Molly is an avid hiker and backcountry camper based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is a former Yellowstone NP employee.
You've never really seen Yellowstone if you haven't seen it in the winter.
Yellowstone National Park contains some of the greatest natural wonders in the world, from unparalleled dramatic viewpoints, to geothermal features, to rare mammals and wildlife, making it a must-see destination if you live in North America. Whether you are an avid traveler, hiker, camper, photographer, or apocalyptic conspiracist, Yellowstone has wonder and beauty that everyone can appreciate.
While the summer months allow for exploration by foot and car, the winter season opens up more possibilities for a unique experience. Guided tours and solo expeditions on snowmobiles, snowshoes, skis, and snowcats are all available during the winter and make for an exciting alternative to driving through the park in your car. The geothermal features will be easier to spot in the cold air as the steam rises above the ground, and the beauty of the geysers erupting against the winter landscape will be a completely new experience you have never seen before!
The peacefulness in the park during the winter makes it hard to believe Yellowstone exists on top of a volcanic caldera that could erupt and wipe out the entire continent. While it is a possibility that the Supervolcano could erupt, the chances are very, very low, so don't let that deter you from visiting.
Many people think of the beach when looking for a relaxing and quiet travel spot, but the National Parks can be some of the most peaceful destinations if you take the time of year into consideration. In the winter, there are only around 100 people in the entire park at one time. In the 2019 summer season alone, just over 4 million people visited the park. While it might be more attractive to have a warmer climate while hiking and sightseeing in the park, the screaming children, flashing cameras, and traffic jams that the summer months attract will take the fun right out of your trip.
In the winter, the roads in Yellowstone are closed to car traffic, and the vastness of the park swallows up the few people that visit this time of year. The infamous quiet and 150-inch blanket of snow that fall on the park in the winter months create a serene setting perfect for inspiration, reflection, romance, or a family trip.
Winter Activities in Yellowstone
Even though you can't drive (a car that is) there are plenty of ways to get around the park. Depending on how adventurous you feel, or what type of trip you are planning, there is something for everyone.
Winter Activities in Yellowstone Include:
- Cross-country skiing
- Snowcoach tours, including, photography tours, wildlife tours, night-sky tours
- Fat Tire biking
- Ice skating
- Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
- Hot springs
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As much fun as snowmobiling through the park is, I highly recommend ditching the motor some of the time, too. The remarkable presence of the park is most prominent from a single-track trail winding through the open valleys and dense trees. There is also a much higher chance of not scaring off any wildlife that way.
When to visit Yellowstone
Roads start closing in Yellowstone in October and don't reopen until April. The park is virtually empty in October as the summer activities end and the weather gets colder.
December through February are busy winter tourist months for Yellowstone, and visitors begin to taper off in March as the park ends the winter season.
If you are looking for a quieter trip with less people, definitely consider November and March. However, snow conditions might not be as ideal earlier in the winter season.
Tips for a Successful Yellowstone Winter Vacation
1. Plan Ahead! Yellowstone is an extremely popular travel destination with a limited capacity, so lodging and activity reservations book up very quickly. Double-check cancellation policies and make sure to book everything early.
2. Ask the experts! Park rangers and employees will not only have the answers to a lot of your questions, but they will also have insight into information that no other source will have, such as where the wildlife was last seen, and the best places to see certain animals. They will have tips and tricks for weather conditions, trails, sight-seeing, and everything park-related. Also, they are happy to help. No one loves Yellowstone more than a park employee! Park rangers and employees are an invaluable resource at your fingertips that you should be sure to use.
3. Know before you go! This is a no-brainer to any avid hiker, but it is worth repeating for the people in the back. While you should always be prepared on any outdoor excursion, the remoteness and extreme climate of Yellowstone make it extremely important to be over-prepared for any situation. Always make sure to bring water and a snack on any outdoor excursion, and pack an extra dry layer just in case. Also, have a map of the area with you, a paper version or downloaded map on your device. GPS is a great thing to have, but it won't matter if you don't know how to use it or where you are trying to go.
4. The wildlife is dangerous! The bison are weak and grumpy in the winter, making them irritable and easily agitated. Wolves and smaller animals are looking for their next meal, and while you might not be a target, if you are in their way then you are in danger. Stay a safe distance from all wildlife at all times, even if they seem docile. A safe distance is 25 yards away from most wildlife, and 100 yards away from predators like bears and wolves.
5. Respect, all the way around. Respect the animals that live in the environment where you are a visitor. Respect the unpredictable climate and know how to prepare for it. Respect the landscape around you by not interfering or damaging it, and by understanding how rapidly it can change. Respect the people around you by being aware of your actions and knowing the ramifications of them. Respect yourself by knowing what you don't know, knowing when to ask for help, and when to "call it."
Tiarna Georghiou from Brisbane, Australia on April 23, 2020:
Stunning photos and a great article!! I would love to go someday! I have been to Yosemite once and it was absolutely amazing.