The Best Time to Visit Yellowstone: a Tale of 2 Off-Seasons
Thirty thousand people. That’s how many visitors Yellowstone National Park receives every day in July. So, what’s the best time to visit Yellowstone? Well, let’s start by crossing July off the list!
What if you could experience all the pristine natural beauty & wildlife of Yellowstone—and cross paths with less than 30 people all day? Not 30,000…30. This was exactly our experience, in late April of this year.
The best time to visit Yellowstone is when the open road need only be shared with fellow bikers and freely-roaming bison. This dynamic is not for everyone, which may explain why no one seems to be talking about it.
If off-season travel is your thing, a Spring or Fall trip to Yellowstone makes for an unforgettable experience. The main gates are closed to cars, but they warmly welcome walkers, hikers & bikers with open arms.
The best time to visit Yellowstone: tourism by the numbers
Yellowstone offers entry & activities 365 days a year. When planning a trip, your 2 primary considerations should be:
- what do you want to do and what are you actually able to do: hiking, camping, boating, fishing, biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, bird-watching, wolf-spotting, bear-seeking or just general bison-gazing
- how many others will be there with you: around you…next to you…in front of you…driving on the roads…walking on the geyser boardwalks…blocking that perfect bison pic
The National Park Service (NPS) makes it easy to answer the first question, with crystal clear opening & closing dates for all park roads, facilities & attractions.
As for the second question, let’s take a closer look.
Summer season saturation
Of the 4 million visitors Yellowstone receives annually, 2.5 million come in June, July or August. That’s 27,000 people every day.
Assuming an average of 3 people per vehicle, that’s over 9,000 cars every day. Yellowstone’s paved roads are almost exclusively 2-lane roads. When your 8,999 vehicular neighbors stop for a herd of bison, you stop too.
July & August are popular with good reason: the weather is warm & beautiful. All facilities, roads, and services are open. Kids are on summer break. For American families, this might be their one full-week vacation all year. Our Spanish friends may decide to spend the entire month of August out here!
But the reality is: unmanageable crowds can quickly overshadow that warm & liberating summer sensation. So, it begs the question: should you consider a different time of year to visit Yellowstone?
A tale of 2 off-seasons
If the “on” seasons are summer and winter, then the off-seasons (also called shoulder seasons) are the 6-8 week periods that fall between them.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2 off-season periods in Yellowstone—early/Spring & late/Fall:
|OFF-SEASON||DATE RANGE*||DESCRIPTION & ACTIVITIES|
|Early/Spring||Early March – late April||The winter season has officially ended but the peak summer season has yet to begin. You may find snowmobile rentals in early March, but not in mid-April. The gates are closed to cars, but open to humans on foot or on bike. Weather permitting, this time of year is beautiful for hiking & biking.|
|Late/Fall||Early October – mid-December||Summer has officially ended but winter has yet to begin. Target October for hiking & biking, before the park switches to oversnow travel (snowmobiles and snowcoaches) in early November.|
*Different roads, gates & areas open & close on different dates, so the timeframes are general. For specific opening & closing dates, check the official NPS website.
If you don’t mind taking some chances with the weather, this is a spectacular time of year to visit the park. In April, we saw about 30 vehicles in a 5-hour period. Most were park facilities vehicles transporting equipment, food or retail goods to the park’s lodges & shops in preparation for Opening Day.
How many daily vehicles did we estimate to be on these roads just a couple months later? That’s right. 9,000.
Yellowstone’s open door: your opportunity to explore
Yellowstone has 5 entrances, and only 1 of them is open year-round (the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana). Yet while the other 4 gates are closed to cars during the off-seasons, they are open to pedestrian traffic. This means you can freely walk, jog or hike into the park.
Another little-known and rarely-mentioned fact: you can also bike into the park.
Somehow, we were unaware of this option until we arrived. None of the articles or guides we read seemed to highlight this brilliant off-season perk. How many others miss out on this understated opportunity?
During our visit, we heard a logical explanation of why off-season travel isn’t promoted by the NPS or local businesses:
Weather is unpredictable. Park personnel and emergency response services are limited. So, you won’t see an NPS campaign urging tourists to “come bike through Yellowstone’s unadulterated beauty, even though the season hasn’t started and the gates aren’t open to cars.”
But if you follow the rules and exercise good judgment, you’ll view Yellowstone through a lens that few visitors have a chance to look through.
Safety is your responsibility
Just because you’re allowed to enter on foot or on bike, doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so. Personal safety is your responsibility.
- Let your loved ones know where you’re headed and when you expect to return
- Don’t travel alone. Try to explore with at least one other person
- Be prepared for hunger, thirst & unpredictable weather
- Always—under all circumstances—carry bear spray
The gates are closed, but the door is open. Come on in and have a look around. No cars. No crowds. Just raw, uncut beauty.
And bison. Lots and lots of bison.
Self-guided bike tour: West Entrance to Madison Junction
Two days before the gates opened for the 2018 summer season, we explored 28 miles of unadulterated Yellowstone wilderness by bike. It was so incredible, we made a video to take you there with us, check it out:
If you’re interested in following in our footsteps and planning a trip like this for 2019, you’ve got a 5-week window to make it happen: Saturday March 16—Thursday April 18.
