Yellowstone in July -- A Bad Idea?
April 8, 2015 6:12 AM   Subscribe

We have an opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park and/or environs, and Mt Rushmore, etc. BUT, the window is limited to the first 2 weeks of July. Is that a horrible time to visit, given that I hate crowds and 85+ degree temps without relief (breaks in air conditioned spaces)? In terms of potential crowds of people, are there places nearby YNP that are less crowded and just as interesting/beautiful to visit? (We'd be driving between Colorado and Minnesota.)
posted by dancing leaves to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
How are you getting around from CO to WY/MT to MN? If you're receptive to going a "little" (on Montana scales) out of the way or were already planning on taking I94, the Painted Canyon at Teddy Roosevelt Park is worth a stop. It'll probably still be quite warm, but you will have ample opportunity to take in the natural wonders of this area. If you take 94 you'll also pass by Glendive and can visit Makoshika park, too. If you're taking 90, the Little Big Horn site might be worth a stop. Maybe don't look at it as devoting all your energies into making Yellowstone the primary part of the trip; you've got a lot of driving ahead of you so spend less time at Yellowstone, hit the wide variety of wonders you can see along those main freeways.

Mount Rushmore shouldn't be too tough on you -- particularly if you plan on going in the morning. It may get to 80 by about 2pm, but it'll stay in the sixties or 70s until the sun starts beating down on you, which might not be until 10am or later. Also Mount Rushmore isn't all outdoors -- you'll be outdoors to take your picture in front of the heads, but most everything else of interest is near someplace you can step indoors.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:33 AM on April 8, 2015

Haven't been in July, but the one time I went to Yellowstone was the end of March, beginning of April, and most of the park wasn't even open yet because the roads weren't clear of snow yet. Summer is pretty much when you can go to Yellowstone. According to their site, most of the facilities are only open between May and September.
posted by Naberius at 6:41 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, Yellowstone is crowded and awful in July. It's difficult to find lodging during peak season, and the roads will be crowded, and the trails will be crowded. Not fun if you're looking for a pristine experience. (It's lovelier anyway in May and September and definitely worth trying it those months when your schedule allows, together with the Tetons and Idaho.)
posted by mochapickle at 6:45 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

It doesn't get hot like that in that part of the country. When there's no sun, it gets cold. I've been to Wyoming a few times in the summer. During the day, standing in the sun in an area with no tree cover? Yeah, hot. Shade, night time? Grab a hoodie. Last time I was in Yellowstone it was late June and there was still some snow in places. When I've been camping, the hardest thing was staying warm at night. In the summer. When it's in the 40s.

I generally start bitching when it's in the mid 70s, so I feel you, but for this crowds are going to be your issue, not heat.
posted by phunniemee at 7:00 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for comments so far; yes, _the crowds are my main concern_.

I can tolerate a little heat much, much more than swarms of people clogging up the roads and paths.

I'm not expecting a pristine experience, but lots of people milling around and yelling inane commentary to each other--blech. I do want the nature experience to far outweigh the social/group experience. If I can't get that in Yellowstone in July, would love to hear about "the roads less traveled" where we might get that.
posted by dancing leaves at 7:06 AM on April 8, 2015

Go. Do the park loop drive in Yellowstone early in the day. Park and walk and just watch the antelope, the bison, all the critters. The geysers are really amazing. Have dinner at the Yellowstone Inn, and go watch Old Faithful erupt at night - they post the times, and they'll hold your dinner. The visitors will be from all over the world, so you will hear inane comments in German, Japanese, etc. The park staff will be knowledgeable and will help you find the right options to avoid crowds and enjoy the park's beauty. Get a guide book, or otherwise research the busiest times and plan accordingly, but go. The US National Parks are fantastic, and Yellowstone especially so.
posted by theora55 at 7:23 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Mount Rushmore will be probably be crowded, particularly the walking path from the parking lot to the viewing area/exhibit entrance. However, the rest of the park will not be overrun with people. South Dakota's Jewel Cave and Wind Cave parks will both be full of people, particularly around the buildings and on the cave tours. What you can do though is get to the parks and skip the cave tour. Most of them have hikes that take you around the park and into the natural areas and the harder/longer the hike, the fewer people there will be.

Seconding Painted Canyon, it is beautiful and not as well known.
Devil's Tower was pretty sparse the one time I was there, but it was near sunset.
Grand Teton has lots of space and long hikes.
posted by soelo at 7:32 AM on April 8, 2015

You should really go. There will be crowds, but for a reason. The US National Parks are an absolute treasure, and Yellowstone (both the touristy and non-touristy parts) will never disappoint. Even the absolute most crowded part, Old Faithful and the surrounding geyser park is mind-blowing. Prepare yourself for slow driving and traffic jams in the park, as people will drive pretty slow, almost to a stop, when wildlife is close to the road.

If you're willing to tent camp, you'll have much more options for lodging, as during the peak season it might be impossible to find something in the park (though we easily found lodging just outside in West Yellowstone...grab a burrito at Las Palmitas, you won't regret it).

To get less crowded you'll typically have to go to less developed spots. We did some back-packing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It's verrrrry under-developed, so a little more hard core, but some of the neighboring towns have lodging, and there are some outfitting companies that can take you on guided tours. It has tremendous wildlife, and we went 3 days without seeing another person...but did have a decent bear encounter so there are some trade-offs.

