Secrets to a Magical Winter in Yellowstone

Only a fraction of Yellowstone’s 4 million visitors choose to explore the park in the winter. Although much of the park is shut down with subzero temperatures, it's still worth a visit. Cheryl Schoss of We're In The Rockies offers expert insights for those up to the trek.


Yellowstone’s official winter season usually goes from mid-December through mid-March, depending on the snowpack. Guests can snowmobile, snowshoe, cross-country ski, ice skate, view wildlife, and go on snow coach tours. Yellowstone is so different in the winter, it’s almost like visiting a completely different park. Very few roads within the park are plowed so most visitors work with a tour company to make transportation arrangements via snow coach or snowmobile.

My husband, Matt, and I write travel guides to help people visit the West. We love Yellowstone and visit every year. Last year we visited Yellowstone in February and had a spectacular experience. Read on to learn all about it and see if a trip to Yellowstone in the winter is for you.

When is the Official Winter Season in Yellowstone?

Snow can begin to fall as early as October. The NPS allows the snow to accumulate on most of the roads. From late October through mid-December there aren’t many park services running at all until a good snowpack is formed, making the roads passable for snow coaches and snowmobiles.

All the lodges and restaurants close for the winter except the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel and Cabins. We chose to stay at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge on our last trip and we loved the cute little cabin we stayed in.

Old Faithful Snow Lodge in Yellowstone National Park stays open during the winter season. (National Park Service photo by Diane Renkin)

We were pretty shocked that the only place to get dinner there was the Obsidian Dining Room and you needed a reservation for that! The Geyser Grill is open for lunch. The Mammoth area also has a couple of restaurants open.

Gateway towns like West Yellowstone and Gardiner still have plenty of restaurants and hotels open but a lot of their normal tourist services are limited. We were super excited that Melba from Optics Yellowstone in Gardiner agreed to let us rent a scope from her so we could watch wolves (more on that later!)

The NPS begins the herculean task of removing snow from the roads in mid-March and the park is pretty much shut down until they can make the roads passable again. Memorial Day is usually the kick-off for the summer travel season.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park (Azurfrog CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed)

What Are the Road Conditions Like?

Unlike the rest of the park where roads are impassable for all vehicles besides snowmobiles or snow coaches, portions of the Grand Loop Road at the north end of the park and the road to Lamar Valley are plowed throughout winter. The small mountain towns of Cooke City and Silvergate would be cut off from essential services if these roads weren’t regularly cleared.

Both town residents and regular visitors are allowed to access these roads but 4-wheel drive and chains are certainly recommended.

Even with best efforts to keep these roads plowed, a snowstorm can temporarily shut down these roads. The park has very few visitors in the winter and getting stranded on the side of the road in a snowstorm is dangerous because it could be hours before you are found. Always know what the weather forecast is before leaving on an adventure.

How Cold Does It Get?

So cold!! Even though I love Yellowstone, I was a bit gun-shy to make the trip in the winter because the temperatures can range from 0 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. It really is that cold the entire day, most days.

Matt and I shot a few YouTube videos there and it was hard to talk because our faces were so cold. Holding our cameras with our bare hands was sheer torture! One night I left oranges in our car and woke up to find that my fruit for breakfast had turned into rock-solid iceballs. You get the idea. It’s cold!

We found that the temperatures were more bearable when the sun was out. It was also helpful if we were doing something active, like snowshoeing. It made a big difference. If it was windy or snowing, we tried to get indoors ASAP.

Cheryl and Matt Schoss waiting for Riverside Geyser to erupt in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by We're in the Rockies)

Many guests tour the park from the warmth of a snow coach. After waiting outside for an hour to watch Riverside Geyser erupt, I don’t think that’s a bad idea!

What Parts of Yellowstone Are Closed?

As mentioned earlier, the majority of the park is shut down. This includes campgrounds, hotels and lodges, restaurants, most visitor centers and ranger stations, camp stores, gas stations (you can still pay at the pump at some of them) auto service stations, and medical clinics. If you need any of these services, your best bet is to head to the gateway towns of West Yellowstone or Gardiner, MT.

The winter travel season lasts through mid-March, but services don’t completely open again until Memorial Day and even early June! This is because the NPS has to wait for the snow to melt and clear the roads.

We know several people who tried to visit Yellowstone in early May and had to cut their trip short because of a late snowstorm shutting down the park.

What Parts of Yellowstone Are Open?

