There is a myth that is prevalent in Yellowstone National Park. It is stated as fact so often, it is hard to believe that it isn’t true. Yet, simple data proves that the words are not accurate: Yellowstone National Park does not empty in September.
You’ve probably heard the myth and believed it too. After all, it makes sense.
The belief is simple: Once school starts up at the end of the summer, the park’s crowds thin out as families are no longer making the trip. With the kids gone, it should mean smooth sailing through the entrance gates, and empty parking spots at all of the well-loved destinations within the park boundary.
The problem is that everyone who is retired or able to travel to the park when they desire is thinking the same thing. They descend on the park with hopes and expectations that their way of thinking is unique, but quickly find out that everyone has been believing the same myth. Lines at West Yellowstone to enter the park rivaled the lines at the height of visitation over the summer. Parking lots at Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, and other well-known spots filled just as quickly as they did in June, July, and August.
On October 18th, 2023, Yellowstone National Park officials announced that Yellowstone National Park hosted 838,458 recreation visits in September 2023. This is a 48% increase from September 2022, which had 567,587 recreational visits, and a 21% increase from September 2019, which saw 693,118 recreational visits. It is important to note that the park compares 2023 visitation to 2019 visitation since 2019 was pre-COVID and the subsequent years until 2023 included unusual visitation trends due to COVID (2020, 2021) and the historic flood event in 2022 that closed the park for about two weeks in June.
September is no longer a time to have an empty park for your enjoyment, and it honestly hasn’t been that way for nearly a decade.
Don’t believe me? Here are some statistics that prove it.
In 2021, park visitation in September was 95% of visitation in August of the same year.
In 2023, park visitation in September was 97% of visitation in August of the same year.
In September of 2023, Yellowstone National Park visitation for the month was 838,458.
In August of 2023, Yellowstone National Park visitation for the month was 856,289.
In July of 2023, Yellowstone National Park visitation for the month was 969,692.
In June of 2023, Yellowstone National Park visitation for the month was 851,517.
Yes, the amount of visitors is lower than in the summer months, but barely.
The total number of park visitors in September 2023 is higher than every July through 2008, except for 1995. September visitation is higher than every August through 2009. It is almost double the September visitation numbers through 2009.
One can easily see the trend of September visitation to Yellowstone National Park increasing. 2022 is an outlier.
When Did September Become So Popular in Yellowstone National Park?
This can be answered in a few ways. One is that America’s population is growing every year and park visitation statistics directly reflect that. The same can be said about America’s number of retired individuals who are taking trips they have been putting off until they were done with work. With a growing population and a growing number of retired travelers, park visitation will rise every month.
The second way to answer this is a little more complex. While visitation numbers to parks have grown steadily over the years, there was a large jump starting in 2015. Instead of a pretty linear rate of growth, September visitation jumped nearly 110,000 between 2014 and 2015. This reflects the national trend of National Park popularity increasing around the National Park Centennial of 2016. The increased visitation from that event has remained, highlighted in the larger and well-known parks, like Yellowstone.
While the crowds and lines at the entrance stations do exist, the majority of the traffic is coming from West Yellowstone. Nearly every September morning in 2023, long lines greeted visitors at West Yellowstone, while all the other entrances had minimal to no wait times. Even the town of Gardiner, with plenty of places to stay, was mostly empty in September, especially compared to West Yellowstone.
If you are insisting on a September visit, I’d strongly consider voiding West Yellowstone and staying near any of the other entrances. Those spots will feel a lot more like the old September visits. For a while, anyway.
You can also have solitude and silence quite easily in September, as well as any other month of the year by hitting a hiking trail. If you enjoy hiking beyond the boardwalks of Yellowstone, definitely consider picking up a copy of my guidebook to the region, or booking a hiking tour with me!
What About Visiting in October Instead?
While many will extrapolate the September visitation data and assume they should take a trip to the park in October, the trend of increased visitation isn’t limited to the ninth month. Yes, the number of visitors in October is typically less than half of the visitation in September, but October visitation has also steadily climbed since that 2014-15 marker. You’ll also be dealing with more winter weather, as storms consistently close park roads in October. The park’s amenities are also closed down in October, as well as many of the restaurants, hotels, and other tourism-based industries in the gateway towns.
If you do plan on visiting the park in October, be prepared for a bare-bones experience, with potential snow, ice, closed roads, and a lack of places to stay or eat. You’ll have about 1/3rd the amount of people, though.