As one of America’s most-visited National Parks, Yellowstone is most-often seen in the summer months, when the prairies are golden and the signs of winter are a far off memory. Full of world-class backpacking, hiking, and animal watching, many who visit the park feel that Yellowstone doesn’t get any better than visiting during the summer months. Once November rolls around, however, when most of the park roads close and the crowds all but evaporate, this is when those who are in-the-know flock to the park, ready to experience the unique and awe-inspiring sights of Yellowstone in the chilly months.
For some, visiting Yellowstone in the off-season might initially sound intimidating. But in reality, a visit to Yellowstone in winter is easy, beautiful, and well worth the drive. In winter, when feet of snow, howling winds, and subfreezing temperatures are typically signs to avoid areas, this formidable stretch of land in the Rocky Mountains becomes a paradise of snow-filled wonderment. If you haven’t seen America’s first National Park in winter, you are missing out on one of the greatest experiences in the world.
What makes winter in Yellowstone so amazing isn’t the hiking or camping. Instead, it is witnessing the transformation of the cold season on this incredible landscape. In the winter, animal watching becomes second to none, with herds of bison, elk, and deer easily standing out against the white snow blanketing the rolling hills and mountains. As the temperature drops, the hot springs, geysers, and thermal regions emit more steam, showing off the lurking wonders of this huge super volcano bubbling just below the surface. Accessed by car, snow coach, or snowmobile, visiting Yellowstone when it is covered in snow will leave you forever changed, connected to this region in a way that only a handful of visitors experience each year.
By far, the highlight for most Yellowstone visitors is found along the road between Gardiner, Montana, and Cooke City. Most who visit Yellowstone in the winter find themselves staying at the hotels in either city, giving them easy access to the park’s winter hiking and wildlife watching. Passing through Mammoth and the world-famous wildlife watching destination of Lamar Valley, this is the only stretch of road open to cars. While the bears may be hibernating, the rest of the animals of the park can be seen easily against the stark white background, letting eager visitors watch moose, bighorn sheep, foxes, otters, coyotes, elk, bison, and wolves.
The best way to see animals in the winter is to hop in your car just before sunrise, heading out to the Lamar Valley from Mammoth Hot Springs. Along the road, keep an eye out for any movement and/or people standing out along the road with spotting scopes and binoculars. During the winter months, wolf researchers and wildlife enthusiasts are commonly seen driving back and forth, scanning and listening for wolf packs. Be patient and it’s possible you might see a pack of wolves with the help of these experts.
Animals are wild and although sightings can’t be predicted, there is a routine that they tend to follow, helping increase your potential to see most of the active animals in the park. Elk and bison will be everywhere, while moose are commonly seen near Pebble Creek on the way to Cooke City. Bighorn Sheep tend to hang out near the bridge spanning the Yellowstone River, while otters are usually spotted along the Lamar River near Soda Butte. To see foxes and coyotes, head out to the Lamar Valley and drive toward Cooke City. Chances are, you’ll see numerous coyotes and the occasional fox hunting and jumping in the snowdrifts.
For wolves, look no further than driving out to Lamar Valley. Visitors who are patient and wake up early will see a sight usually only found in nature documentaries or in a National Geographic magazine. In Lamar Valley, find the wolf experts and wait. You might just hear a howl fill the air, breaking the silence of winter. If you are lucky, the howl will occur near a herd of elk, giving you a chance to see a pack of wolves charging and systematically finding the weakest elk. Every so often, wolf watchers will get to watch the wolves bring down an elk and revel in their successes by howling and feasting, surviving for another week in the winter conditions.
Starting in Gardiner, pass though the Roosevelt Arch and drive to Mammoth, where recreation activities abound. Along the Gardiner River, between the city and Mammoth, there is access to a hot springs where you can take a dip in the warm waters, surrounded by the cold snow. For most winter visitors, Mammoth gives you the easiest option for winter hiking.
Park at the visitor center to enjoy a snowy jaunt around Mammoth Hot Springs, which showcases the geothermal beauty of this iconic Yellowstone region. The upper loop of Mammoth Hot Springs is perfect for cross country skiing and snowshoeing, while the lower boardwalks give day hikers of any age a wonderful trek around this wonder of the world. Once you have hiked the incredibly gorgeous hot springs, head toward the Roosevelt intersection where you turn left to get to Lamar Valley. From the closed gate at Roosevelt, you can hike up the closed road and enjoy the spectacular sights of Tower Falls and the Yellowstone River in the snowy bliss. The views down river from the road and boardwalks are impossibly beautiful.
The Mammoth Area is also one of the regions where you can catch a snow coach to get to Old Faithful and see the hidden sections of Yellowstone in winter. The other area to access Old Faithful and the interior of the park is from West Yellowstone. Here, you can also sign up for snowmobile tours to see the park in unrivaled solitude and beauty. Both options are great if you have reservations at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where you can be one of a few dozen people to roam the geyser basin when it is wrapped in a snowy blanket. The lodges book up early every year, making this a tough destination if you haven’t planned in advance. That is why most stay in Cooke City or Gardiner, as those towns have plenty of amenities and tend to have rooms available year round.
Bighorn sheep traipsing through the Yellowstone snow. Douglas Scott
Visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter is a unique experience, allowing you to see hot springs draped in snow, herds of bison with icicles clinging to their beards, and rarely-seen wolves hunting elk. This is the time of year when it’s easy to imagine what this environment must have looked like before the comforts of modern society began to creep within the park boundaries; when wildlife and wilderness reigned supreme throughout the wide-open expanses of this vast caldera. Whether you drive through Lamar Valley, take a slowcoach to Old Faithful, or experience the park on the back of a snowmobile, seeing Yellowstone in winter will forever change your outlook on this gorgeous national park.