Summer, autumn, and winter are the best times to visit the Northern Rockies. The days are sunny, the nights are clear, and the humidity is low. A popular song once romanticized “Springtime in the Rockies,” but that season lasts for about 2 days in early June. The rest of the season formally known as spring is likely to be chilly and spitting snow or rain. Trails are still clogged with snow and mud.
Typically, from mid-June on, you can hike, fish, camp, and watch wildlife—except in the higher elevations, which cling to snow well into July. If you come before July 4 or after Labor Day, you won’t have to share the view all that much. Wildflowers bloom at the lower elevations in early summer—beginning in May in the lower valleys and plains, while in the higher elevations they open in July.
Autumn is not just the time when the aspens turn gold, it’s also the time when gateway motel and restaurant rates are lower and the roads are less crowded. That allows you to pay more attention to the wildlife, which is busy fattening up for the winter.
Winter is a glorious season here, although not for everyone. It can be very cold, but the air is crystalline, the snow is powdery, and the skiing is fantastic. If you drive in the parks’ vicinity in the winter, always carry winter clothing, sleeping bags, extra food, flashlights, and other safety gear. Every local resident has a horror story about being caught unprepared in the weather.
The region is characterized by long, cold winters and short, relatively mild summers. There is not a lot of moisture, winter or summer, and the air is dry, except for the brief wet season in March and April.
Don’t expect the kind of spring you get in lower elevations. Cold and snow can linger into April and May—blizzards can even hit the area in mid-June—although temperatures are generally warming. The average daytime readings are in the 40s or 50s (4–15°C), gradually increasing into the 60s or 70s (16–26°C) by early June. So, during spring, a warm jacket, rain gear, and water-resistant walking shoes could be welcome traveling companions.
The area is rarely balmy, but temperatures during the middle of the summer are typically 75 degrees to 85 degrees F (24–29°C) in the lower elevations and are especially comfortable because of the lack of humidity. Remember, too, that the atmosphere is thin at this altitude, so sunscreen is a must. Nights, even during the warmest months, will be cool, with temperatures dropping into the low 40s (4–9°C), so you’ll want to include a jacket in your wardrobe. Because summer thunderstorms are common, you’ll probably be glad you’ve included a waterproof shell or umbrella.
As fall approaches, you’ll want to have an additional layer of clothing because temperatures remain mild but begin to cool. The first heavy snows typically fall in the valley by November 1 (much earlier in the mountains) and continue through March or April. Aspen trees turn bright yellow; cottonwoods turn a deeper gold.
During winter months, you’ll want long underwear, heavy shirts, vests, coats, warm gloves, and thick socks. Temperatures can be anywhere from the single digits (negative teens Celsius) to the 30s (–1 to 4°C) during the day, and subzero overnight temperatures are common. Ultracold air can cause lots of health problems, so drink fluids, keep an extra layer of clothing handy, and don’t overexert yourself.
For up-to-date weather information and road conditions, call 307/344-2117 (Yellowstone), 307/739-3614 (Grand Teton in summer), 307/739-3682 (Grand Teton in winter), or 511 (in-state mobile), or visit www.wyoroad.info.
Between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, the Northern Rockies come to life. Flowers bloom, fish jump, bison calves frolic—and tourists converge. The park roads are crowded with trailers, with the well-known spots jammed with a significant portion of the millions who make their treks to Montana and Wyoming every year. Your best bet: Travel before June 15, if possible, or after mid-September. Labor Day used to represent a reliable slowdown in visitation, but in recent years, people have continued filling the park well into the fall season. If you can’t arrange an off-season visit, then go to the major attractions at off-peak hours when others are eating or sleeping. Or, as I suggest over and over, abandon the pavement for the hiking trails—a foolproof way to shake the hordes.
Whenever you come, give these parks as much time as you can; you’ll experience more at an unhurried pace.
Seasonal Road Openings & Closings
In Yellowstone—Traveling Yellowstone’s roads during spring months can be a roll of the dice because openings can be delayed for days (even weeks) at a time, especially at higher altitudes. There is always some section of road in Yellowstone under construction, so call ahead and get a road report (tel. 307/344-2117). It’s irritating, but don’t take it out on the road workers; they often labor through the night to cause as little inconvenience as possible.
The only road open year-round in the area is the north entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs. From Mammoth, a winter access road to the northeast entrance and Cooke City is plowed throughout the winter. This service for Cooke City residents gives visitors a great opportunity to watch wildlife in winter in the Lamar Valley. Just be mindful of the weather; the road is often slick with ice.
Snowplowing begins in early March. In Yellowstone, the first roads open to motor vehicles (usually by the end of April) include Mammoth-Old Faithful, Norris-Canyon, and West Yellowstone-Madison. If the weather cooperates, the East Entrance-Lake and Lake-Canyon open in early May, followed by the South Entrance-Lake, Lake-Old Faithful, and Tower-Tower Fall in mid-May. Tower-Canyon over Dunraven Pass typically opens last—by the end of May, unless there’s a late-season snowfall.
The Chief Joseph Highway, connecting the entrances in Cooke City, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming, often opens by early May. The Beartooth Highway, between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana, is generally open by Memorial Day weekend.
Winter road closures typically begin in mid-October, when the Beartooth Highway closes. Depending upon weather, most other park roads remain open until the park season ends in early November.
Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year’s Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents’ Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas Day). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years, and next in 2020). The parks are always open on holidays, but visitor centers are often closed.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.