Best Time for Yellowstone Visit to Avoid Crowds
November 2, 2009 3:11 PM   Subscribe

What's the best time in late spring for a Yellowstone/Grand Tetons visit?

I want to plan a road trip to see Yellowstone NP and Grand Tetons NP in late spring 2010, but I'm flexible on dates so far.

I want to beat the crowds of summer/Memorial Day, but I want to have nice weather & conditions for photography.

I was in Yosemite in early April, which was perfect timing for what I like to do, photography-wise. The trees were greening up and there were lovely poppies blooming in the lower elevations. Waterfalls were at high capacity. The roads at high elevations weren't open yet, but there were very few crowds mid-week.

Can you recommend a timeframe for me that would give me similar conditions in Yellowstone & Grand Tetons?

Any other advice would also be great.
posted by aabbbiee to Travel & Transportation around Gardiner, Mt (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yellowstone is far less crowded than anything in California. (I used to live a couple of hours from Yellowstone, now I live a couple of hours from Yosemite.)

Can you get around on skis? If so the best time by far is winter. You can ski everywhere, no people, the air is clear and the light is beautiful. Yellowstone/GT is a bit farther north and a bit higher than Yellowstone, and I wouldn't call Memorial Day in Yellowstone "summer". There will be water in the streams and the trees will be greening. I think that even on Mem. Day you won't find a lot of people especially from the north. If you go during the week before Memorial Day I'm sure you won't find anyone.

If you're more interested in mountains and nature (and not so much the unique geothermal features of central Yellowstone) then the Absaroka Mountains (in the NP and Bridger-Teton NF) are fantastic. A little further to the north is the Wind River Range which is even more spectacular. Also check out the south fork of the Snake in the Island Park area (south of the NP). On the Idaho side of the Grand Tetons, around Driggs, is a fantastic high valley. (Near the Grand Targhee ski resort.) That's my favourite photo location in the area.

Also Starr Valley and Afton (Wyoming).

NP = Natl. Park; NF = Natl. Forest.
posted by phliar at 4:12 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

The later in spring the better. Roads inside Yellowstone are not open until the middle of April and some roads in Yellowstone won't be open until May. Even when the roads open, most of the landscape and trails off the road will be covered in deep snow. Throughout May there can be sudden blizzards that close roads entirely for a day or two. Most wildflowers don't start showing up until June or even July. Keep in mind that most of the park is above 7000 feet so this will be like the high country of Yosemite. Expect spring to come at least a month later. The end of May and first week of June aren't too late for avoiding crowds.
posted by JackFlash at 4:24 PM on November 2, 2009

I agree with late spring. It's before the crowds start swarming in, but late enough that you should be able to get around ok. I've been to Yellowstone a number of times before the official open season, and it's pretty amazing. There's nothing like being the only people watching Old Faithful when it goes off.

For photography, early mornings in spring are great, especially around the thermal features, which throw off a lot of misty water vapor in the cool of the morning. You might also find yourself the only visitors (or among very few) on the observation decks for the waterfalls. This will allow you the get the best vantage point for photos without having to squeeze between other people. It's nearly impossible to use a tripod when it's busy.

On the minus side: BE CAREFUL!!!!! Watch your footing. Even if the snow has melted from roads and walkways, many areas in the shade, such a paths leading to decks, may still be covered in snow or ice. There are many places in the park where one slip can result in serious injury or death. Also, take the warnings about animals seriously, no matter how docile they may appear.

Another minus: Not all services may be available before the season is in full swing, so check with the park or the park's website before you go, to be prepared for the amount of services.

Bonus info: On my last trip to Yellowstone, a couple months ago, there were lots of people. I overheard a couple talking as they headed up the path from viewing a waterfall. The young woman was asking: "Do you think there's a Wal-Mart in Yellowstone?" No. No there's not.
posted by The Deej at 7:50 PM on November 2, 2009

I was in both in July, and neither was so crowded it would interfere with photography. As always at national parks, if you're willing to hike into any area about 1/4-1/2 mile, 95% of the crowds disappear.

Grand Tetons in July still had snow-covered peaks.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on November 2, 2009

I was in Yellowstone in July a few years ago and the big attractions — Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pots — were jammed with people. But we spent most of our time in the backcountry, and not even the backcountry, really, just a very short hike from the road (as Miko says above), and saw very few people. An added bonus was that we got to see a number of geysers and other features right up close, much closer than you can get in the tourist areas on the road.

So even at peak season, Yellowstone is big enough that you do not have to feel overwhelmed by crowds. If you go earlier, late May or June, you will probably have decent weather and even fewer people.

There will be snow up high, though, as Miko points out, so be prepared for that. (On the same trip I was hiking in Montana and needed crampons & ice axe to reach some summits.)
posted by dseaton at 12:11 AM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: It sounds like early June will be good for me. I will start to research into lodging!

Thanks for the pointers, everyone.
posted by aabbbiee at 6:16 AM on November 3, 2009

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