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Best time to visit Yellowstone National Park

Plan your next adventure to the land of the burning ground.

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Yellowstone National Park sign

Home to nearly 60% of the world’s geysers, Yellowstone National Park is brimming with the best of the American West. Cruise through in a day or pitch a tent and wake up to fresh mountain air and awe-inspiring scenic views. Of course, you can reserve a room if glamping is more your style — there’s even a 1920s-style lodge with rustic cabins next to a site where Teddy Roosevelt once camped.

Is Yellowstone National Park open?

Yes — Yellowstone is doing a phased reopening in the wake of national quarantine due to COVID-19. This means some facilities are open, while others may stay closed. For example, the Bridge Bay campground, dock rental and marina rental are open, while Fishing Bridge RV Park is closed.

To plan your visit, check the most up-to-date information on Yellowstone’s website.

Best time of year to visit Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is open all year round, though most park roads are closed when winter comes due to heavy snowfall and inclement conditions. The best time to visit Yellowstone depends on whether you value warm weather, sparse crowds, baby animal sightings or brilliant fall foliage.

Spring

    Yellowstone’s facilities begin a staggered opening as spring settles in, with grass and prairie flowers blossoming. Crowds are slim, which means it’s a good season to spot bears, which trundle out of hibernation after March. You’ll also have a good chance at seeing wildlife babies around the park between April and June.

    Pricing for accommodation tends to be average during spring in Yellowstone, though you might see spikes around spring break.

    • Temp: Ranges from 30°F to the 60°F during the day, dropping into the teens and single digits overnight.

    Summer

    The key to visiting Yellowstone during summer is to veer off-the-beaten path. Popular spots like Old Faithful will have shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, and traffic may slow, especially in the event of a wildlife sighting or RV blunder. Plan ahead, as lodges and campsites can fill up months in advance.

    That said, Yellowstone is truly wonderful to visit during summertime when everything is open. You’ll enjoy temperate weather, with cool mornings to clear your head and long stretches of sunshine in the afternoon. Stick to lesser known areas like Lamar Valley, Mount Washburn and West Thumb to see stunning scenery with fewer people buzzing around.

    • Temp: Hovers around 70°F during the day, occasionally reaching 80°F. It gets cooler at night, even below freezing at higher elevations.

    Fall

    Autumn in Yellowstone hits the sweet spot, as crowds dwindle by the end of September and you might catch the gorgeous orange of aspen trees changing color.

    Though snow is likely as October rolls around, and you’ll need to keep an eye on gradual seasonal closures, overall you should have pleasant weather. Even better, rates on vacation rentals and accommodations tend to be lower, since the kids are back in school.

    • Temp: Similar to spring — anywhere from 30°F to the 60°F during the day, dipping into the teens and single digits at night.

    Winter

    Since less than 3% of Yellowstone’s 4 million annual visitors visit from December to March, crowds are rare during winter in Yellowstone. However, only one road is open to vehicles during this time — the northeast passage connecting Cooke City to Gardiner.

    Winter in Yellowstone is ideal for folks who enjoy winter sports and nature photography, since fewer visitors means more wildlife out and about. You’ll also likely find the cheapest rates for vacation rentals during this time.

    • Temp: Ranges from zero to 20°F during the day, dipping into subzero at night.

    Yellowstone park hours

    Yellowstone National Park and campgrounds are open 24/7, though its restaurants, lodges and other facilities all have specific hours. Use the national park website to plan your visit accordingly.

    What is there to do in Yellowstone?

    The best things to do in Yellowstone are simple — walking around, taking in the scenery, enjoying a huckleberry ice cream. Here are more ways to spend your time:

    Driving

    The Grand Loop is a route around Yellowstone that hits major spots including Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Dunraven Pass. Shaped like a figure eight, it’s 140 miles and can be done in a day if you’re short on time — though Yellowstone enthusiasts would tell you to slow down and stay overnight at a campground along the way.

