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Visiting Yellowstone National Park during the winter can seem daunting thanks to its cold nights boasting subfreezing temperatures and days offering a flurry of fresh snowfall. But, if your goal is to experience the magic of Yellowstone with oodles of wildlife and practically zero crowds, there’s no better time to visit.
Not only is winter the best season for spotting animals inside the park, but it’s also an epic time to gaze out at powerful, steam-spraying geysers, make snow angels, and utilize the park’s many miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.
With most roads into the park closed due to snowfall, it’s a quieter time to visit, and extra planning – like snowmobile tours and snowcoach transfers – must be made for touring deeper into Yellowstone’s famous geothermal areas, since only one road into the park (Highway 89 to Mammoth Hot Springs) is open year-round to private vehicles. But, If you’re keen on snow, wildlife, and geyser-filled adventure in the America’s first national park, read on for our ultimate guide to visiting Yellowstone in the winter.
Things to Consider
- Only one road, Highway 89, stays open all year long for visitors to drive into the park in private cars. If you’re planning to drive in on your own, you’ll want to stay in Bozeman, Gardiner, or Yellowstone’s winter lodges, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
- In mid-December, roads closed to private vehicle traffic open up for snowmobiles and snowcoaches, turning once-crowded paved roads into a winter wonderland of over-snow travel.
- Visitors planning to enter Yellowstone on a non-commercial snowmobile trip must first apply for a permit.
- Most people fly into Bozeman (to enter from the north) or Jackson Hole (to enter from the south) when visiting Yellowstone in the winter. There’s also a small airport in Cody, Wyoming.
- With travel between the park’s most famous sights (like Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Mammoth Hot Springs) more complicated from December through March, consider booking a guided tour to simplify your trip.
Sure, summertime favorites like traipsing down trails, road-tripping with the wind in your hair, and swimming in remote lakes might be off-limits, but once winter rears its head, a whole slew of new and equally exciting adventures come to life. That is, if you can brave the cold.
Snowshoeing, Ice Skating, and Cross-Country Skiing
If you’d rather spend your winter vacation doing something active, rather than cozying up by the fire, Yellowstone has a wide variety of ways to break a sweat in the snow. Guided snowshoe tours are available every day, departing from from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, or visitors can strike out on their own and rent snowshoes and cross-country ski setups from the Bear Den Ski Shop. In-park lessons are also available.
Some popular snowshoeing routes include the easy trek out to Lone Star Geyser (be sure to download the Yellowstone NPS app on your phone before heading out for the most up-to-date geyser eruption info), Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and, of course, the Old Faithful area. Similarly, cross-country aficionados might want to check out the colorful, craggy canyon walls (and roaring waterfall) of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon on a full-day snowcoach and ski tour or traverse the wildlife-packed Blacktail Plateau to the park’s Tower area for breathtaking snowy mountain vistas.
And for those of us who’d rather glide past lush conifers, feeling the wind on our cheeks, ice skating rinks are located adjacent to both Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and are open daily, weather permitting. Skate rentals are free for hotel guests.
Related Read: 9 Best National Parks to Visit in December
Watching the fury of one of Yellowstone’s famous geysers erupting with a blanket of iridescent snow all around is one of the most spellbinding sights the park has to offer. Overlooking some of the most famous hydrothermal features in the park, including the granddaddy of them all, Old Faithful, is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which makes it easy to rent a set of snowshoes (or bring your own microspikes) and stomp around the geyser basin to check out the steamy show juxtaposed against the icy backdrop of winter.
Looking for a path less traveled? The short but sweet trail out to Lone Star Geyser is sure to wow if you can time it just right.
This may seem surprising at first, but in this region, wildlife viewing is at its absolute best during winter, with charismatic megafauna like bison, moose, and elk becoming easier to track and spot as the carpet of fluffy white snow grows deeper.
Guests itching to see a wolf in the wild can head out on a guided excursion where a Yellowstone Forever Field Educator will take you into the famous Lamar Valley, the site of the park’s wolf research project. Or, when the roads are clear, travelers have the opportunity to slowly cruise in their private cars from the north entrance to the northeast entrance, looking for coyotes, foxes, and wooly bison with their snow-covered beards.
Guided wildlife tours with expert hosts and eagle-eyed spotters are the surest way to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, and whether you’re traveling to Lamar Valley, Madison River, or Yellowstone Lake, there’s a unique and educational tour that’s sure to spark a smile. Feeling photogenic? The park’s even got a special day trip for budding wildlife photographers.
