Image source: Yellowstone Lodging Association
Yellowstone National Park, our first and most beloved national park, welcomes about 3 million visitors a year, and most of those come calling in July and August. But if you want to say you really love Yellowstone, that you've really visited Yellowstone, you have to give it a try in winter.
The park gets about 150 inches of very dry snow each year, no good for making snowballs and snowmen, but great for creating incredibly dramatic backdrops for wildlife and the geothermal features for which Yellowstone is known.
Temperatures in Yellowstone at this time of year generally range from 0F to 30F during daylight hours, dropping to 0F to -30F at night. Yep, it's cold, so this is not the time to skimp on packing an extra pair of wool socks.
Travel to winter destinations like Yellowstone is always a gamble weather-wise, a good reason to insure your trip with travel insurance that covers not only airfare but registration for experiences like wildlife watching in Yellowstone.
In addition to packing layers of warm clothing, remember that plenty of water, sun screen, lip balm, and lotions are needed to avoid the effects of the dry, cold air at elevations of 7,000 to 10,000 feet in Yellowstone.
Only one entrance to Yellowstone remains open all year and that is the North Gate, also known as the original gate dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. Located at Gardiner, a folksy community of 800, the North Gate provides easy access to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where many winter activities originate. Old Faithful Snow Lodge, opened in 1998 and accessible only by over-the-snow transportation, is the only other in-park lodging open in the winter.
A winter shuttle from the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport drops you off at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. There's no need to rent a vehicle, really, because snowcats and snowmobiles are the only means of transportation within the park.
From Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, you have access to all of the best that Yellowstone has to offer in the winter months. All of the concessionaires operate from here, including snowshoes, cross country skiing, ice skating, wildlife viewing, and more.
What to See in Yellowstone in Winter
A cool thing to see in Yellowstone in winter is the so-called geyser rain. That's what happens when a geyser, like Old Faithful, spews near-boiling water into the frigid air. The little frozen ice pellets that fall back to the ground are called geyser rain.
Then there are crazy things called monkey flowers, a short yellow flower that blooms in the winter right next to hot springs, surrounded by snow. There's a summer version, but it's taller and grows throughout the park. And you really just have to love the name monkey flowers.
Winter Wildlife Watching in Yellowstone
Of course, the wildlife is a major reason to visit Yellowstone anytime of year, but in winter the magnificence of these creatures becomes all the more humbling. Bison, in particular, spend the winter foraging for food beneath the snow, causing large clumps of ice and snow to form in their fur. It's an interesting visual phenomenon, but think how uncomfortable it is for these guys carrying that much extra weight around and it ripping at the very fur that keeps them warm.
The problem with wildlife watching in the winter months is the very cold and snow that makes it so interesting. And unfortunately, the best time to see wildlife is in the early morning hours. The day we chose for our adventure, the alarm rang at 4 a.m. and the local radio station announced that the wind chill was 40-below.
This better be worth it, I mumbled as I pulled on layers of long underwear, wool, and fleece.
A few hours later, I was ashamed of my whining, so humbled I was by the dramatics of Mother Nature.
Following the GPS tracker on a pack of gray wolves, our guide maneuvered us to within 100 yards of where the pack had separated a weak doe from a herd of elk. What we witnessed over the next half hour or so was nothing more or less than Mother Nature in action.
I stepped back in awe. This was not something Hollywood had created, something trumped up in the degenerate mind of a writer or a special effects team. This was life and death as nature had created it in one of nature's most beautiful settings.
Yellowstone is magnificent any time, but a winter trek to the nation's oldest national park is beyond remarkable. A winter vacation here can become a life-altering, spiritual experience.
Wheres your favorite spot to visit in the winter?