    If you can, take at least two days to drive the Grand Loop, driving half the loop each day.

    Geyser watching

    There are nearly 500 geysers in Yellowstone, and six that park rangers currently predict. These geysers have been erupting on schedule for the last 30 years:

    • Old Faithful
    • Castle
    • Grand
    • Daisy
    • Riverside
    • Great Fountain

    Head to Upper Geyser Basin to see over 150 geysers within one square mile, plus hot springs and even a mudpot. You can track predictions for when each geyser will next erupt via the NPS Yellowstone Geysers or Yellowstone’s geyser Twitter feed. Predictions are also usually available in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and in lodges around the park.

    Camping

    There are 12 campgrounds throughout Yellowstone, with more than 2,100 total sites. Only five accept reservations in advance:

    • Bridge Bay — $27 nightly
    • Canyon — $32 nightly
    • Fishing Bridge RV park — $48 nightly
    • Grant Village — $32 nightly
    • Madison — $27 nightly

    The other seven campgrounds offer sites on a first come, first served basis, and tend to be cheaper. For instance, Indian Creek Campground costs $15 nightly for a regular site, and only $5 nightly if you came by bike or foot.

    Yellowstone also has backcountry sites available, for those hiking overnight stretches. You’ll need to purchase a backcountry permit, which costs $25, in addition to paying a $3 nightly fee. If you want to make a backcountry reservation more than two days in advance, you’ll pay a $25 processing fee as well. Only some backcountry campsites are available to reserve in advance.

    Fishing

    Fishing season in Yellowstone runs from Memorial Day Weekend through the first Sunday in November. You can fish from sunrise to sunset. Fishing in Yellowstone is strongly regulated to help preserve the native population, so all native species including cutthroat trout, Arctic grayling and mountain whitefish must be returned the lake. Nonnative fish — lake, brown, brown and rainbow trout — should be removed.

    • Good to know: People who fish are asked to complete a volunteer report card noting with information like fish species caught and length of fish to help park managers understand and track changes in the native and nonnative populations.

    Yellowstone has strict regulations in place regarding lure, hooks, bear safety and more, so be sure to read up on the rules before packing your tackle box.

    Hiking

    There are over 1,000 miles of trail in Yellowstone. If you’re looking for a day hike, check out Yellowstone’s Day Hike Sampler, which includes 21 hikes, all seven miles or less, so you can get breathtaking views without camping on the trail overnight. A longer day hike can be a great way to escape the crowds and experience Yellowstone at its most natural, unencumbered by cars or throngs of people.

    Backcountry hiking is also available. Purchase permits within two days of your trip’s start time. Call 307-344-2160 to get the process rolling — and email a copy of your completed Backcountry Permit Application to get a head start.

    Hunting

    Hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone National Park. That said, you can find big game, waterfowl and upland bird hunting nearby, in the following areas:

    • Teton Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest — Wyoming
    • Gallatin National Forest — Montana
    • Bob Marshall Wilderness —Montana
    • Salmon-Challis National Forest — Idaho

    Boating

    To see Yellowstone by river or lake, you can either rent a boat or bring your own.

    If you bring your own, it must pass an invasive species inspection. Inspections are free and can be performed at select facilities throughout the park. You’ll also need to obtain a permit:

    • Non-motorized
        • $5 for 7 days
        • $10 for a season pass
    • Motorized
        • $10 for 7 days
        • $20 for a season pass

    Boat rentals are available from Bridge Pay Marina, for $60 hourly, on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Rock climbing

    There is some rock climbing available in Yellowstone, including traditional, top rope, boulder, ice and alpine routes, but these can be hard to find. Your best bet is to check in with a park ranger upon arrival, to locate routes for the best rock climbing around the park. Or better yet, head to nearby Grand Teton National Park, for more than 250 total climbs at your fingertips.

    How much does it cost?