Related Read: 9 Epic Glamping Sites Near Yellowstone National Park
Luckily, you don’t have to freeze your buns off to enjoy Yellowstone’s fabulous winter show. For those who’d rather turn up the hygge and gaze at the landscape from the inside of a moving snow globe, guided snowcoach tours (hot chocolate included) are available all over the park from December through March.
From “Steam, Stars, and Winter Soundscapes,” to burbling Norris Geyser Basin and the beautiful Firehole River, there’s a little something for every kind of traveler, even if they’d prefer to stay toasty inside.
Weather and Road Closures
Average winter temperatures in Yellowstone range from 0 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and often plunge below zero at night, meaning travelers should come prepared with warm hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, socks, and base layers (wool is better than cotton). Insulated, waterproof hiking boots with a grippy tread, like Vibram, are also key to keeping your feet warm and dry when you’re stomping around in snowdrifts.
This 2.2-million-acre park receives, on average, 150 inches of snow each year, and most official roads stay closed to regular vehicle traffic from mid-November through mid-March. They reopen mid-December to snowmobiles and snowcoaches only. Yellowstone recommends downloading its free app before setting off to get the most up-to-date road condition reports.
The only exception to this is Highway 89, which runs from the gateway community of Gardiner to the northern entrance of the park where, in winter, it closes after Mammoth Hot Springs. For intrepid explorers who’d like to head out on their own driving excursion, the park road between the North and Northeast entrances is also open to vehicles, weather permitting.
Most winter visitors at Yellowstone arrive by air at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport or the Jackson Hole Airport, then travel into the park via guided snowmobile or snowcoach tour. If you plan on speeding into the NPS boundary on your own unguided snowmobile expedition, you’ll first have to apply via the park’s snowmobile access program.
With sub-freezing nights and mounds of fluffy snow, most travelers will want to post up in a cozy cabin or lodge during their wintertime Yellowstone stay. Thankfully, some of the park’s most historic hotels (and a bevy of lovely vacation rentals) stay open year-round.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins
Finished in 1999, Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the newest of Yellowstone’s hotels, designed with crackling fireplaces, woodsy timber frame construction, and ample lounge areas for playing board games after the sun sets and temperatures drop.
Though snowcoach transportation is required to get to and from the lodge, once there, visitors will find themselves right in the middle of the action, with access to the Bear Den Ski Shop, a full-service restaurant, and miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails leaving right from the lodge’s front door.
Related Read: 8 Gorgeous Glamping Destinations in Wyoming
Wild West Apartment with Stunning Views
This reasonably priced one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is situated four blocks from Yellowstone’s northern entrance, perfect for guests looking to visit the Mammoth Hot Springs area but who’d prefer to save money and stay outside the park.
When you’re not gazing out at snow-capped peaks from the property’s private deck, you’ll be sure to enjoy the colorful artwork and eat-in kitchen.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins
With its signature map room that gets done up for the holidays and a tree-lighting ceremony that takes place mere blocks away (on Officer’s Row), Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a wonderful place to spend the winter season in Yellowstone.
This historic hotel that dates back to the early 1900s offers elegant guest rooms, guided winter tours, and a splurge-worthy dining room that’s even open on Christmas Day.
Related Read: 11 Remote & Secluded Cabin Rentals in Montana
Modern Cabin in Gardiner
Located one block from the northern entrance to Yellowstone, along the only stretch of road that private vehicles can use to drive into the park during winter, this stylish cabin is full of modern designs and warm colors that are sure to brighten even the gloomiest winter weather.
Serve up a hearty breakfast around the dining nook’s live edge table, lounge around the flatscreen TV, or catch some Zs on the plush queen bed.
One of the newest accommodations in ultra-hip Jackson Hole, The Cloudveil is as comfortable as it is luxurious. The hotel, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, offers a wintertime gear concierge and rental assistance, a free ski shuttle, and a complimentary ski chalet at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Located just over an hour from Yellowstone, it’s the perfect spot to hit the slopes and the park in one trip.
New Four-Bedroom Overlooking the River
If you want to experience the otherworldly beauty of the Yellowstone River and the northern side of the park with the whole family in tow, this four-bedroom house is for you.
Newly constructed in 2021, this two-story, open-plan home is chock full of Southwest-inspired textiles, cozy reading corners, and sleeping quarters for up to twelve.
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