Yellowstone, considered by many as the crown jewel of America’s national park system, is one of our country’s most popular vacation destinations, attracting 3 million visitors a year. But 95 percent of the visitors arrive during the spring, summer or fall, and miss the much more intimate experience they would find during the winter.
A winter visit to Yellowstone is like being in a different park. In some respects it is akin to being on a different planet. In addition to smaller crowds, you will find few vehicles (only a small portion of the park is open to private vehicles during winter) and an entirely different array of activities. Walk through the snow to Old Faithful Geyser during the early morning and you may be the only person to watch an eruption of the park’s best-known natural feature. A snow-covered Yellowstone is truly a wondrous and more private place.
The inability to drive into and around the park during winter creates logistical complications. Only the north entrance road that connects the park to Livingston, Montana, is open to private vehicles during winter. Within the park, only the road that connects the north entrance to the northeast entrance and Cooke City is kept open. You can drive into Yellowstone from the north, but you can’t go anywhere other than the Mammoth area and the small town of Cooke City.
Other park access points from the south (Jackson, Wyoming) and west (West Yellowstone) are closed to private vehicles during winter. Highway 14 from Cody, Wyoming, is generally open (depending on snow and avalanche conditions) to the park but closed at the park’s eastern entrance. The popular Old Faithful area of Yellowstone can only be reached via snowcoach or snowmobile (or, by the hardy, with cross-country skis or snowshoes).
So, how should you plan a winter trip to Yellowstone? We can best answer by recommending a trip similar to our own winter visit.
We flew to Bozeman, Montana, and its attractive airport, which has an airline terminal with the interior of a rustic mountain lodge. Scheduled public transportation departs once daily from the airport to Yellowstone’s Mammoth area just inside the park’s north entrance, and three times daily to West Yellowstone, just outside the park’s west entrance.
If snowmobiling is to be a major activity, choose West Yellowstone, the small gateway town that bills itself as America’s “Snowmobile Capital.” Several hundred miles of groomed snowmobile trails wind through national forest land north and south of town. An access trail begins in town near several convenient snowmobile rental locations. The snow-covered local airport is closed during winter and serves as a convenient practice area for snowmobile novices. Although guides are available for hire, you can utilize trails in the national forest without a guide. However, Yellowstone National Park requires professional guides and restricts the types and number of snowmobiles inside the park.
After spending two or three nights in the small town of West Yellowstone (depending on how much time you want to snowmobile) take a scheduled snowcoach to the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone. Overnight accommodations are available at upscale Old Faithful Snow Lodge and nearby cabins, one of only two lodging facilities open inside the park during winter. The nearby and more famous Old Faithful Inn is open only from early May to late October. The Snow Lodge offers rentals of snowmobiles, snowshoes, cross-country skis and ice skates. Remember, snowmobiling inside the park requires accompaniment by a guide. Snowshoes or skis allow you to traverse the nearby thermal areas that offer scenic winter photo opportunities.
Although famous Old Faithful Geyer remains faithful even during the cold winter months, its eruptions bring large plumes of steam that often obscure much of the surging water. Try to spend at least three nights at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Allow one day for exploration of the Old Faithful area by snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the nearby thermal areas. A visitor center near the lodge offers daily interpretive programs. A second day allows time for a snowmobile or snowcoach trip to the canyon area in the eastern section of the park. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the most spectacular sight in the park and shouldn’t be missed. Spend the evenings relaxing while reading a book or talking with other guests in front of the large lobby fireplace. Snow Lodge has an attractive restaurant and separate bar.
After two or more full days touring and exploring the Old Faithful area it is time to take a scheduled snowcoach to Mammoth near the park’s northern entrance. Mammoth was the site of Fort Yellowstone, a former army post that now serves as park headquarters. The Mammoth area includes Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where you will want to spend at least two nights. Although the hotel isn’t as new or as nice as Old Faithful Snow Lodge, it serves as a convenient base from which to explore this area of the park that generally receives much less snow than the Old Faithful area. Winter equipment rentals are available for ice skating, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. Set aside a morning for a guided wildlife tour of the Lamar Valley, where you are likely to spot some of the elusive wolves that were introduced into the park in 1995. These impressive animals are more easily seen during winter when the ground is covered with snow and the predators follow elk to the park’s lower elevations. After returning and eating lunch, enjoy an afternoon walking along the terraces and among the buildings of the old fort.
A shuttle departs Mammoth daily to the Bozeman airport. Depending on your departure time from the airport to home, you may need to spend the night in Bozeman. This shouldn’t be a problem in a university town with a vibrant downtown. Bozeman is home to several museums including Museum of the Rockies on the campus of Montana State University and a children’s museum. There is even a computer museum!
So there you have it: an eight- or nine-day vacation and a lifetime of memories. You will likely accrue bragging rights with friends who may have been to Yellowstone during the summer, but not the winter.
David and Kay Scott are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges published by the Globe Pequot Press. They live in Valdosta, Georgia.
If You Go
Lodging: All lodging within Yellowstone is operated by park concessionaire Xanterra Parks and Resorts. Call (866) 439-7375 or visit www.travelyellowstone.com for information and reservations. Visit www.westyellowstonechamber.com for an overview of lodging in West Yellowstone. A listing of Bozeman accommodations is available at www.bozemanchamber.com .
Tours: Xanterra Parks and Resorts operates tours within the park. Other concessionaires offer snowcoach, snowmobile, and ski tours into the park from West Yellowstone and Cooke City.
Transportation: Karst Stage offers service between Bozeman airport and West Yellowstone three times per day, and between Bozeman airport and Mammoth once a day. Call (800) 845-2778, or visit www.karststage.com for information and reservations.
Snowmobiles: Rentals are available inside the park at Old Faithful and Mammoth, and in the towns of West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City. Day rentals run between $115 and $135 with a nominal extra charge for an additional person on a two-seater. Snowmobile trips into the park require a guide and are more expensive. Clothing suitable for snowmobile riding is available, sometimes at a small charge.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.