Don't Forget Yellowstone’s “Other” Season
Essential travel tips for a magical winter visit
Have you ever heard a tree “pop” because it was so cold? Have you watched bald eagles or a herd of bison as your skis crunch and squeak across the snow? Have you taken in a geyser eruption surrounded by glazed trees and hot springs billowing with steam? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then perhaps you have spent time in Yellowstone during winter. If not, maybe it’s time to consider visiting during Yellowstone’s “other” season.
Wildlife viewing is at its best during the wintertime, as elk and bison are restricted by the deep snow and congregate in the Park’s thermal areas. Other common sights for the winter visitor are bald eagles, coyotes, wolves, and river otters.
If you’ve considered visiting in the winter you may wonder: how does one access Yellowstone in the winter and, more importantly, how does one get around once there?
Yellowstone’s North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, which connects to the Park’s Northeast Entrance Road, is open year-round to wheeled vehicles. Five miles from the entrance, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel makes a perfect base camp for wildlife watching in the Lamar Valley or skiing along Terrace Loop Drive and connecting trails near the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces.
Nearby Tower Junction is the perfect spot for a mid-day ski or snowshoe to the Tower Falls overlook. At the end of your day, head to dinner in the full-service Mammoth Dining Room. If you reserve one of Mammoth Hotel’s rustic hot-tub cabins, you’ll be able to top off your day with a warm soak.
If you have a bit more time to invest in a winter trip, take an extra day (or three) to explore Yellowstone’s vast interior. In terms of remoteness, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge offers an experience that few places in the lower 48 states can match. You won't be able to drive your car there. Visiting Old Faithful in the winter requires a trip aboard a snowcoach (a van of sorts on tracks) or taking part in a guided snowmobile tour to reach the Lodge.
Once the winter sun sets, curl up by the fireplace in one of the oversized comfy chairs in the Snow Lodge lobby or wander outside to catch a moonlit eruption of Old Faithful in the crisp winter air. Need to warm up? Grab a hot beverage by the fireplace in the Firehole Lounge, then enjoy dinner in the Snow Lodge’s Obsidian Dining Room. With sustainable menu options like Wild Alaska Salmon with a Citrus Beurre Blanc, to the Piedmontese Prime Rib of Beef, the Snow Lodge’s menu is sure to satisfy after a long day playing in Yellowstone’s winter wilderness.
One of the best reasons to stay at Old Faithful is the access to world-class cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. From the front door of the Snow Lodge, you can head out into the Upper Geyser Basin or explore any number of local trails which head off into Yellowstone’s backcountry. As with Mammoth, the Snow Lodge has a full-service ski shop offering rentals, lessons, and guided excursions. Of course, no visit to Old Faithful would be complete without waving to your friends and family back home while standing in front of the Old Faithful webcam.
Feeling energetic? Take one of the all-day ski tours offered from both Mammoth and Old Faithful to the Canyon area of Yellowstone. Imagine skiing along the Canyon rim hearing only the soft crunch of snow, seeing the nearly frozen 308-foot Lower Falls, or even carving deep powder turns in the Dunraven hills. For those seeking a less strenuous way to experience Yellowstone in the winter, snowcoach or snowmobile sightseeing tours are also available from both locations.
Families traveling with children should take advantage of the free, ranger-led activities for all ages offered throughout the winter season at both Mammoth and Old Faithful: snowshoe tours, wolf watching, and evening programs are just a few of the no-cost options provided by the National Park Service.
While not as busy as the summer season, reservations for lodging, transportation, and activities are still required, especially during the peak holiday weekends of Christmas, New Year’s, and President’s Day.
Deep snow and the lack of crowds transform Yellowstone into an otherworldly winter wonderland. While planning a winter visit to Yellowstone requires a bit more effort than a typical summer experience, those adventurous folks who do plan ahead are rewarded with unparalleled scenery, recreation, and tranquility.
WHEN TO GO: Yellowstone’s winter season is late December through early March. Visit the official Yellowstone National Park website for specific road and facility opening and closing dates.
WHERE TO STAY: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Visit Xanterra Parks & Resorts website to make your reservation online or call 1-866-GEYSERLAND.
WHERE TO DINE: For dinner, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel Dining Room or Old Faithful Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room. If you are staying in Mammoth, there are also several restaurants a short drive away in Gardiner, MT. For quick-service food on-the-go, there’s the Geyser Grill at the Snow Lodge and the Mammoth General Store in the heart of Mammoth.
THINGS TO DO: Wildlife viewing, sightseeing, photography, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, geyser gazing, snowcoach or snowmobile touring. Learn more>>
HOW TO GET THERE: By car, take US Highway 89 from Livingston, Montana to Yellowstone’s North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs. Snowcoach or snowmobile transportation is available from Mammoth Hot Springs, West Yellowstone, MT or Flagg Ranch at Yellowstone’s South Entrance. Year-round air service is available to Bozeman, Montana and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Check out the Park's winter use road map to see which roads are open to wheeled vehicles and oversnow vehicles.
BEFORE YOU GO: Be sure to check on current weather and travel conditions before you depart for your trip. Up-to-date road condition reports are available online for Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.