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Yellowstone National Park is one of the most beautiful and extensive national treasures in the United States. Here is the best time of year to visit Yellowstone.
When is the Best Time to Go For a Vacation in Yellowstone?
There’s no question that the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park is during the summer months, but even within that four-month stretch there are better times than others to visit.
Traditionally, the summer months follow Memorial Day in May and more or less ends on Labor Day in September. This is less about weather and more about culture. In the US, school systems typically aim to release students for the summer break before Memorial Day, as it is hard to keep them in school with family vacations taking advantage of a three-day weekend. Likewise, Labor Day in early September is the last public holiday for a considerable period and usually marks the decline of summer temperatures. Schools tend to be back in session following or near Labor Day.
For the best weather, this period from late May to early September is ideal, however, mid-may and mid-September also have very favorable weather conditions but fewer crowds. If visitors have the flexibility to go during these periods they will enjoy lower temperatures, smaller crowds, and cheaper prices.
When to Purchase Airline Tickets
There are a few airports that serve the massive complex that is Yellowstone National Park. That means that it’s not just when to purchase airline tickets but to which airport. The five airports that serve the area surrounding the park are:
- BZN – Bozeman, Montana (North Gate)
- WYS – West Yellowstone, Montana (West Gate)
- JAC – Jackson Hole, Wyoming (South Gate)
- IDA – Idaho Falls, Idaho (further South Gate)
- COD – Cody, Wyoming (East Gate)
The largest and busiest of these airports by far Jackson Hole which operates more flights for a few reasons. First, the population and area are more established than the others, with a longtime tradition of secondary homes for wealthy families that will pay to fly in for even just a long weekend. The second is that Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park are closer to slopes giving the appeal of a year-round resort.
Bozeman is increasing in size for local population, popularity among secondary homes, and carrying more passengers. Idaho Falls would be firmly behind Bozeman in both enplanements, and frequency.
Cody and West Yellowstone are small, primarily commuter airfields with little traffic and competition. These fields may be better suited for those looking to fly to Yellowstone privately.
The best time to buy an airplane ticket in the United States is not on a Tuesday as is a common misconception, but rather four months prior to departure. For the least expensive plane tickets avoid holiday weekends, try to travel during shoulder seasons (mid-April to late May, Mid-September to early October.) Flying into larger airports and driving further distances will also help families to save money on flights.
When to Make Hotel Reservations for Yellowstone
Like airfare, the best time to make hotel reservations is about four months before your planned arrival into the Yellowstone area. However, guests will save themselves time and money by traveling when others can’t or choose not to.
For example, if guests have the flexibility to travel during shoulder seasons they will find rates for accommodations drop dramatically.
Visitors to the park should also carefully consider what aspects of the park they want to see during their trip to Yellowstone. If visitors plan on skiing, travelling to Jackson Hole makes more sense than to Yellowstone Airport in Cody, Wyoming. Hotel guests will spend more time on the slopes and less time getting to and from their hotel or lodge by being selective with their “gate” or park entrance.
Some exclusive lodges fill up fast as the majority of Yellowstone’s 2.5 million visitors annually primarily come during the summer months. If your plans include a specific lodge, room, or location, consider planning well in advance and applying a deposit when necessary.
The Best Time To See Wildlife
Depending on which wildlife visitors wish to see will determine when the best time to visit Yellowstone. However, it should be noted that many creatures in the harsh winter climate of western Wyoming and southern Montana leads to hibernating animals in the winter months.
Without a doubt, the best time of year to visit Yellowstone is during the summer months where most of the wildlife is out and on display. However, it may behoove some visitors to consider the fall when deer are in mating season and become more visible and run freer.
When to Go For a Family Vacation
The best time to visit Yellowstone for family vacations is after school has closed its session for the summer, usually in later May through early September (Memorial Day to Labor Day.) However, school breaks can lead to excellent opportunities.
Those with a late Easter/Spring break may find it an ideal time to see the park. Crowds are less, the frost has melted and animals are returning to their habitat. Prices remain lower than the peak summer months and with less competition for rooms, and at important park sites, visitors can take in their surroundings without the interference of other travelers.
When To Go To Get a Discounted Rate
Most facilities are closed within the park until late May when they re-open. Many of those facilities shut again in mid-September to mid-October depending on the site. Roads, however, are open to driver traveling the parks until the first Monday in November and then re-opened again in the spring (as conditions permit, re-opening is not a set day.)
The best time to visit Yellowstone to get a discounted rate is just outside of these periods or once the road in Yellowstone re-opens in the spring.
When To Go Skiing in Yellowstone
Skiing in Yellowstone should be divided into two categories, true Yellowstone slopes and the closely related southern slopes of the Grand Tetons. The greatest snowfall is January and February annually, but the slopes have plenty of snow from November through March.
Ideally, the fewest amount of visitors, lowest prices on accommodations and flights, along with the highest snowfall totals ate in late January and early February. However, to visit during this period, Jackson Hole and the south entrance are recommended as park roads will be closed to vehicular traffic.
