Why You Should Book a Winter Trip to Yellowstone National Park

Say goodbye to crowds and hello to open spaces and snowshoe trails when you visit Yellowstone in the winter.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the country’s most popular parks, welcoming a whopping 4.9 million visitors in 2021. And it’s popular for a reason. The park has over half of the world’s geysers, including Old Faithful, which has erupted every 44 minutes to two hours since 2000, and the continent’s largest supervolcano, the Yellowstone Caldera.

The Yellowstone landscape is big and beautiful — rivers cut through dramatic canyons and towering mountains provide an almost surreal backdrop to every excursion. The park’s expansive wilderness is home to some of the country’s largest and most famous megafauna, including bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk, all of which are spotted by visitors regularly.

Herd of American Bison in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

KenCanning/Getty Images

And while summer is by far the most popular time to visit the park, all that beauty and wonder doesn’t go away when the snow begins to fall. Between December and March, the park simply evolves into a quiet winter wonderland — one with minimal crowds and plenty of open space. In fact, a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park may just be the park’s best-kept secret. It requires a different approach and a bit more legwork, but the reward is a trip you won’t soon forget. Here's what you need to know about visiting Yellowstone in the winter.

Woman visiting Yellowstone hot spring in winter

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How to Access Yellowstone in the Winter

In the summer, you can drive all over the park, but when the snow falls, it’s a different story entirely. Snow covers the roads and avalanche danger is prevalent. The only part of Yellowstone National Park that remains open to cars year-round is the road between the North and Northeast Entrances — and even then, services are extremely limited. If you’re planning to drive into the park, make sure to check the park’s road status map before you leave.

The best way to get around the park in the winter is by traveling over the snow on skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, or snow coaches. This mode of travel offers a completely different park experience and lets guests get up close to the landscape and natural elements. In general, over-snow travel ends in mid-March and roads start re-opening to cars in mid-April.

Skiing and Snowshoeing in Yellowstone National Park

In the winter, Yellowstone National Park is a veritable playground for skiers and snowshoers. There are miles and miles of trail, some with a set track and others that will require you to break the trail yourself. Skiers and snowshoers can also travel on unplowed roads. 

Most ski and snowshoe travel starts from Mammoth Hot Springs near the North Entrance of the park. You can rent ski and snowshoe gear from the Bear Den Ski Shop in Mammoth Hot Springs or an outfitter just outside the park. If you’re venturing out without a guide, talk with a park ranger before you go to make sure the trails are open and conditions are safe.  

If you’re a newbie or aren’t well-versed in avalanche safety, your best bet is to go on a guided tour. The guide will provide the gear, transportation into the park, and a general level of safety for your winter foray into the mountains.

Snowmobile at Yellowstone National Park

Courtesy of Delaware North Parks and Resorts

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park

One of the best (and most fun) ways to see Yellowstone in winter is by snowmobile. Most people book a trip with a guide since only four non-commercially guided groups are allowed to enter the park each day (and a permit is required). Luckily, there are tons of outfitters who know the ins and outs of the park and can point you in the direction of wide-open powder fields waiting to be explored. 

If being out in the elements isn’t your cup of tea, you can book a snow coach through one of the many local snowmobile and snow coach outfitters in the area.

How to See Old Faithful

Watching Old Faithful erupt in the winter is pure magic. With a blanket of fresh snow and no crowds, you can fully experience the wonder of this powerful (and punctual) geyser. 

But, unlike the summer, you’ll need to book a trip with a snowmobile or snow coach company to get to the site. It’s a little extra work, but the lack of crowds and the juxtaposition of the fiery eruption against the snowy backdrop make it well worth the effort. 

Explorer Cabins in a snow storm at Yellowstone National Park

Courtesy of Yellowstone Vacations

Where to Stay in Yellowstone During the Winter

The only in-park lodging that’s open in the winter is the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the latter of which is only accessible via over-snow transportation. Since rooms are limited at both lodges, make your reservation as far in advance as possible. You can also look at lodging in the nearby communities of Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City, Montana. 

If you want to brave the elements, there is a year-round tent campground in Mammoth Hot Springs just 5 miles south of the park's North Entrance. Just keep in mind that services are limited and the campground is closed until January 1, 2023 due to the June flooding.

What to Pack

Visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter requires an entirely different wardrobe than a summer trip. In the winter, temperatures range from zero to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and sub-zero temperatures are common at night and at higher elevations.

Layers are key in order to prevent overheating, which precedes a chill that can be hard to shake. Pack long underwear, a wool sweater, a down jacket, and a wind and waterproof outer layer (like a GoreTex jacket and pants). You’ll also want to bring synthetic or wool socks, gloves or mittens, a warm winter hat, and even gaiters to keep your feet warm and dry. 

Even though the temperatures can be frigid, the sun will likely be shining, so make sure to pack sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.

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