Want to tour Yellowstone National Park in near solitude? Visit in winter. With a fraction of the summer's visitation—only 140,000 during the winter season compared to almost 3 million in summer—winter is the ideal time to take in the park's astounding natural attractions. Sure, daytime temperatures can hover near zero, but properly bundled you can ogle Old Faithful in comfort along with just a few hundred visitors. (On a typical July afternoon, several thousand take in the spectacle at once.) Follow one of the cross-country ski trails into the backcountry, and you'll probably have the scenery all to yourself.
Atop an ancient volcanic caldera, Yellowstone contains the largest collection of thermal features on the planet. The park's extraordinary array of hydrothermal phenomena -- from steamy hot springs and fumaroles to the more showy mud pots and geysers—is active year-round. In fact, winter's clash of extreme heat and frigid air makes for some of the most memorable vistas. In February, the view across the Upper Geyser Basin, with its blankets of snow punctuated by plumes of water and swirls of steam, is otherworldly. And standing next to a boiling spring while steam billows around you is just plain cool.
Of the park's approximately 10,000 thermal features, some of the most famous are between Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. The Upper Geyser Basin, where Old Faithful reliably erupts about every 90 minutes, is a must-see anytime of year. To enjoy the show as an audience of one, follow the trail up Geyser Hill, overlooking Old Faithful and the Firehole River. (Stop at the visitor center first to check the schedule of geyser eruptions in the area.) From a bench near Plume geyser, you can take in much of the basin while watching Old Faithful blast thousands of gallons of water anywhere from 90 to 180 feet into the air.
Grand Prismatic Spring, a 370-foot-diameter pool in Midway Geyser Basin, is Yellowstone's largest hot spring. In winter, dense clouds of steam rise from the water and leave a white coating like Styrofoam on the surrounding trees, earning them the nickname "ghost trees." Ice also slicks the boardwalk through the basin. If your shoes have decent traction—and you're blessed with good balance—make the thrilling walk through the steam clouds to the pool's edge.
Another highlight is Fountain Paint Pot in the nearby Lower Geyser Basin. This thick mud pit bubbles and belches year-round, but the mud is somewhat thicker in winter. Follow the short trail around the basin for a sampling of all four of the park's thermal features. You'll pass Red Spouter, a sputtering fumarole in summer and a geyser spouting red water and red mud in winter.
There's more to winter in Yellowstone than geyser-gazing. You can enjoy this 2.2 million-acre park in numerous ways, from animal-watching in a warm snowcoach to shushing through the backcountry on skis.
Yellowstone teems with wildlife year-round. With little effort in winter, you can spot animals throughout the park. Geyser-fed rivers remain open during the frigid months, making them a refuge for waterfowl, such as trumpeter swans, and a popular spot for moose. The warmth and plant life of hydrothermal areas attract elk and bison. Coyotes show up just about everywhere. If wildlife-spotting is high on your to-do list, know that you can see many of these animals from Yellowstone's main roads. However, in winter, the majority of the park's roads are accessible only to snow vehicles, such as snowcoach (basically a van with treads in place of its wheels) and snowmobile. \
Two of park's winter pastimes are cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Groomed front-country trails and almost limitless backcountry trails await skiers of all levels. Passing thermal features and wildlife along the Firehole River, 40 miles of trails lace around the Old Faithful area. One popular trail here follows the river to Lone Star Geyser, a solitary gusher with shows about every three hours. Xanterra Parks & Resorts can set you up with equipment, trail maps, and guide services at Mammoth and Old Faithful. Stop at the hotel desks in these areas to arrange van or snowcoach transportation to one of the trailheads.
Another way to take in the park's snowy grandeur is by snowmobile. In the past few years, the debate over the presence of snowmobiles in the park has intensified. Arguments run the gamut from zero usage for the least environmental impact to an open-door policy favored by business owners who benefit from snowmobile tourism. The National Park Service is attempting to find a middle ground. To limit the air and sound pollution produced by two-stroke snowmobiles ("two-stroke" referring to the mixing of oil and gas in the engine), NPS now encourages the use of four-stroke machines, which run cleaner and quieter. The NPS limits the number of snowmobiles in the park on a daily basis.
Heated debate aside, what can you expect from a snowmobile experience in Yellowstone? Long stretches of white roads through stunning scenery—high cliffs, wide valleys, endless lodge pole pine forests, and an occasional herd of bison. Zipping along at a restricted maximum of 35 mph is a thrilling way to tour the park's highlights. Sharing the open air with the park's critters, such as bison walking the road in the Hayden Valley, makes for a more exhilarating experience than watching the park through a van window. When the air gets too exhilarating, you can stop at one of the park's seven warming huts, some selling hot drinks and hand warmers.
In winter, the closest airports to Yellowstone are in Bozeman, Montana, and Jackson, Wyoming. Delta, Horizon, Northwest, and United fly into Bozeman, which is 78 miles from the park's northern entrance in Gardiner, Montana, and 90 miles from the western entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana. American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United fly into Jackson, Wyoming, which is about 55 miles from the park's southern entrance near Flagg Ranch.
Karst Stage (406-556-3500; www.karststage.com) provides shuttle transportation from the Bozeman airport to Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone. Alltrans (800-443-6133; www.jacksonholealltrans.com) provides shuttle service from the Jackson airport to Flagg Ranch.
Except for the road from Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana, winter transportation within Yellowstone is limited to snowcoaches and snowmobiles. Xanterra snowcoaches travel to Old Faithful from Mammoth Hot Springs (near the northern Gardiner entrance on U.S. 89), from West Yellowstone (at the western entrance on U.S. 20 and U.S. 191), and from Flagg Ranch (near the southern entrance on U.S. 89).
Where to Stay
From mid-December to early March, you have two lodging options in the park. For reservations, contact Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
Hands-down, the best choice is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, completed in 1999. Warm wood tones, comfortable sitting areas, and blazing fireplaces give the lodge a cozy feeling. Among the rooms' many distinctive features are interior wooden shutters, comfy beds with four sets of pillows, and amber-colored shades that cast a warm glow. Although not large, the bathrooms have everything you'd need, including shower, tub, and blow dryer, and have a clean, modern design. Amenities include telephones but not televisions -- this is a national park after all. The one downside: The hard-working heating system sounds like perpetually running water; this white noise may put you on edge. Two restaurants and a lounge are onsite. The location is a short walk from Old Faithful geyser and near numerous ski and snowshoe trails. All lodgings have private baths.
The institutional-feeling Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is near the park's northern entrance. Stay here en route to somewhere else but not as a destination. Rooms are spacious but without charm, despite some interesting historic photographs. The small bathrooms are shower-only. Amenities include telephones but not televisions. Make sure to pack your earplugs: You can hear people all around you—in the hallway, upstairs, and next door—and radiators steam to life at regular intervals in the night. A restaurant is next door.
To learn more about Yellowstone National Park, visit the park's website, www.nps.gov/yell For lodging and activity information, call Xanterra Parks & Resorts at 307-344-7311 or visit its website, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.