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Yellowstone National Park is one of the world’s greatest wonders. The park sees its highest volume of visitors in summer, understandably. But in winter, something magical happens…
It’s easy to be turned off by the idea of visiting a place like Yellowstone in winter because of the weather, especially for people who are not of fans of winter in the first place. There is no way around it: Yellowstone during winter can be inhospitable. But, at the same time, it is a magnificent wonderland. A great deal of Yellowstone’s hibernal allure lies in this paradox; there is extreme beauty in the harsh landscape and its hardy inhabitants.
Solitude. Peace. Quiet. Stillness. These words all come to mind when I’m asked why I encourage travelers to visit Yellowstone in winter. The summer crowds are non-existent. Silence replaces the constant hum of car engines. There are no monstrous RVs clamoring uphill or crawling at a snail’s pace. It is just you, the crisp air, pristine and undisturbed blankets of snow, and the majestic wildlife. During my most recent winter visit to Yellowstone, we arrived at Old Faithful, the park’s most famous attraction, in the late afternoon hours. As we waited for the geyser’s predicted eruption, I was in awe – not because of the otherworldly terrain or from the anticipation of witnessing one of nature’s most surreal phenomena. No, I was in awe because, aside from my travel companions and a handful of other visitors, the benches surrounding Old Faithful and the viewing platforms were empty. Compare that to the summer months when hundreds of people are packed in, jockeying for position.
There is another advantage to visiting Yellowstone in winter: abundant wildlife sightings. The frigid temperatures drive most wildlife to the lowest elevations where it’s warmer – and where the visitors are. And far fewer people in the park means the wildlife has more room to roam. On my most recent winter Yellowstone visit, I encountered so many of the park’s magnificent beasts: bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and wolves. During the 1990s, I lived and worked as a seasonal employee in Yellowstone National Park. I spent months at a time in the park and had dozens of wildlife encounters. But during all that time, only one of those encounters involved a wolf. In contrast, I’m in Yellowstone this past January for just a couple of days and what did I witness? A pack of wolves lazing in the snow after feeding on a bison carcass. This makes me think that, if you’re going to make one trip to Yellowstone in your lifetime and seeing wolves is a priority, you might want to give some serious thought to taking that trip in the winter.
Planning a winter trip to Yellowstone
Now that I’ve convinced you to visit Yellowstone in winter (I hope!), here is (just about) everything you need to know to start planning your trip.
Getting there and around
Some important things to know straightaway as you start planning your winter trip to Yellowstone:
- Yellowstone’s winter season runs from mid-December to mid-March.
- Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful are the only two areas of the park with facilities open in winter (lodging and dining).
- The only road that is open to private vehicles runs between the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, to the Northeast Entrance in Cooke City, Montana, via Tower Junction. (While the road is “open” to cars, it may close temporarily due to weather or other reasons.)
The most convenient way to get to Yellowstone Country is to fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). There are year-round, non-stop flights to Bozeman from 9 U.S. cities: Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland (OR), Salt Lake City, and Seattle. Travelers then have the option of renting a car at the airport and driving approximately 90 miles to the park’s North Entrance; or, take advantage of the airport shuttle service offered by Xanterra, Yellowstone’s official concessionaire.
Once inside the park at Mammoth, the only transportation options for getting to Old Faithful are snowmobile or snowcoach. Both options involve guided tours; guests may not travel on their own between Mammoth and Old Faithful. Riding in a snowcoach is quite the experience. First off, the snowcoach somewhat resembles a mini-yellow school bus on steroids. The coach sits high atop enormous low-pressure tires, designed specifically for traversing Yellowstone’s snow-packed roads. The vehicle is heated and its giant windows maximize sightseeing and wildlife spotting. Snowcoach drivers act as tour guides and will make several sightseeing stops along the route. Visitors can make all transportation and lodging reservations, including travel packages, via the Xanterra website.
Where to stay in Yellowstone in winter
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins
- Standard hotel rooms, hot tub cabins, and one-bedroom suites are available.
- The hotel’s lobby was recently renovated. A newly added Map Room is a lovely public space off the hotel lobby where guests can relax and order a beverage from the coffee bar.
- Mammoth Gift Shop and Mammoth General Store are open year-round.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is Yellowstone’s only campground to be open year-round. There are 85 sites and reservations are NOT accepted. All sites are first-come, first-served.
- Mammoth Hotel Dining Room is a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is the only 4-star certified green restaurant in the National Parks.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins
- Premium lodge rooms and cabins are available at Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins.
- The lodge was built in 1998-1999.
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room is a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Firehole Lounge offers cocktails, local craft beers, wine, and small plates.
- The lodge’s lobby is very rustic and inviting. Guests are welcome to gather in front of the fireplace or just have a seat and relax.
What to expect
- Yes, it will be cold. Expect bitter cold temperatures and much snow. With the right gear and proper preparations, though, the temperature will be an afterthought.
- Cell service in and around Yellowstone can be spotty in some parts (Verizon subscribers seem to have the best coverage) and downright non-existent in other parts. Also, there are no televisions, radios, or Wi-Fi at the hotels so as to provide guests the most authentic wilderness experience.
- Remember the solitude I described earlier?
What you will need
Cold weather gear is an absolute must and dressing in layers is the best option to ensure comfort. Definitely bring the following:
- Moisture-wicking long underwear
- Light fleece jacket or wool sweater(s)
- Snow pants or bibs
- Well insulated outer layer (down or synthetic coat)
- Warm hat
- Scarf or balaclava
- Wool socks
- Insulated snow boots with soles that have a good grip
- Insulated gloves or thin liner gloves with a heavier outer layer
- Eco-friendly, refillable water bottle (it’s so easy to become dehydrated in the cold, dry air)
Because cell coverage is not reliable, it is a good idea to make proper preparations ahead of time. Print directions and reservations information prior to departure, or save them on a device that can be accessed offline.
Lastly, reservations for Yellowstone winter lodging opens in March. Make your reservations as far in advance as possible. With only two lodging options within Yellowstone, dates fill up very quickly.
They say that you haven’t really experienced Yellowstone if you haven’t visited in winter. As someone who has experienced Yellowstone in all seasons, I completely agree with that statement.
I was hosted by Yellowstone Country Montana and Xanterra Parks & Resorts. I was already in love with Yellowstone from my time spent in the park as a seasonal employee, so the fact that I was hosted this past winter had no bearing on this piece. All thoughts and opinions, as always, are 100% my own.