Yellowstone National Park is a must-see destination at any time of the year, but in the winter it becomes a paradise for adventure travelers. Home to the greatest collection of geothermal features found anywhere on the planet, Combine that with an abundance of wildlife, a lack of human visitors, and a fresh blanket of snow, and you'll start to understand exactly why Yellowstone is such a magical place, even in the dead of winter.
From November through April, the park can be quite cold, windy, and snowy. That makes it a great destination for hardy adventurers, of which few make the journey during that time of year. Those who do brave the conditions will find that this otherworldly environment is practically deserted, which is a far-cry from the summer months when thousands pass through its gates on a daily basis.
If you're still not convinced that a winter Yellowstone adventure is for you, here are our picks for the ten absolute best things to do in the park during that time of year. The temperatures may be cold, the winds may blow, and the snow might be deep, but it all only serves to enhance the experience and the adventure. Here are ten reasons why you should absolutely visit the world's first national park in the winter.
Explore the Snowy Landscapes
Winter in Yellowstone National Park is incredibly beautiful. Steam rises from the hot springs and geysers; bison wander across vast snow-covered fields, grazing on sparse grass and drinking from streams that sparkle with ice crystals. Old Faithful continues to perform for guests just outside the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where crowds are practically non-existent compared to the summer months. You'll see it all from the comfort of a snowcoach – or better yet while driving a snowmobile, cross country skiing or winter hiking.
Yellowstone National Park Lodges (two are open in the park in the winter) has packages for adventurous travelers looking for a winter escape. The lodges themselves also serve as the perfect base camp for such an excursion, offering a warm, comfortable place to stay complete with great food, rustic atmosphere, and plenty of hot drinks.
Hit the Trail on Foot, Skis, or Snowshoes
Yellowstone has hundreds of miles of backcountry trails that spread out across the park. Trail maps are available at the park's visitors centers and the hotels that are open during the winter, allowing visitors to plot their treks carefully. Shuttles offers appointments for drop-offs and pick-ups at trail heads, and any equipment that is needed is available for rent in the park itself.
West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside the west entrance to the park also has miles of groomed cross-country and ski skate routes that make up the Rendezvous Ski Trails system. This makes the small town yet another great destination for anyone looking for further opportunities in the Yellowstone area.
Go Snowmobiling in a Winter Wonderland
Snowmobiling is allowed on specific roads in the park but only on guided tours. Snowmobiling excursions to Old Faithful are offered by several snowmobiling companies in West Yellowstone, just outside the park itself. Inside the park's borders, Xanterra, the company that manages the park's hotels and other infrastructure, offers a snowmobiling package that allows riders to spend a night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge then ride 90 miles to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel the next day. Snowmobilers leaving from West Yellowstone also have the freedom to explore hundreds of miles of groomed snowmobiling trails and slopes in the surrounding U.S. national forests.
Spot Abundant Wildlife
The Yellowstone Association, which partners with the National Park Service, features a variety of animal-watching day trips and multi-day programs for visitors. The group offers a number of programs, some of which include overnight stays so travelers can experience Yellowstone at dawn, viewing wolves, elk, bison, and other animals from a safe distance using spotting scopes. Naturalists lead the tours to help visitors to understand how these animals survive and interact in the wild particularly in the winter. The various tour packages can be booked ahead of time through the associations website.
Take a Nighttime Tours
Mist rises eerily around you as you carefully follow the outline of your guide along a wooden boardwalk, all the while hissing geysers erupt in the dark just a few feet away. This isn't the prelude to a horror movie, it's the start of an incredible snowcoach journey to see how alive Yellowstone can be at night, which is when some of the park's most well-known creatures come out to play.
The highlight of the trip just might be the point at which the snowcoach stops, and everyone on board steps out into the dark. Standing there quietly, you'll look up into a star-filled sky that one can only dream about while living in a light-infused city. The countless stars on display overhead will leave you in awe of the grandeur of it all, making you realize just how small we truly are.
On a winter Saturday morning in West Yellowstone, Montana, there are more snowmobiles driving along the streets than cars. This town is primarily lodging, bars, restaurants and shops for visitors who want souvenirs or need cold-weather clothing to help stave off the freezing temperatures. It is the perfect gateway to exploring the park and the nearby Gallatin National Forest. The town sits right on the edge of Yellowstone itself, so you can take day-trips into its pristine wilderness via snowmobile or snowcoach.
While in the area, be sure to visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center—a non-profit wildlife park—to watch bears tussle and wolves prowl. There's also an exstensive cross country trail system close by for those looking to get in a good winter workout while in the area too.
Enjoy a Winter Camping Trip
For the truly adventurous there is nothing quite like a winter camping trip in Yellowstone. Thanks to its lower elevation the park's Mammoth Campground is open all year round, making it a favorite amongst winter campers. During the colder months it is much easier to reserve a space at the site and visitors will find plenty of peace and quiet throughout their stay. Camping close to Mammoth also ensures good access to trails, hot springs, and other attractions in the area as well.
Winter campers need to bring a good four-season tent, a warm sleeping bag, a winter sleeping pad, and plenty of layers. If they come prepared, they'll be rewarded with an experience of a lifetime. Staying in a Yellowstone lodge is a always wonderful, but nothing connects you with the wilderness like a night in a tent.
Savor the Solitude
Not many people visit Yellowstone during the winter so there is plenty of opportunities to enjoy the natural beauty completely on your own. The quiet is disrupted in the summer months, when tourists from around the globe come to the park by the millions. But in the winter, the park is nothing more than miles and miles of solitude in a wilderness that is unmatched by any other.
If you're looking for a destination where you can truly get away from it all, a winter excursion to Yellowstone needs to be on your bucket list. At no other time of the year will you have Old Faithful completely to yourself, nor will you find the most popular trails so empty. That alone, makes it well worth the journey.
Take a Dip in a Hot Spring
Yellowstone's geothermal features are impressive all year round, with geysers and fumaroles aplenty. But perhaps the best of these features are the hot springs that are prevalent throughout the region. These naturally heated waters won't freeze, even during the coldest of winter temperatures. They also offer an enticing chance to bask in their heat, even during the cold winter months when you'll be so comfortable in the pool that you won't want to get back out.
Head two miles north of Mammoth and you'll find a spot where the Boiling River meets the Gardner River, creating the perfect place for visitors to wade out into the warm water. During the summer months, this area can often get very crowded, but in the winter it is usually sparsely visited, making it one of the more unique experiences of the season.
Sharpen Your Photography Skills
For outdoor and adventure travel photographers, Yellowstone in a fantastic place to hone your skills. This is especially true in the winter when the sharp contrast between the white snow and the deep blue sky is on prominent display. The park's famous wildlife is also easy to spot and take photos of as well, making winter the perfect time for a photo safari.
Organized photography excursions take place Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays all winter long, with guides leading groups of travelers out to explore the park's wonders. This trips allow visitors to see far more of the park than they would on their own and are custom made to ensure great opportunities to get the perfect shot.