Enjoying winter in Yellowstone.
The crowds have dissipated, snow has softened the landscape, and access is limited throughout the Park: this is winter in Yellowstone. Keep in mind that road access is weather-dependent and some passes will be closed. Old Faithful and Mammoth are open, and employees are on location to rent out equipment and answer questions. Road crews work hard to plow and maintain safe conditions, but it’s up to you to gauge your vehicle’s capabilities. Here’s how to get the most out of your visit.
Soak in the Boiling River
Winter is the perfect time to soak in this natural hot spring, located just south of the 45th Parallel Bridge between Mammoth and Gardiner. Park at the hot springs trailhead, then don a robe before scurrying down the short hike. You can’t miss the giant clouds of steam. The spot closes at dark, and skinny-dipping isn’t allowed—sorry.
Glide Around on a Cross-Country Ski Trail
There are a plethora of groomed ski trails in Yellowstone, most of which work best for classic skis. Blacktail Plateau is a popular route, clocking in at around eight miles with varied terrain, including open plateaus and quiet woods. Canyon Rim Ski Trail is another reasonable option, starting at the warming hut on North Rim Drive and traversing a 4.5-mile loop near Canyon. The third mile of the trail provides excellent views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Hiking—Yes, There Are Accessible Trails in Winter
The hiking is limited throughout winter, but if you stay low, you won’t have as much snow to navigate. The Beaver Ponds Trail—a five-mile loop near Mammoth—can be hiked year-round. A signed trailhead is found a few minutes up the trail behind Mammoth Hotel. The trail climbs moderately to views of the surrounding peaks before dipping into the woods, then passes a series of ponds before looping back to Mammoth.
Stomp Around In a Pair of Snowshoes
At higher elevations, over-snow travel gets exponentially easier with a hefty pair of snowshoes strapped on. You can access trickier, brushier spots than with classic skis, and post-holing will be a distant bad memory. Snowshoe tours around the Old Faithful thermal areas run throughout the winter with interpretive guides. Get your workout on and learn a thing or two about the region while you’re at it. Avalanche Peak Trail is a solid option if you’re up for a challenge and want to set out on your own.
Wildlife Without the Crowds
Set the alarm and head out to the Lamar Valley for sunrise. Chances are you’ll see a crew of wolf experts out there with their high-powered spotting scopes, and they’ll be happy to point you in the direction of a wolf sighting. Wolves aren’t the only critters to keep an eye out for, though—winter conditions push bighorn sheep and mountain goats into the lower elevations, especially near Mammoth. And of course, the omnipresent herds of bison look particularly majestic plowing through powdery snow.
Pin the Throttle on a Snowmobile
Guided snowmobile tours are available through several outfitters. They fill up fast, so reserve your spot. Snowmobile tours run for a half-day with many different location and skill options. Want to set out without a guide? You need to apply for a permit, distributed through a lottery system in early fall.
Expend No Effort on a Snowcoach
Once winter hits, many locations throughout the Park are only accessible by over-snow travel. If you want to get to Old Faithful or Canyon, this is the way to do it. These beefed-up machines have oversized windows so there isn’t a bad seat in the house. They stop at major attractions, so you can stretch your legs and see the sights up close. Tours run through different areas of the Park, and custom outings are available.