Winter in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone, America’s first national park, is one of the USA’s most popular vacation destinations, especially during the summer months. 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.
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 a small portion of the park’s roads are open during winter) and an entirely different array of activities. The two of us have probably visited Yellowstone a dozen times during the summer, but the single winter trip was simply amazing. A snow-covered 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, and 3) what to do once you arrive.
Getting to Yellowstone
For travelers planning to fly, the primary alternatives are Bozeman, Mont., on Yellowstone’s north side, and Jackson, Wyo., on the south side. From Bozeman, travelers can choose between scheduled public transportation to either West Yellowstone just outside the park’s west entrance, or the Mammoth area inside the park’s north entrance. Bozeman is 85 miles from the park’s north entrance.
From Jackson, transportation is available to Headwaters Lodge and Cabins at Flagg Ranch (55 mi.) where a scheduled shuttle is available to the park’s Old Faithful area. Snowcoach tours into the park are also available from Flagg Ranch. Roads from Livingston, Mont. to Mammoth (55 mi.), and Jackson to Flagg Ranch are kept open during the winter months.
If driving is a possibility be warned that only the north entrance to Yellowstone is open to private vehicles during the winter months. Thus, if approaching from the park’s north, it is possible to drive to Mammoth, but that is pretty much the end of the line.From the south travelers can drive through Jackson to Flagg Ranch, but no further. West Yellowstone is accessible to drivers during the winter, but the west entrance to the park is closed to private vehicles.
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 (about $130 per night) 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 (about $250 per night) 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.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel can be reached from Bozeman, Mont., via scheduled transportation or personal vehicle, but the Snow Lodge is only accessible via snowcoach or snowmobile. Scheduled snowcoach service is offered between the two lodges. A number of lodging options are available outside the park near the north, west, and south entrances. Snowcoach tours into the park are available from each of these points. West Yellowstone is a popular destination for travelers who are particularly interested in snowmobiling.
Although many travelers choose lodging in a gateway town combined with guided snowcoach or snowmobile tours into the park’s interior, our own preference is to stay at one or both of the lodges inside the park. Years of travel have taught us that in order to really get to know a place it is necessary to spend a few nights there. This applies in spades to Yellowstone, a large and spectacular park where it is fun to spend evenings with fellow travelers.
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 three 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 snowcoach trip to the canyon area in the park’s eastern section. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the most spectacular sight in the park and shouldn’t be missed. Evenings can be spent reading a book or talking with other guests in front of the large lobby fireplace. Snow Lodge has an attractive restaurant and separate 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. These impressive animals are more easily seen during winter when the ground is covered with snow and the predators follow elk to the park’s lower elevations. After returning and relaxing over lunch, enjoy an afternoon walking along the terraces and among the buildings of the old fort.
Putting Together a Winter Yellowstone Trip
Travelers will find it most convenient to book a Yellowstone package through park concessionaire Xanterra. The firm operates both winter lodges, offers scheduled transportation between Bozeman and Mammoth, between Flagg Ranch and Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and between Mammoth and Old Faithful. Xanterra also offers snowcoach tours from both lodge locations. An example is the “Y Not Winter” package that includes lodging at Mammoth, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, guide service, and in-park transportation.
For the more adventurous we 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 Xanterra cross-park snowcoach to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for three nights. Exit the park on the Xanterra shuttle to Flagg Ranch where you can stay a night, or catch a different shuttle to Jackson for several nights. The same basic trip can be reversed 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.
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