Want to visit Yellowstone this summer? You’d be better off waiting until the fall.
Thinking about a Yellowstone vacation this summer? We’re not surprised. Yellowstone National Park is an incredible place where you can see the wonders of a dormant super volcano along with an incredible variety of wildlife.
For many people, it’s the ideal summer vacation for the whole family, and the park attracts millions of visitors like this every year.
But in the summer months, Yellowstone is often packed with tourists, and to be honest, it’s not the best time of year to visit. We’re going to tell you why you’d be better off delaying your visit until fall or winter.
This one is simple. The park is absolute madhouse in June, July and August, as those are the most popular times to visit. We get it. This is the time most people take their vacations. The animals are active and it’s warm out, but, it can also be an exercise in frustration.
From the fishing bridge to the grand canyon of Yellowstone, all the way to Lamar Valley, the place is packed with tourists. You can expect to encounter traffic jams at times, especially if there are some bears or wolves within sight of the main roadway. If you’re the type of person who goes to national parks to get away from it all, you won’t find that in the summer.
But in the fall, everything is different. There are way less people and much less traffic. My favorite visit ever was a day-long October adventure through the park. I got to Old Faithful geyser and there were approximately 12 tourists milling around. In July and August, you can expect a minimum of 1,200 or more walking the boardwalks around Old Faithful at any given moment during the day.
Visiting in the fall or winter also means when you do spot an animal, it’s usually easy to find an open pull-out and a safe place to park. In the summer, it’s a complete free-for-all. I’ve seen people park their cars in the middle of the road with no consideration for others.
You can also take the time to appreciate the sights and sounds the way they were meant to be appreciated. Whether it’s the slow trickle of running water at Mammoth Hot Springs or the bellow of an elk in Hayden Valley, it’s just easier to connect with nature. You could also walk along the beautiful Madison River or watch the sun set over Yellowstone Lake without all these annoying tourists around.
The Park is Gorgeous With Snow on the Ground
I thought I knew how beautiful Yellowstone was. That was until I visited the park after a fresh dusting of snow. Photos of the park in winter don’t do the place justice. The entire park takes on an entirely new and magical quality you just can’t get on a visit in the summer season.
I’ll never forget the first time I drove through the west entrance, by Yellowstone Lake and through Hayden Valley, and saw some lumbering bison browsing by the roadside with snow on their backs. It was an unforgettable sight and some of the best wildlife viewing I’ve ever experienced.
Sure the winter weather in Yellowstone is brutal. Yes, you’ll have to bundle up significantly more than you would in the summer, but it’s totally worth it. Keep in mind, the only road that’s open year-round is the one between Mammoth Hot Springs and the park’s northeast entrance.
When enough snow is on the ground, you’ll have to utilize a guided snowcoach or explore the park via a snowmobile tour. The National Park Service offers some of these tours and you can find other independent ones operating out of West Yellowstone. Riding through the nation’s first National Park on a snowmobile is an amazing experience that should be on every snowmobiler’s bucket list.
There really is nothing like walking through Norris Geyser basin and seeing way more steam than normal coming from the hot springs and geysers on an especially cool morning.
You can also get the unique experience of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in Yellowstone in the winter. How many people do you know who’ve done that? Visitors in the winter can also stay at the park’s iconic snow lodge, which you can only reach via NPS snowcoach, offering a unique experience in itself.
Even if you go in the fall, you’ll still get to enjoy the gorgeous colors of the trees changing color. Make sure to check out Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole in the fall and winter, too.
Animal Activity Picks Up in the Fall
Sure, you’ll see plenty of animals in Yellowstone in the warmer months. But activity really ramps up in the fall as the animals start preparing for winter. The bears get more active as they start packing on the pounds for hibernation.
One of my more memorable bear encounters in the park was a sighting of a mother black bear and her three cubs in the vicinity of Tower Falls as they took a nap on one of the last warm evenings in October.
However, fall also brings about the rut for many animals. For bison, it’s in July and August. You might see a little rut activity at the tail end of the latter month. For elk, the rut runs from September through October. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as hearing an elk bugle or seeing two bulls battle it out for a cow. It’s something you just can’t get at any other time of the year.
In November, bighorn sheep start rutting. I found they like to come down out of the mountains and hang out in the Wapiti Valley to the east of Yellowstone’s west entrance. It’s the best time of year to see these unique animals, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see two rams butting heads!
So by now, it should be pretty obvious, we love the park in the fall and winter because it offers a one-of-a-kind experience. The majority of people who’ve been to Yellowstone have visited in the summer season. Maybe you’re one of those people. If you’re looking for a whole new experience, visiting in the off-season can provide it.
While it’s harder to visit the park in the fall or winter season, all the effort will be worth it with a trip you won’t soon forget!