The 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park are filled with remarkable sights and wildlife.
They are also filled with an annual total of over 4 million visitors, most of whom are in the park between mid-May to the end of September. The crowds, limited parking, and heavy traffic can add to the stress of a visit and disconnect us from the magic of an encounter with Yellowstone wilderness. Yet even on the busiest day of the summer, you can still find intimate moments in the Park. The price to pay for that intimacy is to keep earlier hours than most of us would prefer to on vacation. But the rewards might well be worth it. And besides, an earlier bedtime and a dawn trip into the Park will be more memorable than a few extra hours in a hotel.
The best way to avoid the crowds in Yellowstone is to get out early. With most visitors having breakfast in their hotel, the roads are pretty quiet from dawn until 9:30 am. Wildlife is far more active at dawn than at midday as wildlife tend to take advantage of the cool temperatures. The morning light playing across the many mountain ranges of Yellowstone is lovely, and the geyser basins look unworldly with plumes of steam you can’t see in the heat of the day. Plan out a destination in advance to allow travel time, as you don’t want to be in a vehicle during those prime morning hours. Make sure to bring some warm layers to keep your party comfortable – a thick fleece or a light puffy are perfect. August temperatures can climb to the 80s during the day but drop to the 30s at night. Bringing hot drinks in a thermos and breakfast food to go will also keep spirits up.
While more people stay out late than come in early, you can still find lower crowd numbers at dinnertime. 6:30 pm to sunset is an ideal timeframe. Have an early or late dinner to make sure you hit this window, or grab a portable meal to eat on the road. While animals will become more active as the day cools down, we find the light for wildlife photography will not be as good as it is in the morning. The animals will become more and more active as the sun is setting. However, sunset walks at the popular geyser basins and scenic stops are particularly beautiful. Remember to use caution driving back in the dark, as any section of the road could have a large animal bolt out unexpectedly.
So we have planned your visit from evenings to mornings. What should we do in the middle of the day? Only a small percentage of Yellowstone visitors go more than a few hundred yards from the nearest pavement. Use the busy hours between 10:00 pm to 6:00 pm to explore Yellowstone’s trails. Even when the roads are packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, many trails may only see a few human feet per day. Another alternative is to get on the water. Surrounding communities have both peaceful floats and whitewater adventures on rivers that begin in the Park. Yellowstone, Jackson, and other surrounding lakes offer motorboat rides and fishing trips. Canoeing and Kayaking are also available in some places. And of course, there is also the wise choice of a midday siesta to catch up on the sleep you’ve been missing by getting up before dawn!