Yellowstone Park in winter; icy grip does not mar the wondrous scenery!

Imagine standing and watching the Old Faithful Geyser thunder into a dusky sky – just you, your partner and a lone coyote! Many of us of been there during summer months and joined thousands of tourists watching the sight of America’s iconic thermal wonder – what’s the difference? Add two feet of snow and 10° temperatures in late January – you’ll have this awe-inspiring park virtually all to yourself.

Old Faithful Geyser, erupting into a setting sun, to a crowd of two, plus a lone coyote!

Yellowstone is a beautiful place, but crowds approaching 5 million visitors, most of them arriving between June and August, can mar the vistas, scare the animals and make the experience stressful for both people and the park’s year-round resident population.

For an other-worldly experience, consider visiting Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons during the winter when several feet of snow can cover the ground, crowds are nonexistent and memories made will last a lifetime.

We just returned from a 13 day trip that included Glacier National Park, Banff and Kootenay National Parks in Canada, and three days in Yellowstone. It’s our third time to Yellowstone in the winter and always makes for a special experience.

A bull elk, just outside Yellowstone's north entrance, near Gardiner, MT.

Yellowstone can be entered in winter from only three points. You can drive into the Mammoth Hot Springs area on the park’s north side as we did, but winter entry from the West Yellowstone or south entrance (just north of the Grand Tetons) is only by snow coach, snowmobile, cross-country skis or snowshoes.

We booked two nights in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the Mammoth Hot Springs park entrance. We picked the Absaroka Lodge on the Yellowstone River.  It’s just a half-mile from the historic Mammoth entrance gate, commemorating the park’s establishment as the world’s first national park in 1872.

Headed into Gardiner about an hour after nightfall, we slowed on the highway to avoid several huge elk standing leisurely on the road; a sign of lots of wildlife to come. Once inside the park early the next morning, we were immediately within feet of several small herds of buffalo, grazing in grass and about a foot of snow beside the main park road. Pictures taken from just 10 feet of these noble animals are an evocative experience, as they chomp and snort almost within reach.

Bison, alongside road in Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs area.

As we proceeded on the entry road to the Mammoth Hot Springs area, we were stopped in a line of autos, as another herd of buffalo numbering about 30 lumbered along the roadway. Both bison and elk prefer walking on the roads rather than wading through chest-deep snows.

We proceeded along the Yellowstone River to the Mammoth Hot Springs area, and took a several hour walking tour on snow-covered boardwalks along the Hot Springs Terrace area. Hot springs and steam vents bubbled and snarled, melting the snows, as steam ascended hundreds of feet into the clear blue skies; thrilling!

In the Upper Terrace area, extensive snowshoe and cross country ski trails meander for even more expansive thermal-feature touring and animal viewing. The park concessionaire also offers snow coach tours deeper into the park, including the Canyon Village and Old Faithful areas. We savored our final afternoon in the Mammoth area with a late lunch in the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel dining room, looking out over the active thermal scenery.

Hot springs at Mammoth send plumes of steam hundreds of feet into blue skies.

The next day, we headed north and spied hundreds of majestic elk both inside and outside the park.  Our destination was West Yellowstone’s Stagecoach Inn; after checking in we explored the nearby cross country ski trails into the park.  A mile on skis or snowshoes takes one to the Madison River and several scenic overlooks; in late afternoon, the trails are yours, alone.

Private concessionaires offer both snow coach and snowmobile tours from West Yellowstone into the park to destinations like Old Faithful. A few years earlier we took the snow coach into the Old Faithful area and spent three days at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. It’s a modern lodge, with less expensive frontier cabins nearby, each providing a compelling and comfortable winter experience. The snow lodge has a beautiful dining room, priced quite reasonably for meals.

Buffalo and yearling, Midway Geyser Basin.

That Old Faithful stay was memorable, as we saw elk, buffalo and Trumpeter Swans in numerous locations, including the Midway Geyser Basin, along the Firehole River and within a block of Old Faithful Geyser. It’s a life-long thrill to stand on that snow-covered boardwalk, the two of us being the only people joined by that lone coyote, watching Old Faithful thunder into the setting sun on a chilly evening.

New snow coach at Mammoth, steadily displacing the historic, '60s-era Bombardier coaches.

Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park are just south of Yellowstone, but in winter the auto trip from West Yellowstone to Jackson will take you about 2.5 hours through western Idaho.  By auto you can tour a good deal of the Tetons, but again, hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skis are required to really see its winter splendor.

A word of warning: do check the long-term weather forecasts. We pulled into West Yellowstone two years ago in early February and experienced a night when the temperature dropped to 40° below zero. The next day, the Park service would not allow anyone into the park until the temperature “warmed up” to -25!

How to get there: We drove to both the Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone park entrances by car (from Stockton, 1,070 and 900 miles, respectively).

Trumpeter Swans on Firehole River near Old Faithful area.

What to bring: Plenty of warm clothing, gloves and footwear and cross-country skis or snowshoes if one wants to get off the “beaten path” of the park’s boardwalks.  Binoculars and your camera, of course!

For more information: Gardiner’s Absaroka Lodge, absarokamtlodge.com, (307) 587-3963; West Yellowstone’s Stage Coach Inn, http://yellowstoneinn.com/; (406) 646.7381.  North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) lodging and snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, (307) 344.7901. For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce lists private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701.

Another way into the park in winter; author Tim on XC skiis on west side of park.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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