Julena Campbell or Amy Bartlett
Fall comes early in Yellowstone. The sight of steam rising up from the ground in the chilly morning hours, the sound of bugling elk in the crisp evening air, and the feel of fleece against your skin as you dress for a day hike, all herald the end of summer and the beginning of fall in Yellowstone National Park. Soon leaves and grasses will turn lovely shades of yellow and orange. In response to the change in weather and subsequent lower visitation, park facilities and services begin to wind down for the season. Autumn is a magical time of year to visit the park, but be sure to check conditions before you start your trip, pack appropriately, and remember to keep your safety in mind at all times.
Wildlife in the park is getting ready for the change in seasons too. Some of the large animals begin migrating, others stock up on extra food to pack on the pounds before winter, and elk begin their fall rut. In many areas of the park, but especially around Mammoth Hot Springs, the bull elk will soon be vying for the attention of the females by bugling and sparing with other males. Bulls are much more aggressive toward both people and vehicles this time of year and can be a threat to both people and property. Elk damage several vehicles every year, and on occasion charge and injure visitors. A dedicated group of park staff and volunteers patrol the Mammoth Hot Springs area when elk are present, attempting to keep elk and visitors a safe distance away from each other. But it’s important that people do their part as well. Park regulations require that we stay a minimum of 25 yards (the length of two school buses) away from elk, moose, deer, bison, bighorn sheep, and coyotes.
All of Yellowstone is bear county. In the fall, grizzly bears and black bears usually move to higher elevations to feed on whitebark pine seeds, and consume the calories they need to sustain themselves during winter hibernation, but they may be encountered along roads or hiking trails throughout the park. When hiking or backpacking, remember to travel in groups of three or more, make noise on the trail, and be alert for bears. All hikers should always carry bear spray so that it is readily accessible (not inside a pack) and know how to use it. Bear spray is proven to be highly successful at stopping aggressive behavior in bears. It is sold at bookstores, gift shops, outdoor stores, and service stations inside the park, as well as in many stores in the surrounding communities. New this year, bear spray is now available for rent at Canyon Village in a kiosk near the Canyon Visitor Education Center through late September.
Park regulations require people to stay a minimum of 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from bears and wolves at all times. If you see a bear along the road, move off the road and park on the shoulder or in a pullout and stay in your vehicle to watch the bear. Use your binoculars, telescope, or telephoto lens to get a closer look at the bear rather than approaching the bear.
In addition to the change in animal behavior, fall also brings changes in the weather and you should come prepared for a wide range of conditions. Days gradually get shorter and temperatures drop rapidly once the sun goes down, often falling below freezing overnight. At this time of year, it’s a good idea to pack plenty of layers, including insulating items, and both sun and rain protection. Stop at a visitor center or ranger station for the latest updates on trail conditions and park regulations, and remember that you must obtain overnight backcountry permits before setting out to backpack.
All roads leading to the park and in the park are currently open. While brief construction delays are possible on the section of road between Norris Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs, nightly closures are no longer in effect. Updated road information is available 24 hours a day at www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkroads.htm. As campgrounds and lodges begin to close for the season, those remaining open tend to fill up early. The current status of campgrounds is available at www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm.
Most park visitor services remain open through September; however, some facilities close for the season starting Monday, August 31. Details are available in the park newspaper handed out at entrance stations, from the staff at visitor centers and information stations in and near the park, or online at www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/ocd_locale.htm.
About the National Park Service. More than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America’s 408 national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities. Learn more at www.nps.gov.
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Last updated: August 31, 2015