Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Parks in winter splendor

Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Parks, where animals outnumber people in winter

After almost 10 months of sheltering at home, doing primarily short local and a few regional travel trips, we’re facing lack-of-travel anxiety. We also had a two week ski trip planned, and canceled, with 40+ National Ski Patrol alumni and family to Whitefish, Montana (just west of Glacier National Park), that would’ve us allowed us also to drop down to visit Yellowstone National Park, as we have for most of the last 10 years.

Glacier and Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks are special places, particularly in winter. With other-worldly scenery and generally more animals than people, the cancellation of our week-plus trip really hurt.

Buffalo and calf, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.
Trumpeter swans in Yellowstone’s Firehole River.

But my spouse and I realize that we should be vaccinated by around the end of February, so we’re planning a trip, just the two of us, up to the Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks in March. We can pack our own food, take a small portable camp stove for preparing some of our evening meals, stay in nice motels and steer clear of crowds (and we will check state and county regulations for pandemic visitation before departing). Interestingly, average cost of motel rooms will be under $100/night, and with low gas prices, we can do an eight day trip quite inexpensively.

Happily we have a four-cylinder, all-wheel-drive small SUV, good on snowy roads and I can still stand a day or two where I drive 700 or 800 miles in a day. Packing skis and snowshoes, here is where we will be headed and what we plan to see when we get there.

We are going to do the grand tour of Yellowstone, starting in Jackson, WY, then up to West Yellowstone, then north and down to Gardiner/Mammoth Hot Springs, MT. From early November until late March, roads inside Yellowstone are closed to all but snowcoach and snowmobile traffic, with the exception of the north, Mammoth Entrance, where the road all the way to the park’s northeast entrance is open year-round.

Bighorn Sheep, just outside Mammoth Hot Springs entrance, Yellowstone Park.

Starting in Jackson, Wyoming, we will tour the Grand Tetons and up to Yellowstone’s south entrance.Jackson is a busy ski town bookended  by two ski areas; with scores of motels, nice restaurants and shops, no lack of things to do and see. The National Elk Refuge adjoins the city allowing one to actually drive into the refuge to see these majestic animals. By auto you can tour a good deal of Tetons Park, but again, snowshoeing or cross-country skis are required to get deep into winter’s splendor.

From Jackson, we will head up the west side of the towering Teton range, reaching 13,776 feet into blue skies, to West Yellowstone, MT, and spend several nights at our favorite hotel, the Stagecoach Inn. Cross country ski and snowshoe trails extend along the park’s western edge, and the Riverside Trail takes one down to the Madison River where both elk and bison are frequently spotted. West Yellowstone, frequented by lots of snowmobilers, is a lively place, with noisy restaurants and good cheer, though, with the pandemic, we will keep our distance.

West Yellowstone Historic Center and Museum under a blanket of February snow.

A variety of concessionaires offer guided tours in cozy snowcoaches into the park, as well as snowmobile tours into the park, all the way to the Old Faithful area. A few years ago, we took the snowcoach 31 miles into Old Faithful and spent three lovely nights at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, just a superb choice. Morning walks or ski trips took us to the Firehole River, where Trumpeter swans cruised and huge bison wandered through the geyser basins. When we departed the final morning, our coach had to honk and delay, awaiting 60-some sleeping elk to rouse themselves and move.

A word to the wise – on that trip, temperatures in western Montana stayed around -15 to +5° most of the time we were there. A few years earlier, we spent the night in West Yellowstone when the temperature reached 40 below zero. Prepare your vehicle, and dress accordingly.

Old Faithful Geyser erupts into a January night sky; this evening, on the boardwalk around the geyser, there was one other person, and a lone coyote to witness this majesty.

We will finally head north to the park’s Gardiner, MT/Mammoth Hot Springs entryway. Here, a lovely hotel awaits, the Park Inn Yellowstone, right across from the park boundary. In winter, roads are open through the Mammoth Hot Springs thermal features, and US Highway 212 is plowed all the way to the Park’s northeast entryway, allowing unfettered access to the Lamar Valley and frequent wolf sightings. Our last visit, as we had experienced in several previous stops, we counted hundreds of elk, scores of bison and a handful of bighorn sheep. Don’t be surprised to be stuck in a traffic jam caused by 2000 pound bison lumbering along snowy roads.

Wolves on ridge, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Park; courtesy NPS photo.
Four bison cross the Lamar River, about 20 miles east of
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone Park.

What to take: Binoculars and camera, of course, all of your cold-winter clothing, and skis or showshoes if you are into that.  Chains for your vehicle and jumper cables make sense, if temps are predicted down to -20 or lower! 

Where to stay: In Jackson, we have enjoyed the Antler Inn, (855) 516-1090, just a block off Jackson’s town square with its huge elk-antler aches. In West Yellowstone, we choose the Stagecoach Inn, yellowstoneinn.com/; in Gardiner, the Park Hotel Yellowstone,parkhotelyellowstone.com; in Yellowstone Park itself, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter lodging choices (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/); the campground at Mammoth is open year-round for hardy campers. For more information on Yellowstone National Park, nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/visting-yellowstone-in-winter.htm. 

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

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