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GardenSMART :: Insider Tips for Enjoying Yellowstone in Winter

Insider Tips for Enjoying Yellowstone in Winter

By Jayne Clark for Xanterra
Photographs courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

Winter is Yellowstone National Park's quietest season. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty going on. In fact, many a full-time area resident will tell you winter is the best time to visit.

Some of the best wildlife and geyser viewing and photography opportunities are in the dead of winter, when the snow-white landscape provides the contrast that makes animals and thermal wonders appear even more dramatic.

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Two classic park lodges — Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, about 50 miles apart — remain open from mid-December to late February to accommodate winter guests.

And, starting in mid-December, a plethora of fun activities cater to all kinds of visitors. If you want to get out in nature, you can strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis, or take a whirl around an ice rink. If lower-key pursuits are more your speed, try wildlife watching from the comfort and warmth of a snowcoach. Or simply cozy up with a good book in front of a lodge fireplace.

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Here are some tips for getting the most out of this often overlooked and underrated season in America's first national park:

Wildlife Watching

Yes, bears take to their dens for a long winter's nap, but other Yellowstone denizens are up and about. Moreover, they can be easier to spot, thanks to their heightened contrast against a blanket of pristine snow. Plus, their frozen footprints make animals easier to track.

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  • A premier viewing spot is Lamar Valley in the park's northern region. You'll also find serious wolf watchers here along the roadsides behind powerful spotting scopes. Watch for bison herds trudging through the unfettered landscape, their breath steamy in the frigid air.  
  • Bison often convene near the park's thermal features for an impromptu steam bath.
  • As in other seasons, wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk.
  • Stay at least 25 yards away from bison, elk, and pronghorn, and 100 yards or more from wolves and bears. (During warm winters, bears have been spotted as early as February.)
  • Most park roads close to regular traffic during the winter (usually from early November to early April). If you do drive outside the park or on the one park road that's open to private vehicles from the north entrance in Gardiner, Montana, through the Northern Range of Yellowstone to Cooke City, Montana, make certain your vehicle is equipped for winter conditions. And slow down: bison and other wildlife often take to the pavement.
  • It's easy to go car-free in winter. Snowcoaches shuttle visitors between Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs and venture into territory beyond on guided outings. And on the Lamar Valley Wildlife Tour a rubber-tired mini-bus departs in the early morning from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and includes a breakfast snack and boxed lunch.
  • Pack essentials, such as binoculars; a foam-rubber mat to stand on and prevent the cold from penetrating your soles; a thermos filled with a hot beverage; and food to fuel your wanderings. (You can order boxed lunches from the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room.)

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Photo Safaris  

Yellowstone's dramatic landscapes become all the more breathtaking against winter's icy backdrop, when the muted light brings an ethereal quality to photos.


  • The pros get out early to take advantage the morning's dramatic light.
  • Leave the details to the experts by booking an all-day Winter Photo Safari along the Firehole and Madison River corridors. Instruction and lunch are part of the tour.
  • Dress in layers and wear warm boots with thick soles. Consider wearing thin, rubber tipped gloves while shooting and slip a pair of mittens over them afterward.   
  • Keep your camera cold and your batteries warm. If your camera is warm the lens will fog up when cold air hits it. Batteries drain more rapidly in cold weather, so tuck extras (along with mobile devices) in a pocket or other warm place.
  • Protect your camera lens when visiting geyser basins; silica in thermal features bonds to glass and plastic.

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Geyser Gazing

These geothermal dynamos appear even more stunning in winter. Ice formations on nearby trees and manmade structures add to the otherworldly setting. You can even get a sauna effect by standing in their steamy wake. (Remember to protect your camera and glass lenses from the spray.)


  • Check with the NPS for updated predictions for when eruptions are expected.
  • Bring a pad to sit on while you wait for the show.  

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How to Explore

With nine unique lodging options, including the renowned historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park Lodges allows you to have the ultimate park experience. Staying in the park is the best way for visitors to experience all it has to offer, including the exciting wildlife watching. Once the day-visitors leave, Yellowstone remains for the in-park overnight guests alone. Yellowstone National Park Lodges offer tours and activities guided by Certified Interpretive Guides that help create memorable experiences. For more information on lodging, tours, and vacation packages, visit or call 307-344-7311.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit


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