Yellowstone Hot Springs (Photo by We're in the Rockies)

There are actually quite a few places that guests can visit, either in their car or on foot in the town of Mammoth. We enjoyed walking around the Albright Visitor Center and looking at the displays. The Yellowstone Archives are also open. This is a great stop right outside the north entrance of the park if you are into history!

We also soaked in Yellowstone Hot Springs one evening. It’s a beautiful facility that we really want to go back to when we visit in the summer. Even though the water in the springs ranges from 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit, I wore a beanie while in the pools and wore my snow boots with my swimming suit walking to the locker room!

Check out our Complete Guide to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone for more hot springs nearby.

We were able to walk to the Old Faithful Visitor Center from our cabin at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.

Bear Den Ski Shops located at both the Mammoth and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are open and rent winter gear such as snowshoes and cross-country skis.

Not sure which Yellowstone Entrance is right for you? Download our Free Quick and Easy Guide to Yellowstone’s Entrances! Get the PDF Now!

Gardiner, MT, and the North Entrance

Gardiner, MT has the most tourist services available of all the gateway towns to Yellowstone. Plenty of locals live here and the roads being plowed allow guests to visit the park without the added expense of booking tours.

Gardiner is charming and we loved our stay at the Yellowstone Gateway Inn. We got a great rate with it being off-season and loved how close it was to everything. We also ate at the Wonderland Cafe, the best restaurant in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas (in our humble opinion!) Matt loves their elk chili.

 

Snowcoach on Swan Lake Flat in Yellowstone. (NPS photo by Neal Herbert)
North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park (Photo by We're in the Rockies)

West Yellowstone, MT, and the West Entrance

If you want to see mountains of never-ending snow, look no further than West Yellowstone! Here you can see snow drifts over 6 ft high. Even this small mountain town leaves its roads unplowed to allow snowmobilers easy access to the park.

There are gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and even a few stores open, but you won’t be able to drive your private vehicle into the park. You’ll need a snowmobile or snow coach for that. Guests can also access Yellowstone from the south entrance (Jackson, WY) or the east entrance (Cody, WY) via snow coach or snowmobile.

What Is There To Do?

Our winter trip to Yellowstone was 4 days long (including travel days). We had plenty to do and left feeling like we could have done more. Here are some popular activities guests enjoy at Yellowstone in the winter.

Geysers and Hot Springs

Geysers don’t care if someone is watching or not. They continue to erupt but viewing them is different; Here’s how.

First, the boardwalks to view the geyser basins aren’t cleared. You are literally walking on top of 4 ft of packed snow. At first, I was concerned about this because I liked the guard rails that are normally there to keep me on the path. However, I quickly found that you can tell where the geothermal features are because the snow is melted around them.

Second, the geysers aren’t as pretty. The cold air makes more steam which makes it difficult to distinguish the erupting water from the steam. The springs also lack the bright blue colors they have in the summer. I’m not sure if it’s because the water temperature is cooler, thus allowing the more orange and yellow microorganisms to grow, or if it’s the lack of sunlight creating that pop of color.

Geyser in Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Aftikhar Alam)

Third, you pretty much get the geysers to yourself. Normally, the Mammoth Terraces are PACKED! Not in winter. We walked around for about 40 minutes and never saw another person.

Tours

There is no shortage of tours available in the winter. They are a necessity if you want to see any part of Yellowstone besides the northern part of the Grand Loop Road. Although there are several private companies that transport guests in and out of Yellowstone and offer tours, Xanterra is the official concessionaire that runs winter tours for Yellowstone National Park.

Tours include options to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful Geyser Basin, West Thumb, and wildlife viewing tours. You can check out what they have to offer at the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website.

Tours and shuttle services from private companies depart from West Yellowstone, Jackson, Cody, and Gardiner. Here is the comprehensive list of authorized tour companies.

Snowmobile tour on Swan Lake Flat in Yellowstone. (NPS photo by Neal Herbert)

Cross Country Skiing and Snowshoeing

One thing we have noticed is that Yellowstone is for sightseeing in the summer and recreation in the winter. We met several people who were visiting just because they loved to cross-country ski. There are several packed ski trails throughout the park.

We brought our own snowshoes and blazed a few trails but our favorite was when we went on a guided snowshoe tour from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Our guide led us to places that are usually off-limits during the regular travel season and pointed out animal tracks and habitats along the way. It was a delight.

Ice Skating

The Old Faithful Snow Lodge has a very small ice-skating rink out back. It’s a pretty cute little area with a fire pit and Christmas lights. Ice skates are available on the honor system for hotel guests to use.

