Yellowstone is magical any time of the year, but winter offers unique delights.
The challenge of visiting Yellowstone in the winter is making it affordable. Packages can run into the thousands of dollars for just a few days in the park. And, while I’m sure seeing Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, or Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is a special experience in the winter, not everyone can afford the prices charged for these experiences.
The good news is that there are more affordable and accessible ways to see the wildlife, canyons and geothermal features of Yellowstone.
- Stay in Gardiner
Just outside the north entrance to the park, Gardiner offers hotels, B&Bs, and home stays (VRBO, Airbnb) for roughly $100-$200 per night. Lodging in the park costs more and you have to book it months (even a full year!) in advance.
Gardiner is a cute town with a grocery store, gas stations, decent local restaurants (we liked the pizza and vibe at K-Bar), and elk who hold up traffic on the bridge over the Yellowstone River!
By staying in Gardiner you have quick access to the park. It’s just a 15-minute drive to Mammoth Hot Springs, where you’ll find the Albright Visitor Center and Museum. Personnel at the Visitor Center can answer your questions and book you on ranger-guided excursions like snowshoeing. You can also get a bite to eat at the Mammoth Terrace Grill and load up on supplies and gifts at the Mammoth General Store.
If you have an RV and are prepared for winter conditions, the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs is open year-round. I think this may be my next winter adventure in Yellowstone – to stay in the camper for a few nights and listen to the sound of winter silence.
- Take a scenic drive
The only road in Yellowstone that is open through the winter runs across the north part of the park, from Mammoth Hot Springs to the northeast entrance of the park (near Cooke City). Depending on the weather and road conditions, you may want/need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. When we drove the road it seemed fine and then we came across a flat stretch where the blowing snow had created drifts on the road. Our SUV handled it well, but a smaller vehicle would have had a problem. Check in with the folks at the visitor center in Mammoth to get their advice. And, if you can, bring a high-clearance 4WD vehicle so you have more options.
Why drive in the park? You’ll likely see lots of bison along the road and maybe some other wildlife. Pull over wherever there is space for cars and step out to take in the views. Stand in silence with your camera ready – you never know if you’ll see a creature once you let yourself settle into nature. You’ll likely come across a group of people who have their scopes set up in hope of spotting a wolf. If they aren’t busy, make conversation and learn about Yellowstone’s wolves and those who obsess about them.
- Go snowshoeing
Whether you take a ranger-led snowshoe tour of the Mammoth Hot Springs, or go snowshoeing on your own, this is an easy and ideal way to experience Yellowstone in the winter. And, if you have your own snowshoes, it’s free!
The ranger-led Snowshoe Discovery is a fun way to learn more about the geothermal features, hear stories about ranger-life in Yellowstone, and get outside! When I did the tour it took about 2 hours, but we had to make way for a parade of bison, so it took a little longer than otherwise. The hike is around the Upper Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs. If you have experience snowshoeing or nordic skiing and can’t get on a ranger-guided trek, go ahead and do the circle yourself. Just be prepared for a wildlife encounter – the rangers suggest keeping a tree between yourself and the animals.
Eager to do more snowshoeing, we drove out to Tower Junction to get to the snowshoe/nordic path out to Tower Falls. This trek is a bit more of a challenge than Mammoth’s Upper Terrace but can be tackled by anyone with a little experience and a good attitude. To get there, take Grand Loop Road east from Mammoth Hot Springs. When you get to Tower Junction, there is a left turn from Grand Loop Road onto Northeast Entrance Road (Hwy 212). Don’t turn left, but rather go straight. You should find space for parking along Grand Loop Road, just past the turnoff to the northeast entrance. Note: just before the intersection you will see some buildings on your right. You may find an open bathroom there, which you should visit before starting your snowshoeing trek.
The snowshoeing trek is pretty straightforward. You follow Grand Loop Road uphill to an overlook on your left. There is a low wall here and a canyon beyond the wall. You are standing on steep cliffs with the Yellowstone River roaring far below. Notice the basalt columns lined up in the cliffs across the river. Now turn around and notice the basalt columns on the right-hand side of the road as you snowshoe past. You’ll also pass under an overhanging cliff, a spot that always makes me a little nervous!
Keep following the road downhill until you come across the Tower General Store (which isn’t open in the winter) on your left. Go past the store and around to the left and you’ll find a trail that will take you to the lookout to view Tower Falls.
Look out for bison along the trail – just keep your distance and don’t antagonize them.
- Wander the boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs
If you were visiting in the summer, the boardwalks of the Lower Terraces at Mammoth would be busy with tourists and you would likely be uncomfortably hot. But in the winter, you will be able to wander through the hot springs greeting the rare visitor, sharing the space with bison and birds.
The maintenance personnel keep the boardwalks clear, but wear some type of traction devices on your boots. Sliding down the snow-packed stairs at one point required clinging to the hand rail without traction devices strapped to my boots.
Make sure you wander the boardwalks on the Upper Terraces as well. The views there are spectacular and the hot springs are quite different from those on the Lower Terraces.
- Wildlife viewing along Old Yellowstone Trail
This is the big secret. Don’t tell everyone about it or it’ll ruin the peacefulness of this drive!
If you’ve got an hour or two on your hands and want to see more wildlife, head north from Gardiner on Old Yellowstone Trail. The road is on the south side of the Yellowstone River, and you’ll find it running along the south side of the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center. Google maps will show the road.
Along this road you’ll likely find some of the best wildlife viewing. When we drove the road in February, it was like being on a winter safari. We saw herds of bison, antelope, and elk. Look for bald eagles in the trees along the river. You’ll notice some fencing and pens that seem to be associated with wildlife studies.
We drove past LaDuke Spring Campground and took a left at Cinnabar Basin Road, where we saw a few deer. But the winter conditions on Cinnabar Basin Road became more difficult, so we turned around and headed back to Gardiner. Just north of LaDuke Spring Campground you’ll find a bridge that will take you over to Highway 89 if you want to get back to Gardiner more quickly, but my recommendation is to trace your path back along Old Yellowstone Trail, for just one reason – the view of the Roosevelt Arch in the valley. As you approach Gardiner, you’ll come over a rise where the valley is laid out below and you’ll see the Arch at the entrance to the park. If you are lucky, you will see bison in the foreground and the light on the valley will be stunning. This classic Yellowstone moment is brought to you from outside the park – and didn’t cost you anything but a little gasoline.
Keeping it Affordable
If you are considering a visit to Yellowstone in the winter, I urge you to compare the costs and potential experiences that are available to you. There are many ways to experience Yellowstone and there is nothing wrong with spending the money on a package tour or visiting on the cheap.
The National Park website will guide you to take a snowcat or snowmobile to the Old Faithful area, stay a few nights and go on a pricey group tour. While I’m sure this is an incredible experience and it should be on my bucket list, it is expensive and very remote. Not everyone can afford that version of the Yellowstone winter experience, and some people are nervous about being in such a remote place without quick access to medical care or communications. Even if you decide to spend the money for that experience, you may want to extend your visit to include the experiences I’ve shared.
Our national parks should be accessible and affordable for all Americans. They are treasures and it is possible to have a valuable experience while sticking to your budget!