Visiting Yellowstone National Park in October is an unforgettable experience with many amazing benefits, but the Fall season might just throw a few curve balls at your plans.
We know from first hand experience the ‘challenging’ impacts of visiting Yellowstone in October and we want you to be fully prepared for your own vacation.
This is a comprehensive guide to visiting the extraordinary geothermal landscape of Yellowstone national park in October, featuring the good, the bad and the … well, there is no ugly, this is Yellowstone after all!
There are 10 key things you need to know before you plan your Yellowstone vacation. We’re going to explain everything you need to know with tips, advice and resources to get you ready for all eventualities.
Let’s get right into the Autumnal action!
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1. October Crowds Are A Joy At Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park hosts a little over 4 million visits every year. That’s an enormous amount of people sharing attractions and cars sharing the Yellowstone grand loop road.
If you divide 4 million by 12 months you get 333,333 people per month or roughly 11,000 per day.
Sounds like you’ll be sharing the park with a lot of other people, right?
Well, more than 2 million visitors to Yellowstone arrive in June, July and August alone. Those 3 months account for well over 50% of total visits each year.
October and May are the 2 best months to visit Yellowstone if your top priority is avoiding huge crowds of tourists, while still benefiting from reasonable temperatures and the park being completely open.
In October 2019, Yellowstone only saw 170,038 visits. A daily total of 5,485 people is pretty sparse for a park the size of Yellowstone.
How does that benefit you?
2. Weather is Unpredictable at Yellowstone in October
We typically recommend visiting US National Parks in April, May, September and October when appropriate. Shoulder seasons are far more relaxing than Summer.
However, Yellowstone is in Northwest Wyoming and in October the weather can be extreme and entirely unpredictable.
This is both good and bad. On one hand it keeps the hordes of tourists at bay but on the other hand it can impact your plans, like road closures, hiking trails closing and even safety.
If you visit Yellowstone in Summer, the likelihood is warm sunny days and occasional cloud or rain showers. But in October, anything can happen.
You could get lucky with clear blue skies during the day with chilly mornings and nights. Alternatively, you could end up having to scramble and adapt your itinerary last minute as we did.
Our Negative Experience With Weather
We had just finished an amazing 4 days road trip in South Dakota and drove West to Cody, Wyoming to spend a night before entering Yellowstone via East entrance on October 9th.
However, an almighty snow dumping overnight put the brakes on our visit. All roads in, out and around the park closed, with the exception of North entrance (Mammoth).
As a result, people in Southern parts of the park such as Old Faithful and Central parts like Canyon couldn’t leave. And of course, we couldn’t get in.
Fortunately, our bookings at each hotel inside the park were moved back by one night so we didn’t lose any money.
Instead of entering via East entrance, we had to drive North and then West over WY-296 (which turned out to be incredibly scenic) to enter the park via Northeast entrance (Cooke City) a day later than planned.
The extra 4 hours of driving didn’t concern us but we had to drive through Lamar Valley at lunch time. Lamar is the best place to see wildlife in Yellowstone and midday is the worst time for animal activity!
That same downpour of heavy snow also caused the seasonal closure of the road between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon, which meant the Mt Washburn hike wasn’t accessible. Note – this road is closed until May 2022.
Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining
With all that said, Yellowstone covered in snow is a magical place. We felt fortunate to see both sun and snow in the park.
Trees were covered in frozen snow, colorful hot springs were vibrant against white and it was like a Winter wonderland with eerie mist and dense fog creating a surreal but beautiful natural environment.
It never got above freezing during the 4 days we spent inside the park, which made mornings and evenings dangerously cold to be out taking photographs – but we had full ski gear on and didn’t have to share the photography dance floor with dozens of others.
How does this impact you?
3. Logistics Can Be An Issue In Fall
Weather naturally leads us into travel logistics and planning for your visit to Yellowstone. It’s likely you won’t face any travel issues but in October it is prudent to keep on top of logistics updates around the park.
Roads don’t officially close until the beginning of November. It would take a snow dumping like we experienced to close any roads earlier but it can happen.
Even if the weather doesn’t take a turn for the worse, it’s a good idea to always keep up to date with road openings / closures.
The positive side of logistics in October is how empty the roads will be compared to Summer.
If the weather plays nicely, you will enjoy freedom of the loop road and be able to park at all attractions without too much fuss.
Are you planning to fly to a nearby airport and hire a car to explore Yellowstone? Read our in depth guide on the best airports near Yellowstone to help plan your visit.
What can you do to prepare?
4. Yellowstone Hotels Begin To Close Their Doors For Winter In October
All being well with the aforementioned weather and logistics, visiting in October has some serious benefits, including hotel room availability.
Getting booked into national park hotels is notoriously difficult for the majority of the year, but at the beginning of October right before the park closes for its Winter season, there are usually some rooms free even if you book late.
We recommend you read our detailed guide on the best places to stay inside and near Yellowstone to help plan your accommodation.
If you left things late in Summer you would have no chance getting a hotel room within the park and you’d have to leave each day to Gardiner, West Yellowstone, Cooke City or even Jackson.
However, this comes with a very important notice:
Most of Yellowstone’s hotel accommodation closes around October 11 each year. So if you’re planning a late October visit you have very limited options which can affect your itinerary.
Closing dates for most of Yellowstone’s popular accommodation in 2021
Mammoth hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge (marked with green above) are your best bet for accommodation at Yellowstone if visiting mid to late October.
