Four million. That’s the number of visitors who come to Yellowstone National Park annually to marvel at geysers and hot springs, high peaks and lush valleys. In July alone one million visitors called on this wilderness—the first national park not only in the United States, but in the world—marking the first time visitation exceeded that figure in a single month.
For families seeking a relaxed experience in the park, the glut of visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day can pose a challenge. “It can be almost bumper to bumper coming through here in July,” says Ashea Mills, owner of Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone, referring to a popular section of the park’s Grand Loop Road.
The park—mostly in Wyoming, but with portions in Idaho, and Montana—is vast, at some 3,472 square miles, and contains a number of superlatives, including more than half the world’s active geysers. Visitors drive here or fly into Bozeman or Billings, Montana; Cody or Jackson Hole, Wyoming; or Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Most find lodging in the gateway towns of Cooke City, Gardiner, and West Yellowstone in Montana, and Cody and Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The park has 12 established campgrounds—though only the one in Mammoth Hot Springs is open through the winter—and year-round backcountry camping, which requires a permit.
Even though Yellowstone has five main hubs—Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village, and Mammoth Hot Springs—each with its own unique geological or geographical allure, at times in summer it can feel like every visitor is vying to see the same attraction.
To avoid that, consider exploring Yellowstone in the off-season. Yes, you’ll sacrifice the long, warm days of summer, but in return you’ll have ample room to move—and you might even have a better shot of seeing some of the park’s remarkable wildlife. Here’s how to plan and enjoy an off-season visit to the park.
While summer offers more daylight hours to spot animals, the species you’ll probably see the most June through August are humans. Once fall hits, many of Yellowstone’s resident wildlife become more active. In October, bears go into hyperphagia—that is, eating voraciously to store up calories for hibernation—and bison and elk are in their annual rut.
For those seeking autumnal colors, “October is the new September,” says Mills, whose company offers a variety of tours, from day hikes and cross-country ski or snowshoe excursions to family-focused outings, geothermal-centered visits, wildlife viewing drive-and-walk journeys, and customized tours. “We can have those nice frosty mornings [in October] followed by bluebird afternoons for hiking,” whereas the once reliably cool September routinely tops 80 degrees—although this year a storm brought four inches of snow in mid-September.
While Yellowstone gets frigid in winter—multiple days in a row below zero are the norm—the park looks magical in a white cloak of snow, and many of its 1,000 miles of hiking trails are well suited for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Climate change is shortening winters, so the snowpack that was once reliable almost into April can become spotty in March in low-snow years.
Dressing in layers is even more important in spring and fall, when temperature swings of 50 degrees in a day aren’t unheard of. During our visit we clocked an early-morning low of 11 degrees—while watching wolves feed on a days-old kill in the Lamar Valley—and afternoon highs in the mid-50s the same day.
Wolves tend to be more active—and closer to the roads—in winter. Young bison, elk, and pronghorn abound in spring. Bears are easier to spot in late spring when snow in the high country keeps them in the lower terrain.
Park staff maintain an online calendar of month-by-month highlights within Yellowstone. Coyote and foxes hunt in snowy meadows in January, and grizzly bears emerge from hibernation in March. Bison calve in April, wolf pups emerge from dens in the Lamar Valley in May, and bighorn sheep rut, near the North Entrance, in November.
Although few experiences compete with seeing such wildlife in its natural habitat, it’s vital that visitors heed rangers’ advice to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards from all other animals, including bison and elk. When hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing, always carry a can of bear spray and know how to use it—deploying in two-second bursts toward a charging bear from 30 feet or closer.
Know what’s open
Most of Yellowstone’s 310 miles of paved roads are closed to private vehicles from early November to mid-April, although many of these roads are open to snowmobile and snow coach tours in the heart of winter. That means no private-vehicle access to Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, or Canyon Village, or to all but two of the park’s visitors centers—the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs and the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center, in the eponymous gateway town.
