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Nope, the park doesn’t shut down in the winter. Instead, an entirely new Yellowstone emerges when the snow—all 150 annual inches of it, or 300 inches in the high country—starts flying. Why is a winter trip a great idea? Let us count the ways. One, the crowds melt away, leaving visitors who do venture out into the cold with a shockingly quiet, solitude-filled landscape. Two, snow makes park wildlife easier to spot and track. Winter is an especially great time to look for wolves, which hunt bison slowed down by deep drifts (the bears, however, will be hibernating—which could be a plus, depending on your perspective). Three, snow and ice create a whole new feel: Waterfalls freeze into ripply ice sculptures, geysers and hot springs spew and steam over whitewashed basins, frozen thermal vapors transform trees into “snow ghosts,” and thick ice blankets Yellowstone Lake. And four, winter opens up a slew of new outdoor activities, from skiing and snowshoeing to zipping along in a snowmobile. 

Naturally, you’ll want to be ready for Yellowstone’s winter conditions. Daytime highs might be anywhere from 0°F (–18°C) to the 30s (negative teens Celsius), and nighttime lows can reach –20°F (–29°C). The coldest temperature ever recorded here was a frostbite-inducing –66°F (–54°C)! Dress in warm layers and make sure to both eat and drink frequently to stay energized and hydrated.

Only two park hotels openfor a December-to-March winter season after a brief shutdown in the fall: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel  and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. (Mammoth is undergoing renovations and will be closed until the winter of 2018–19.) And the Northeast Entrance Road between Mammoth and Cooke City is the only one that’s cleared for cars in winter; traveling anywhere else requires a snowcoach or snowmobile. 

Park concessionaire Xanterra handles all of the in-park amenities, including lodging, dining, ski shops, ski shuttles, and snowcoach tours. Several other outfitters and gear shops in the gateway towns can also set you up for winter fun. And if you’re looking to combine recreation with education, Yellowstone Forever’s (tel. 406/848-2400; www.yellowstone.org) winter courses can’t be beat. Depending on the season’s lineup, you might be able to sign up for wolf-watching expeditions, field-journaling classes, cross-country ski lessons, or winter photography workshops. 

Cross-Country Skiing

Yellowstone is an amazing place to be on skinny skis. The park grooms ski trails at Mammoth, Old Faithful, and Tower; many other ungroomed, marked ski trails are available in those places too, as well as in the park’s northeast corner and at Canyon. Skiers also have free reign over any unplowed road or trail, though you’ll want heavy-duty skis to break trail in powder. 

Gliding among the geysers is one of Yellowstone’s most unique winter activities, making Old Faithful a top spot to explore. You can ski 2.5 miles (one-way) on the groomed Lone Star Geyser Trail for a backcountry water show (return via the Howard Eaton Trail for a more challenging loop) or circle past geysers and hot springs on the Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin Trails. At Mammoth, the groomed Upper Terrace Loop tours around steaming travertine terraces, and the untracked Bighorn Loop traces Indian Creek up to expansive views over the Gallatin Range. 

The Bear Den Ski Shops at Mammoth and Old Faithful rent skis ($16/half day, $25/day) and offer both group and private ski lessons ($35 or $40/hour). Xanterra’s ski shuttles will drop you off at Indian Creek, several stops along the Divide Route, and several stops along the Fairy Falls route; either ski back to the hotels or catch the return shuttle after exploring each area. You can also hop on guided ski tours of places like Canyon ($264) or Lone Star Geyser ($57), which include transportation to the trailheads and lunch. 

Ice Skating

Old Faithful Snow Lodge maintains an ice rink with free skate rentals, weather permitting. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel has one too, set to reopen in winter 2018-19.

