Thermal features are even more pronounced in the cold winter air, and wildlife is much more visible during Yellowstone’s winter season: the bison contently graze in the geyser basins, eagles eye the warm rivers, and elk roam the countryside. Even the reclusive mountain goats, mountain lions and antelope come down from the high country. If you thought the Lamar Valley was a wildlife-viewing nirvana in the summer, just wait until you see it in winter.
If you haven’t already guessed, winter is one of our favorite seasons in Yellowstone National Park. We’re now in the midst of the winter season. Most of the Grand Loop Road is closed to vehicles of any kind, while other sections — the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful, and between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful — are open only to snowmobiles and snowcoaches. Head in on a snowmobile and you can have large swatches of the Park to yourself. Wildlife like elk, wolves and bison stay in the low country during the winter and can be seen easily from the road. But be careful: bison can be traffic hazards on their own, since they like to use the groomed roads to move between sections of the Park. (One winter trip was made more memorable by witnessing a snowmobiler run into the back side of a bison; the damn fool was lucky he wasn’t killed and there was medical staff on our snowcoach.) Bison don’t really pay much attention to cars in the summer; they pay less attention to snowmobiles in winter.
A trip to Yellowstone in winter can be as short as a day trip or a multiday excursion. We’ll go over each here.
THE NORTH: MAMMOTH TO COOKE CITY
The North Entrance to Yellowstone is open year-round. The city of Gardiner is a going concern on a daily basis, as are many of the services at Mammoth Hot Springs, including the General Store and the Albright Visitor Center. The Mammoth Hotel and the Mammoth dining facilities are open only on a seasonal basis, however.
As you can drive directly into Mammoth from Gardiner, there’s no reason for elaborate plans should you want to visit for the day. Though the thermal activity in the Mammoth Terraces has declined in recent years, a winter walk in the area is still a delight. In addition, the road to the upper terraces is plowed, so you can park there and walk through the thermal areas there. The loop road past the terraces is groomed; you can cross-country ski or snowshoe back there. All of this can be done on a day trip.
As can a drive up to Cooke City and back, if the weather gods are cooperating. The highway between Gardiner and Silver Gate/Cooke City is plowed year-round. The drive puts you square in the middle of the Lamar Valley; if you thought it was scenic in the summer, you’ll be stunned by its beauty in the winter months. There’s not much in the way of thermal activity here, but the abundance of wildlife — easier to spot with a backdrop of white snow — is the real draw. The aforementioned wolves, elk and bison can be easily spotted, while other more exotic species like mountain lions — rarely seen in the summer — are occasionally spotted in winter.
Things slow down in Cooke City during the wintertime: virtually the hotels and stores (including the historic General Store) close down, but the Soda Butte and Super 8 hotels remain open. The main attraction in Cooke City is snowmobiling. Many make Cooke City their stay for a multiday snowmobile trip, as it’s outside the Park boundaries: Yellowstone National Park restrictions on snowmobiling do not apply here. There are plenty of state and national forests open to sleds, while Hwy. 212 east of town is groomed for snowmobiling as well. Ask the locals about the safest places to snowmobile: avalanches do occur with some regularity in the backcountry areas, and every winter there are reports of a snowmobiler killed because they underestimated the dangers of the area. Also, because of the rougher terrain in the area, it’s not a great place for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Mammoth Hot Springs can also be the base for a multi-day excursion into the Park. One popular itinerary involves a stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and then an early-morning snowcoach trip to Old Faithful. A daily snowcoach runs between Mammoth and Old Faithful at 7:30 a.m., arriving at noon before returning at 1:30 p.m. This is a leisurely way to travel the Park: snowcoach drivers provide commentary on the various Park features and slow down when there’s a viewing or photography opportunity. It’s common to find travelers spending a day or two at Mammoth before heading down to Old Faithful for a multi-day stay at the Snow Lodge.
The road between Mammoth and Cooke City provides access for some pretty decent cross-country skiing as well. The 3.5-mile Barronette Trail has trailheads at the upper and lower Soda Butte bridges on the Northeast Road and runs through some deep woods on the old Cooke City access road. The Bannock Trail runs only 2 miles from the Warm Spring picnic area and eventually meets up with the Northeast Road. Both are considered easy trails, and although they’re not groomed, chances are pretty good someone has already been out to break the trail. You can just drive up to the trailheads; no reservations or snowcoaches are needed.
The most popular destination in the Park in winter is the Old Faithful area, where the Snow Lodge is the center of activity. It’s the base of operations for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, and the end point for most snowmobilers. The appeals of the area are the same in the summer as in the winter; if you think Castle Geyser or Old Faithful is spectacular in the summer, just wait until you see it in the winter.
For most, West Yellowstone will be the jumping-off point for visitation to the Old Faithful area. Many stores and hotels remain open in West Yellowstone throughout the winter season, making it a solid base for a visit. Outfitters in the area will be happy to rent you a four-cycle snowmobile approved for Yellowstone use (and serve as the mandatory guide), while Xanterra runs two different kinds of snowcoach service between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone. For those on a schedule, a 6:30 a.m. and a 1:30 p.m. snowcoach runs out of West Yellowstone on an express schedule, arriving in West Yellowstone at 8:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., respectively. An express snowcoach leaves West Yellowstone at 8:30 a.m. and arrives at 10:45 a.m. For those wanting a more leisurely ride, a snowcoach leaves at 7:30 a.m. and arrives in West Yellowstone at 10:30 a.m. and then returns at noon.
