Yellowstone National Park is a magical place any time of the year, with dozens of species of animals, pristine ecological features and enough land area (2.2 million acres) to spend a lifetime exploring. No wonder this park receives more than 3 million visitors a year. And while Yellowstone is most populated during the warmer months of summer vacation, this park is still a year-round attraction. In fact, the winter season brings a whole new twist to this wild wonderland, and not to mention a lot less of a crowd (2010–2011 winter visitors: 88,000).
A Brief History
Forty-four years before the National Park Service was even created, Yellowstone National Park became the country’s first National Park in 1872. Located mainly in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone’s mission, which can be seen inscribed on the gates of the North Entrance, is the “preservation of its many wonders and for the enjoyment of the people.” Since the time of its opening and the advent of automobiles, Yellowstone National Park has been one of the most popular parks within the National Park System.
Yellowstone is itself an active volcano, and that’s what creates many of the notable geological attractions within the park, including the most famous Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful). But the fun doesn’t stop with Old Faithful; in fact, the entire park is home to approximately 10,000 thermal features including geysers, hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents) and mudpots. And while many of these thermal features are dangerous to touch (or swim in), they provide quite the sight to see and often are hosts to thriving ecosystems. Outside of the thermal features, Yellowstone National Park also has an array of waterfalls and scenic viewpoints to gander across as you make your way through the park (including “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”). Of Yellowstone’s five entrances which lead to the variety of geological features, only one of them is open during the winter to public vehicles (North Entrance outside of Gardiner, MT). To visit other attractions, commercial vehicles and guided tours are the only way to get around (see below).
Yellowstone National Park hosts such a variety of wildlife that it is considered its own ecosystem. The fact that all the roadways in the park sport signs warning visitors to“beware of wildlife on roads,” is a sure sign that you might see some wildlife on your winter vacation to Yellowstone. And whether you catch a glimpse of the American Bison that use the cleared roads to travel, or you share a campsite with the many elk or deer inhabitants, be sure of one thing, these animals are wild and should not be approached. Spend a little extra time in the park and chances are you’ll run into some larger animals including, but not limited to, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, coyotes, moose, and wolves.
Cross Country Skiing & Snowshoeing
One winter attraction that draws a lot of attention in Yellowstone National Park is cross country skiing and snowshoeing, mostly due to the sheer amount of trails available. While some are groomed when conditions are right, much of the snow travel in Yellowstone National Park is considered backcountry. That means with temperatures falling to below sub-zero, it pays to know what you’re doing. Plan ahead and make sure to pack the appropriate gear, get your trail maps and talk to the rangers to let them know what you’re doing. Not interested in going at it alone? Yellowstone NP also offers many ranger-guided trips and a large number of outfitters carry permits to guide within the park’s boundaries.
Snowcoaching and Snowmobiling
Perhaps the easiest, and warmest, way to get around Yellowstone National Park in the winter is by snowmobile or snowcoach. While the park doesn’t allow personal snowmobiles in the park, there are several operators licensed to rent and guide the winter roads of Yellowstone. These guided services allow visitors to see all the features within Yellowstone that aren’t accessible due to the vast majority of unplowed roads that line the park. And with prices ranging from $100–$400+, there are plenty of options to find the adventure that fits your budget.
While the Mammoth Campground is open year round, the cold temperatures might scare even some of the most seasoned winter campers. If you have a little money to spare, both the Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins are open during the winter. And to add to the thought of heated rooms each night, the lodges also offer awesome winter packages including a “Nordic Heaven” package and a “Winter Wildlife Expedition” package.
Trip Planning and Additional Resources
With so much to see and do, and some reasonably cold conditions to deal with, a winter trip into Yellowstone does take some research. Laid out above is plenty to get started, but to get the most out of your unforgettable trip, these additional resources will help you stay safe, stay warm and enjoy your visit to our Nation’s very first National Park:
- NPS Official Yellowstone Website
- Official Yellowstone NP Newspaper
- Official Website of Yellowstone NP Lodging
- Yellowstone Park.Net
- Yellowstone National Park.Com