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Yellowstone National Park tops many people’s national park bucket lists thanks to its famous shooting geysers, colorful hot springs, and abundant wildlife. The park sits on an active volcano and is home to more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, including 500 active geysers and many hot springs, mudpots, and steam vents.
These unique geological features, combined with Yellowstone’s incredible natural beauty, draw millions of visitors to its boundaries every year. The enormous park contains around 900 miles of hiking trails and is a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
This guide covers the most important things you’ll need to know when planning your trip to Yellowstone, including what kinds of activities you can enjoy in and around the park, where to stay, when to visit, and what to bring with you on your adventure. We’ll also cover some key facts and history about the park and weather and climate information.
Human history in the greater Yellowstone region dates back more than 11,000 years. Evidence from the park’s 1,800+ archaeological sites suggests humans hunted animals in the area, including bison, sheep, elk, deer, bear, cats, and wolves. They also gathered plants, seeds, and berries. These Paleo-Indian tribes continued to hunt animals and gather plants in the park for thousands of years.
To date, 27 Native American tribes have been associated with the area in Yellowstone National Park. These include the Crow, Sioux, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Salish, Kiowa, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and the Tukudika, also known as Sheep Eaters or Mountain Shoshone.
European Americans first arrived in the area that is now the park in the late 1700s, as fur trappers and traders began traveling along the rivers into the Yellowstone region. The park’s name likely stems from this period. French trappers called the river Roche Jaune, which they probably translated from the Hidatsa name Mi tsi a-da-zi, meaning “Yellow Rock River.” When American trappers entered the area, they translated it as Yellow Stone.
In 1807, John Colter passed through the Yellowstone territory. Colter had been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition but left to join a group of fur trappers. He observed and recorded the area’s geothermal activity and geysers, although many dismissed his reports as fantasy. Over the next five decades, additional reports from trappers and explorers told of the area’s remarkable thermal features, but these, too, were largely dismissed as myth.
It wasn’t until the late 1860s that Yellowstone saw its first detailed exploration. The Folsom-Cook expedition explored the area in 1869, followed by the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870. As more explorers and surveyors documented the park’s unique features and collected specimens throughout the early 1870s, interest grew in protecting the region. This peaked when artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson were able to visually document the park’s beauty in 1871.
Their accounts, paintings, and photos of Yellowstone’s natural wonders got the attention of the United States Congress. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Act of Dedication and created what many consider the world’s first national park.
During the park’s early years, many locals in the Yellowstone region opposed the park’s protected status and argued the land should be used for profitable activities like hunting, mining, and logging. The combination of local opposition and inadequate resources to protect the park left Yellowstone vulnerable to poaching of buffalo, deer, and elk in its early years. With the help of the US Army and later the National Park Service, officials eventually brought poaching and vandalism under control.
By the early 1900s, newly constructed railroads allowed the park to welcome additional visitors. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that visitation significantly increased. Since then, Yellowstone has become one of the United States’ most popular national parks, with around 4 million visitors each year.
Size: 3,472 square miles (8,991 km2)
Number of visitors: around 4 million a year
Established on: 1 March 1872
Length of hiking trails: 900+ miles (1,448 km) of hiking trails
Number of trails: 92 trailheads
Highest point: Eagle Peak at 11,358 feet (3,462 m)
Lowest point: Reese Creek 5,282 feet (1,610 m)
Average elevation: around 8,000 feet (2,438 m)
Other interesting facts about Yellowstone:
- Yellowstone is home to more than half of the world’s geysers. There are 500 active geysers in the park.
- In 2020, Yellowstone welcomed 3.8 million visitors and was the second most visited national park in the United States, after the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.
- The territory of Yellowstone National Park extends into three different states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. 96% of the territory is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana, and 1% in Idaho.
- Yellowstone is the oldest national park in North America and is widely considered the world’s first national park. Bogd Khan Uul Protected Area in Mongolia was protected by the Qing Dynasty government almost a century earlier in 1783, but the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872 is what laid the framework for national preservation and federal park systems around the world.
- Yellowstone covers a larger area than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
- As the crow flies, Yellowstone covers 63 air miles north to south (102 km) and 54 air miles east to west (87 km).
- Yellowstone is the second-largest national park in the lower 48 states, after Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada.
- There are around 290 waterfalls in Yellowstone. Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River is the highest plunge waterfall at 308 feet (94 m). Silver Cord Cascade is the highest horsetail waterfall at 1,200 feet (370 m).
- Of the land in Yellowstone, around 80% is covered by forests and 15% by grassland. Around 5% of the land within the park is covered by water.
