Why You Need To Visit Yellowstone National Park This Winter

©istockphoto/kwiktor
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.

Geo­log­i­cal Wonders
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).

©istockphoto/pknowles

Win­ter Wildlife
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.

©istockphoto/brytta

Lodg­ing
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