When is the best time to go to Yellowstone? I get this question a lot. Here’s the simple answer: Whenever works best for you. While simple is good, you may want something a little more, shall we say, helpful. Here it is:
There is no bad time, no wrong time to go to Yellowstone. Every season is simply different, with unique characteristics, challenges, and gifts. Year to year, week to week, and day to day, the weather within each season varies. (Case in point: One year my husband and I visited Yellowstone in early September. We had rain, snow, cold, and a whole lot of shivering when the sun went down. My parents went the very next week and had sunny days and temperate evenings—as in, they were still playing Rumicube by lantern light at their campsite picnic table at 11 o’clock at night.)
Every season is different. Each presents different opportunities and different challenges. The best time to go depends on when you’re available as well as the opportunities you want to pursue and the challenges you want to avoid. That said, to help you decide which season would be best for you, here’s an overview of what I see as the opportunities, challenges, and maybe even gifts, of each season. (The seasons, by the way, don’t necessarily line up neatly with the calendar. I’ve indicated the general timeframe that corresponds with my experience in Yellowstone.)
Winter (mid-December through early March)
While Yellowstone’s winter landscape is at once harsh, delicate, and exquisite in its beauty, it is the profound solitude and pristine, undisturbed backdrop for woods, wildlife, and water that captivates me. Because nearly all of Yellowstone’s roads are open only to snowmobiles and snow coaches, transportation is the biggest challenge for a winter’s visit.
Spring (April through early to mid-June)
Because the roads are slow to open and warmth is hesitant to show itself, Yellowstone’s spring seems to ally itself more closely with winter than hint at the coming summer. New life in the form of baby animals and budding foliage, as well as surprisingly long daylight hours, are my favorite parts of Yellowstone in spring. Challenges include the aforementioned lingering wintry weather and trails that are either blocked by unmelted snow or closed to hold space for bears to safely come out of hibernation and feed after their long winter’s rest.
Summer (mid-June through late August)
The only drawback to a summer visit to Yellowstone is the crowds—lots of people on the boardwalks and a city’s worth of cars on the roads. As if to make up for this, summer provides open trails, fairly dry weather, profuse wildflowers, more animal babies, marmots, and long daylight hours in which to enjoy them.
Fall (September and October)
Also known as early winter, fall is my favorite time to visit the park, bestowing on visitors crisp mountain mornings, golden aspen, as the gifts of the warmth of the sun on your face and the occasional snow. The most challenging aspects of visiting the park in the fall are the frequent rain showers, short days, the fact that the temperature drops rapidly when the sun goes down.
For a deeper look at the seasons, I recommend these resources:
- For Everything there is a Season: The Sequence of Natural Events in the Grand Teton-Yellowstone by Frank C. Craighead, Jr.| This book gives a week by week tour of what happens in the Greater YNP Teton ecosystem, throughout the year.
- Silence and Solitude: Yellowstone’s Winter Wilderness by Tom Murphy | Tom Murphy’s photography books show each of the four seasons in depth. This particular volume is my absolute favorite.
So head to Yellowstone whenever it works for you. And let me know how it goes.