Early off-season 2019: key dates
- Friday March 15: West Entrance will close to oversnow travel by snowmobile and snowcoach (if it hasn’t already been closed earlier due to weather)
- Saturday March 16: West Entrance gates closed to vehicles, but if the weather is nice, explore as much open road as you can on foot or by bike.
- Thursday April 18: last day to experience a vehicle-free Yellowstone before summer season begins
- Friday April 19: Opening Day of summer 2019 season. West Entrance gates open to vehicles at 8am.
- Saturday April 20: National Park Week begins. The crowds are still a fraction of what you’ll find in the summer months, and entry is free on one or more days this week.
What to pack
Not knowing what to expect, we came prepared. Let’s call out the most important from the smorgasbord below:
- Bear spray: literally attached at our hip the whole time. Don’t enter the park without it.
- Binoculars: ours were provided by the Explorer Cabins
- Leatherman multi-tool
- Camera equipment
- Hats & gloves
- Water Bottle (reusable, preferable)
Where to rent bikes
Freeheel and Wheel came recommended to us, and now it’s our turn to pay it forward. Solid bikes. Good rates. Good coffee. Great people.
Our biking itinerary:
- 12:30pm – picked up bikes from Freeheel and Wheel
- 1:00 – entered the park, biking past the closed entry gates (no employees were manning the gate)
- 3:45 – arrived at Madison Junction, our turnaround point. Quick rest and a snack at the Warming Hut: a warm & safe public shelter with restrooms & a vending machine. 14 miles down, 14 to go.
- 4:00pm – depart Madison Junction
- 5:30pm – arrival back at Freeheel and Wheel. Fewer photo stops = faster return trip
- 5:45pm – taco time
travelhelix tip: continue another 11 miles south to the Geyser Basins to see Grand Prismatic. This 22-mile addition turns the 28-mile outing into a cool 50. Add Old Faithful (7 miles past Grand Prismatic) and you’ve got the college hoops bracketology of bike tours: a round(trip) of 64.
Nature & wildlife of Yellowstone’s early off-season
Regardless of time of year, there’s one overarching, fundamental rule to follow: respect the park and everything in it. Roads. Rivers. Wildlife. Don’t feed the animals. Don’t litter. Be a good traveler. Please. All of that should go without saying, but sadly—based on behavior we observed—common sense & decency is not so common for some.
Take The Yellowstone Pledge before entering the park.
Blue skies & a white blanket
During the days just prior to our arrival, a solid snowstorm had dumped 2-3 feet of snow in the area. Though the roads had been plowed, a fresh, thick layer of white blanketed most of our surroundings.
In some areas, tree limbs bowed under the weight of the white powder, flexing to hold snowy layers 6 times thicker than their own limbs. The disproportion—not unlike the oversized meringue layer that sits atop a lemon meringue pie—was beautiful to behold, and made us want to dive right in.
Note: all animal photos that follow were taken at a very safe distance.
Say what you will about their unfortunate vision (fun fact: bison are nearsighted), these animals are majestic in their own right. And there’s something incredibly impactful about encountering a wandering herd of bison for the first time, outside of the safe confines of an automobile.
Bison are the largest mammals in North America, and the undisputed ambassadors of Yellowstone National Park.
off-season bonus: April is bison-calving season. If you’re fortunate enough to see a baby bison (better known by their nickname “red dogs”), it’ll be an experience you won’t soon forget!
safety tip: you can tell a bison’s mood by its tail. Tail down = calm bison. Straight up = agitated bison. Be aware, and treat them with respect!
During Spring, you’ll find elk grazing in riverbeds on the west side of the park. And March-April is a special time of year, as the males (called bulls) lose their antlers around now.
The bull elk below is near and dear to us, as he is the first large animal we saw in Yellowstone. Notice the nubs of his antlers growing back. In 3-5 months, they’ll be nearly 6-feet wide (just under 2 meters) and weigh 30 pounds.
Hours after these photos were taken, we learned that the canine hunter below was not a wolf, nor a fox, but in fact: a coyote.
We would see several more coyotes over the next couple days.
In March, grizzly bears emerge from their dens.
In April, black bears emerge. Meanwhile, grizzlies can sometimes be seen in meadows not too far from the road, since the presence of cars hasn’t yet driven them away.
No bears during our bike excursion, but we did have some exciting bear encounters 2 days later, during our drive deeper into the northeast part of the park:
- A grizzly from afar (D and others spotted one on a mountaintop via binoculars)
- A black bear up close, ambling along a hillside (shown below!)
Bear Spray: don’t leave home without it.
After a 28-mile bike ride, this girl deserves a taco or 3. Thank you Las Palmitas for parking your Taco Bus in West Yellowstone!
Then, back to the Explorer Cabins to try and wrap our heads around this unexpected & unforgettable experience.
Who’s comin’ with us?!
Yellowstone National Park is the type of place that makes a powerful first impression when unobstructed by windows and unadulterated by human intruders.
We just didn’t know it was possible to see the park in this light. Turns out: it is. You just have to know when to go.
The park opens on April 19th next year. Who wants to meet us there the week of the 12th?!