    Here’s how much it costs to visit Yellowstone:

    Cost of Yellowstone per person

    Cheap Midrange Luxury
    Entry On foot — $20 By car — $35 By car — $35
    Accomodations Campsite — $27 nightly Vacation rental — $150 nightly Lodge — $355 nightly
    Food Groceries — Less than $5 a meal Cafeteria — $10 to $15 a meal Dining room — $30 to $40 a meal
    Activities Hiking and geyser watching — Free Fishing permit — $18
    4-hour boat rental — $240
    Guided day tour — $325

    Cost of Yellowstone for a family of four

    Cheap Midrange Luxury
    Entry On foot — $20 By car — $35 By car — $35
    Accomodations Campsite — $27 nightly Vacation rental — $150 nightly Lodge — $355 nightly
    Food Groceries — Less than $15 a meal Cafeteria — $50 a meal Dining room — $160 a meal
    Activities Hiking and geyser watching — Free Fishing permit — $18
    4-hour boat rental — $240
    Guided day tour — $1,300

    Each entrance pass is good for seven days. Annual passes are available for $70. If you enter from the south entrance, you’re coming from Grand Teton National Park and the entrance fees are different.

    You can purchase an entry pass upon arrival, though it’s faster to purchase online and print it out for display when you pull up to the gates — 80% of this revenue goes back into restoring the park and improving accessibility for travelers.

    Once you’re in, most parking lots are free, including the parking lot next to Old Faithful. But if you plan on staying overnight, you’ll need to pay.

    Yellowstone discounts

    Save money for gas by taking advantage of these Yellowstone discounts:

    • Seniors and folks with Access passes get 50% off campsites and entry passes.
    • AAA members get 10% off most Yellowstone lodges, and special rates on nearby hotels.
    • School groups and academic institutions may qualify for the Academic Fee Waiver.
    • Tweens and kids under the age of 15 get in free.
    • 4th graders and their families get in free by signing up for the Every Kid Outdoors program.

    Yellowstone free days

    Entrance to Yellowstone is free on select days. In 2020, visiting Yellowstone is free on:

    • January 20: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • April 18: First day of National Park Week
    • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
    • September 26: National Public Lands Day
    • November 11: Veterans Day

    How to travel to Yellowstone

    Yellowstone is in the heart of the American west. It covers almost 3,500 square miles of wilderness mostly in Wyoming, though parts of it span west into Idaho and north into Montana. It’s located on top of a volcanic hotspot, which is why the park is known for awe-inspiring geysers and bubbling hot springs.

    There are five entrances to the park, depending on the direction from which you come:

    • North Entrance near Gardiner, MT
    • Northeast Entrance through the Beartooth Mountains
    • East Entrance near Cody, WY
    • South Entrance through Grand Teton National Park
    • West Entrance near West Yellowstone, MT

    If you enter at the north entrance, you’ll get to see the iconic Roosevelt Arch, with a plaque that reads, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

    • Pro tip — Yellowstone has live cams located at each entrance, which publish a picture every minute. If you have some flexibility in your schedule, keep an eye on the live cams to track which entrance will allow for the breeziest entry. West Yellowstone tends to have the longest lines, while its northern entrance is more often clear.

    Flights to Yellowstone

    You can fly in around Yellowstone then rent a car or take a taxi to the park from there.

    The closest airports to Yellowstone National Park are:

    • Bozeman International Airport in Montana (BZN) — One hour and 45 minutes to drive to West Yellowstone
    • Billings Logan International Airport in Montana (BIL) — Two hour and 45 minutes to drive to Cooke City in northeast Yellowstone
    • Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming (COD) — One hour and 10 minutes to drive to Pahaska Tepee in east Yellowstone
    • Jackson Hole Airport in Jackson, Wyoming (JAC) — One-hour drive to Yellowstone’s southwest entrance near Snake River

    Drive to Yellowstone.

