Yellowstone National Park sits on a high-altitude plateau. If there is anything that is a certainty, it is CHANGE! This means there a several things to consider when planning the best time of year for your trip. But for those who plan to visit Yellowstone on multiple occasions, rest assured every visit is unique and amazing.
The Yellowstone National Park superintendent closes the park roads each year around November 1st to wheeled traffic. This is for several reasons, including visitor and staff safety along with animal safety. The only exception to this rule is the roadway from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Northeast gate. This is the only way for people to travel into Cooke City and it is open year-round, except for the occasional heavy snow situation. However, there are a couple options if you want to see this "closed to wheeled traffic" area in winter, which is a beautiful time of the year to visit. Several commercial operations provide snowmobile and snow coach tours around mid December through the beginning of March. The weather can be very difficult during the winter but if you have the chance to join a tour, I highly recommend it.
Late April is when Yellowstone National Park roads begin to open. Beginning with the West Gate to Old Faithful and adding road openings over the next month through Memorial Day weekend, when the last roads are cleared of snow and open. This is many people’s favorite time of the year. The snow begins to melt, and the grass begins to turn green. The newborn animals are discovering their new world as adults begin to put on some of the weight they lost over the very difficult winter. If it’s Yellowstone’s wildlife that most draws you to a visit, this may be the very best time to plan your tour. But be warned, old man winter does not give up his grip on Yellowstone easily. Touring Yellowstone in April, May and even June can be cold and snowy. Although weather at this time of year can vary greatly, the crowds will be lower and animal sightings will be plentiful.
As summer begins Yellowstone National Park weather begins to stabilize. There are many blue-sky days to be found over summer. Although nights are always cool at this elevation, days are usually very pleasant with average highs in the 70’s. Summer is also the driest time of the year. With an average rainfall of 1 inch per month. This beautiful weather brings more than just clear skies, it is also when Yellowstone is at its busiest. With 2.2 million acres to discover, solitude is possible but expect the major sights to have plenty of people joining you.
Summer weather also brings out amazing wildflowers. The high mountains and lush valleys fill with colors. I especially enjoy taking guests over Dunraven Pass. From late June through mid-July, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful scene. Unfortunately, warm dry days will typically push many of the animals out of the open meadows. Animal viewing declines as they search for the cooler treed areas. The exception to this rule is the Bison in August. This is when they mate or ‘rut’. The bison rut is a great time to watch North Americas largest mammal. The bulls can be very aggressive as they try to dominate other males in their attempt to mate with as many females as possible.
As summer slips into fall, Yellowstone National Park begins preparing for winter. The animals need to put on as much weight as possible to get them through the cold winter months to come. All animals can now be seen grazing, foraging, and hunting. Frost and even mountain snow can be seen on many days. You’ll need an extra layer as you spend your days listening to the elk bugle and looking for the grizzly preparing for their dens. Although still busy, the crowds are beginning to fade. This is my favorite time of year to be in Yellowstone.
I don’t think there is ever a bad time to visit Yellowstone, but you may find your favorite time of the year. Each season has its reasons for people to visit. And each day will treat you to something new and amazing. I suggest that you start planning early and come prepared for the weather. Yellowstone Excursions will always be here to help you make the very most out of your time.
Joe Valaitis - Yellowstone Excursions owner/tour guide