A Gateway Getaway

This winter, Gardiner's got the goods—now is the time to plan your trip. 

Once the leaves drop and the snow starts flying, most of us have powder skiing on the brain. And who can blame us? With Bridger Bowl practically in our back yard and Big Sky right down the road, local downhill skiers have it pretty good. But what if you don’t enjoy standing in ever-expanding lift lines or spending a week’s income for a ticket? Here at O/B, we’ve never been followers, which is why this winter we’re bucking the trend and heading to Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park for our winter adventures.

Plans for a gateway getaway crystallized like snowflakes falling from our big, open skies. On an impromptu visit last winter, we were struck by the lack of crowds and seemingly endless recreation opportunities. We knew we’d have to come back, and this time stay a while. We also knew the best trips come together with foresight and planning, so we got to work booking this year’s return visit nice and early—as in, now.

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

Gardiner makes the perfect basecamp for any winter exploration of Yellowstone. It’s not only a stone’s throw from the Park’s northern entrance, but it’s also full of lodging, eating, drinking, and outfitting options, and it’s the only Yellowstone entrance open to personal vehicles this time of year, so you’ll have the freedom to explore the Park on your terms. 

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

Exploring on your terms doesn’t mean being unprepared or ill informed. Before you head into the Park, get the necessary intel that will keep you safe and entertained. The Gardiner Chamber is an invaluable resource for last-minute guidance and trip planning. Give them a call ahead of time or stop by once you’re in town.

Before booking your trip and loading up the car, decide what you want to do. Having an itinerary maximizes your time so that there’s never a wasted moment. Because we like some action with our adventure, we always make sure that at least one activity requires some sweat equity, and cross-country skiing takes on a wilder element when you’re kicking and gliding among Yellowstone’s famed wildlife—and among them you will be.

Last winter, we found ourselves close enough to a bull bison unwilling to yield the trail. We kept our distance, watching the magnificent mammal from afar until he was done feeding on some trailside grass. He’d used his massive neck to burrow into the snow, finding sustenance deep beneath the powder. We were happy to wait, content to witness this wild animal in his natural state.

Gardiner, Montana, Bison, Skiing, Yellowstone, Winter

In the winter, Yellowstone abounds with skiing opportunities such as this, from easy to expert. Research some trail options online before committing to anything, and if you’re brand new to the sport, book a lesson with Yellowstone National Park Lodges. Going with a guide is a good way to stay safe and learn a little more about the Park’s natural features, especially if you’re headed into Yellowstone’s winter wonderland for the first time.

After flexing your muscles in the morning, hop back inside the comfort of your car and make for the Lamar Valley. The Lamar is often referred to as North America’s Serengeti, thanks to its abundant wildlife, and winter is an excellent time to bear witness. Summer crowds can detract significantly from your enjoyment of grazing bison, stealthy wolf packs, and marauding grizzlies. But in winter, you’re free to enjoy the show without the crunch of tourist traffic. Look for professional wildlife watchers set up with spotting scopes. Most of them are very friendly and happy to share their enhanced view, if you don’t have binoculars of your own. (If you do have binoculars, definitely pack them along.) Better yet, book a wildlife-watching tour with naturalist guides. There are plenty of options, and the pros know where and when to go.

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

After all this action, kick back in the natural hot springs of the Boiling River. This is the perfect way to cap off a day in the Park before returning to Gardiner for the evening. The river is located just inside the Park where the cold, clear water of the Gardner River mixes with the hot water of the Boiling River. The water is just deep enough for soakers to sit and relax without freezing, and the view is spectacular as well. If you'd like your soaking to be a little less wild, check out the pools at Yellowstone Hot Springs, a short ten-minute drive north of Gardiner. 

Back in Gardiner, freshen up at the lodging of your choice before heading out for the night. Indulge, but don’t overdo it—you’ll want to get some rest. Two day promises more active entertainment. 

While you could spend a lifetime exploring Yellowstone, from the Northern Range’s wildlife to the interior’s thermal features, don’t neglect Gardiner’s offerings outside of the Park.

First of all, the Yellowstone River. If you fish, there’s no better place. The action slows way down in the winter, but if you happen to catch a warm weather window, you could have some luck, so pack a rod and reel. Park's Fly Shop in Gardiner will have any info you need—call them ahead of time for beta.

If you hike or trail run, the hills just to the north of Gardiner are relatively dry and get a fair amount of wind, meaning they can be dry when other area trails are covered deep in snow. On the east side of Hwy. 89, there are several trails worth checking out, all within a 20-minute drive of town. If winter has Gardiner firm in its grasp, pack the snowshoes and some trekking poles, or check out the groomed cross-country skiing trails at B Bar Ranch. A day pass is only ten bucks and you can’t beat the setting in the scenic Tom Miner Basin. 

Gardiner, Montana, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Winter

As you can see, come winter, Gardiner’s got all the action and none of the bustle. It’s got the goods without the crowds, and if you go for a day you’ll want to stay for a week. This year, instead of a last-minute daytrip, plan an extended stay. Take advantage of seasonal lodging packages and head off the beaten path. Who knows, you might just change your winter traditions for good.