Yellowstone: When is the best time to visit?

Flowers blooming in early summer

When is the best time to visit
Yellowstone - especially its waterfalls?

Given the fact that the park sits in the steep and rugged Rocky Mountains, there tends to be very changeable weather. But even given such variability, there are clear favorable seasons for waterfalling. And in our experiences, we've found that the optimal times to see waterfalls pumping depends whether you're seeing the touristy ones or you're willing to go off the beaten track into the backcountry for them. If you're doing the touristy waterfalls (basically the ones you can see near the Grand Loop), they're pumping from May through June (though many flow year round and will keep going into late summer). However, there are some lighter-flowing falls that won't last too far past June or mid-July.

If you're after backcountry waterfalls (namely the Bechler Backcountry), keep in mind that the rivers are high (almost uncrossable) and meadows are swamps or lakes in early summer (June through early July). Thus, you'll want to partake in these hikes in August where the rivers calm down a bit and the mosquito population diminishes.

As for the seasons of Yellowstone, here is how it breaks down...

Storms can produce dramatic sunsetsSpring is when a good deal of snow has melted and wildlife sightings (especially with newborns) are plentiful. It's not unusual to see huge herds of bison coexisting with elk as well as bears foraging or going on the hunt. Low elevation flowers also start blooming, and weather gets warmer but is quite variable and unpredictable (every so often, late season snows can fall). The drawback to Spring is that high-elevation roads remain closed and even some trails are closed due to grizzly activity (the Natural Bridge comes to mind).

Summer is the peak tourist season where most trails and roads are open and temperatures are their most comfortable (highs can get up to 80s). Wildflowers continue their bloom and reach the higher elevations. Afternoon thundershowers can be problematic (especially with lightning strikes).

Autumn is the rutting season for elk. Aspens change color and crowds are less. While waterfalls aren't their best, photographers often enjoy this time for the softer light and peace. Nights get cold and it's possible to get rain and snow this time of year.

Winter is when the park is mostly locked in by snow. Snowcoach is the primary means of going places. The park is mostly quiet and the park is its least crowded. Conditions are harsh, but you'll get to experience a side of the park that few people get to see.

Like all places in the great outdoors, I usually check the weather before I go on a trip. Check with the National Weather Service for the latest forecasts.

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