10 reasons to visit Yellowstone National Park in winter
Put this on your bucket list for best winter destination
- A different park than you visited in summer
Exploring Yellowstone National Park in winter — when temperatures commonly dip below zero, more than a foot of snow covers the ground and all but one park road is closed to cars – may not sound like a premiere winter vacation. But the reward is being witness to a picturesque wonderland, complete with snowy mountains and forests, trees painted white with rime frost from steam, frozen waterfalls, steamy thermal pools and abundant animals.
- Your own private national park
We had two different tour guides tell us that Yellowstone National Park receives about the same amount of guests through its entire winter season as it does in a single busy summer day. We believe it. We witnessed Old Faithful erupt with only about eight others present. We watched Castle Geyser spew water and steam for 30 minutes with only one other person as witness. We snowshoed the popular Lone Star Geyser trail for three hours and only saw two other people the entire time.
- It’s spiritual, life changing
This is one of those trips that leave you forever changed, in a good way. The winter sights, sounds and close-up look at how wildlife endures the harsh winter touched us to the core. Yellowstone sits atop an active super-volcano and experiences up to 3,000 earthquakes annually. The park is home to half of the world’s geysers, a result of how close magma is to the surface. We watched in fascination as a fox listened intently to detect a mouse moving under two feet of snow. When the prey was located the fox sprang into the air and performed a headfirst dive into the snow to get its meal. It’s all so harsh and yet so fragile and so beyond our comprehension.
- Animals are abundant
There is nothing quite like hearing the howl of a wolf or trekking on snowshoes to discover that a bison warming by a thermal pool is blocking your trail! Yellowstone’s bears may sleep away the winter in the cozy dens, but bison, elk, mule deer, moose, wolves, and coyotes roam the park.
In summer, the animal population spreads out throughout the mountains and forests. But in winter, animals concentrate in valleys where food is more abundant. Cool fast facts: Yellowstone is one of best places in the world to see wolves. The park is home to the largest bison population on public land. Trumpeter Swans migrate from the arctic to Yellowstone each year for the “milder” winter. Amazing!
- It’s so quiet
When snow covers everything the world tends to get quieter. With very few people around, no vehicles other than an occasional snow cat and snow cover absorbing more sound than bare ground you really get in tune with the sounds of the geysers, steam vents and bubbling mudpots. We did a night tour of Artists Paint Pots with flashlights and ice cleats and really immersed in the sounds since our sense of sight was limited to what our flashlight beam would reveal, most often the path in front of us.
- It’s steamy
- Cold winter air makes the park’s thermal features extra steamy. The added steam makes some geyser eruptions, like Old Faithful, seem much higher than they do in summer when you mostly see a column of water rising. The steam rising off thermal pools against a backdrop of snow and sky create some of the most beautiful landscapes you will ever witness.
- See Old Faithful geyser erupt without nary a soul around
Old Faithful is the must-see landmark for Yellowstone’s 4 million-plus visitors each year. Thousands pack the viewing boardwalks to see Old Faithful’s show several times daily. We saw Old Faithful dance with steam and water several times during our winter stay. The crowds ranged from eight to 15 spectators. We avoided the mid day eruption as this is when the snowmobile tours arrive and crowds can soar to 30-60. Kidding of course…
- Ski, skate, hike or snowshoe
Ski, skate, hike or snowshoe – the outdoor activity options are endless. If you enjoy an active vacation, Yellowstone National Park is your place. Explore a trail on skis or snowshoes. Skier shuttles and rental concessions operate out of Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Ice skate on outdoor rinks at Mammoth and Old Faithful. One day we hiked into Norris Geyser Basin and discovered a foot of snow had fallen since anyone had used the path. It was there I discovered true meaning of “breaking trail.” That will get your heart pumping!
- Yellowstone may hold the key to life on other planets
Yellowstone to scientists must be like a trip to Disney for kids. Researchers from around the world flock to Yellowstone to study its wildlife, ecosystem and thermal features. Hydrothermal pools host microscopic organisms that exist in extreme environments and may hold the key to life on other planets. Some of these microbes are similar to the first life forms capable of photosynthesis— the process that created earth’s atmosphere that would eventually support human life.
- It puts the wonder in winter wonderland
Yellowstone receives 50 to 200 inches of snow each year, depending on location, transforming the park into a winter wonderland like no others. Thermal pools burn through the snow, revealing their colorful depths. Ice arches form from the mist of thundering waterfalls. Wildlife clear away snow to munch on winter grass while their breath steams in the frigid air.
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park
Signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. and is widely held to be the first national park in the world. Yellowstone National Park is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined and 90 percent of the park has barely been touched.
Only two hotels operate inside the park in winter season – Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Lodging, food, transportation and activities are run by park concessionaire, Xanterra (with the exception of one general store). Now this could be a bad thing with no competition, but they do a great job. The Xanterra winter staff at Yellowstone often don’t leave the park for three months because of limited transportation options. When not pleasing guests with superior service and a true passion for Yellowstone, the Xanterra staff spends their days off exploring the park’s winter features with an enthusiasm that makes you think it was their first time.
We took close to 4,000 photos and still get goose bumps every time we look at them. This is a place that is bucket list worthy.