Firehole Falls in Winter

Yellowstone Winter Camping: Off the Beaten Path

Yellowstone winter camping isn’t for everyone, but for the adventurous a trip off the beaten winter path is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For many people, a trip to Yellowstone during winter months involves a drive into the north Grand Loop Road and the Lamar Valley (maybe even heading all the way to Cooke City for the day), or taking a snowcoach in from Mammoth Hot Springs or West Yellowstone and spending a night or two or three at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. That’s a grand way to spend a winter trip into Yellowstone, and there’s no reason to contemplate any more advanced Yellowstone winter camping.

But many of us want to eschew the beaten path — even if it is one as laid back as a stay in the Snow Lodge — and look at more adventurous offerings. In theory, anyone can enter Yellowstone National Park in winter and camp; the normal backcountry rules about sticking to designated campground sites are not enforced, and you are very free to pitch a tent where you’d like, provided you’re well-prepared and the location is safe. And we know plenty of folks who have loaded the sleds with gear and set off to explore the Park on their own. Yellowstone can be a quiet and deserted place during the winter season, even in the areas normally overrun by visitors in the summer months.

But you need to be a pretty hearty soul to take on winter camping in this fashion. So on one level, Yellowstone winter camping is open to all. Normal winter-camping rules apply: prepare for the worst in terms of weather, stay dry and dress in layers, bring the proper gear (including a cold-weather sleeping bag and at least two pads so you’re not losing body heat to the ground, a good GPS and a snow shovel), and be sure folks know where you are in case something goes wrong.

An alternative to the Snow Lodge and DIY camping is tent camping with Yellowstone Expeditions, which operates a camp near the Grand Canyon. Tent camping, of course, is historic in Yellowstone: the first lodgings in the Park were not fancy, but rather basic tent camping. Yellowstone Expeditions doesn’t rough it as the folks did in the last century — heck, there’s even a sauna installed these days! — but it’s still a experience suited for the more adventurous among us. From the Billings Gazette:

In 1983, after getting a permit from the National Park Service and purchasing two of his own bombardier snow coaches, [Yellowstone Expeditions owner Arden Bailey] set up a base camp in a small meadow encircled by snow-covered evergreens, one-half mile from the Grand Canyon and the falls of the Yellowstone River. His first year, the base camp consisted of a single hexagonal dining tent and five sleeping huts. Arden has guided backcountry skiers into the heart of the park from this location ever since.

While the thought of camping in freezing temperatures might seem daunting to most, Arden tries to make his camp as cozy and warm as possible. At its centerpiece is two large yurts. One acts as the kitchen and the other as a common area and dining hall. Warmed by an old-fashioned wood stove, the dining yurt is where many guests spend much of their waking camp time. Family-style breakfasts and dinners are cooked up, served and shared with the guests by the camp’s guides.

Arden designed the sleeping quarters to be similar to ice-fishing huts that he used growing up in Minnesota. The plywood and canvas constructions remain warm through the coldest of nights thanks to thermostat-controlled propane heaters.

Not a bad way to spend some winter time in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Firehole Falls in winter. Photo by Loren Sykora via flickr.com.

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