Single female wolf in Yellowstone (NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank)

Many other animals, like bison, hang around closer to where people are than usual. Bison are migratory animals and one of the herds actually migrates out of the park and into the city of Gardiner and beyond.

The bison population of Yellowstone has exceeded what the park can support so state and tribal hunts are held during certain parts of the year. We drove a little way out of the park and witnessed one of these hunts. Although we understand this is probably the best solution at the moment, it is still hard to see.

Snowmobiling

This is a huge thing to do and you will see lots of snowmobilers inside and outside of the park. For those who wish to bring their own snowmobile, the park service requires a permit that is given out via lottery system. People wishing to do this can apply in the fall and limited amounts of permits are given. There are also several regulations.

If you aren’t able to get your own permit or would like to do a tour, there are plenty of companies authorized to do this. Check out this comprehensive list of authorized snowmobile tour companies.

Matt & Cheryl snowshoeing in Yellowstone (Photo by We're in the Rockies)

What Kind of Wildlife Can I See?

Winter is a fantastic time to see wildlife in Yellowstone. While visiting the north end of the park, we met several wolf watchers. Every morning they bundle up, grab their scopes, and camp out for the day to watch these amazing animals. We rented a scope and had no idea how to set it up. The kind wolf watchers helped us get the settings just right and we were able to watch a family of wolves just outside their den. It was so cool!

Do I Need a Car?

No. Although we used our vehicle for portions of this trip, both Xantarra and other tour companies have the option of picking guests up directly from the Bozeman airport.

How to Plan For Your Trip to Yellowstone in the Winter

This was a bit more complicated than planning a trip in the summer. One of the biggest obstacles we faced was arranging our snow coach transportation with our in-the-park lodging.

If you go with a private snow coach or snowmobile company (which is often cheaper than Xanterra), you’ll want to make sure there is lodging available within the park between your drop-off and pick-up dates. The best advice we can give is to book your transportation and lodging at the same time.

Also, winter dates are not exact. Mother Nature is the boss here. There is usually enough snow on the road for snow coaches and snowmobiles from mid-December to mid-March, but that is all dependent on snowfall. Book January and February to reduce the risk of cancellation due to road conditions.

Final Thoughts

We are glad we visited Yellowstone in the Winter and we’ll probably visit in the winter again someday. It was NOTHING like visiting in the summer; the park was barely recognizable. Yellowstone in the winter is wonderful for photographers, people who enjoy recreation, people who hate crowds, and wolf watchers. However, if I was only going to make it to Yellowstone once in my life, I would go in the summer because there is so much more to see and do including waterfalls, more geyser basins, getting out on the water, and great outside the park activities.

Yellowstone's Hayden Valley (NPS photo by Neal Herbert)

If you are planning to visit Yellowstone in the summer let us help you. Yellowstone is confusing because it’s huge and there are so many things to do!

Need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do in Yellowstone? Check out our itinerary.

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.

Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving with over 3-hours of stories about the park.

Download Your Yellowstone Itinerary

YELLOWSTONE TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Yellowstone National Park, check out our Yellowstone Homepage

ENTRANCES: Yellowstone has 5 entrances: The West Entrance, the East Entrance, the Northeast Entrance, the North Entrance, and the South Entrance. Learn which entrance to Yellowstone is right for you with our Free Quick and Easy Guide

THINGS TO DO: Don’t miss all that Yellowstone has to offer including Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone Lake, Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, and West Thumb and Grant’s Village

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Learn all about where to stay and where to camp when visiting Yellowstone and things to do in Cody, Wyoming, and other areas surrounding Yellowstone

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat including the Old West Dinner Cookout and also where to get groceries and eat picnics in Yellowstone National Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out if you need a reservation or bear spray and binoculars, as well as tips for driving in and flying to Yellowstone

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Yellowstone National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching us on The Parks Channel or our Yellowstone YouTube Playlist

Matt & Cheryl Schoss have been road-tripping in the West and seeing the national parks for more than 20 years, first as students in their home state of Utah, and now with their four kids. They’re both teachers—Matt is an adjunct American history instructor at Weber State University, and Cheryl has taught special education for 25 years. Learn more about them and receive weekly newsletters on the Best of the West including: essential travel tips, park updates, stories, and their favorite things to see and do at https://wereintherockies.com/.

Check out our video from four winter days in Yellowstone.

Top photo of skiers in Lower Geyser Basin by Neal Herbert/NPS.