Recommendations for a winter trip to Yellowstone

There is so much to do in Yellowstone in winter and early spring. If you haven’t experienced this park in winter, you are definitely missing out. From cross-country skiing to the boiling river to snow coach tours and more – and with very low crowds. Check out these recommendations for a week in Yellowstone in my favorite season there, winter.

A lot of us have been to Yellowstone. For many of us it brings up thoughts of summer crowds, traffic, animal jams, long lines and too many people. The insane scenery, wildlife and hiking/camping opportunities make it so worth it though. Now take that scenery and wildlife (except for grizzlies during most of this time), add some very cold temperatures, snow and about 99% less people, and you have my favorite season in the park.

We have been traveling to Yellowstone in winter for about the past 8 years. It is our favorite time to go mainly because of the reduced crowds. Imagine walking on the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs and being the only ones there. Or skiing the terraces above and passing maybe 10 people.

It is incredible. Add in winter adventure activities, abundant ski trails and the best wolf watching of the year and it can’t be beat. Never mind that we have had a couple winters where temps have ranged from 0 to -29 in the park. Somehow that actually adds to the experience for me. We just don’t ski or snowshoe on the -29 days. We save that for days that are at least  -5 or warmer. Same goes for the boiling river since you have to walk back to your car soaking wet. During winter, temperatures can be fairly warm (30s, 40s) or drop really low. I have skied in Lamar Valley in a t-shirt one year and then worn everything I own on another day. Just plan ahead and bring tons of warm clothing.

The following are some ideas and recommendations for a week in Yellowstone in winter. These all are based on staying at the north entrance of the park. Either in Gardiner or Mammoth Hot Springs. While camping is actually available year round at Mammoth, I don’t recommend it unless you are way tougher than us or have a heater in the vehicle you sleep in. If you are a lover of freezing cold, winter camping – then totally go for it. Not my thing. The main season for winter is mid-December through early to mid-March. That is for lodges, snow coaches and restaurants. This part of the park is open year round and visiting through April feels like winter usually.

Ski/Snowshoe at Mammoth Terraces or Tower Road Area

Spend part of day walking around the lower terraces on the board walk and enjoy the hot springs and views – we usually have the board walk to ourselves. Then, drive up the road to the top of the Terraces and park at the top boardwalk area. From here, get out the skis or snowshoes and do an easy and really scenic 1.5 mile loop around the Upper Terraces. If skiing, there is one hill that is considered more difficult. For more details, visit Yellowstone Terrace Loop.

Another trail we love is what is actually Tower Road in the summer. In winter, the road is closed and only bison and elk use it. You can park near Roosevelt Lodge or right at the entrance to the closed road if there is room there to park. This is a bit of a popular spot on weekends. It still doesn’t have much traffic though. It is a 5 mile easy trail with beautiful views and ending at the falls. Bison frequent this area and sometimes we have to create our own path around them to keep the 25-yard distance required. The photo below shows us doing just that. Often, the bison just lie right on the road or paths. Check out more info at Tower Ski Trails. Also, check out this page on Yellowstone for more trails right in this area.

Photograph Wildlife

For more detailed information on wildlife photography in my favorite area, check out my Outbound adventure Photograph Wildlife in Lamar Valley. However, there is wildlife throughout the park on the road you can use from Gardiner all the way to Silver Gate at the northeast entrance. It is fairly easy to find bison, coyotes, bighorn, eagles, sometime fox and otters and even wolves. Grizzly boars come out in March, so be prepared and carry bear spray if you are there later in winter. Please be very careful of bison on the road. They are literally doing everything they can to just survive winter and often use roads instead of trudging through deep snow. Don’t make them run as it takes an incredible amount of their energy. Let them have the road and go very slowly to nudge them off the road if you must. Please respect the wildlife and how difficult it is to survive winter in Yellowstone. 

 Take a dip at the Boiling River

Just a couple miles inside the main entrance at Gardiner, MT, you will find the Boiling River. This is one of the only places you can take a soak in the park area. It is a .5 mile walk to the river opening where you can soak. Again, so few people in winter compared to summer. Just be prepared to quickly dry off and put all your warm gear back on to rush back to your car. There are 2 parking lots at the river area. Check out Mammoth Hot Springs Area Highlights for details and rules on using the river. After a soak, head to the K-Bar in Gardiner for pizza and beer. It is one of the places we enjoy hanging out at. They don’t have a web page, so check out this link for Visit Gardiner.

Visit the Historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel

Check out the hotel and famous map room with bar at the hotel. Have a fine-dining experience at the Dining Hall for breakfast, lunch or dinner. If you want to go for dinner, you need to have reservations in winter. Breakfast is my favorite meal here.

Watch Wolves and Learn More About Their Behavior

Winter and early spring are the best times to view wolves. They are more active in the snow and with less people around. One day, we saw over 35 wolves from 4 different packs – in a single day! That was the best day we ever had. It is actually pretty easy to find where wolves might be – look for the groups of cars and people with scopes. Have patience and use a scope or binoculars to view them. It is unbelievable how many we have seen most winters.

Snow Coach Tours

These tours are available through Yellowstone National Park and should be booked way in advance. These do fill up quickly. I had one booked for this trip that we took a couple weeks ago, but the park closed due to 2 feet of snow and my tour was canceled. I was definitely bummed. You can take tours to Old Faithful, Yellowstone Falls area or Norris Geyser Basin. For more information check out Snowcoach Tours.

It is such a serene and peaceful time in the park. Here are a few more photos from this past trip we took: