Best time to go to Yellowstone National Park

The best time to see bears in Yellowstone is during spring as they emerge from hibernation, or autumn as they fatten up for winter.
This is a spectacular place to explore at any time of year, but the best time to go to Yellowstone depends on what you want to see and do. Winter sees very low temperatures and heavy snow, meaning much of the park is off-limits to vehicles, but it’s a great time for tracking wildlife such as bison and wolves on snow shoes (just to be clear, you will be wearing the snow shoes, not the animals). Spring sees many baby animals making their first appearance, while the meadows are ablaze with wild flowers.

Yellowstone Weather Chart

 
MIN °C
MAX °C
RAIN (mm)
JAN
-17
-6
62
FEB
-16
-2
47
MAR
-13
1
49
APR
-7
7
42
MAY
-2
13
55
JUN
2
19
62
JUL
5
24
42
AUG
4
23
41
SEP
0
18
42
OCT
-4
11
37
NOV
-10
1
54
DEC
-16
-5
62

Yellowstone National Park,
month by month

Spring sees hungry bears emerging from their dens, wolf packs roaming the Lamar Valley and the arrival of many species of migratory birds, rich pickings for wildlife watchers. Through March and April access is still restricted or limited in many areas due to snow, but by late May most roads and campgrounds are open. This of course is also a great season to see baby animals, and therefore even more reason to keep a respectful distance from wildlife. Yellowstone gets very busy in summer. Accommodation needs to be booked well in advance, and big crowds can be expected at popular attractions. The crowds can be frustrating when you’re on the hunt for animals, but from June onwards the backcountry trails are fully open and they’re a lot more peaceful. You can also find space hiking through the backcountry – bear spray a must. Weather-wise, it pays to be prepared in summer. Even though daytime temperatures in July and August can reach 30°C, at higher elevations it can easily fall below freezing at night. Afternoon thunderstorms are common too. Moving into autumn, the crowds taper off, as the park and its wildlife prepare for the onset of winter. The foliage is at its most beautiful, a wonderful time for photographers. From late September onwards sporadic snowfall can be expected, and continuing into October and November some roads are closed, and services limited. Bears can frequently be seen in roadside meadows as they come down from the mountains, foraging as much as possible before they head to their dens for winter, so this is a particularly important time to be careful with storing food. You may also see large herds of bison and elk making their way to the sheltered valleys where they will spend winter. By December, daytime temperatures sink as low as -5°C. Heavy snowfall is likely, making most of the interior inaccessible except by skis, snow shoes or snowmobiles. If you can cope with the cold however, January and February are excellent months to visit Yellowstone. Visitor numbers drop off so steeply that it can feel like you have the whole park to yourself. Your best chance of seeing wolves is during winter when the bears are hibernating and they’ve got a park full of weakened prey all to themselves. Guided wolf tracking trips at this time are immensely exciting.

Our top Yellowstone activities

Things to do in Yellowstone National Park…

Yellowstone contains half the world’s geothermal features, and at least 400 geysers erupt annually. Best-known is Old Faithful, but many others are equally impressive. The Great Fountain Geyser erupts to 60m and is situated near the ‘Fountain Paint Pots’ – hot springs full of mud instead of water. Some Yellowstone wildlife can be hard to spot. You won’t miss a bison blocking your path, but might spend hours watching a bear that looks like a tree stump off in the distance only to find out that it is, in fact, a tree stump. Our tips for wildlife watching? Patience, awareness and specialist guides. Wolf trackers for instance know exactly where to search in more remote areas. Yellowstone often forms part of overland national park tours visiting two or more parks. Most itineraries include Grand Teton, and within a day’s drive you also have Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Monument Valley; Grand Canyon and Death Valley lie to the west, and Glacier to the north. As with most US national parks, Yellowstone offers many ranger-led talks and tours covering everything from flora and fauna to history, geology and stargazing. If you’re bringing the kids, these activities are a fantastic way to get them interested in the natural world in a hands-on way, but they’re just as fascinating for grown-ups too.