- There are 466 miles (750 km) of roads inside Yellowstone. Of these roads, 310 miles (499 km) are paved.
- Yellowstone is home to a wide array of flora and fauna, including the endangered Canada lynx and grizzly bear. The park provides a habitat for 67 species of mammals, 285 species of birds, and 16 species of fish.
- There are over 1,000 native flowering species in Yellowstone, making it a phenomenal place to view wildflowers between May and September.
- The park has extreme weather, with drastic temperature swings between summer and winter. The record high temperature is 99ºF (37ºC), recorded in 2002 at Mammoth Hot Springs. The record low temperature is -66ºF (-54ºC), recorded in 1933 at the West Entrance, Riverside Station.
- There are between 1,000 and 3,000 earthquakes in the park each year, 99% of them are below 2 in magnitude and can’t be felt.
Yellowstone National Park is home to several climate zones, including humid continental and continental subarctic. Since most of the territory within Yellowstone lies at an elevation above 6,000 feet (1,829 m), you can expect substantial temperature swings and unpredictable weather in the park throughout the year.
Rain and snow are possible every month of the year, but precipitation totals vary significantly within the park. For example, Mammoth Hot Springs in the north receives about 15 inches (380 mm) of annual precipitation, while southwestern parts of the park get around 80 inches (2,000 mm).
Summers in Yellowstone generally have pleasant weather, with long, warm days followed by cool nights. Average lows are around 40-42°F (4-5°C), but temperatures can drop below freezing overnight, particularly in high elevations. Daytime highs usually reach about 70°F (25°C) and sometimes 80°F (30°C) in low elevation areas. Afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence. Snowfall is possible even in the middle of the summer, so make sure to pack plenty of layers.
The weather in September is still relatively mild, with highs in the low 60s Fahrenheit (16-17°C) and lows around freezing. By October, the days are much cooler and shorter, with the average high temperature only climbing to about 48°F (9°C) during the day and the average low dipping to 24°F (-4°C) overnight. Snowfall is increasingly common as the fall progresses.
Winters in Yellowstone are extremely cold with lots of snow. By November, snowstorms are common, and many roads and facilities have already closed for the season.
From December to February, the temperature seldom climbs above freezing. During the day, temperatures usually range from 0°F to 20°F (-20°C to -5°C), with much colder temperatures experienced overnight and in higher elevation areas. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the park is -66°F (-54°C), so winter visitors should prepare for frigid weather. Average snowfall in the park is 150 inches (381 cm), but higher elevations may see more than twice that figure.
Snow is common in April, and temperatures are still quite cold on average. Highs typically reach about 43°F (6°C), with lows around 18°F (-8°C). Daytime highs warm up in May to about 52°F (11°C), with temperatures still dropping below freezing overnight. May is the wettest month of the year, with around 2 inches of precipitation.
Visiting Yellowstone is possible any month of the year. Each season has its benefits and disadvantages, and the best time for you to plan your trip will depend on your desired activities, budget, and personal preferences.
June, July, and August are the most popular times to visit the park. The summer months have the nicest weather and widest range of available activities and services. As a result, summers attract around 75% of Yellowstone’s 4 million annual visitors. If you travel to Yellowstone in the summer, you should expect crowded hiking trails, walking paths, and boardwalks, high lodging prices, and traffic jams on park roads.
Crowds quickly dwindle after Labor Day, making September an excellent time to visit Yellowstone. This month is ideal for those seeking a balance between nice weather, open facilities, and seclusion. By mid-October, many roads, campgrounds, and facilities begin to close down for the winter, so make sure to plan your visit before this time if you want to have access to the entire park.
November has very limited options. Many facilities and roads are closed to vehicles, while they have not yet opened for oversnow travel. The road connecting the North Entrance near Gardiner, Montana, and the Northeast Entrance near Cooke City, Montana, is the only road that remains open year-round.
Winter is the best time to avoid crowds in Yellowstone and still experience plenty of what the park has to offer to visitors. From mid-December to early March, many of the roads in Yellowstone are open for oversnow travel via snowcoach and snowmobile. Travelers who brave the frigid temperatures will get to enjoy magical views of the park’s thermal springs and vents steaming in the snow-covered landscape.
Spring is a challenging time to visit Yellowstone due to snow, rain, mud, and continued road closures. However, it’s a great time to see wildlife and avoid crowds.
Yellowstone’s variable and unpredictable weather can make packing for your trip a challenge. No matter what month you plan to visit Yellowstone, make sure to bring rain gear, numerous layers, and a warm jacket.