For those considering cross country skiing, the north entrance near Bozeman will offer visitors an easier approach. The weather in Yellowstone can be unpredictable in the winter, but lower altitudes make it easier for those who are not downhill skiing and snowboarding.
When to See Old Faithful
One of biggest draws of Yellowstone National Park is to see the Old Faithful geyser that predictably erupts every 65-90 minutes based on the volume of the prior eruption. Over the years it has varied in cadence but what makes Old Faithful so… well, faithful is that it erupts every time, multiple times per day. Since it was first discovered in the late 1800s, more than one million eruptions have been recorded.
Summer crowds swell to this as the focal point of their trip on the western side of the park. Access to Old Faithful doesn’t open until early June and by mid-June the area is overtaken by tourists. Suites and Lobbies recommend visitors come early or late in the season to avoid congestion.
When to Visit to Camp
Camping in the American West is a great tradition in the United States. A great time to visit for campers is in early June or early September. During both of these periods, all attractions and roads are open giving campers full access to any part of the park and everything they will want to see.
July and August are particularly hot and busy so that may not be the best time to visit Yellowstone, especially for campers looking to connect or reconnect with nature.
Many campers enjoy the Lamar Valley, closest to the Northeast entrance (Cody, Wyoming is the nearest major town.)
When To Go To Save Money
Yellowstone trips can be very expensive, especially for families on the east coast who must fly to reasonably reach the park. Saving money can be the difference between being able to make a family trip happen or not.
We outlined above the best time to save money on flights and accommodations, but generally closer to the end of season is best. The temperatures cool some and crowds mostly go home for the year following Labor Day which offers a rare window in which the park is not crowded, the weather is still nice, and costs are lower.
Skiers can save money in late January and early February where snow is heavy but most cannot travel due to work and school commitments.
Some have reported better than average deals in the week immediately prior to attractions opening. For those with flexible travel plans, they may be able to save money on accommodations and travel costs while enjoying the beautiful surroundings during right before they open for the season. Finishing their trip with those attractions allows families to be able to see the things they want to see without breaking the bank.
When it’s Not Busy
Yellowstone National Park is least busy in early spring and late fall. This is due to concerns about winter weather and access to the roads that run through the park. The week prior to the annual road closure for the year also coincides with Halloween and many do not want to trick or treat in a lodge. This offers a great opportunity to have the park to yourself just one more time before the end of the year.
Likewise, in the spring once the road opens (date moves annually but mid-March is approximately when this occurs) the park is quiet.
Yellowstone Festivals and Events
Free entry to the park
To honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 18th is a free entry day to Yellowstone National Park. There are five other days throughout the year
An event celebrating winter activities for children and families usually held in the first few days of the month. Ice fishing, snowshoe and cross-country skiing as well as sledding entertains families and introduces kids to outdoor winter sports.
Mammoth Springs Hotel Closed for Season
Ending the winter season, the Mammoth Springs hotel will close for the year in what marks the end to snowy, winter activities in Yellowstone.
A celebration of US National Parks kicks off a weeklong event on April 17th. Free entry to the park on the first day of this week.
Spring Has Sprung
To celebrate the opening of much of the park (though many attractions are not open yet for the year) Spring Has Sprung runs from May 5-9th with events around the park.
Helping visitors to better enjoy the camping and hiking trails, Yellowstone hosts a focus on these two key pastimes June 16th-21st in a five-day event.
Wild West Shoot-Outs
Hotel Irma, named after owner and founder of the hotel, Wild Bill Cody, hosts a re-enactment of an old west shoot-out six days a week from June to September. This free to attend event happens six nights a week and features character actors covering all of the legends of the west.
The world’s largest outdoor rodeo is held in Cheyenne July 23rd-August 1st in 2021. With over $1 million in prizes, the best in the west all come to compete in a family-friendly affair that includes all things cowboy.
Hike Yellowstone Geyser Basins Under the Full Moon
There’s no prettier way to see the park then under the pale moonlight follow this lunar calendar guide to see what phase the moon will be in when you visit.
While the first monday in September is always a three-day weekend, the application for Yellowstone is in its symbolic nature whereby most major attractions in the park close for the year. Use this extended weekend to enjoy all you can in Yellowstone before attractions shut. Here is a detailed park calendar showing opening and closing dates for the multiple areas. There are some facilities available during the winter however, see this guide for more information and dates.
Old Faithful Ride
A 60-mile bike tour takes visitors around the park with several rest stations and food areas. Smaller routes are available. Dates and routes can be found here.
Signifying the end of the tourist season entirely, November 1st (first Monday in November) will mark the closure of the roads that run through the park. While a planned road closure is not usually an event, the end of the season is fairly important.
Cut Your Own Christmas Tree
Want the ultimate Yellowstone souvenir? During the month of December you can cut down your own Christmas tree. Several vendors in and around Cody on the eastern entrance assist customers with securing permits and making arrangements.