If you can, drive the Beartooth Highway. We accidentally happened upon it and it was one of our famous moments of the drive. The views are ridiculous, and it's only open a few months out of the year.
posted by sicem07 at 7:39 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Do Yellowstone. It's really, truly amazingly beautiful. We've been there in early July and while it was crowded, it was crowded with people like us -- people who were there to be amazed by nature. I don't remember being annoyed by anyone (and trust me, I'm easy to annoy).
posted by erst at 8:34 AM on April 8, 2015

We went to Yellowstone last spring and it was worth every single second . We spent a pile of money and many many hours in a car and it was totally worth it. There were nine of us in a rental cabin and between the slightly cramped conditions and grumpy relatives you'd think it would be a terrible experience but it was actually awesome. Yes, there are tons of other excellent touristy stuff in the general area, but Yellowstone is really the very best of it all. There's a reason it's the worlds first national park.

Go be a tourist because that's what being a tourist is all about, crowds, summer temperatures and spectacular scenery. GO, GO, GO! It'll be totally worth it even with the crowds.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:38 AM on April 8, 2015

If Yellowstone is anything like when I went to Yosemite (or Arches or any national park I've ever been to), there may indeed be crowds - but they will all be concentrated in one tiny portion of the park, leaving huge vast swaths of the park almost desolate. So you may see a whole crapton of people near Old Faithful or a couple of other hot springs, but they probably all just came just for that and are leaving the historic fort and the calcite springs and the Roaring Mountain and Gibbon Falls and the Natural Bridge and most of the rest of the park alone, simply because Old Faithful is the only bit they ever heard about and that's all they came to see. It's a big park, and there's going to be plenty of places to explore that other people aren't exploring themselves. Also, there's a lot of adjacent Federal and State Parks and lesser-known nearby museums that can give you other things to do that probably won't be as crowded because they're all being upstaged by Yellowstone.

You'll be fine. Parks are flippin' big, and most people are just coming to see the one or two things they know about from guidebooks - it's the equivalent of having a land mass the size of Rhode Island, and the tourists are only going to see Providence.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I went to Yellowstone in July back in 2002: not hot at all, but yes, some crowds.

Seconding the Beartooth Highway. You might also want to consider rafting down the Yellowstone River; there are various companies in Gardiner, MT that offer package deals for this.

Have fun!
posted by dhens at 9:34 AM on April 8, 2015

I visited Yellowstone during peak season a couple of years ago and it wasn't too bad, though at a couple of locations (Old Faithful and another that I forget) there was insufficient parking which was quite frustrating. Budget time for driving around because buffalo in the road can cause epic traffic jams.
posted by exogenous at 9:34 AM on April 8, 2015

Go,hit the most crowded places early in the day or late. But it is such a fantastic place you should not miss it, especially if you are unlikely to get the opportunity to visit again any time soon.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:49 AM on April 8, 2015

We did Yellowstone in August a couple years ago, using Livingston MT as our base (wonderful small town 50 miles north of the park). The biggest problem was parking at the big sites (the canyon, Old Faithful). And if there's a traffic accident on the two-lane highways that go through the park, you could hit a detour that will take you hours out of the way. But damn, it is worth it. The view from the lip of the Lower Falls is something I will remember for the rest of my life (better be acclimated to the altitude though, it's a helluva climb back up for city lungs). There's a photo tour that leaves the Old Faithful lodge as some ungodly hour in the morning, takes you to a lot of animal feeding grounds. There's many things not worth the hype in this world. Yellowstone is not one of them.

Black Hills and Mt Rushmore. The monument gets almost as crowded as Yellowstone in the afternoons, go early in the day. Avoid downtown Deadwood but take the cemetery tour, the tour guides know all the dirt on Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, etc.

RE: Painted Canyon and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As a native North Dakotan I want you all to shut the hell up. It's ours, no one knows about it, we want it all to ourselves. Don't go there.
posted by Ber at 1:32 PM on April 8, 2015

My SO and grandson went to Yellowstone last summer in late June. They had to buy jackets at the gift shop because it was too cold, even in the daytime.
posted by tamitang at 7:30 PM on April 8, 2015

I went to Yellowstone end of July a few years ago. Not clear from the description, but if you're interested in hiking, there are loads of trails in the park that are 'roads less traveled' if you're willing/able to do 5+ miles of hiking in a day to see beautiful things with fewer crowds. We camped in the park and I don't remember there being a lot of traffic, beyond the occasional bison crossing or wildlife spotting.

The big attractions were crowded but they were tempered with our longer hikes so it wasn't so bad. But if you're going to see just the big attractions and stay outside the park, yep, it's probably going to be crowded, busy, and traffic-y.

My group took a day to go to Grand Teton and it was beautiful and less crowded than Yellowstone, but here again we took a long steep hike away from the masses.
posted by paradeofblimps at 9:10 PM on April 8, 2015

Grand Tetons. The parks practically share a border. I went to Yellowstone (and Tetons) a few years ago right before Labor Day, and while the park was preparing to shut down for the winter it was still elbows-to-assholes crowded. I can't imagine what it's like mid-summer.

That said, I am NOT a crowds person, but Yellowstone is an absolute must-do. It is such a varied and unique place. The geysers, the animals, the weird pools of lava that could melt your face off, the hot springs. The Tetons might be less crowded, and you may enjoy Jackson, which is a cute little town, but I bet it's also crazy in the middle of summer.
posted by Brittanie at 3:07 PM on April 9, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you to all who shared anecdotes and recommendations. I've some additional choices to explore, which is great.

I'm feeling more comfortable about the weather, but the crowds sound at least as bad as I'd feared. I don't need to have fancy or highly dramatic nature as much as I need to not be around hordes of Americans. Regular nature will suffice if it means not being around huge delays and a small city's worth of people just checking off an item for their "been there, done that" lists. You know what I mean?

I think we'll play it by ear, and have a couple options lined up for different portions of the drive.

Thanks again for fleshing out what the experience might be like, and feel free to add more info for future reference.
posted by dancing leaves at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2015

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