As many travelers know, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the entire world. It deftly blends beautiful landscapes, fascinating geothermal activity, and an amazing abundance of wildlife to give a unique experience that has to be seen to be believed. During the summer months, the park is warm, lush, and green but overrun with tourists. Last year the park set a number of attendance records, which can, at times, bring traffic jams and crowded accommodations to Yellowstone. But in winter, the park is a whole different place, and for those adventurous enough to visit, it delivers a whole new level of adventure and fun. Here are ten great things to do in Yellowstone in the winter.
Enjoy the Wide Open Spaces
Yellowstone averages about 3 million visitors per year, but most of them arrive during the summer months. In fact, the winter only sees about 100,000 visitors in total, which means it is far easier to find a place to stay and you won’t have to battle long lines while taking in the sights. The place is so quiet that you might set out on a trail and not see anyone else all day long, which is likely to only happen during the quiet days of winter.
Go Snowshoeing in the Geyser Basin
in terms of winter sports, snowshoeing is one of the easiest to pick up. If you can walk, you can probably snowshoe. Strap a pair of snowshoes to your feet and head out for a hike through Yellowstone’s famous Upper Geyser Basin, where you’ll not only be treated to eruptions by Old Faithful, but a number of other fantastic geothermal anomalies. This region of the park has the highest concentration of geysers and hotsprings, and even during the winter they spew steam and water from the ground. Besides Old Faithful, you’ll also find the Castle, Daisy, Grand, and Riverside Geysers, all of which have fairly predictable intervals to their eruptions. Snowshoes help you to navigate through the deep winter powder and allow you to get up close and personal to these amazing hot spots.Witness a Winter Eruption of Old Faithful
You don’t have to go snowshoeing to enjoy Old Faithful in the winter. It is an easy walk from the new visitor center that opened late last year. The building is an excellent place to stay warm, and learn about the geysers, while you wait for the next eruption, which occurs every 91 minutes, give or take ten. During the summer, it is not uncommon to have huge crowds gathered around the boardwalk to witness the old girl go off, but in the winter, the crowds are sparse at best. For a truly isolated Old Faithful experience, wander out after dark. I did this on a recent trip, and there were just eight of us on hand to watch.
Spend the Night at the Snow Lodge
Yellowstone’s Snow Lodge, located near Old Faithful, is one of just two hotels that are open for the winter months. What makes the Snow Lodge unique however is that it can only be reached aboard a snow mobile or a snowcoach, which is a touring van converted to tank treads that enable it to travel through deep snow. Completed in 1999, the Snow Lodge is a modern, comfortable inn that pays homage to the old school “park-itecture” that is prevalent around Yellowstone, while creating its own identity at the same time. The Snow Lodge is a perfect base of operations for visitors who want to spend a few days in the park enjoying the snowy playground to its fullest.
Go Wildlife Spotting in Lamar Valley
Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is often called North America’s Serengeti thanks to the large numbers of wildlife that inhabit the region. While many of those creatures are on display during the summer, it is far easier to spot them in the winter, thanks to the copious amounts of snow on the ground. Additionally, many of the creatures that inhabit the mountainous regions of the park move to lower altitudes during the winter in search of food. That means you’re more likely to see elk and big horn sheep in the colder months along with the usual large numbers of bison. Additionally, sharp-eyed travelers may also catch a glimpse of fox, coyotes, and even wolves on the prowl in Lamar Valley. Don’t expect bears however, as most are spending the winter months in a peaceful slumber.
Visit Lower Yellowstone Falls by Snow Mobile
The Lower Yellowstone Falls are truly one of the most beautiful and iconic landmarks in the entire park. During the winter months, the Falls succumb to the cold weather, freezing solid for weeks on end. But even in their frozen state, the Falls are breathtaking to see and worth a visit. One of the best ways to do just that is aboard a snow mobile, which can be rented at both the Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Travel on snow mobiles in Yellowstone is highly regulated and a guide is required at all times, but it also allows you to visit places that are not normally accessible in the winter months. Once hired, the guide will take you through the snowy backcountry, which will reveal a number of spectacular sights along the way to the Falls, which are of course the ultimate prize.
Go Ice Skating!
Visitors to Yellowstone in the winter can take part in some traditional seasonal activities as well. For instance, both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have skating rinks on the premises, which means you can hit the ice without having to wander far from the toasty confines of your lodge. Simply drop by the front desk at either location to pick up your skates. You’ll be pulling triple axles before you know it.
Learn to Cross Country Ski
Cross country skiing is one of the best winter activities that a traveler can ever experience, especially when visiting a setting as breathtaking as Yellowstone. There is something extremely sublime about gliding along through a fine, powdery snow with the Rocky Mountains looming high over head. It also happens to be a fantastic workout, but one that can require a little instruction and experience first. Fortunately, you can take a lesson at both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel, and then jump on a groomed trail not far from either location. After a little practice, you’ll be zipping along effortlessly in no time.
Soak in a Hot Spring
After spending a full day of playing in the snow, why not warm up with a dip in a natural hot spring? Yellowstone’s Boiling River, located not far from Mammoth, is one of the few places in the park where you can actually do just that, and while it can be quite crowded at other times of the year, during the winter it is easy to relax in the warm waters. The river is warm enough to keep you comfortable even in the the coldest conditions, just be sure to keep warm, dry clothes on hand for when you climb out. Brrrr!
Enjoy a Warm Drink by a Warm Fire
What’s the best way to cap an active day in the park? Easy! Pull up a comfortable chair and relax by the fire with a good book and a warm drink. Both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have wonderful fire places inside the building, and whether you prefer a hot chocolate or a hot buttered rum, you’ll find sitting by the fire to be a perfect ending to a perfect day in Yellowstone.
If you do visit the park in winter, be sure to pack your cold weather gear and your adventurous spirit. You’ll need both.