Why Yellowstone Is Better in the Winter
If you can brave the bitter cold and deep snow, you can find solitude in even the most famous parts of Yellowstone National Park.
On a weekday in the winter, you're not likely to share Yellowstone with more than just a few hundred other visitors. A midday eruption of Old Faithful gathers a tiny crowd in comparison to what you'd see in July.
If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park in the summertime to see Old Faithful, you probably remember the crowds even more than the geyser. There’s no shortage of tourists with selfie sticks and GoPros, and to get a view of your own, you’ve got to constantly shuffle around and stand on your toes.
In July, the park’s busiest month, about a million people file through the entrance stations. They stop, in the middle of the road, at every possible sighting of wildlife. And if there’s a bear? Forget it—you could inch along in traffic for hours.
But here’s a secret to getting all the best of Yellowstone without having to share it with hundreds of thousands of strangers: Go in the winter.
Steam from the hot springs in Yellowstone's Black Sand Basin blankets the boardwalk in a thick coat of snow and frost. Usually, this area is teeming with tourists. But in the winter, it's all yours.
From November to March, Yellowstone averages fewer than 1,000 visitors per day. Most of the park’s roads close, deterring all but the most determined visitors. To get in through most entrance stations, you must snowmobile or go on a guided tour in a snow coach (a bus or van with hefty snowmobile treads). Even without summer traffic, the snowy roads make for slow going. It’s a full day trip just to get to Old Faithful and back.
Hardly anyone visits Yellowstone when snow closes the roads in the winter, which makes it easier than usual to get up close sightings of wildlife like this coyote.
If you’re seeking an unobstructed view of the geyser as the steam freezes into snow, this is what you’re after. In December, I came across maybe two or three other hikers as I walked the boardwalk around Old Faithful, through a field of bubbling pits, mini geysers and turquoise, crystal-clear hot springs. At Black Sand Geyser Basin just a few minutes from Old Faithful, you might find total solitude save for the bison that wander the steamy ground and take naps in the snow. The wind whips the steam into thick clouds that hide the colorful springs here, making quick glimpses of them all the more exciting.
You’d think the buzzing of passing snowmobiles would scare away all the wildlife, but keep an eye out and you’ll see plenty. I toured with Wildlife Expeditions, a part of non-profit Teton Science Schools, which staffs experienced guides prepared to answer even the most random of questions about life in the park. In late February, they're launching a new weeklong wolf safari built around exploring the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, where wolves are known to hunt for elk.
To get to Yellowstone from Jackson Hole, you have to first drive through flat, open patches of sagebrush in Grand Teton, which borders Yellowstone’s south entrance. There, buffalo hang out by the hundreds right by the road, in full view of the Tetons, crusted in snow and ice. You’re likely to find moose there, too, and almost certain to see elk. Even closer to Jackson, wildlife sightings are nearly constant thanks to the National Elk Refuge, where you’ll find bighorn sheep and, of course, elk.
And despite the fame of these two parks, some of our country's most-visited, you'll never have to battle a crowd as long as you're braving the snow. It's all but guaranteed.
If you go: From Jackson, take a full-day Old Faithful tour with Wildlife Expeditions, whose guides are full of knowledge about even the tiniest details of the park. The snow coach keeps you warm (and supplied with hot chocolate) as you crunch over the park's snow-covered roads through frigid temps. Prices start around $300 per person and include breakfast, lunch and snacks.