Xanterra also runs snowcoaches between Old Faithful and Grand Tetons’ Flagg Ranch, with a run at 8:30 a.m., returning at 12: 30 p.m.
You will want to plan ahead if you want to snowmobile in the Park. There are many restrictions on sledding: you need to use an approved four-cycle sled and you must have a guide. Snowmobiles are limited to the groomed Grand Loop Road; you can’t duck off the road and into the backcountry. In addition, there’s a limit of 318 snowmobiles daily in the Park. On most days that’s not a problem, but it could be during a popular holiday like Christmas or New Year’s.
Taking a snowcoach into the Park is a unique experience. Most of the snowcoaches operated by Xanterra are renovated Bombardier snowcoaches, updated to run more efficiently. They make for some pretty cramped quarters: aside from the two front seats, passengers are seated in a U-shaped bench. The snowcoach drivers are pretty good about explaining the terrain and slowing down for scenery or wildlife. You won’t need to get out of the snowcoach to get a good look: a gate on the top of the snowcoach opens up, so you can stand and see the action. It takes several hours to reach Old Faithful from Mammoth, but it’s worth the time.
At Old Faithful, the emphasis is on cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Some of the trails through the geyser areas are groomed for cross-country skiing, though you can snowshoe next to these trails as well. It’s a good terrain for cross-country skiing: the trails are mostly level, and there’s usually enough snow make it a worthwhile experience. If you don’t want to cart your skis all the way to the Park you can rent a pair at the gift shop at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. And bring your boots: the back trails aren’t always groomed or plowed, but they are accessible on foot thanks to the heat from the thermal features.
Concessionaire Xanterra has put a lot of work into making Yellowstone National Park more accessible in the winter. Our first winter trip to Yellowstone was a bare-boned trip, to say the least: the snowcoach dropped you off at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and that was about it. Today Xanterra has scheduled snowcoach service to several different groomed ski trails across Yellowstone, including the Fairy Falls area, DeLacey Creek and the Canyon area (where the 1-mile Bridge Trail is perfect for beginners and the 4.5-mile Canyon Rim Trail geared for advanced skiers). There are other excursions for photographers, as well as a Norris Geyser Basin snowcoach excursion from Mammoth. At night, you can relax with ice skating, time in the hot tub, or a massage. You can view a list of all excursions here.
For those wanting a guided experience, Xanterra offers five different packages with access off the beaten path, whether it’s viewing wolf in the Lamar Valley or skiing back into the Grand Canyon area. You can view the program listings here.
WHERE TO STAY
Only two hotels are open during Yellowstone’s winter season: Mammoth Hot Springs and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a very basic facility: many of the rooms lack bathrooms and showers, so you’ll need to share a communal facility. Services there include a small gift shop and a restaurant in an adjacent building.
The Old Faithful Snow Lodge has the nicest winter lodgings in the Park. The newest hotel in Yellowstone, the Snow Lodge features rooms with two double beds and a private bathroom. Also available at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge area: smaller cabins.
Staying in a Yellowstone hotel during wintertime is a throwback to a more genteel style of traveling. With no TVs in the Park, many choose to spend their evenings in the hotel lobbies, chatting with fellow travelers or curling up with a book in front of a fireplace. In Mammoth, the small seating area in the lobby is augmented by chairs and desks set up in the Map Room. In the Snow Lodge, the large lobby is filled most evenings; the comfy seating around the big fireplace is a big draw, as are the many writing tables.
The two restaurants in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the Obsidian Dining Room and the Geyser Grill, are open in winter, as is as the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room.
For those looking for a more rustic experience, there’s always camping. The Mammoth Hot Springs campground is open year-round and features a heated bathroom/shower facility. Many find that too formal and choose to pitch a tent off a ski trail; but this is truly a rustic experience: no fires are allowed, and regulations are not loosened in winter, which means hitting a Backcountry Office (in this case, the visitors centers in Mammoth and Old Faithful) and purchasing a permit. And stay away from thermal areas.
But be sure you are prepared for winter camping. It’s one thing to throw down a tent in the middle of July in a crowded campground, another to spend a day or three at a mostly empty Yellowstone campground. The weather is always unpredictable in Yellowstone, and you’d be best off preparing for the worst — which could mean blizzard-like conditions developing before you know it. That means packing for extreme conditions, possible accidents (which means a fully stocked first-aid kit), winter-ready equipment, a longer-than anticipated stay in the backwoods (bring extra food and ski equipment, like ski wax), an avalanche beeper, and more.
Despite the lack of car access to most of Yellowstone during the winter, you’ll need a car to get to Mammoth or West Yellowstone. As mentioned, there are three entrance points to the Park in the wintertime. If flying, you can easily reach the North (89 miles) and West Entrances (80 miles) from Bozeman, while the North Entrance is a 170-mile drive from Billings. The East Entrance is served by Cody, while Idaho Falls (108 miles), Jackson (126 miles) and Salt Lake City (320 miles) are popular airports for those wanting to reach West Yellowstone. For most flying to Yellowstone Salt Lake City will be the cheapest option, but it’s also the gateway airport farthest from the Park. However, you can find cheap fares into Billings and Bozeman during the winter months if you shop around. If you can, we’d recommend flying into Bozeman, which has its own set of winter attractions, including some high-quality alpine skiing. Bozeman is a town that takes its outdoor activities very seriously — all in the name of fun, of course. Alas, the West Yellowstone airport is closed during winter months.
All photos courtesy of the National Park Service.