Book ahead of time if you know your dates in advance to guarantee your rooms.
Here’s a full list of all Yellowstone accommodation opening/closing dates for the year.
5. Fall Colors Are A Yellowstone Bonus In Autumn
Right before the huge snowfall we had in Cody, the entire grassy landscape around us was a stunning burnt orange color with yellow and green leaves glowing from trees.
You don’t need us to tell you about Fall colors but if you do visit Yellowstone in October, you can expect to see gorgeous colors bringing an already beautiful landscape even more to life.
Foliage isn’t going to be anything like New England but it will still be incredibly attractive and another feather in the cap of an October visit to Yellowstone.
6. Wildlife Is Abundant In October
Autumn brings out the best of Elk as they enter breeding season, called the rut.
This means visitors not only get to see Elk as they migrate from higher elevations to lower ground but also enjoy listening to male Elk bugling as they vie for female attention.
Bears are preparing for hibernation season, so expect to see them on the hunt for nuts to keep in their dens over the harsh Winter period. You will need binoculars and / or a telephoto lens for your camera if you want to see bears in the wild.
Bison are easier to see at Yellowstone than most other wildlife. They are numerous, feed throughout the day and tend to have a nonchalant approach to humans and traffic.
You will see Bison wandering around grassland across the park, elk freely roaming around built up areas (such as Mammoth hotel) and maybe catch a lone coyote or wolf prowling through long grass from the loop road.
Lamar and Hayden Valley are traditionally the best places to spot wildlife, but if hundreds of people and cars are in the area, expect wildlife to find quieter areas.
Wildlife Spotting Do’s and Don’ts
7. Hiking Is Peaceful in Fall
Hiking Yellowstone trails in October will quite literally be a breath of fresh air.
Trails will be unbearably busy in Summer months but in Fall you can expect far fewer tourists to be stomping the paths with you.
Mount Washburn is the quintessential hike at Yellowstone and if you get a clear day we suggest you hit the trail in case bad weather closes in during your visit in October.
There are a ton of other hikes you can choose between but be sure to check the current backcountry situation report for updates on trail closures and safety.
Even on a clear day, it will be cold in the morning so you will need to wrap up well with layers and take plenty of water and snacks.
Do not forget your bear spray if you intend to hike into backcountry and take everything back out of the wilderness with you.
Read our 21 tips for beginner hikers (applies to all hikers!) for more information.
8. Waterfalls Are Not In Full Flow In October
Autumn is most certainly not the best time to go waterfall hunting.
We can tell you from a lot of experience including visiting Yosemite National Park in late October and the New York Finger Lakes waterfalls in September – water does not flow heavily … or sometimes even at all!
However, we’re talking about Northwest Wyoming here and Yellowstone’s waterfalls do still have a relatively high volume of water in October.
Tower Fall was inaccessible when we visited but Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River were both crashing immensely into the river below.
You won’t see waterfalls in their full majesty if you visit in October but they will still be worth a visit. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is worth seeing on any day of the year, period.
Pro-tip: The best viewpoint / sunrise photography location for Yellowstone Falls is Artist Point on South Rim Drive.
9. Geysers and Hot Springs Can Be Less Impressive
Yellowstone National Park is famous and unique for its geothermal geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pots. However, time of year does matter for seeing them in all their glory.
For example, if you’ve seen images of Grand Prismatic Spring with incredibly bright colors in a huge circular shape – they were not taken in October. More likely they were taken on a sunny day in the middle of Summer, when the air is much warmer resulting in less steam.
When we visited, Grand Prismatic Spring was vibrant but covered in hot billowing steam and snow, thus preventing a clear picture of the hot spring. Cold air and hot water clash as Winter approaches.
On a brighter note, Old Faithful will be unaffected if you visit Yellowstone in October. The trusty geyser will blow almost right on schedule all day, every day and season will not impact on its majesty.
Many of the geyser basins were completely covered in snow when we visited. Frost and mist shrouded many of the major geysers which obstructed our views but gave us a unique experience.
If you visit before snowfall, you will have no issues being able to enjoy all of the geysers and hot springs in the park.
Best geothermal features: Steamboat geyser, artists paint pots and Turquoise Pool are some of the best lesser known attractions to include in your itinerary.
10. Photography Is Epic In October
Both Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park are staggering landscapes to photograph in October.
Fewer crowds is a big one to begin with, especially at sunrise. We had unlimited room from Artist Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Wildlife is abundant as they migrate or prepare for Winter. Telephoto lenses are required for wildlife photography and make sure you’re in the field at dawn and dusk for highest activity.
Changeable weather means you can shoot the park in snow, sun, fog, fall colors, heavy clouds, no clouds and many other scenarios. Remember your lens cleaning kit, it will be used a lot in Yellowstone.
Shorter daylight hours mean you don’t have to get up excruciatingly early for sunrise or stay out late for sunset. And the Milky Way appears around 8pm in Yellowstone during October so no waiting until 3am like Spring months.
Pro tip: Wide angle lenses work best for landscapes in the park but you will also need a telephoto lens for wildlife. Take both!
Read More About Yellowstone and Grand Teton
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We hope this guide helps you plan your visit to Yellowstone National Park in October!
Have you been to Yellowstone? Which is your favorite season?
Please let us know if you have any questions or need any help planning your visit.
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