It’s that time of year: Yellowstone National Park workers prepared for the winter season, which opened Dec. 19. For many Park aficionados, winter is the most wonderful time of the year: the crowds are gone, the fireplaces are toasty, and the wildlife and geysers can be seen in front of a glorious backdrop of snow-covered trees and mountains. The true beauty of the park does indeed shine through in the winter season.
So exactly what happens during the winter season? First, most of the roads in the Park are closed: the only roads allowing car traffic run between Gardiner, Mammoth and Cooke City at the Northeast Entrance. However, the rest of the roads inside the Park are groomed for snowmobile traffic, as 720 snowmobiles per day are allowed in the Park provided they meet noise and pollution standards and are accompanied by a guide. (This limit is rarely approached, however.) The Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Inn Snow Lodge are open, along with their restaurants and bars. To get there from the outside you need to arrange transport, either via snowmobile or snow coach, which leave from Mammoth Hot Springs, West Yellowstone and Cody.’
Planning is definitely in order if you want to tackle a winter trip. First, you’ll need a hotel reservation: the Snow Lodge in particular tends to fill up during peak times. There’s a little more availability in Mammoth, but many of the rooms are Spartan and sport a shared shower. Reservations are also required for snow-coach transport and evening dining. The snow-coach transport in particular is a great way to enter the Park: drivers are also tour guides and will stop to show you areas of interest or point out wildlife within easy view, like bald eagles perched along the Yellowstone River.
Once you’re there, you will feel like you have the Park to yourself. Cross-county skiing and snowshoeing are two popular ways to get around the Park, particularly around the Snow Lodge. It’s heavenly to head back to Morning Glory Pool on skis or snowshoes, especially after a light snowfall. The wildlife — in the form of bison and elk — gather in the thermal areas to take advantage of the warm temperatures and remaining foliage. The temps can be nippy, but the bright sunshine makes up for it.
After you’ve spent the day exploring the Park, dive into dinner and then hang out with your fellow travelers in front of the lobby fireplace. Travel used to be a more genteel pursuit, and time spent meeting others from around the world is one of the best reasons to visit Yellowstone National Park in the winter.