Many families shy away from visiting National Parks when the weather may be less than ideal for hiking, water sports, or camping. However, there are several advantages to being brave and venturing out into the parks when the bulk of tourists are hibernating.
Our most recent exciting shoulder season experience was in Yellowstone over Thanksgiving Break in November. Although cold, the weather was dry so road conditions were very good, and traffic was practically non-existent. Here are some of our favorite reasons to visit Yellowstone in the late fall/early winter:
1. Lodging is budget-friendly. We were able to secure very nice 2-room hotel accommodations at Yellowstone Gateway Inn in Gardiner, MT, for around $82 per night. To compare, in June a small “amenity-free” hotel room in Canyon cost us $225 per night. This way, we were able to make our own meals, including a full Thanksgiving dinner, which saved us both money and trouble, as most of the restaurants in town were closed for the season. We’ve already booked the same location for the week after Christmas.
2. Very light traffic, just the “die-hards” like us. We found that most of the traffic we saw every day on the one open road from Gardiner to Cooke City, MT, was either due to the Wolf Project participants or wildlife photographers. We got up early one morning before sunrise and stopped in the western end of Lamar Valley to take in the misty views. During the 30 minutes we watched the sun come up, not one car passed our location. It was a great time to take one of those lonely “guy standing on desolate road” landscape photos. Extra bonus – we were there for the full moon. You will get to where you need to go without interruption from other tourists. But, be patient – the bison still own the roads!
3. Wildlife is very easy to spot against snow and barren trees. We anticipated being able to see more animals and do some tracking, and we were not disappointed. We were able to photograph elk, bighorn sheep, bison, wolves, coyotes, snowshoe hares, jackrabbits, and eagles. If landscapes are more your scene, the hot springs and geysers are incredible in the cold weather. Steam permeates every view, especially along the rivers. Unlike in summer, you can even stop your car on the road for pretty decent lengths of time without having someone honk at you or go whipping by, ruining that perfect shot.
4. Kids love snow. Seriously, with as cold as it was during our stay (-12 degrees F one morning), our kids still wanted to get out in their snow gear and play. We only made one short hike at our favorite spot in Lamar Valley, and about half way to our destination we heard the wolves howling back and forth, so called it short to go look for the packs. Our sons weren’t ready to return quite yet, although the thawing of fingers and toes later assured them that it was wise to return to the car at that time.
For those families looking for adventure and amazing experiences, we can’t recommend enough to visit our National Parks during the off-season. It truly gives you and your kids the sense that, “Yes, I Found My Park!”