Winter Road Conditions

Due to the high elevation and the abundance of snow, most roads in Yellowstone are closed to all wheeled vehicles in winter. The only major park area that is accessible by car is Mammoth Hot Springs; cars are allowed to drive in the village there. Signs will alert you as to how far south into the park you can go (usually to Tower Junction, 18 miles away). From Tower Junction, it’s another 29 miles to the northeast entrance. This entrance is open but not accessible from Red Lodge, Montana, and points east (because the Beartooth Hwy. is closed in winter). You can go only as far as Cooke City, Montana, and the roads are only kept open so that the folks in Cooke City aren’t stranded during the long winters. Snowmobiles, snowcoaches, and cross-country skiers, however, use park roads regularly throughout the winter season. For up-to-the-minute information on weather and road conditions, call [tel] 307/344-2117.
Basing yourself in West Yellowstone is another winter option. From the West Yellowstone entrance, it’s only 14 miles to Madison Junction, which presents opportunities to head south to Old Faithful or north to the Grand Canyon and Mammoth Hot Springs. Because this is the most popular way to access the park, plan on making reservations early.

Snowcoach Tours

What, exactly, is a snowcoach? Picture a midsize van or bus with heavy-duty tank treads instead of tires, plus big windows and a toasty heating system, and you get the idea. These lumbering vehicles are one of the primary ways that travelers access Yellowstone when snow blankets the landscape, and they’re a lot of fun. If you’re bound for Old Faithful Snow Lodge, this is probably how you’ll get there. Xanterra’s shuttle from Mammoth costs $117 for adults and $58.50 for children each way, and you’re allowed two pieces of luggage; you can also find private outfitters out of West Yellowstone or Jackson. 

Snowcoaches do more than shuttle you from place to place: You can also sign up to tour the park in one. It’s a much warmer way to see the winter sights than a snowmobile, though you’ll want to bundle up for the many stops along the way. Xanterra’s options range from half-day or full-day scenic routes to tours focused on wildlife-watching or photography, and cost about $50 to $265 for adults. Private outfitters also run a variety of group and custom tours. 

For info on Xanterra’s tours, call [tel] 307/344-7311 or go to www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. Yellowstone Vacations (tel. 877/600-4308; www.yellowstonevacations.com), out of West Yellowstone, offers tours to Old Faithful and Canyon. On the south side, Jackson’s Scenic Safaris (tel. 888/734-8898; www.scenic-safaris.com) can get you to Old Faithful. 

Snowmobiling

For a faster and more thrilling way to see the park, a snowmobile is the way to go. Suit up (mind that wind chill) and take off over the park’s oversnow routes, connecting top destinations and scoping for wildlife along the way. Warming huts at West Thumb, Old Faithful, Madison, Indian Creek, Mammoth, Canyon, and Fishing Bridge provide welcome respite from the bitter cold en route.

Winter access rules designed to protect Yellowstone’s resources from both noise and emissions pollution make it challenging to plan private snowmobiling trips. Hopefuls can apply for a permit to the Non-Commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program through a lottery open September 1 through 30 for the following winter; four snowmobiling “events” (groups with up to five snowmobiles) are allowed to enter the park at each entrance station per day. Permittees must also complete an online snowmobile education course, and their vehicles must meet certain standards for noise and emissions. For details, go to www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/ngsap.htm.

If you haven’t planned ahead or didn’t get lucky in the lottery, guided snowmobile trips can get you cruising in the park without the paperwork. Several outfitters operate in the gateway towns, with West Yellowstone boasting the most options. Backcountry Adventures (tel. 406/646-9317; www.backcountry-adventures.com) runs several daily tours to different park highlights for $209 per snowmobile. Two Top Snowmobile Rental (tel. 406/646-7802; www.twotopsnowmobile.com) is also popular for its tours to Old Faithful and Canyon ($90/snowmobile), as well as private options. The only option near the East Entrance, Gary Fales Outfitting (tel. 307/587-3970; www.garyfalesoutfitting.com) trips take you over Sylvan Pass on an all-day circle tour for $375 per double snowmobile.

Snowshoeing

The winter travel method with the lowest learning curve—just strap on the snowshoes and walk—is another excellent way to soak in the snowy landscape. Explore along any of the park’s marked ski trails (just don’t step in the ski track) or unplowed roads; at Old Faithful, the loop up to Observation Point and Solitary Geyser is snowshoe-only. Park rangers lead free snowshoe walks at Mammoth and West Yellowstone several times a week, and Xanterra runs guided trips to Lone Star Geyser, Canyon, and the Firehole River ($30–$264 for adults). The Bear Den Ski Shops at Mammoth and Old Faithful Snow Lodge rent snowshoes for $12.50/half day and $21.75/full day. 
 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.