Trying to figure out when to visit Yellowstone can be a tough decision, there are so many great sites to see, wildlife to watch and tours to take depending on the season. With over four million people visiting the park each year, planning ahead for lodging and permits is essential, otherwise you may be sleeping in your car outside the park wishing you had made that reservation.
Most of the roads in Yellowstone are closed to cars in the winter, the exception being Mammoth through Lamar Valley to Cooke City. Seasonal closures typically begin at the beginning of November and end mid-April. It's best to call the park if you are planning a trip near these dates as weather varies dramatically year to year and roads do often close unexpectedly. When most people visit the park in the winter it's by Snow Coach or by Snowmobile. Depending on your level of adventure (or toleration for loud noises) will determine which mode you choose. Be prepared for extremely cold weather, snow and wind. Also be prepared for incredibly scenic winter vistas, lots of bison and moose sightings and a view of the park most people will never see. Trips can be arranged through most major gateway cities (Jackson, West Yellowstone, and Cody) and can include overnight accommodations at Old Faithful. Look for Winter Vacation Packages.
Warm spring weather brings incredibly lush forests, huge waterfalls and new life (baby bison happen to be my personal favorite). With roads opening in mid-April you'll have plenty of time to explore "green" Yellowstone before the summer crowds take over. Be prepared for changing weather, 80 degrees and sunny in the morning with hail and snow that afternoon. Wildlife can be more dangerous in the spring as hibernation makes for cranky, hungry bears and new babies calls for protective mothers. Be on alert as you enjoy all the new life budding around you. Snow may still be covering your favorite upper elevation trails so branch out and try exploring some trails at lower elevation. Are you a road biker? Jump in the saddle before the roads officially open to traffic but are plowed free of snow for a truly unique Yellowstone experience.
The most popular season to visit by far, it's also the easiest to navigate. The weather is generally warm and sunny (although always be prepared for freak snowstorms) and campgrounds, facilities, restaurants and hotels are fully operational. Be prepared to make reservations far in advance and to wait in traffic (mostly caused by herds of bison or unaware wildlife watchers) to get to your favorite spots. Try exploring some of the less well-known areas such as the Bechler Falls Region, the hidden 5th entrance to Yellowstone (located in the southwest corner of the park) where you are guaranteed solitude and amazing sites. Are you a boater? Drop your kayak or canoe (with proper licensing) into one of the many great lakes throughout Yellowstone taking you away from the grind of traffic. Make sure to bring your bug spray, as mosquitoes can be quite voracious during the summer. Find Summer Vacation Packages.
Fall is far and away my favorite time to visit the park. With colorful trees, bugling elk and no bugs it makes for a great weekend getaway. Make sure to check campground and hotel closures if you are planning to stay. This is a great time to view some of the more scenic areas in the park; especially the Lamar and Hayden Valley where colorful aspens are plentiful and if you're luck a fat grizzly may just be wondering through. Be prepared for quickly changing weather and road closures due to weather.
With so many great trip options throughout the year, there is no off-season in Yellowstone. You will always have a unique experience and you can tailor it to your specific interests and schedule. Always be prepared to encounter wildlife and quickly changing weather, no matter the season. Smart visitors bring proper clothing, bear spray, food and water whenever they visit this amazing place.