Most summers, Yellowstone National Park is overrun by visitors. Bison jams back up traffic and bear sightings make the two-lane highway a parking lot — not the kind of vacation any of us aim for. Touring Yellowstone in the winter, on the other hand, is magical.
It’s Called a Winter Wonderland for a Reason
Winter brings solace to the overcrowded park and is my favorite time to visit. It’s a winter wonderland covered in a dazzling blanket of snow.
And it’s so very quiet. Even the thundering of the Lower Yellowstone Falls as water falls over the brink and echoes through the canyon is hushed. Yellowstone’s many waterfalls are frozen.
All the snow and ice make Yellowstone a magical place that sparkles in the sunshine. Snow blankets the mountains, trees, meadows and slow-moving bison who think nothing of wading into steaming rivers to munch of water plants. Hot springs are found in many of Yellowstone’s rivers, like the Firehole River, and fog over the warm water gives the wonderland a dreamy appearance.
Yellowstone is home to half of the world’s hydrothermal features. Brilliant, white snow abuts the turquoise, umber, and emerald of the Grand Prismatic Spring. It may be the most photographed spring in the park, but Morning Glory Pool and Black Opal Spring are equally photogenic.
In summer months, the visitor center at Old Faithful is packed and the boardwalk is standing room only. In the winter, Old Faithful erupts without a huge audience but erupts nevertheless.
And if you’re lucky the world’s highest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser, spews steam, water, and mud 400 feet in the air. It’s in Norris Geyser Basin, 30 miles north of Old Faithful. From overlooks, you can appreciate the immensity of Norris Geyser Basin as wisps of steam dot the entire valley.
You are, after all, standing in the middle of the Yellowstone super-volcano caldera measuring 30 by 45 miles across. If you’re prone to worry, I wouldn’t download the volcano-earthquake app for your phone that keeps track of Yellowstone’s seismic activity.
From Snowshoes to Snow Coaches
The park’s roads close to cars beginning in October, based on the amount of snowfall. Although four of the five park entrances stay open (Cody and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Montana), all but one road in the park closes, beginning in October. Only the road between the northern entrance to the park at Gardiner, Montana to a little mountain town, Cooke City, Montana, is plowed to allow the 80 year-round residents of Cooke City access to the rest of the world.
This is road that few people travel in the winter. There are few hydrothermal features, frozen waterfalls, or scenic vistas along the way, but it has prime wildlife viewing and is well worth the effort if you’re okay with driving on snow-packed and sometimes icy roads that you share with bison herds.
To get to the hydrothermal areas in the park, you’ll have a choice of traveling by snowmobile or snow coach. And if you’ve never driven a snowmobile, you’ll be given a quick lesson before you head out. The number of snowmobiles allowed in the park each day is limited and you travel as a group with an experienced guide leading the pack. You’ll need reservations to join the tours. They depart from all four winter entrances.
Snow coaches, like snowmobiles, get you to the park’s interior. If you’ve opted to stay in Old Faithful Snow Lodge (one of two hotels open in the park – the other being at Mammoth Hot Springs), a snow coach gets you there. It’s a cozy trip with a great view as you cruise along on tires that are 4 feet high. They make plenty of stops along the way for you to photograph the wildlife and pristine wilderness.
From Old Faithful Snow Lodge, you can explore on cross-country skis or snowshoes. This is an ideal way to explore the park – it’s quiet, ecologically-friendly, doesn’t disturb the wildlife, and is a terrific workout.
Besides the looped trails around Old Faithful, the National Park Service grooms cross-country ski and snowshoe trails around all the popular spots in the park. Trails vary from easy to difficult. Be sure to go with another person, dress in layers, and carry food, water, a map, compass (no GPS out here), matches, and a whistle.
Among the lower 48 states, Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals. You are going to see wildlife. You’ll spot elk in the Mammoth Hot Springs area and bald eagles along the Madison River. Bison, deer, coyotes, fox, and perhaps wolves make their home in the Lamar River Valley – named in the 1880s for the Secretary of Interior at the time, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Hopefully he went by Luke.
If You Want to See a Bear
Grizzly bears in the wild hibernate. In West Yellowstone’s Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, which is open year-round, you’ll see one no matter the season. The not-for-profit wildlife park (they have raptors and river otters, too) takes in nuisance or orphaned bears, as well as wolf pups born in captivity.
The displays and educational programs give visitors insight into these magnificent animals that call the Yellowstone ecosystem home. Check out the display of not-so-bear-proof coolers and trash cans. With these powerful creatures, when there’s a whiff, there’s a way.
If You Want to See a Wolf in the Wild
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Seeing one in the wild has been on many a bucket list. If it’s on yours, visiting Yellowstone in the winter will up your odds of spotting one. Deep snow forces the wolves’ prey – bison, elk, and deer – to congregate in the Lamar Valley and increases your chance of seeing a wolf pack hunt for dinner. Joining a wolf-watching tour increases your odds even more. These tours not only provide spotting scopes, they follow the pack’s movements each day and can more easily zero in on their location.
Whether you have a wolf encounter or not, Yellowstone is at its most dazzling, sparkling, best in the winter. Teddy Roosevelt agreed and had this to say, “the Park has special beauties to be seen in winter; and any hardy man who can go through it in that season on skis will enjoy himself as he scarcely could elsewhere.”
Do you have any tips for visiting Yellowstone in winter? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!