Yellowstone For All Seasons
Different Seasons Means A Different Yellowstone Experience
National parks often get notoriety for a particular season that highlights a particular feature. For Yellowstone, it’s the summertime and it’s abundance of wildlife and accessible geothermal activity. With rising visitation rates, however, and most tourists looking to visit within this same timeframe, I invite you to consider a trip for an alternative season—this will not only enhance your experience by avoiding the crowds but also alleviate our collective impact on the land by flattening the curve of usage. Having been to Yellowstone for each season, I offer you the following insight and advice.
Yellowstone Spring Adventures
Spring is perhaps my favorite time to visit the park because everything is awakening to the promise of warmer days and longer sunlight—with melting snowpack lending to rising rivers, bears starting to emerge from hibernation, and newborns trailing their mothers for protection and guidance. Late-April also kicks off some of the best wildlife watching (through June) and offers the opportunity of cycling the roads before they open to motorized vehicles (generally the first three weeks of April). For the cycling, I’d suggest starting in the town of West Yellowstone and heading to Madison Junction (14 miles one way)—if you’re feeling ambitious go all the way to Norris Geyser Basin (28 miles one way). I’d also suggest visiting the park soon after the roads open (if you forgo cycling) to avoid the impending crowds.
A downfall of the spring is that one of my favorite places in the park, the Boiling River, is closed. This is a spot on the Gardiner River where geothermal activity makes the water feel like a hot tub. But with the spring melt, the river is too high to safely enter.
Visiting Yellowstone In The Summer
June through September brings enjoyable weather, wildflowers and wildlife, and a great time to road trip. It also brings swarms of other visitors. To optimize your experience and avoid waiting in traffic jams (a bear sighting can delay your trip by hours), summer is perhaps the most important time to plan ahead and be intentional with your travel.
During these months I avoid the famous landmarks, such as the Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, and Grand Prismatic (the parking lots can be a nightmare). What I focus on instead is getting off the roads and on the hiking trails. Once on the trails, depending on where you go, it’s likely that you’ll only see a few others. One of my favorite routes is Seven-Mile Hole (pictured above), which is a five-mile trail each way, through they say the hike out feels more like seven miles. This hike starts you on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, leads you through a lodgepole pine stand, around some geothermal features, and to the beautiful banks of the Yellowstone River.
Remember that grizzly and black bears are abundant in the park, so be bear aware before you embark and travel with bear spray (which can be purchased at many local outfitters). Mosquitos can also be bad in the summer, so be prepared to deal with them as well.
Fall Yellowstone Adventures
Fall, much like the spring, offers a reprieve from the crowds, but the window of opportunity for exploration is more limited. Come mid-November most roads close in the park, leaving the route from Mammoth to Cooke City (Highway 212) the only one open to vehicles. The changing foliage is obviously a boon of the season, and I’d suggest driving through Paradise Valley (pictured above) from Livingston to Gardiner (Highway 89) to enjoy the autumn colors. Another great option is heading south of Yellowstone to Grand Teton to check out their shifting aspen groves.
During this season, animals start migrating to lower elevations to avoid the snowfall, making the road from Mammoth to Cooke City a great option, especially considering this is during the elk rut—a time when the bulls battle and bugle for reproduction rights (it’s truly a sight to see!). Highway 287, from West Yellowstone to the town of Norris, is also a great route to see large Yellowstone elk herds in the fall.
Visiting Yellowstone In The Winter
No surprise, winter is the most difficult season to access the park—but it’s also when visitation rates are the lowest. During this period you have a couple of options for engagement. First, the road from Mammoth to Cooke City remains open year-round. This drive takes you through the Lamar Valley where I’ve seen everything from bison to moose to coyotes to wolves (I always make it a point to eat at Soda Butte Lodge in Cooke City, too, before turning around to head home). This route also takes you by the Boiling River, which is amazing to visit in the winter because you can soak in hot river water while the rest of the world around you is frozen.
The second option, which is more expensive, is taking a snow coach tour of the park (as you can see in the photo above, I utilize Yellowstone Vacation Tours). The tours cost about $150/person but the experience is priceless: you basically get the interior of the park to yourself and get to see the wildlife and geothermal features in rare form. I like taking the Canyon trip to see the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River frozen.
Lastly, you can access the park via snowmobiling (some restrictions apply), snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. All are great ways to see the park while buried in snow, though the latter two require being in good shape—be sure to check out these safety tips before embarking!
About The Author: Tyler
Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Check out Tyler’s website at: Tyler Dunning
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