Winter is the season of unexpected splendor in Yellowstone National Park. Since the park's busiest month is July, with nearly one million visitors enjoying its geologic and natural glory in just those 31 days, winter is a peaceful respite from the hustle of summer, trading bustling crowds for soft falling snow. You can still find plenty to do all season long, even though many of the businesses in and around the park are closed for the winter.
Though the park stays open year-round, most park roads are closed to normal vehicles in November, giving priority to over-snow vehicles. But that just makes a winter visit to Yellowstone even more of an adventure. Here are only a few of the ways you can experience Yellowstone in winter.
Rangers work year-round to help visitors understand the wilds of Yellowstone. During winter months, rangers take to the snow to lead guided snowshoe walks and other programs out of visitor centers like West Yellowstone, Mammoth and Old Faithful, which stay open through the winter.
Even though you can't drive your personal vehicle through the park in winter, the snowy season brings something even better: a journey by snowcoach. These strange-looking contraptions carry plenty of visitors to some of the most famous sites in the park, like Old Faithful, even when cars can't pass. In some cases, it's the most comfortable way to see these stunning sites when the crowds disperse for the season.
While the famous Yellowstone bears hibernate through the winter, visitors may see everything from wolves to bison, elk, coyotes, foxes, hawks, otters, eagles, marmots, bobcats, weasels and more. The benefit of traveling through the wilderness over snow is that even if you don't spot the critters themselves, you still have a high chance of finding tracks and other signs of their movements.
Cross country skiing is a great workout that requires far less skill than shredding on double black diamonds at the ski slopes. But it still gives you a chance to see more of the winter wonderland of Yellowstone than you would on foot, and you get to maintain the peace and serenity of moving through the forest without an engine. You can rent skis in any of the nearby towns, or work with an outfitter to go on a guided ski trip.
If you like the idea of spending some time up close with the environment and you want an adrenaline rush to go along with it, snowmobiling is your perfect option. It can be challenging to get private permits to snowmobile the park since they're doled out by lottery, but you can sign up with an outfitter-guided trip to experience the park from the comfort of heated seats and handlebars as you fly over the snow.
The road from Gardiner, through Mammoth and the Lamar Valley, to Cooke City stays open and plowed through the winter, so standard vehicles are typically able to pass. This is a fun day's drive for wildlife spotting and taking in the scenery. Good tires, four-wheel drive, and a clear weather report in hand are always a good idea, of course.
Winter brings an element of quiet serenity to this captivating park. It's well worth a trip to experience it in a way most other visitors never will.