When is the best time to visit? Well, that’s also hard to pin down. Every season has its own spectacular phenomena that won’t be seen again ’til next year. Summer is by far the most popular for tourists and families, when hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails are clear of snow and nighttime temperatures rise above freezing. But summer isn’t ideal for seasoned outdoorsy folk seeking peace and quiet -- for that, come in the springtime (late April to May; any earlier will still feel like winter). Many regions of the park aren’t accessible until around Memorial Day, but the park itself is bursting with life.
After Labor Day the summer crowds thin once more; autumn is fantastic for hikers, bikers, and backcountry campers who want to see the park’s gorgeous fall foliage. Like summer, a visit in the wintertime is also friendly to families and less experienced tourists who can brave the chill; because roads are closed, you’ll rely on guided transportation to get around, and the snow provides a truly striking backdrop for the brand-name iconic sights like Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful.
What to bring: You could hitchhike in bearing naught but a fistful of cash and be perfectly fine; almost anything you could ever possibly need can be found at the general stores and visitor centers located throughout the park. Keep in mind you’re in a high-altitude temperate climate and it’s usually chilly even in August, so you’ll want layers and a windproof jacket. Pack hiking boots if you plan to hike. Bug spray and sunscreen, no matter the season. Binoculars if you have them, but if you see a fellow visitor with a spotting scope aimed at something, it’s acceptable to politely ask if you can take a quick peek. The folks with the higher-grade equipment tend to be park veterans who enjoy dropping some knowledge. If you don’t already have a reusable water bottle, this is an excellent opportunity to buy one. There are free water bottle refill stations just about everywhere you’ll go.
Getting in & around the park: A week-long pass to Yellowstone National Park costs just $25 per vehicle. You can purchase one at any of the entrance gates when you drive in. There are no single-day options, but the park offers free entry a few days each year, which you can check up on here. A one-year national parks pass gets you unlimited access (for two people) to every park in the country for $80.
Before you arrive, add the Yellowstone app to your roster of travel apps and -- here’s the crucial part -- download the content so it’s available offline. There’s no free Wi-Fi anywhere in the park (you can pay as you go in a few locations, like the Old Faithful Snow Lodge) and barely any cellular service; when people hand you maps, keep them because you will indeed have to use them.
Yellowstone’s many visitor centers are where you’ll find food, water, gas, parking, and information about ~everything~. If you’re coming up through the south entrance from Jackson, the first center you’ll hit is Grant Village. From there, if you move clockwise, you’ve got Old Faithful, Madison, Norris Geyser, Canyon Village, and Fishing Bridge (on the shores of Yellowstone Lake). From the north entrance / Albright Visitor Center (what you’ll mostly hear referred to as the Mammoth area), you’ve got Old Faithful, Canyon, and Mammoth, all conveniently located near the best sights where you can park and walk around.
How to stay safe: Take a moment to fully appreciate that you’re walking around on top of a massive active volcano. Don’t be scared -- it’s not going to erupt. That said, the natural feature in Yellowstone that kills and injures the most tourists each year is the hot springs. Always -- always -- stay on the boardwalks when you’re checking out Yellowstone’s very rad thermal features. Don’t try to be clever and, like, stick a toe in a hot pot just to say you did it. We don’t want you to dissolve in a pit of boiling acid, or become one of those viral “Dumb Tourist Does Dumb Thing” stories Yellowstone tends to attract. Way less likely you get eaten by a bear than by the internet.
Grizzly bear attacks within the park are rare -- about one per year -- but you still 100% need bear spray if you plan to hike (which you should!) and avoid walking anywhere alone. The animal that injures the most people in Yellowstone is bison; you’ll share the road with them frequently and fairly harmoniously, but they’re more than capable of charging you, especially in the late summer when the males are rutting, so don’t test them. The gold standard is to keep 100 yards away from wolves and bears, and then 25 yards away from basically everything else. Do not approach the animals you see, even if they appear to you mild-mannered and adorable; they are not. Do not feed them, even if the idea seems harmless; it is not.
And yet, for all the hand-wringing over Yellowstone’s wild, wonderful dangers, the thing that actually kills the most people in Yellowstone each year is cars. Drive slowly, and take turns so you’re not distracted -- it is unbelievably easy to get swept up in the enormous splendor of your surroundings and forget to watch the road. Fortunately, there are pullouts absolutely everywhere. Use them.