13 Jun The pros and cons of visiting Yellowstone National Park in spring
New life emerges throughout America’s first national park
Approximately three million people visit Yellowstone National Park during the crowded summer months. Only 90,000 visitors brave the winter cold and snow, when the National Park Service offers limited access.
My family has visited Yellowstone four times during the summer. And several WRT staff along with myself have explored Yellowstone in winter, which we’ve written about in the past.
So what about spring? This article will walk you through some of my family’s experiences during a recent two-week visit in May. But our best advice is this – just go! Plan your own vacation to the park, join a tour group, use a travel agent – and visit. Yellowstone may be the most fascinating place on planet earth.
We watched Castle Geyser erupt for 20 minutes. We witnessed several eruptions all by ourselves.
First the pros
- Yellowstone in May will feel less hectic than June through August. We hiked to Lone Star Geyser and witnessed its incredible eruption for 30 minutes, all by ourselves – the highlight of our trip. Because parts of the park are still not open, several locations will still drive you crazy, like trying to park at Grand Prismatic Spring.
- All of the major roads opened on time, except for one segment that’s closed throughout 2021. We made reservations inside the park based upon the park’s historical road opening schedule published on its website.
- We like hiking in cool temps which makes this time of year ideal. Most mornings ranged from 35-45 degrees with highs in the 60s and 70s. Of course, there are always outlier days; we experienced snow and sleet but not treacherous driving conditions.
- Baby animals! It’s the spring of new life in Yellowstone National Park. Red dogs, the name for baby bison, romp all over the park, especially near Mammoth and in Lamar Valley, where roadside wildlife viewing can be spectacular for tourists willing to rise early. Bear cubs also roam those valleys and other areas of Yellowstone, with moose and elk calves a few weeks later.
- Wildlife sightings overall are peak in spring. We photographed grizzly along with beaver, elk, black-tailed deer, wolves, moose, marmots, dusky grouse, bald eagles, hawks, Barrow’s goldeneye ducks, eared grebes, trumpeter swans, white-faced ibis and lots of other species. A major have-to? Drive Lamar Valley at dawn and dusk. Hayden Valley would be my second recommendation.
- You can experience winter, the mild version, not the bone-chilling frigid version. It snowed six of our 10 days in Yellowstone, gently coating the landscape but never severe enough to interfere with travel.
- If you like to explore, add Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge to your trip. It’s located 35 miles east of West Yellowstone.
Now the cons
- Lots of closures, especially scenic side roads and popular hiking trails. Most were off limits not because of snow but due to bear management. The number of closures seemed excessive but we trust that the park staff made good decisions for both people and the ecosystem. Nevertheless, we were disappointed.
- Lack of information. Few of the closures were listed on the park’s website; if they were, the info was buried instead of being highlighted on the “Alerts” tab on Yellowstone’s home page. And with visitor centers closed, few rangers could be found to answer questions. Other parks we’ve visited during COVID, such as Arches and Rocky Mountain, always stationed rangers outside of their closed visitor centers and properly distanced to help visitors like us.
- Melting winter snow muddied quite a few trails, especially in higher elevations. However, we enjoyed our hikes even when parts of the trails were snow-covered.
- While we enjoyed seeing the first wildflowers of spring, the real blooming action occurs in June.
- Some concessions and attractions around Yellowstone and the Tetons don’t kickstart until after Memorial Day, such as the rodeo and downtown shootout in Jackson, WY, outside of the Tetons. In addition, food options were severely limited inside Yellowstone, all takeout because of COVID. The quality of the food varied greatly, pretty good at Snow Lodge and awful at Canyon Lodge.
- Moose, elk and deer antlers are growing and covered with felt, but they haven’t reached their majestic height and width.
I’ve left out most other COVID issues that complicated our visit because those were temporary “cons” that you hopefully won’t deal with during a future visit.
On an unrelated matter, we joined “Yellowstone Forever” at its gift store in Gardiner, MT. It’s a nonprofit devoted to supporting the park. We made a donation and weren’t expecting anything in return. But the Yellowstone Forever staff gave us a membership card that provided a lot of discounts in the park.
So here’s my overall advice. If you’ve never visited Yellowstone, go in early June or early September. For your second vacation there, winter is awesome, if you adapt well to cold weather. And if you’re a frequent traveler and want to experience the park as wildlife emerges, plan to visit in mid to late May.