So when I discuss road openings below, I will leave the northern road out of the discussion.
This map of road openings and closures will give you a good birds-eye view. See the Yellowstone Roads page for up-to-date information.
What to expect each month of the year
Visiting Yellowstone in April
I’m starting with April because that’s when the main visitor season really begins.
The only road that opens up in April is from West Yellowstone to the Grand Loop Road, and branching out to Mammoth, Canyon, and Old Faithful. It usually opens in mid-April.
You will enjoy virtually no crowds, but you won’t be able to see the entire park. You can probably see the Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful), Norris Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Lamar Valley. You may also see some baby bison and elk, but the bears and wolves are not yet out of their dens.
Still, seeing all of that would be an amazing trip!
However, it will be cold and muddy, and there is a good chance of getting caught in a snowstorm. Hiking is almost out of the question, as it will be a muddy mess.
Bikers can enjoy the park all to themselves for a few weeks in early April, before they allow cars in the park! Imagine having the park all to yourself, with NO cars.
Last spring, I biked in the park during the summer on Fountain Flat Trail behind Grand Prismatic Spring and passed right next to a bison herd. It was amazing being so close to them.
I can imagine that biking in April, with few visitors and many baby animals, would be an absolute thrill.
If you’re interested in biking, check out the park page for updates and opening times.
April is still early enough that there is no lodging in the park that is open yet. You’ll have to stay in Gardiner, MT or West Yellowstone, MT.
Visiting Yellowstone in May
By mid-to-late May, all of the roads in the park should finally be open. It takes the park crews about two months to plow over 300 miles of road to get the park ready for visitors. To learn more about this amazing snowplowing operation, see this video.
May is the greatest risk/reward of all the months to visit Yellowstone.
- Hiking is still too muddy.
- You can get caught in a snowstorm.
- Roads may temporarily close due to a snowstorm.
- It’s still cold (average temp is 60 degrees)
- Crowds are sparse because school is still in session.
- Baby animals are all over the place. Bears and wolves start to come out of their dens.
- You’re more likely to see animals during the day, rather than having to wait for dawn/dusk.
Campgrounds are still mostly closed, although some might open in late May. The Mammoth Campground is open year-round.
Lodging in the park starts to open up in early May and by mid-June, all the hotels, lodges, and cabins are open. See this Yellowstone Park Lodges website for the opening and closing dates of each location.
Visiting Yellowstone in June
If you visit Yellowstone in June, you’ll be welcomed with beautiful wildflowers, daytime temperatures of 70 degrees, and increasing crowds. We recommend visiting in June rather than July or August.
Visitorship doubles from May to June but doesn’t reach its peak until July.
You might think of June as a summer month, but remember that Yellowstone is a month behind. Nights are still very cold, and the days can be unpredictable like spring.
June is a transition month: it comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.
But everything is open, and crowds haven’t reached their peak. June can be a great month to visit.
Visiting Yellowstone in July and August
If you visit Yellowstone in July or August, you will have the best weather but you will be dealing with the most crowds. Daytime temperatures are about 80 degrees, but the traffic can be brutal.
If you want to get away from the crowds, then go hiking. Most visitors to Yellowstone drive the Grand Loop Road and see the sights along the road. Just hiking can get you away from a lot of people.
Daytime temperatures are heavenly, and you can still get a little sunbaked because of the high elevation. But it can still get cold in the evening and mornings, so you’ll need to dress in layers.
If you’re camping, it can still get down into the 40s or even 30s at night, so be prepared!
Because it’s warmer, the animals will often be resting during the day. Your best chances of seeing them are at dawn and dusk.
Speaking of animals, summer is the bison rut — the mating season. So the bulls are more active as they try to assert their dominance. Normally they are very docile, but if you see them rolling in the dirt (actually, in their urine), you know they are in the rut.
Speaking of bison, summer is also “Bison Jam” season — you might literally get stuck in traffic waiting for bison to cross the road. Often they just stand in the road.
Speaking of traffic, the parking lots for many of the popular attractions fill up early, and you might be stuck waiting in a long car line just to park so you can see a site, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is another reason why having a game plan will help you get the most out of your trip.
Summer is also fire season. Yellowstone averages about 26 fires every year. Most of these are extinguished early and are away from the Grand Loop Road. However, sometimes a fire will shut down certain sections of the park, as the Lone Star Fire did in 2020. The Fires of 1988 are the most famous of the Yellowstone fires; that year was by far the worst on record.
Visiting Yellowstone in September
This is our favorite season because the travel season is winding down and the crowds begin to drop off and the weather is typically very nice.
It is cold in the evenings and mornings, but daytime temps range around 70 degrees. Fall is in the air, and it is soooo nice! The animals are a little more active with the cooler temps.
There is a caveat here, however: September is increasing in visitor numbers, just as the other months are. Overall visitorship is increasing in Yellowstone, so while September remains lower than the summer months, it might not be as pleasant as it once was.
