Winter Wonderland: Three Adventures in Yellowstone
Snow buries most of the roads in Yellowstone National Park in winter. But that doesn’t mean the park is closed. You can still experience the wonder of the winter landscape where bison walk single-file to cut through deep snow, and every geothermal emits copious steam. Best of all, geyser basins that see packed crowds in summer turn into private places where you can “ooh” and “ahh” all you want.
The winter season in Yellowstone runs mid-December to early March, when snowcoaches tour snow-buried closed roads. These converted vans or buses with extra-large tires or tracks go where cars can’t. While you can catch a snowcoach for a day tour from West Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, or Flagg Ranch, the full winter adventure takes on richness after dark when clear nights reveal a sky full of stars or the howl of a wolf pierces the cold air.
Groomed Upper Mammoth Hot Springs Road/Photo by Becky Lomax
The Quickest Adventure
Mammoth Hot Springs is the easiest place to reach in winter because you can drive right to it. The road across the north of the park stays open to cars all winter. Sightseers can take in the travertine terraces of the hot springs, the Yellowstone River, the triple-drop of Undine Falls, and wildlife on the Blacktail Plateau. With the road plowed through Lamar Valley, you might spot wolves, along with bison and bighorn sheep.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers can tour up to Tower Fall or catch the snowcoach to Indian Creek to ski around the campground loops. Those with endurance to burn can ski the road back to Mammoth. One of the easiest ski adventures tours the Upper Mammoth Hot Spring Road, which is groomed in winter with a track set for classic skiing. Guides at the ski shop in the lodge also lead winter ski or snowshoe adventures, and one-day snowcoach tours go to Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, or Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Snowcoaches Tour Yellowstone in Winter/Photo by Becky Lomax
For a real getaway, stay in one of the few cabins that has a private hot tub at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. If you want more amenities or access to more restaurants, you can also overnight 15 minutes north just outside the park in Gardiner, Montana. In between Gardiner and Mammoth, the Boiling River spills scalding water into the frigid Gardner River where the temperatures mix to make a soothing soaking spot.
Skiers Overlooking Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin/Photo by Becky Lomax
The Heart-of-the-Park Adventure
In summer, several thousand people gather on the boardwalk to watch Old Faithful Geyser erupt. But in winter, you might be one of only a handful of people enjoying the spectacle in the heart of the park. Once the day visitors depart, you can revel in a nearly private show, even after dark.
Catch a Snowcoach From Old Faithful to Ski Fairy Falls/Photo by Becky Lomax
The only way to get to Old Faithful in winter is via snowcoach, either for a one-day tour or to overnight. The scenic trek can take 3-4 hours, with a couple sightseeing stops to get to the remote Upper Geyser Basin. For those spending the night, Old Faithful Snow Lodge has lodge rooms, quiet cabin rooms, and a dining room that serves breakfast and dinner.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge/Photo by Becky Lomax
For seeing the geyser basins, a pair of boot cleats aid in walking the icier boardwalks while groomed cross-country ski trails follow the Firehole River to Morning Glory hot springs or further to Biscuit Basin. Cross-country skiers can take snowcoaches east or west on Grand Loop Road to be dropped off to tour geyser basins and ski back to the lodge via trails or the road. Guides also lead cross-country ski or snowshoe trips around Old Faithful, or further afield via a snowcoach to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
The Skier Adventure
The frozen Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a stunning sight in summer, but even more so in winter. The falls partially freezes, and by mid-winter, the spray creates a mountain of ice at the base about one-third as high as the falls. While you can take a day trip to see the canyon, cross-country skiers can experience this wild eastern side of the park by staying at one of the most unique places in Yellowstone.
Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone/Photo by Becky Lomax
Tucked in the woods near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Yellowstone Expedition Yurt Camp gets nearly buried in snow. Head-high trails weave through the snow to connect camp huts. All-inclusive trips to the remote camp go for four, five, or eight days, departing by snowcoach from West Yellowstone. Guides lead daily cross-country ski trips, with destinations varying based on conditions. It’s a chance to ski tour around the canyon, Hayden Valley, or to frozen lakes and up toward Dunraven Pass.
Yellowstone Expeditions Yurt Camp/Photo by Becky Lomax
Returning to the cozy yurt after skiing is a treat. Snacks and hot drinks await in the dining yurt around the wood stove, and the nearby sauna rewarms cold body parts. Scrumptious dinners come from the kitchen to be served family-style in the dining yurt. And at night, heated canvas-and-wood sleeping huts offer a toasty place to sleep while the temperatures outside dip low.
Yellowstone is one of the most unique winter wonderlands. Opting to experience its geothermals, wildlife, and canyon in winter is downright memorable.
Header photo: Bison in winter/Photo by Becky Lomax
From her home outside Glacier National Park, Becky Lomax revels in the Intermountain parks. You’ll find her hiking the mountain parks in summer and skiing them in winter. In spring and fall, the Southwest parks satisfy her need to hike. She’s the author of Moon USA National Parks, Moon Glacier National Park, and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton.