Winter majesty in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier National Parks

Winter splendor in our national parks;

Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier – the time to plan is now!

Dreamt of touring your favorite national park in the dead of winter? Here are suggestions; the time to plan is now. We’ll start with nearby Yosemite, as well as the iconic parks of Yellowstone and Glacier.

Yosemite, only 2 1/2 hours from San Joaquin County, is easiest. While the Yosemite Valley is often snow free in the winter, prepare for snow. That means a 4 wheel drive vehicle, or taking chains. When we were there last February, chains were required over the pass on Highway 120, and there were 14 Inches of snow on the valley floor. The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Lodges were doing brisk business, and the Upper Pines Campground on the Merced River remains open year-round. We have visited the park in December and January previously, and it’s the first time we had snow on the valley floor. But, for all of these parks, plan on snow and potential chain controls. For booking lodging, consider booking now.

Icicles hang from the Ahwahnee Hotel last February;
saluting 14 inches of snow on valley floor.

In February, Yosemite’s falls are usually churning with the result of late fall/early winter rains and snows, and weather is usually crystal clear for stunning photography. In February, thousands of visitors will line up in the last several weeks of the month to catch the sun reflecting off of Horsetail Falls, creating the famous “fire fall”, while Bridalveil Falls thunders across the valley.

Cross-country skiers on Glacier Point Road (Park Service photo).

Roads to the Tuolumne Meadows high country and to Glacier Point are usually closed in the winter, though one can cross country ski on Glacier Point Road from Badger Pass Ski Resort in the park. If snow lies in the valley, cross country ski or snowshoe options abound and many of the main trails are packed by enough foot traffic to make general hiking fun – though some of the popular trails like those to Yosemite or Vernal Falls can be closed due to snow and ice dangers.

Yellowstone is open in the winter in a variety of ways. From the north entrance, one can drive in to Mammoth Hot Springs, finding dozens of elk and bison just off the roadways near the steaming hot springs. Follow Highway 212 all the way into Lamar Valley for sightings of wolves, in addition to elk and bison. Take high-powered binoculars or spotting scopes for best chance to view wolves. Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge In is open in the winter, as is a nearby Campground.

Bison and calf, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

From West Yellowstone, you can snowshoe or cross country ski into the park along the Madison River trails, or hire private concessionaires for snow coach or snowmobile trips into the park. The park concessionaire, Xantera, offers its own snow coaches from either the south entrance or Mammoth Hot Springs, all the way into the Old Faithful area, where Old Faithful Snow Lodge is open for winter visitors.

Several winters ago we took the snow coach into the Snow Lodge, and spent three of the most stunning days and nights of our lives. You could hike or cross country ski along the trails, with bison just feet away, Snow geese on the Firehole River, elk sleeping on the snow-packed main road and Old Faithful Geyser thundering into dusk sky with no one to see it except my wife and me, one other visitor and a lonely coyote. With fine food in a classy dining room and world-class scenery almost all to ourselves, absolutely a most memorable visit.

Trumpeter swans on Yellowstone’s Firehole River.
Old Faithful Geyser thunders into evening sky, with only three people (my spouse and I and one other tourist), and a lone coyote to watch the spectacle.

Glacier lies about 400 miles north of Yellowstone; reach Apgar Village area on the park’s west side by car, and, hike, snow-shoe or cross-country ski on trails along the edge of Lake McDonald. Longer trails will take one high above the lake on its north side, allowing a view deep into the park’s interior.

At Lake McDonald Lodge (eerily shuttered in winter) the “Going to the Sun Highway” is closed, though snowshoers and cross-country skiers continue deeper into the park. The views of the 12 mile-long lake, and Rocky Mountains just east are always memorable.

Spend the night in a caboose, or rail car, at the Izaac Walton Inn
on the south edge of Glacier National Park.

Montana Highway 2 skirts the southern border of the park – here you’ll discover the small town of Essex and the Izaac Walton Lodge. Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1939 to house railway workers, the lodge offers rooms, several cabooses, railway club cars and a locomotive, all converted for cozy lodging. Surrounded by cross country and snow-shoe trails to take one above the park, it’s a special place.

Where to stay: Glacier Park, find plenty of hotels, B&Bs in Whitefish (as well as Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort), the resort town just west of the park (explorewhitefish.com). Our long-time favorite for lodging is the Grouse Mountain Lodge, glacierparkcollection.com; Yellowstone Park, In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn (yellowstoneinn.com/), in Gardiner, MT, next door to Mammoth Hot Springs, the Park Hotel is a classy, nicely appointed 120 year-old hotel with nine cozy suites (parkhotelyellowstone.com). Inside the Park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter options, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/; Yosemite Park: either the Yosemite or Ahwahnee Lodges, nps.gov/yose/.

The lobby of the Stagecoach Inn in West Yellowstone is a favorite of ours.

For more information: For Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac; Yellowstone Park, nps.gov/yell/. For Yellowstone’s North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park) snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. For snowcoach service into the park from West Yellowstone, the Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701; Yosemite National Park, nps.gov/yose/. Camping can be booked through recreation.gov.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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