Yellowstone National Park is the fifth most visited park in the system, with over four million annual visitors. The crazy part: 90% of those visit between the months of May and September. For the remaining seven months, Yellowstone is a vast landscape of vacant, rugged beauty. In 2015, we decided to make it our goal to visit Yellowstone in every season, and we succeeded, and in doing so, learned an incredible amount about America’s First National Park.
Of all the seasons we spent in Yellowstone, our favorite far and away was winter. Sure, we missed out on bear sightings since they were busy hibernating, but in their absence, a different ecosystem sprung up and surprised us in so many ways. Here are our top five reasons to visit Yellowstone in winter (and believe us, there are plenty more than five!):
- Peace and quiet is the number one reason to visit between November and March. Sure, you may be limited in automotive travel to only one open road in the northern part of the park, but you can always don a pair of skis, hike out into the park by foot or snowshoes, or even rent snowmobiles in nearby towns, taking you even deeper into the solitude. On our late autumn trip over Thanksgiving (end of November) last year, we woke at sunrise and drove deep into Lamar Valley, stopped the car and stood on the highway for a good thirty minutes before one lone car passed us. This same spot in summer – you can’t even stop at the turn-out due to high traffic volume! There is no hurry, no anxiety, and no honking horns. Just peaceful tranquility to slowly pass the time.
- Wolves. Need we say more? In fact, the wild canines in general become easier to spot in the winter. Not only is the landscape more stark and contrasting to reveal their earthy colors against the snow, but with the bears sleeping away the season, the wolves become “top dog” for a few months. Since the days are shorter, dawn and dusk – the best times to spot wolves – are at more reasonable times for humans to be out and about as well. The Wolf Project members are all so willing to let you spot the wolves through their scopes and camera gear, and love to chat and share what they know. A little ecological slice of heaven!
- Swimming in the Boiling River regardless of the outdoor temperatures. That’s right – you can hop in the confluence of the “Boiling” and Gardner Rivers where the water temp runs around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When we visited to swim it was -5 degrees with a stiff breeze. Getting into the river was easy (see our video of the experience on YouTube), but getting out was a bit chilly! This swimming area is located at the end of a short hike along the Gardner River where you can watch small birds dip in and out of the river, see bison and bighorn sheep along the hillsides, and even find green plants at the end of December! Be aware this “swimming” hole is really just a nice place to sit and soak. The water is shallow closest to the hot confluence, which does make it nice for families. However, be sure to keep your little ones out of the direct flow from the hot spring – the water really IS boiling!
Change in scenery means change in activities. We love hiking and exploring Yellowstone in any season, but hiking in winter means spotting more animal tracks, stark and often surreal photo opportunities, and even backcountry sledding with no wait lines or other families to dodge! In addition, you can also hike or cross-country ski your way to frozen waterfalls and cascades to earn a view that 90% of the visitors to this park will never experience.
- Cheaper lodging. Hands down, you can find the best lodging deals (both within and without the park) during the winter season. The prices do increase over the Christmas holiday, but the rest of the season is hard to beat. We were able to stay in a full-service kitchen suite in Gardiner, Montana, for around $80 per night. If you stay more than three nights, there are often even better discounts available. If you are a hearty soul, campsites in Mammoth (the only in-park campground open in winter) drop in price and from our experience, are easy to come by upon arrival. One note on lodging: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel will be closed the next two winters for renovations. In lieu of staying the in park, we recommend Yellowstone Gateway Inn in Gardiner (see previous review post).
There really is nothing that compares to visiting the most iconic parks in the “low” season. There is more time to talk with rangers, more time to see amazing sites, and more time to stop and reflect upon the surrounding landscape. Before you plan your next visit, take a look at your off-season options to experience the BEST the National Parks have to offer!