Pack the car and take the kids on an epic expedition of snow, steam and solitude.
By Don Thompson
It was -28F – but it was a dry -28.
There were no clouds, no wind, and no crowds. Our family of four headed out across the Upper Geyser basin on one of the most extraordinary hikes we’d ever taken: We passed bison grazing in the snow, geysers belching steam, ponds bubbling with various, multi-color liquids, and trees coated with clumps of geothermally-special snow.
We’d driven 1,200 miles in two days, from Christmas in sunny Southern California to New Year’s in icy northern Yellowstone. We entered the world’s first national park near Bozeman, Montana and stayed at Mammoth Hot Springs so that we could drive through the Lamar Valley – the only road open to private vehicles in the winter. In just one day on that drive, we saw few cars but many elk, bighorn sheep, otter, moose, and bison existing in the epic snow.
Yes, it was freezing. Yes, we all got our annual post-Christmas bout of flu-like illness. Yes, my son did the whole snowy week on crutches. And yes, we would do it again in a heartbeat. The entire experience was unforgettable. Hands down, Yellowstone in winter is a must-see spectacle that is worth every dollar, minute, and shiver you can muster.
Scenes from a Winter Road Trip
to Yellowstone National Park
The national park service snowcoach stops south of Mammoth Hot Springs for a quick sunrise walk…
Summer’s two-hour drive to Old Faithful Snow Lodge takes half a day in winter – but there was much to see along the way. Bison everywhere…
And vast expanses of white broken by distant geysers …
Arriving at the Old Faithful visitor center in the winter Snow Lodge, we went straight out the back door to see Old Faithful do its thing. Where summer has rings of theater seating around its base, we watched it erupt with about 100 people tops during midday, and at other times of the day, we often got a private show…
The next day we headed out to hike the Upper Geyser Basin loop, a tourist madhouse in the dry season but we had the place all to ourselves. It really was -28F but it didn’t feel any colder than a day in the Sierras. There were so many odd sights where the ground was warm from hot springs so caused interesting pools or bizarre crystal formations…
In the middle of Upper Geyser Basin loop, bison grazed close to the path – a bit too close for comfort in spots, given no one could have heard us scream if they decided to charge. But they went about their business and we went about ours…
We walked for a couple hours, seeing too many geysers and pools to count. We headed to Morning Glory Pool before turning back for the lodge…
On the way back, Castle Geyser gave a command, private performance. It was one of our favorites…
The next day’s return snowcoach trip through Firehole Basin did not disappoint. Crazy bubbling pools of different colors were worth the walk in the snow…
Arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge and took a quick hike to see its namesake springs partially frozen…
Headed out before sunrise for our drive through the “American Serengeti” – the Lamar Valley. It was snowing lightly when we left so many animals were still covered in white blankets…
One highlight was tracking this young moose through the trees until it walked into the road and stared back at us. Most moose head south to the Jackson area for the winter so they’re harder to find than other animals…
By the time we returned to Mammoth Hot Springs, the sun was out and bighorns were grazing the hillsides…
We ended our visit beneath Yellowstone’s historic Roosevelt Arch, dedicated in 1903.
The Good Stuff
Empty Park Did I mention the park is almost empty? One evening, I watched Old Faithful erupt with ONE other person. Even during the middle of the day, there are fewer than 100 people there to watch its show. Travelers during non-holiday weeks in winter would likely have the whole place to themselves. As everyone knows, the number of visitors in the summer has reached a ridiculous level, bringing not just bad traffic but bad behavior.
Wild Stuff Wildlife stands out nicely against the white snow – except when they’re first waking up and still covered in powder, of course. It is even possible to see wolves – the wolf spotters set up high-power scopes along the roads and this is the only time you’ll see multiple cars in one spot during the winter. Click here for what animals you might see where.
Park People The Xanterra reservationists are the kindest most helpful folks you will ever talk to on the phone. We were booking at the last minute and I had to call a few times. Each time, the receptionist worked hard to get us the coach rides and hotel nights we needed. The tour guides who drive the snowcoaches are fantastic too and equipped with historic and natural tales of the park.
