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West Yellowstone : Location & Weather

Downtown West Yellowstone, Montana
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West Yellowstone, by accident or design, accomplished a neat trick. Anyone who will be traveling in that part of Montana is pretty much destined to head right through downtown West Yellowstone, even if they don’t want to go to the park. In fact, it seems like all roads in this part of Montana lead, eventually, to West Yellowstone. This is due to both the town’s location as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park and the simple fact that the numerous mountain ranges around town sort of “steer” all traffic into town to get around the mountains. Overall, a neat trick.

West Yellowstone lies along the NW corner of Yellowstone National Park, right on the border with Wyoming and just a few miles away also from the Idaho border. The continental divide is also located just about 10 miles to the west of town.

West Yellowstone itself sits atop a wooded plateau, and a cold one at that. With an elevation in excess of 6000 feet, West Yellowstone has snowy winters, cool summer days and downright cold nights. Very tall mountains dominate the skyline to the north and west of town, while the vast, relatively flat interior of Yellowstone National Park lies to the east and south of town.

For people who end up in West Yellowstone after coming through Jackson, WY, don’t be too surprised by the setting. Jackson lies in a deep valley surrounded by towering mountains everywhere. West Yellowstone instead lies on the Yellowstone Plateau itself. As such, it is relatively flat in and around West Yellowstone, at least until you reach the mountain ranges to the north and west of town. Unlike the Jackson area, the Yellowstone Plateau is heavily wooded – one reason the fires of 1988 burned with such intensity in this area.

IMAX Theatre in West Yellowstone
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It should be noted, though, that the portion of Yellowstone National Park near West Yellowstone was very heavily burned during the fires of 1988. In fact, you don’t even have to enter the park to see it. The fires of 1988 were stopped right at the edge of town on the park boundary. Just going to the little town park near the entrance will provide a view of expansive burned areas.

The burn area from the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988 also continues well into the depth of the park, following the Madison River upstream and then leading up to the Geyser Basin and Old Faithful. Thus, if you don’t like to see burned areas (which are natural and common in the West), then a trip to this part of Yellowstone National Park may not be for you. Go to the eastern half of the park instead, particularly around the Lamar River area, which was somewhat spared from the fires of 1988.

West Yellowstone Weather

The weather in West Yellowstone is, quite simply, cold. This is due to its high elevation (6000 feet) and it’s location on a plateau that is notorious for cold weather, especially at night. During a typical winter, West Yellowstone also receives plenty of now, usually in excess of 100 inches each year – with much more snow falling in the surrounding mountains and within Yellowstone Park itself. Moreover, the cold weather keeps the snow lingering on the ground well into April.

During the summer, the weather in West Yellowstone can be pretty much anything. May and June can be a combination of cold, rainy (sometimes snowy) days – interspersed with days of relative warmth and sunshine. Generally, July and August provide the best and most stable weather – with highs in the 70’s and sunny days. However, even this can change big time, depending on the whims of nature. During heat waves, West Yellowstone can reach 90 degrees or more, while a cold spell can leave summer temperatures around 50 or so. While snow in July and August is not common – it can happen. Moreover, when rain arrives (which isn’t often during July and August) it is often a “cold rain”, not making for real pleasant conditions.

Of course, the other side of all this is that West Yellowstone is not exactly the cheapest spot around to eat and buy stuff. It’s location in the middle of nowhere and its tourist trappings lead to eye-raising prices for things like groceries, restaurant food and gas. And hotel and motel rooms are quite pricy during the summer, too.

And, regardless of day time temperatures, the nights in West Yellowstone are almost always very cold. If you ever watch the Weather Channel, you’ll know this first hand – West Yellowstone is often listed as having the nation’s low temperature during the summer. It is very common for low temperatures to plummet below freezing during the height of summer , and it is almost always well down into the 30’s and 40’s at night. In short, warm nights are not the normal thing in West Yellowstone.

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