    In the mood for a road trip? Driving to Yellowstone can be a wonderful way to see the country, with more freedom to explore once you arrive in the park.

    Here’s how long it’ll take to get to Yellowstone from major US cities:

    • Chicago, IL to Yellowstone: 20.5 hours
    • Denver, CO to Yellowstone: 8.5 hours
    • Dallas, TX to Yellowstone: 20.5 hours
    • Jacksonville, FL to Yellowstone: 33 hours
    • Los Angeles, CA to Yellowstone: 14.5 hours
    • New York City, NY to Yellowstone: 32 hours
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    RV rentals

    RV camping is available in all 12 of Yellowstone’s campgrounds, though not all RVs will fit in every campground, so you’ll need to confirm the sizing requirements beforehand. The following campgrounds have RV dump sites:

    • Bridge Bay Campground
    • Fishing Bridge RV Park
    • Grant Village Campground
    • Madison Campground

    You’ll find a picnic table and fire ring at every RV campsite, along with water, flush toilets and trash receptacles in a shared space.

    Pebble Creek Campground is a favorite for pull-thru campsites, with glorious views of the Absaroka Mountains.

    If you’re looking for a quieter, less-populated RV campsite, you may be interested in campgrounds located outside of Yellowstone, hosted by US Forest service. The cost of RV camping outside Yellowstone ranges from free to $25 nightly.

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    Where to stay in Yellowstone

    When visiting Yellowstone, you can stay in a campground, lodge, cabin, hotel or private vacation rental.

    Yellowstone lodging

    If you want to experience Yellowstone within the comfort of four sturdy walls, you could stay in a cabin or lodge within park borders. But keep in mind rates for Yellowstone lodging tend to be more expensive than rates in hotels and rentals around the perimeter.

    Yellowstone summer lodges:

    • Canyon Lodge and Cabins
    • Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cottages
    • Old Faithful Inn
    • Lake Lodge Cabins
    • Old Faithful Lodge Cabins
    • Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins
    • Grant Village
    • Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins
    • Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins

    Yellowstone winter lodges:

    • Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins
    • Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins

    Hotels near Yellowstone

    If you’re looking to save some cash, consider booking a hotel near Yellowstone but not actually inside the boundaries. West Yellowstone, which sits at the western entrance to the park, is a good option for affordable rooms, with close proximity to Old Faithful.

    Stage Coach Inn lobby area

    Our hotel pick: Stage Coach Inn

    Less than a mile from Yellowstone’s west entrance, Stage Coach Inn is a whimsical oasis of taxidermy — an American bison, grey wolf, Rocky Mountain goat, whitetail deer, mule deer, elk and more — and rustic wood finishes. The lounge has a fireplace and a selection of board games.

    • From $53 nightly for a deluxe room with king-sized bed
    • Free breakfast and Wi-Fi
    • Near 40 local restaurants

    Check availability

    Yellowstone vacation rentals

    There are vacation rentals near Yellowstone National Park, though you won’t find any within the borders. Check sites like Vrbo, Airbnb and Expedia to rent cozy cabins or spare bedrooms around the border.

    • Good to know: Tiny home vacation rentals are on the rise in the American west, and you’ll find plenty of these near Yellowstone.
    Spacious Cabin Yellowstone

    Our vacation rental pick: Spacious Cabin near Yellowstone

    Bring the whole family and a friend or two, because this spacious cabin has room for 14 people. Yellowstone is only 20 minutes away, for memories that will last a lifetime.

    • From $99 nightly
    • Located on Henry’s Lake, with fishing
    • Bonfire pit and balcony views of Mt. Sawtelle
    • Self check-in via August app

    Check availability

    Bottom line

    Yellowstone is a national treasure that all US residents share and is yours to explore firsthand — with memories that’ll last a lifetime. If you’d like to see Yellowstone through expert eyes, consider booking a day tour or longer overnight adventure though the park.

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