More than Snowy Scenes If you’re looking for a place with epic snow and elk, you can likely go somewhere far easier. Yellowstone’s geothermal show and bizarre natural formations are what’s unique here – not to mention the expanse of white space.
Perfect Winter Hike The Upper Geyser Basin Hike runs from the Snow Lodge, up the small Geyser Hill, out past many geysers, pools and streams to Morning Glory Pool, and returns past Castle Geyser. It’s a perfect day hike during winter if the weather cooperates. Walkways are raised and trails are well marked, even in winter, so no one falls into any boiling pools.
Outdoor Action You can snowmobile, cross country ski, snowshoe and more from the winter Snow Lodge. We had clear weather so we were able to hike in snow boots for a full day but they offer tours of the same loops on snowshoes or skis if you prefer. We did the Firehole Basin trip on the way north and enjoyed it. Click here for a list of winter activities.
Budget Trip You can get a motel in Gardiner or even camp year-round at Mammoth Hot Springs, and you can drive there in your own car, which makes it possible to do winter Yellowstone on a budget. That said, the snowcoach trips to/from the Snow Lodge and day tours around the park are pricy per person. I thought they were worth it, though, because you really can’t do that on your own unless you’re a hardcore local.
The Not So Good
Cold Spots Yellowstone’s winter lodging is not set up for winter, oddly enough. You must walk 100 feet between the Mammoth Hot Springs building with the rooms to eat at the only restaurant. It doesn’t sound far but I was pretty sick when we stayed there and the sub-zero temps knocked the wind out of me one night. In the geyser basin at the Snow Lodge, if you stay in one of the “cabins” like we did, you have to walk quite a ways – like 1,000 feet or more – through the snow to reach the main lodge with all the food and services. It’s not a big deal if it’s not stormy and you can bundle up, but it is something to be aware of. On the snowcoach tours, the vans are plenty warm after making stops to see the sights – though you should bring a credit card and rag to keep the windows ice- and fog-free.
Short Days Winter travel means fewer daylight hours. The sun rises around 8am and sets around 5pm-ish so you can’t pack too much into one day.
Good to Know
Start with Xanterra Call these fine folks, tell them what you want to do, and they’ll give you the scoop on what is available for your dates. These experts know all the lodging, transport and tour options and it is just about a one-stop shop for booking.
Limited Lodging There are only two spots to stay in the park during winter – Mammoth Hot Springs (closed to overnight visits during winter 2018-19 for renovations but normally open year round) and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins (open mid- December to early March). Yellowstone visitors wanting more nightlife and/or action and don’t mind skipping the self-drive trip through the Lamar Valley will prefer to stay in Jackson, Wyoming, and come into the park via NPS services from the south.
Limited Access To reach Old Faithful, Yosemite Canyon, and most other areas of the park, you must take a NPS snowcoach. These tickets often sell out the quickest – especially from Jackson in the south. You can also snowmobile into the park from certain areas but if you are reading this, you are not likely a regular visitor to the wilds of the western winter. The snowmobilers we met in the “warming hut” (read: trailer) were eerily silent and one of the most uncomfortable looking groups I’d seen in a long time. And if they weren’t happy, your family would be miserable.
Read about more epic snow adventures in ROAM’s Winter Bucket List
Don Thompson – November 2018
When he’s not running Carbon Five, Don is researching ROAM travel options and teaching valuable life lessons to his kids (like how to survive for a month in Ireland on $20 by hitchhiking, camping in backyards and eating peanut butter off a Swiss Army knife without slicing your mouth). Read: 1 Day, 2 Volcanoes, 3 Islands, Heaven in Hell’s Canyon and Winter Yellowstone Road Trip.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
This holiday season, give your family the gift of travel.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Dream of leaving behind the hustle & bustle for the open roads? Here's how.
First-rate recreational activities to tackle in the Second City
From European glamping to Maine kayaking, check out these last-chance summer escapes
10 perfect days of the historic streets, epic meals, and coastal bliss that Portugal can deliver
See dinosaur footprints, salt flats, vicunas and red rock canyons.
Break the mold this spring break with a unique & unforgettable trip
Brrrrrrrrave the cold for unforgettable, frosty fun