Because of our Yellowstone habit, people often ask us what they should do when they are planning a visit to the park. It’s a hard question to answer, not just because of all there is to do, but because we have so many favorites. We have favorite hikes. We have favorite geysers. We have favorite picnic areas. It’s weird. I know.
Yellowstone’s winter is an adventure in comparatives. It is more beautiful and less crowded than it is in other seasons. It is more difficult to get around. Even the animals take the road. It is more difficult to do simple and necessary tasks: consider a visit to an unheated vault “comfort station” at nineteen degrees below zero. There are fewer places to go, just two places to stay, and only one picnic area open. This makes it easier to answer the question of what to do in Yellowstone in winter.
Important to Know:
Of Yellowstone’s 310 miles of paved roadway, only the fifty-two mile stretch between the North and Northeast entrances is open to wheeled vehicles in the winter. All other park roads are either closed or open to over-snow vehicles only.
Things to Do:
Drive the open road. This will take you through the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the American Serengeti because of its abundant and varied wildlife. Thirty-one grey wolves from western Canada were released in the valley in the 1990s. While some stayed and made it their home, others move in for a share in winter’s prey. Our drive through the Lamar brought us within good viewing distance of bison, elk, big horn sheep, and even two wolves feasting on a bull elk carcass. The road will take you over the Yellowstone River, along the Lamar River, Soda Butte Creek and Ice Box Canyon, and to the foot of Baronette Peak.
Take a walk. Explore Mammoth Hot Spring’s Lower Terrace; meander through the Mammoth Hot Springs community; along Officer’s Row, named for the homes which housed army officers when the Mammoth area was Fort Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Area has walkable paths between the Snow Lodge and its cabins, the Visitors Center, and the Old Faithful boardwalk. You can watch Old Faithful erupt from the boardwalk or the warmth of the Visitors Center.
Listen. My dad has said that Yellowstone’s winter silence almost sucks the sound out of your head. You don’t have to get far from a building or your vehicle to hear the sound of silence, but you do have to stop. You even have to stop walking: shoes, skis, and snowshoes all squeak on the snow. If you stop, not only will you hear the immense silence, you may hear something you can’t hear in another season. We heard Lava Creek’s water flow below Undine Falls, something we’ve never heard in the autumn.
Nothing. Really. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel lobby has chairs drawn up cozily around a fire. Its Map Room, named for the grand inlaid map of the United States, has a wall of windows and a gracious bay, a lending library for games and books, and comfortable seating to enjoy it all, as well as musical entertainment in the evening. (See below.) Those and the Snow Lodge’s chair-lined fire, game tables, and snug seating areas are great spaces to spend an hour or even a day reading and thinking or watching the humanity around you.
Devote an evening to live music and Yellowstone history. Randy Ingersoll came to Yellowstone during the 1970s and knew he wanted to stay there forever. Thirty-six years later, he’s still in the park and most evenings can be found in the Mammoth Hot Springs Map Room, where he welcomes and entertains guests not only with the music that comes from the grand piano he plays, but also his warmth and love for Yellowstone. He closes his evening with one of several programs about Yellowstone’s history, including his riveting story of being mauled by a bear. For our family, an evening in the Map Room, visiting with Randy and listening to his music and presentation is a highlight in any season. If you have a chance to hear him, ask him to play one of his original pieces. They are delightful.
Ice skate. Both the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge have outdoor skating rinks for their guests to use, as well as skates in all sizes. They are lit, well-maintained, sheltered from the wind, and have an inviting fire each evening. Even if you aren’t a skater, it’s worth an evening stroll to sit for a few moments by the fire.
Snowshoe. Snowshoes are available for rent in the park, as are cross-country skis and lessons for beginners. I’ve done both and prefer snowshoeing. We take trails that we can reach from the road or our lodging: Observation Point above Old Faithful, the Upper Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, and the Upper Geyser Basin at Old Faithful.