Things not  to do in Yellowstone National Park…

Yellowstone’s hot springs are potentially dangerous, and leaving the boardwalks in geothermal areas is a seriously bad idea; terrain ranges from unpredictable to fatal. You’re essentially wandering around a huge active volcano. If you’d like to take a dip in a hot spring without being instantly cooked alive, you can do so in the Boiling River and Firehole River. Honest. Don’t let the names put you off. Hike unprepared. Many trails criss-cross this epic wilderness, but there are bears out there and other dangerous animals too, and it pays to keep that in mind. Carry bear spray with you at all times, tell someone your route and expected arrival time, and know what to do if you happen to bump into a wild animal. Burgers will trump berries every time for Yogi and friends, and bears will break a car window if they smell food inside. If they start coming around campsites then they may need to be killed. So don’t feed the animals by mistake; follow the rules on food storage. Rodeos are a popular activity in many towns around Yellowstone National Park. While there’s an argument to be made that they are a part of America’s cultural heritage, we think the right way to be entertained by animals on holiday is by watching them behave naturally in the wild.

Our top Yellowstone Holiday

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Yellowstone advice

When to see predators

Martin Royle, from our supplier Royle Safaris, on wolf and bear tracking:
“Winter, when the bears are hibernating, is when the wolves are the undisputed top predators of the park. By late winter the male elk are in poor condition after weeks of fighting, mating and not eating, so wolves have easy pickings. The mating season is in January, which is when more packs are formed too. Lack of vegetation and snow makes spotting and tracking easier for observation. Spring is also good as you have the grizzlies coming out of hibernation and interacting with the wolves (stealing their kills etc.), as is autumn, when bison and elk are in rut, but wolves can be tougher to spot. Summer is not so good as it is just too busy and traffic detracts from the ‘wilderness’ experience.”
Sarah Boyd, from our supplier Grand American Adventures:
“Our local Operations Manager Ben Collier has spent tons of time in Yellowstone, whether it be guiding for us or exploring it for leisure. In his view spring and early summer are the best time to see bears in the park. The high country is still snowed in, so the bears are forced to come down to the lower elevations to search for food, where the majority of the park’s roads are. By August, bears tend to move further up the mountains in search of moths. In August they’ll consume tens of thousands of moths a day! Large valleys like Hayden or Lamar are typically the best place to spot Grizzlies. Black bear is found all over. Many of our guides will try to find out where recent sightings have been made in order to get the group the best opportunity to see one.”

Local knowledge

Martin Royle from our supplier Royle Safaris:
“Success at wolf tracking is all about having the best local guides. Our people know the wolves (individually in many cases) and their behaviours. They also have contacts with wolf researchers and can find the active packs easily. They are experts in the ecology of the animals and also the park and its ecosystems. You want an immersive and educational trip that goes beyond just spotting a wolf. We do our best to make sure that everyone who comes to Yellowstone leaves having understood what they saw and why they saw it happen.”

Making the most of your time

Sarah Boyd, from our supplier Grand American Adventures:
“Yellowstone is much larger than people think and it’s difficult to cover its expanse. We often find that staying in different areas is a great way to reduce your time driving. Whether it be for activities such as hiking or just drinking in spectacular views such as Old Faithful and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our tour leaders have exceptional local knowledge and work tirelessly to ensure the enjoyment of our customers; however, we feel introducing specialist guides offers unique insights not readily available to everyday visitors, providing added value. Wildlife and geology are the protagonists of Yellowstone National Park and are what generally motivates people to visit. Our guides ensure that we can deliver on these experiences in the best possible way.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: rayb777] [Bear - spring: Yellowstone National Park] [Taking photos: Jenny Smith] [Wolf: Hanna May] [Artist Point, Yellowtone National Park: Andrew Pons]
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