Don’t miss a winter trip into Yellowstone Park. Early winter park visitors called Yellowstone in the white season a true ‘Winter Wonderland.’
While Yellowstone logs more than three million visitors annually, only five percent of those come during the winter months. Imagine standing alone next to a thumping hot pool, surrounded by steam, and watching the sun reflect an array of brilliant blues and greens before you. Or, being surrounded by a herd bison, close enough to see the icicles hanging from shaggy fur and hear their heavy breathing.
Yellowstone’s unique thermal geography keeps rivers and streams from freezing over, while geysers, fumaroles, hot pools and mud volcanoes keep up their unique sights, sounds, and smells. It is a time of year to see elk and deer, bald eagles and trumpeter swans along these waterways. Predators, such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes, are also easier to spot hunting and traveling against a winter’s white background.
Winter visitors to Yellowstone have two options. The road from the park’s North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, to the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, Montana, is open all year to automobile traffic although snow tires are usually required between Mammoth and the northeast Silver Gate entrance.
All other roads require “over-the-snow” vehicles such as a snowcoach or snowmobile or human-powered access, such as snowshoes or cross country ski’s. The roads entering Yellowstone from the south, east, and west gates are just for over-the-snow access. This year, the West entrance at West Yellowstone, MT is scheduled for opening on Monday, December 15th at 8:00 AM.
Commercially guided snowcoach and snowmobile tours travel over snow covered, groomed roads to popular destinations including Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. These vehicles travel on the same roads that you do in the summer over snow prepared by groomers.
Daily tours are available from West Yellowstone businesses. These tours leave each morning from West Yellowstone and return in late afternoon. Many local hotels arrange for shuttles to tour operators or have snowmobiles right on site. Others arrange to shuttle you to your snowmobile or vice versa. Some companies even offer shuttle service to-and-from the Big Sky area.
Tours offer a choice between going to the Old Faithful area or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area. After leaving West Yellowstone, the tours usually stop at Madison Junction about mid-morning for a rest stop, restrooms, and a hot beverage.
At this point, tours will split. Those going to Old Faithful will head south and those going to Canyon will go north. Old Faithful tours will stop along the way at various thermal areas like Fountain Paint Pots or geyser areas. Generally, these tours will stop at Old Faithful long enough for a lunch break and a chance to see Old Faithful erupt (a not-to-be missed sight).
Tours to Canyon will travel north to Norris and then east to Canyon for a lunch break. A highlight of this trip is the chance to see the semi-frozen grandeur of the waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This tour is longer and travels through more forested areas but offers some incredible winter views.
These tours are conducted by interpretive guides. These guides are local experts and can provide a wealth of information about Yellowstone and personal experiences that you would never read in a guidebook. Both snowmobile and snowcoach guides understand where to stop along their routes for a chance to see winter wildlife, experience the smells and sounds of a rushing, icy river, or grab the perfect photo opportunity.
Some people choose snowcoaches as a relaxed, climate-controlled, and environmentally friendly way to tour the park. Your driver/guide provides real-time information as you travel through the park. It is also a chance to interact with your family or friends, and meet others on the coach. You can dress in layers and travel comfortably, enjoying the elevated view through large windows. Families with small children, seniors, or physically challenged visitors can still travel into the interior of Yellowstone.
Some people choose to tour by snowmobile because of the individual mobility and more personalized interaction with the environment. You’ll feel the cold of a winter breeze balanced by the warmth of an afternoon sun and experience close encounters with wildlife as bison and elk walk and graze along the roads. Regardless of which type of tour you take, you will see and experience Yellowstone in a whole new way compared to the warm season.
For more information on snowcoach and snowmobile tours, visit the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce website at www.destinationyellowstone.com.
When traveling through West Yellowstone, make time to stop by the IMAX Theater for the special “Yellowstone” movie. Or, spend some time at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a not-for-profit wildlife park and educational facility that features live grizzly bears and wolves, naturalists to answer your questions, interactive displays, and a daily schedule of movies and demonstrations.
Want to spend a night overnight in Yellowstone? Yellowstone National Park Lodges (Xanterra –www.travelyellowstone.com) offers a variety of Yellowstone learning and lodging packages that combine a stay inside Yellowstone in one of its historic lodges along with wide selection of winter activities and wildlife experiences. There are options for family winter holidays, experiencing the interior of Yellowstone by ski and snowshoe, wildlife expeditions, and wolf discovery tours.
Yellowstone Expeditions (www.yellowstoneexpeditions.com) offers multi-day cross-country skiing excursions that explore Yellowstone backcountry from their skier’s “Yurt Camp,” located only one half mile from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The camp is composed of private heated sleeping huts, a dining room Yurt, a kitchen Yurt, camp shower, sauna and a heated outhouse. Each day, guests tour with a naturalist/ski guides, exploring miles of wilderness trails throughout Yellowstone transported by snowcoach.
The Yellowstone Association, one of the largest and most well respected field schools in the National Park System, teams up with Xanterra to provide knowledgeable naturalists for these programs. There are also a variety of classes held during the winter with niche experts in areas such as snow tracking, photography, wolves, history and even, wilderness first aid. (For more information, go to www.yellowstoneassociation.org.)
During the winter, Yellowstone Park has a limited number of facilities that are open during the winter season. In the Old Faithful area, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, Snow Lodge Restaurant Geyser Grill, and Madison Warming Hut Snack Bar are open.
For more information, check out the YNP web page for planning winter activities including winter services, advice on equipment and clothing, and contacts for planning winter activities at www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/winteract.htm.