The sight of steam rising up from the ground in the chilly morning hours; the sound of bulging 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, which comes early to Yellowstone National Park.

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 special 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.

The park’s wildlife is also getting ready for the change in seasons. Some of the large animals begin migrating, others stock up on extra food to pack on weight before winter, and elk begin their fall rut. In many areas of Yellowstone– especially around Mammoth Hot Springs – the bull elk will soon be vying for female attention by bugling and sparring with other males. Bulls are much more aggressive 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 the animals and visitors a safe distance apart. However, it’s important that people do their part as well: Park regulations require visitors to stay a minimum of 25 yards – the length of two school buses – away from elk, moose, deer, bison, bighorn sheep, and coyotes.

Yellowstone National Park is bear country. In the fall, grizzly and black bears usually move to higher elevations to feed on whitebark pine seeds, consuming the calories they need to sustain themselves during winter hibernation. But bears may still 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 carry bear spray where it’s readily accessible – not inside a pack – and know how to use it.

Bear spray is highly successful at stopping aggressive bears and it’s sold at retail shops throughout Yellowstone, as well as in many stores in the surrounding communities. New this year, bear spray is 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, park on the shoulder and stay in your vehicle to watch the animal. Use your binoculars, telescope or telephoto lens to get a closer look 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 as well as 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 if you plan to backpack.

As campgrounds and lodges begin to close for the season, those remaining open fill up early. Most park roads and visitor services remain open through September, but visit for the latest information. Updated road information is also available 24 hours a day by calling (307) 344-2117.