Yellowstone, America’s first national park, is one of the America’s most popular vacation destinations, so why not schedule winter travel to Yellowstone National Park.
This same park rewards adventurous travelers with a much more intimate experience during the winter when only about five percent of the park’s 3.4 million annual guests choose to visit. Now’s the time to schedule your winter travel to Yellowstone National Park
Winter is magical
For first-time Yellowstone visitors, winter in the park is like magic. For travelers who have enjoyed Yellowstone only during the spring, summer, or fall, a winter visit is like being in a different park. In addition to smaller crowds, there are few vehicles (only one road is open to regular traffic during winter) and an entirely different variety of activities.
While I have visited Yellowstone several times during the summer, my winter trips were simply amazing. A quiet, serene, wintry Yellowstone is truly a wondrous place.
Three major issues of a winter visit to Yellowstone are:
1) how to get there,
2) where to stay,
3) what to do once you arrive
Getting to Yellowstone
Winter travel to Yellowstone is not always easy. For travelers planning to fly in winter, the primary airports are Bozeman, Montana, on Yellowstone’s north side, and Jackson, Wyoming on the south side. The east entrance is closed and the west entrance is kept open to snowmobiles and snowcats only. No personal vehicles are allowed except for the north entrance where the road is kept plowed to Cooke City.
From Bozeman, travelers can choose between either West Yellowstone just outside the park’s west entrance or the Mammoth area inside the park’s north entrance. You may also chose to stay in Gardiner, Montana which is just a mile or so from the original Roosevelt entrance making it very accessible. Several hotels remain open year round and offer a small variety of choice. Bozeman is 85 miles from the park’s north entrance. Roads from Bozeman, Montana to the Mammoth area (55 mi.) are kept open weather permitting during winter.
Flying into Jackson, Wyoming forces you to take a scheduled snow coach shuttle inside the park to the Old Faithful area as the roads are all closed to regular traffic.
From Jackson, transportation is available to Headwaters Lodge and Cabins at Flagg Ranch (55 mi.) where a scheduled snow coach is available to the park’s Old Faithful area. Snow coach tours into the park are also available from Flagg Ranch. The roads from Jackson to Flagg Ranch are kept open during the winter months weather permitting.
If driving is a possibility be warned that only the north entrance to Yellowstone is open to private vehicles during the winter months. You can drive private vehicles all the way to Cooke City, Montana, which makes a great lunch stop with a few restaurant options.
This route takes you through Mammoth, Roosevelt, Tower Junction, Pebble Creek, Lamar Valley and out the northeast entrance into Cooke City where you can grab lunch.
From the south travelers can drive from Jackson to Flagg Ranch. West Yellowstone is accessible to drivers during the winter, but the west entrance to the park is closed to private vehicles. Snow coaches and snow machines tours are available with a guide.
Winter Lodging in the Park
Only two of Yellowstone’s nine lodging facilities within the park are open during the winter months: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins on the park’s north end, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins in the Old Faithful Geyser area.
Snow Lodge is the newer, nicer, and more expensive of the two lodges, although rustic cabins are available at a much lower price. The Old Faithful area typically receives significantly more snow and offers more spectacular scenery than Mammoth. Thus, if you only have time for staying in a single location, opt for Old Faithful Snow Lodge even though access is somewhat more difficult than Mammoth or Gardiner.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel can be reached from Bozeman, Montana via scheduled transportation or personal vehicle, but the Snow Lodge is only accessible via snow coach or snowmobile. Scheduled snow coach service is offered between the two lodges.
Outside the park lodging
A number of lodging options are available outside the park near the north and west entrances including Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Montana. Snow coach tours into the park are available from each of these points, but West Yellowstone is a the more popular destination for travelers who are particularly interested in snowmobiling.
Although many travelers choose lodging inside the park, I enjoyed my time staying in the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana. It offered accessibility to the north road to Cooke City which was exciting and different every day.
There are many trail heads along the way which allow for snowshoeing and cross county skiing. You never know what wildlife you’ll stumble upon each day. Wildlife I have seen along this road include bison (buffalo), elk, wolves, coyote, fox, bighorn sheep and beaver. I would probably mix it up and stay part time in the gateway town and a few days at the Old Faithful Lodge or West Yellowstone. This gives you a variety of activities and experiences.
Things to Do
Old Faithful Snow Lodge offers rentals of snowmobiles, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and ice skates. Remember, snowmobiling in 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 Geyser remains faithful even during the cold winter months, its eruptions bring large plumes of steam that often obscure much of the surging water. Snow Lodge is worth a stay of at least a couple of nights. Allow a day for exploration of the Old Faithful area by snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the nearby thermal areas. A visitor education center near the lodge offers daily interpretive programs.
A second day permits time for a snowmobile or snow coach trip to the canyon area in the park’s eastern section. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a spectacular sight in the park and shouldn’t be missed.
Pass the evenings with a good book or a chat with other guests in front of the large lobby fireplace. Snow Lodge does have a restaurant and bar.
Mammoth serves as a convenient base for exploring the northern section of the park. Winter equipment rentals are available at Mammoth 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 park’s elusive wolves that were introduced into the park in 1995.
I also recommend driving the road in your private vehicle. You can stop when you see pull-outs or other visitors with scopes. Most visitors are more than welcoming and happy to share information. The wolves are seen during winter when predators follow elk to the park’s lower elevations. If you drive the road, you can make it all the way to Cooke City. This cute town has a few options for a warm lunch. Keep your eyes open at all times for the wildlife found along this route! Bring your binoculars or scope.
Winter travel to Yellowstone
Travelers might find it convenient to book a Yellowstone package through the park concessionaire, Xanterra. The firm operates both winter lodges and, offers scheduled transportation locations. Xanterra also offers snow coach tours from both lodge locations.
An example is the “Y Not Winter” package that is all-inclusive. For the more adventurous I suggest flying to either Bozeman or Jackson, and departing from the opposite town.
For example, fly into Bozeman, take the Xanterra shuttle to Mammoth. Following two nights at Mammoth, hop on the cross-park snowcoach to Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Then leave the park on the shuttle to Flagg Ranch. Finally, depart from Jackson where you could also choose to spend a few nights.
The same basic trip is reversible by starting in Jackson and departing from Bozeman. Information on Yellowstone lodging, tours, and packages is available by calling (800) 439-7375, or visiting www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
For the more adventurous, I suggest renting a car or using your own personal vehicle. I recommend staying in Gardiner and driving the north road yourself for a day or two.
Then make the approximately three hour drive to West Yellowstone where you can spend another couple of nights. From West Yellowstone, you can either take a day snow coach or snowmobile tour.
Either way, you’ll enjoy the beautiful scenery and possible wildlife sightings. So there you have it: a vacation of a week or so that will result in a lifetime of memories. Stay tuned for what to wear while in Yellowstone!