We’ve already covered the essentials of packing and preparing for an outdoor adventure in our Backpacking Checklist article, so take a look at that guide for detailed advice and an outdoor packing list. Here are some general tips and recommended items to bring with you on your trip to Yellowstone, separated by season.
Yellowstone’s high elevation climate is prone to dramatic temperature swings and unpredictable weather. You’ll want to pack for all four seasons, even if you’re visiting the park in the summer. Here are some packing tips for a summer visit to Yellowstone:
- Bear safety gear: Yellowstone is home to both black and grizzly bears and averages around one bear attack per year. It’s essential to bring bear safety gear with you when visiting the park in the summer, including bear spray and bear-resistant food storage containers. Make sure you know how to use these items, know what to do if you see a bear, and are up to date on all of the park’s bear safety guidelines.
- Plenty of layers: Even in the middle of summer, Yellowstone can experience snow and temperatures that dip below freezing, especially in higher elevations. Make sure to bring a variety of layers, including warm insulating layers, so that you’re prepared for whatever Mother Nature sends your way.
- Rain gear: Afternoon thunderstorms are common in Yellowstone during the summer. It’s wise to bring a rain shell, water-resistant pants, and waterproof gaiters so that you can continue sightseeing and hiking in the rain.
- Quick-drying clothing and socks: Choosing high-quality, fast-drying clothing and hiking socks will keep you comfortable and reduce your risk of chafing and developing blisters. This is important for controlling moisture from sweat during warm summer days and drying out after an afternoon thunderstorm.
- Sun protection: The sun is very strong in high elevation areas like Yellowstone. Since summers in the park see abundant sunshine, it’s important to pack items like sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and clothing with a UPF of at least 30.
When visiting Yellowstone in the spring or autumn, you should bring all the same items you would bring for a summer visit, plus additional cold-weather gear. This includes:
- Mid to heavyweight base layers
- Additional warm layers like a down jacket and fleece
- Hats, gloves, and a neck gaiter
- Insulated, waterproof hiking boots (only recommended if you’re visiting in the early spring or late fall when snow and temperatures below freezing are more likely)
- Traction devices or crampons for your hiking shoes in case of icy and snowy trails
Visiting Yellowstone in the winter means you’ll need to prepare for extreme cold and icy, snowy conditions. What you bring will depend on what activities you plan to do, but here are some general items you should pack for a winter trip:
- Insulated, waterproof boots and gaiters
- A high-quality cold-weather layering system, which includes a mid to heavyweight moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer(s), and a water-resistant and wind-resistant shell
- Waterproof, windproof pants, ideally with some insulation and/or worn over a good insulating layer
- A winter emergency kit, including an emergency shelter
- Trekking poles to help you balance and avoid slipping on icy and snowy trails
- Traction devices or crampons for your hiking boots
- Snowshoes in case of deep snow on hiking trails
- Although it’s never a bad idea to have bear spray with you in Yellowstone, it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to use it in the winter. By mid-November, most bears in Yellowstone have entered their denning or hibernation period, and they do not emerge until early March.
For more detailed information about the gear required to hike safely in winter weather, take a look at our winter hiking guide.
With 92 official trailheads, over 900 miles of hiking trails, and around 300 designated backcountry campsites, Yellowstone is a world-class destination for hiking and backpacking. Since many of Yellowstone’s trails are above 7,000 feet (m) in elevation, hikers and backpackers should prepare for the challenges of hiking in a high elevation environment. Day hiking does not require a permit, but you’ll need one for all overnight stays in the backcountry.
Summer and early fall are the best times of year for hiking, camping, and backpacking in Yellowstone. Most areas still have snow cover through late May or early June, with mountain passes and high elevation areas retaining snow through late July. Summer and early fall visitors will therefore have the widest selection of trails to choose from. Spring and early summer hikers should be aware of potentially hazardous river crossings due to late spring runoff. Make sure to check the park’s backcountry situation report for the latest information about trail conditions.
Hiking and backcountry camping are possible in the winter, but you’ll want to make sure you have prior winter hiking experience due to the harsh conditions. Check out our Guide to Winter Hiking for more information about things to consider when hiking during the winter months.
- Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop: If you want to see some of Yellowstone’s most famous thermal features like the Old Faithful geyser, this is an excellent trail. The easy loop trail is 4.9 miles (7.9 km) and is accessible for hikers of all skill levels, including families with children.
- Seven Mile Hole Trail: This challenging 9.7-mile (15.6-km) trail takes you to the bottom of a canyon known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. You’ll experience views of the colorful canyon, hike through a forest of lodgepole pines, experience the park’s thermal features, and hear the rushing flow of the Yellowstone River. The trail is steep and is best between June and September.
- Avalanche Peak Trail: Although it’s only 4.7 miles (7.6 km), this route up to the top of Avalanche Peak packs in 2,073 feet (632 m) of elevation gain and is a very strenuous day hike. The trail is best from May to September and offers stunning views of Yellowstone Lake and the park’s alpine peaks.
- West Thumb Geyser Basin Boardwalk: This easy 1-mile (1.6-km) boardwalk trail is located on the western side of Yellowstone Lake. The trail features beautiful views of the lake – the largest lake above 8,000 feet (2,438 m) in elevation in North America – and thermal features like the Twin Geysers, Abyss Pool, and Percolating Spring. The trail is usually accessible from May until October and can get quite crowded during peak season from June to August.
- Fairy Falls Trail to Imperial Geyser: Get a bird’s-eye view of the surreal-looking Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser on this 6-mile (9.6-km) route. The flat, groomed trail is easy and accessible to all hikers. Highlights include the largest hot spring in the US, a 200-foot waterfall, thermal pools, and lodgepole pine forests.
- Electric Peak: Yellowstone is famous for its thermal features, but it also offers incredible mountain views. This challenging 20.6-mile (33.1-km) trail will take you through dense pine forests and wildflower meadows to the top of Electric Peak (10,968 ft/3,343 m), the highest peak in the Gallatin Range. With 5,767 feet (1,758 m) of elevation gain and technical rock scrambling required towards the top, this route is only recommended for advanced hikers. It’s possible to do as a day hike, but most people who summit Electric Peak secure a backcountry permit and spend a night camping along the trail. The trail is best from late July to early September.
- Lamar River Trail to Cache Creek: This easy to moderate trail features picturesque meadows and gorgeous mountain landscapes. The 7-mile (11.2-km) trail is excellent for viewing wildflowers and wildlife and is one of the best places in Yellowstone National Park to see wolves. Bison, elk, and pronghorn are also commonly spotted in the Lamar Valley.
Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds with more than 2,000 campsites. Camping in the park is very popular, so you should make reservations well in advance of your trip. Most campgrounds open in May or June and close in September or October depending on the conditions.
You can make reservations for the following campgrounds through Yellowstone National Park Lodges: Bridge Bay Campground, Canyon Campground, Fishing Bridge RV Park (closed in 2021), Grant Village Campground, and Madison Campground. The other seven campgrounds are managed by the National Park Service. There are several campgrounds that operate on a first-come, first-served basis. In 2021, these include Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, and Pebble Creek (sites 17-27).
Yellowstone’s unique geologic features are the highlight for millions of visitors. The park has more than 10,000 active hydrothermal features, including geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mudpots. The most famous is the Old Faithful geyser, which erupts every 44 minutes to two hours.
The park’s boardwalks and trails will allow you to experience and learn about the dynamic thermal formations. Make sure to stay on designated paths to protect these delicate features and to stay safe. Many formations contain scalding water that is heated by an active volcano, while others release toxic gases.
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are fabulous ways to experience Yellowstone in the winter. January and February are the best months for winter sports, but the season can run from mid-December to mid-March, depending on the conditions. Booking a guided snowmobile or snowcoach excursion is the only way to see Old Faithful in the winter.
Visitors can view wildlife year-round in Yellowstone National Park. Spring is the best time to see baby animals like elk calves, and March and April are the best times to see bears in the park. Bison, elk, moose, and mountain goats are commonly seen in the summer. Fall is an excellent time to spot elk during rutting or mating season and bears, and winter is great for seeing bighorn sheep, wolves, foxes, coyotes, elk, and bison. Wildlife tends to concentrate in lower elevation areas during the cold winter months, making it easier to spot the animals.
Bird watching is ideal in the spring, when migrating species begin to return to the park after the harsh winter. Summer and early fall are also excellent times to see birds in the park.
When visiting Yellowstone or any other natural area, it’s important to give wild animals plenty of space. Before your visit, take a look at our Wildlife Safety article to ensure you know what to do when you encounter a wild animal.
Fishing in Yellowstone is a popular activity that around 50,000 visitors partake in every year. Thanks to carefully structured fishing regulations in the park, anglers play an important role in supporting the conservation of native fish species in Yellowstone. Fishing season runs from late May to early November, and you’ll need a special permit for Yellowstone National Park in order to fish there. More information is available from the National Park Service here.