In 2020, during the pandemic, the numbers in September skyrocketed from the previous year. This certainly could have been due to the fact that many people who would have visited in May or June probably postponed their trips to September, or that everyone had so much cabin fever from quarantine that they just had to get out and go somewhere.
So Coronavirus certainly had an impact, but I believe there is another aspect at play here: the Baby Boomers.
We are in the middle of the retirement boom of the Baby Boomers. And it seems as if they’re all buying RVs and going camping! And since they don’t have kids in school, they can go to the parks in the offseason.
Yellowstone in September might start looking a lot like a Social Security waiting room soon, if it hasn’t already.
We know the total number of visitors are rising, but the question is: is September seeing a greater increase due to the Baby Boomers travelling offseason?
Using the stats from the Yellowstone website, I put together a chart showing the percentage of visitor each month composes. This allows us to see if September is increasing its share of the visitors.
I only included May through October, because all the other months make up less than 1% each of total visitors to the park. The year 2020 was a total anomaly, due to the virus, so although I’ve included it here, I’m mostly disregarding it for analysis purposes.
This chart shows that the percentage of visitors over the last twenty years has:
- Decreased in July by 4-5%
- Increased in May by about 3%
- Increased in September by about 5%
There’s no way to say whether this is due to the Baby Boomers, but it appears the trend is continuing.
Visiting Yellowstone in October
October is like May: high risk/reward factor. Roads typically get shut down at the end of the month, but snowstorms may shut everything down earlier than anticipated.
With daytime temperatures at about 55 degrees, it’s chilly! Animals are more likely to be active in the day (except maybe bears, which might go into hibernation), and the geysers are a beautiful sight in the cold weather and an abundance of steam.
The crowds are virtually gone, and so are some of the amenities. Lodging starts to shut down as the park braces for winter.
Visiting Yellowstone in November
In November, the park is completely shut down, except for the northern road. You can still enter through Gardiner and visit Mammoth and Lamar Valley.
Note that Beartooth Highway is closed, so you cannot enter the park from the East. Gardiner is the only entrance.
The roads in the rest of the park close at the beginning of November because the park actually wants the snowpack to accumulate for the winter season.
Visiting Yellowstone in December, January, February, and March
In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, people referred to it as Wonderland. So Yellowstone in winter brings new meaning to Winter Wonderland.
The only way into the park during the winter (except the northern road), is by snowmobile or snow coach.
The roads open to winter snow traffic around mid-December, and close around the beginning of March. That’s when the snowplowing operations begin to get the park ready for spring.
Here are the ways you can tour Yellowstone in the winter:
- Drive your own car. You can ONLY do this on the northern road from Mammoth to Cooke City. The road east of Cooke City is called the Beartooth Highway, and it is closed from October to May. So there is only one entrance by car: Gardiner, MT. Still, you can visit Lamar Valley and wolf-watch! You can also visit the Mammoth Terraces. You can even get in the Boiling River near Gardiner if you’re brave enough to walk half a mile in the snow and deal with the freezing temperatures when you get out of the water.
- Take a guided tour via snowmobile or snow coach. There are over 10 private companies that offer tours, and they leave from each entrance, except the northeast entrance. One even leaves from Old Faithful, in case you’re staying in the park (see below).
- Drive your own snowmobile into the park. Yellowstone has a non-commercially guided snowmobile access program. Here is what you must know:
- They only allow 4 groups per day in the park (one at each entrance).
- They use a lottery system to select the groups.
- You must apply for a permit on recreation.gov between August 1-31. Applications cost $6.
- Permit selections are made in September.
- If selected, the permit costs $40 per day.
- The limit is 5 snowmobiles per permit.
- Snowmobiles must meet New Best Available Technology (BAT) for emissions. See the list of approved snowmobiles. If you do not have a snowmobile, or if yours does not meet the BAT (Batmobile?) standards, you can rent one from a number of businesses (most of which are the same as the tour companies).
- Ski or snowshoe, as President Teddy Roosevelt once did! Incredibly, there aren’t a lot of regulations for skiers or snowshoers; they just tell you to use common sense. See the NPS site for all the details. You can even do backcountry overnighters in the winter, but you need a permit for those. By the way, you cannot fish in winter.
There are warming huts – shelter for skiers, snowmobilers, and snowshoers – located throughout the park to keep you warm and alive.
For winter lodging, there are only two hotels open in Yellowstone during winter: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. See Yellowstone National Park Lodges for more details.
You can also find winter lodging in West Yellowstone, MT, and Gardiner, MT.
As you can see, there are activities in Yellowstone all year long. Only about 1% of the visitors visit in winter, so if you’re really trying to avoid the crowds, go then!
But for most people, September is a safe option. May and October are much less crowded, but they are a gamble with the weather.
If you’re visiting Yellowstone, please check out our Ultimate Trip Planner for more details!