Although park visitation in wintertime is only 5 percent of what it is in summer, lodgings fill up quickly and services scale back, which can make booking a stay difficult. Until mid-November all of the park’s five entrance gates are open, so pick the gateway town nearest your preferred gate and start your lodging search there.
From mid-November to around mid-April, your best bet is Gardiner, Montana. If availability is tight, consider patching together an itinerary that includes Livingston (about an hour’s drive from Gardiner) or Bozeman, which is around a 90-minute drive from Gardiner. Note that Highway 212, which runs east through Yellowstone from Gardiner, closes just beyond Cooke City and the park’s Silver Gate for the entire winter, so if you plan to stay in Cooke City, you’ll be at the end of a 60-mile dead-end road.
Off-season visitors should bring food and water with them into the park because some inside-the-park restaurants and stores close or dial back their hours during fall, winter, and spring. “The [gateway] towns are open and nobody’s going to starve, but you might have much fewer choices” than during high season, Mills says. In Gardiner, the Wonderland Cafe & Lodge has a casual, local feel, with a family-friendly menu (mac and cheese, elk chili). West Yellowstone, the largest of the five gateway towns, has the widest variety of dining options closest to the park.
Based in the gateway town of Gardiner, one could spend days poking around the northern, open-year-round sliver of Yellowstone without growing bored. This includes geological features such as Mammoth Hot Springs—steaming pools hemmed by terraced, chalk-white slopes of travertine—and the Lamar Valley, which is locally famous for its namesake river, scenic beauty, and wildlife density. Bears, bison, elk, moose, and—especially in winter—wolves are plentiful, and the Absaroka Mountains make for a theatrical backdrop even when the animals opt to stay hidden.
To help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, honor the park’s idle-free campaign developed by the Yellowstone-Teton Clean Energy Coalition. If you drive an electric vehicle to tour Yellowstone, you can use the six Level 2 charging stations in and immediately outside the park in Gardiner and West Yellowstone.
Instead of buying bear spray, rent it at Canyon Village. If you buy it, there’s only an infinitesimal chance you’ll need to use it, and you can’t take it on a plane home, so donate unused canisters to park hotels, stores, visitors centers, backcountry offices, and ranger stations, as well as area camping stores, and the Bozeman airport.
Many of the Native peoples who lived in, hunted on, or traversed the present-day national park left remnants, including arrowheads, petroglyths, pictographs, and dwellings. If you come across any artifacts or archaeological sites, don’t remove or otherwise disturb them; report them, including their location, as precisely as possible, to a park ranger.
Can’t miss for kids
Kids age 4 and up can participate in Yellowstone’s Junior Ranger program, a self-guided and fun way to help the next generation pay attention to what they’re seeing. Guided by a booklet ($3 at visitors centers), kids check off requirements, segmented by age groups (4-7, 8-12, and 13+), that include attending a ranger-led program, hiking, and completing activities in the booklet to learn more about park resources, issues, and concepts such as hydrothermal geology, wildlife, and fire ecology. There’s even a winter version, and those who complete the booklet earn a patch.
For middle school-age children, consider hiring a local guide, at least for a day tour. Guides know the best spots for spying wolves, can teach how to track animals in the snow, and provide scopes to help get a better look at animals from afar. Several outfitters, many based in Gardiner, lead guided skiing and snowshoeing tours in the park. Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner, offers unique cold-season programs such as a winter landscape photography field seminar. For adventurous older kids and teens, off-season backcountry camping can help develop outdoor survival skills.
Hike with us: Heading into the great outdoors? We can help. National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps highlight the best places for hiking, camping, boating, paddling, and wildlife viewing in North America’s scenic, rugged frontiers and urban fringes. Created in partnership with local land management agencies, these expertly researched maps deliver unmatched detail and helpful information to guide experienced outdoor enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. Click here for a map of Yellowstone National Park.
John Briley is a writer in Takoma Park, Maryland.