We absolutely love visiting Yellowstone in Winter. The crowds are much less, the scenery is spectacular, and the wildlife is actually much easier to see. Below is information and a few tips to help you plan a vacation to Yellowstone in winter.
When to Go
Most of the park facilities close in September or October for the winter. The Mammoth Hot Springs area (including the hotel) stays open year round. A few areas reopen for winter on December 15, and close again on March 1 or March 15 for the spring plowing season. So the prime winter season runs from December 15 through March 15. During all of those months, crowds will be at the lowest levels. Check out this chart of monthly visitation statistics.
During these months, weather plays a factor in your decision. The average daily high in the gateway town of West Yellowstone is only 27 degrees in December but rises to a more pleasant but still cold 32.5 degrees in February and 41 degrees in March. Since the snowpack usually gets deeper each month, we prefer the later winter months of February and March for our Yellowstone winter vacations.
Where to Stay
Most Yellowstone campgrounds and lodges, as well as restaurants and stores, are closed during the winter. Your choices are limited to the The Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Mammoth Hotel, and the privately-run Canyon Yurt Camp. Reservations need to be made in advance.
Getting Around Yellowstone in Winter
Most roads in Yellowstone close in winter and are not accessible by car. The exception is the road from the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana to Mammoth Hot Springs and then across the northern part of the park to the Northeast Entrance and on to Cooke City. However, keep in mind Cooke City is the ending point of the plowed road in winter, so you cannot travel from there onwards.
Therefore, as of mid-December when there is enough snow, the only way to get to popular destinations such as Old Faithful or Canyon is by snowcoach (or snowmobile). There are companies that operate snowcoaches from all entrances except the Northeast.
Activities in Yellowstone in Winter
Since there is snow on the ground all winter long, the two main activities to do are snowshoeing and cross country skiing. (You can also snowmobile in the park, but we prefer being active on vacation.)
There are trails throughout the park that are suitable for cross country skiing. It is also possible to backcountry ski but that is more work. By contrast, the beauty of snowshoeing is that you can go anywhere, and veering off trails is part of the fun. Snowshoeing in the backcountry of Yellowstone, finding your own adventure along the way, can be a magical experience.
Wildlife in Winter
Bears hibernate in winter, as do smaller animals such as chipmunks, snakes, and prairie dogs. But most of Yellowstone’s wildlife, including elk, bison, and wolves, are active throughout the year.
In fact, the heavy snows in the mountains of Yellowstone drive many animals, such as ungulates (those with split hooves including elk, deer, and bison) down to lower levels. Larger predators, including mountain lions and wolves, follow their prey. Because of this, Yellowstone is actually the best time of year to see certain animals, such as the famous Yellowstone Wolves.
The Lamar Valley is one such viewing location. The lower elevation of the valley and the Lamar River attract deer, elk, and bison and wolves follow suit. Since the road through the valley is the only road plowed all winter, access to this region is relatively easy. This has made the Lamar Valley, especially in winter, the premier wolf watching destination in the world.
Organized Tours With the Montana Vacation Company
Keep in mind winter in Yellowstone can be dangerous and is not for someone without winter experience. Temperatures can be frigid, the high elevation makes exercise more strenuous, wildlife can be dangerous, and geothermal features should be avoided when on snowshoes or skis.
At the Montana Vacation Company, one of our favorite tours is our Yellowstone Winter Snowshoe Vacation. Our office staff takes care of all the lodging, transportation, meals, and equipment rental details. Our professional guide selects the routes and accompanies you on the trail. Yellowstone is simply amazing in the winter. But while we certainly understand the desire to be independent on vacation, Yellowstone in Winter is one vacation where having an expert along makes sense.