Canoeing, kayaking, and boating are fun ways to explore Yellowstone’s lakes and waterways (permit and inspection required prior to launching). Proper planning and preparation is required due to the risks associated with boating in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Water temperatures on the park’s lakes are quite chilly and only reach the 60s Fahrenheit (15-21°C) by late summer. Strong winds also make crossing open water hazardous, so make sure to factor these risks into your plans and consider heading out with a knowledgeable guide.
Horseback riding is an excellent way to experience the wild western landscapes in Yellowstone. Various guided day trips and overnight backcountry trips are available from tour operators. Private stock is allowed in the park if you have a horse and want to plan your own trip, but you must follow the park’s stock packing regulations. More information is available here.
Yellowstone covers a vast territory, making it challenging to decide where to stay. The best place to stay when visiting Yellowstone is highly dependent on what time of year you’re planning to visit and what activities you want to do while you’re there.
Visiting in the late spring, summer, or early fall offers the widest variety of accommodation options. Only the North Entrance near Gardiner, Montana, remains open to vehicles in the winter. The West Entrance usually opens to vehicle traffic in April, while the Northeast Entrance, East Entrance, and South Entrance typically open by mid-May.
Here are the main choices, along with brief descriptions explaining which travelers each option is best for:
- Lodging inside the national park: Travelers between May and early October can choose from a variety of lodges, cabins, inns, and campgrounds inside the park. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins remain open in the winter and are accessible by car. Old Faithful Snow Lodge is also usually open to snowcoach travelers in the winter months.
- Gardiner, Montana: Gardiner is a great option for travelers throughout the year and is home to the park’s only year-round entrance. The town has the charm of the Old West and various lodging options.
- Cooke City, Montana: Cooke City next to the Northeast Entrance is best for summer travelers seeking peace and quiet and winter sports enthusiasts. In the summer, Cooke City is a great base for hiking and is less crowded than most other entrances. In the winter, you’ll need to access Cooke City via Yellowstone’s North Entrance in Gardiner. Once you’re there, you’ll be able to enjoy snowmobiling, ski touring, backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. There is very little open in Cooke City in the shoulder season, so you’re better off choosing another place to stay if visiting Yellowstone in the spring or fall.
- West Yellowstone, Montana: West Yellowstone has various lodging options and is very close to the park’s West Entrance. It offers good value for money and is centrally located when it comes to the park’s main attractions. West Yellowstone is also an excellent choice for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and snowcoach travelers in the winter.
- Cody, Wyoming: Located next to Yellowstone’s East Entrance, Cody is incredibly scenic and has less traffic than many other avenues into the park. Staying in Cody is somewhat inconvenient if you want to take day trips into the park, as it is far away from many of the main attractions and is limited by seasonal road closures between October and May. However, if you’re visiting in the summer and want to escape some of Yellowstone’s crowds and traffic jams, Cody is a great choice.
- John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, Wyoming: The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway is a piece of federally protected land that connects Yellowstone with Grand Teton National Park. The lodge and campground here are perfect for travelers visiting from late May to early September who want to visit both Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
- Jackson, Wyoming: Jackson is an adventure hub that combines the flavor of the Old West with the amenities and perks modern travelers look for while on vacation. The numerous resorts, inns, lodges, and hotels are a great choice for summer visitors who want to see both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Staying in Jackson is not recommended for those visiting Yellowstone between October and May due to the substantial travel time required.
You’ll want a car when visiting Yellowstone National Park, as the park covers a very large area and there is no public transportation available. If you are flying in, you can rent a vehicle at nearby airports. These include Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) in Bozeman, Montana, Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) in Cody, Wyoming, Yellowstone Airport (WYS) in West Yellowstone, Montana, and Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson and Bozeman are the largest of the four airports and are both located within a 1.5-hour drive from the park.
If visiting in the winter, you’ll want to avoid flying into Jackson unless you’re also planning a visit to Grand Teton National Park south of Yellowstone. Since the roads in the southern part of the park are closed to vehicles in the winter, you’ll need to drive from Jackson to Gardiner, Montana, to enter Yellowstone via the North Entrance. Depending on road closures and conditions, this could take six or more hours.
With the world’s largest concentration of geothermal features and thousands of miles of wilderness, it’s easy to see why Yellowstone National Park attracts around 4 million visitors every year. The park’s majestic peaks, dense pine forests, hot springs, wildflower meadows, and abundant wildlife are iconic portraits of the American West. Whether you’re summiting high elevation peaks, taking in herds of bison roaming the grasslands, or watching some of the world’s most famous geysers erupt, Yellowstone has incredible experiences to offer everyone who enters its borders.
Liked this guide to Yellowstone National Park? Check out our other national park guides to plan your next adventure in some of the world’s most beautiful wild spaces.
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