There are families who vacation on the beach and families who vacation on super volcanoes. We invite you to consider exploring Yellowstone in the winter.
Why head south when you could visit a semi-frozen caldera where, despite the below freezing temps, you can witness geysers and thermal waters escape from the frigid rock beneath.
Yellowstone, the world’s first national park was designated a protected area in 1872. For many, it’s the iconic summer family trip. But for a few (the true park-fanatics) it represents a perfect winter family retreat.
Let me put it this way: Think, all the beauty, just way fewer bears.
Not to mention, fewer people too. Likely, the reduced visitation comes from the fact that only one of the park roads is actually accessible by car during the winter months.
If you want to access the park’s interior sites like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, you’ll need to jump on a snowmobile or snowcoach to get there.
With limited road access comes a more intimate opportunity to experience the park. Wolves, bison, and elk are active year-round and often visible on or near park roads.
And besides the quiet crunching of snow underneath your feet, you’ll be able to hear the thermal features bubble and erupt with only a few other people around.
As someone who loves Yellowstone in the winter, I’m excited to share some of the best ways to make your family’s trip one they’ll remember.
What’s different about visiting in the winter?
The winter season in the park stretches from mid-December through mid-March. These dates also happen to be some of the coldest and darkest months in the park. But don’t worry- that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
Most stores, visitor centers, and hotels are closed during the winter, so you’ll want to verify that the hotels you are researching are actually open. Take a look at the open services on the park webpage.
Travel to the park’s interior
Looking to visit Old Faithful? You’ll need to ride on a snowcoach or join a snowmobile tour to make it into the park.
You can also plan ahead and take your own sleds, but you’ll need to claim a permit through the park’s non-commercially guided snowmobile access program.
Not familiar with oversnow travel? No worries, these bus/coach cabs are able to move over the snow in one of two ways, either by giant low pressure tires (LPT) or with the use of mattracks.
Drivers of these oversnow vehicles keep their cabs heated, which is a great bonus for families with little ones. Be sure to pack snacks and binoculars since the ride is slow (top speeds of 35 mph) but will offer incredible opportunities wildlife viewing along the way.
Other great adventures along the way:
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Old Faithful geyser tours
Guided vs non-guided snowmobile tours
Looking for another way to explore the park and have older kids? Several companies are located just outside the park’s North, West, East, and South entrances and offer guided snowmobile tours for families.
Keep in mind, however, that many companies set minimum and maximum age limits for children passengers.
For some, a trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without seeing Old Faithful. Although it can be competitive to book a room, staying at the Old Faithful Snowlodge is one of the most romantic and reflective ways to experience the park.
Even with kids in-tow, seeing Old Faithful erupt under the stars, or enjoying a hot beverage by the lodge’s fireplace can bring a sense of peace to your trip.
Be sure to stop by the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center where you can learn about the Young Scientist program and join a guided walk of the geysers.
Live like a local
Although hotels are available in the park in Mammoth and Old Faithful, space is limited and can fill quickly. Gateway communities such as West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City, Montana have a mix of both hotels and vacation rentals.
When our family travels, we always look for vacation rentals first, and here’s why: extra space, individual sleeping areas, kitchenettes, and private laundry.
If you go the route of a rental in Gardiner or West Yellowstone, you’ll be able to stock up on supplies at the local grocery store.
Another reason we favor rentals is for the ease of making meals. Our kids can be crazy, especially when we’re off of our normal schedule. If they are stir crazy from touring in the car, or have a serious case of the wiggles, we can just dine in.
Vacation rentals help me keep my sanity and allow my kids just a little bit of freedom they need.
Travel by car
Traveling to the park’s interior can get expensive, and requires you to travel on a set schedule. If you are looking for more trip flexibility, just stick to the northern part of the park (Mammoth at the the Northeast Entrance) where you will be able to stretch your dollar further and spend less time traveling on the oversnow shuttle.
Here are a few ways to enjoy park’s only open road:
- Become a Winter Junior Ranger
- Wolf watching in Lamar Valley
- Ski and snowshoe (tips for doing it with kids here)
- Enjoy the sights (and smells) of the Mammoth Terraces
- Pack a family picnic
In 2020 Yellowstone will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to the park. These incredibly social and dynamic species are seen frequently in the Lamar Valley.
Before you head out, check in at the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs to chat with a ranger. They’ll have all the details on wildlife sightings, important travel warnings, and area recommendations.
Pack your own binoculars or check with local shops in Gardiner, MT to rent a spotting scope. Depending on where the wolf packs are at, you can often view them safely from your vehicle!
Try this: Graze like the Bison
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve driven through the park in the winter only to see every visitor only a few feet from their car. I get it- it’s cold, the snow is deep, but I challenge you to embrace the snow and venture out on a scientific lunch with the family.
Spend the morning learning about the different wildlife in the northern range of Yellowstone at the Albright Visitor Center. Then pack a lunch (or grab lunch to-go from a local restaurant), and find a safe quiet place to picnic.
Depending on the winter season, you may have one foot of snow or four- but that’s the best part.
If you have little ones, challenge them to walk a ways away from the road with you. Stay away from trees (deep snow will form a deep “wells” that you often can’t see) and stick within your comfort zone. There’s no need to make this a backcountry trip.
Just work together and take turns to pack down a path for the youngest to walk through.
Once you find the perfect picnic spot, have the kids roll, stomp, and jump to make your own bison “wallow.”
After lunch, talk about how bison use their big burly heads to move the snow to get to the vegetation underneath- then have the kids dig to see who can find vegetation first!
View the thermal features
“…it was not till I had scalded my finger in the pool, that I succeeded in banishing the desire to plunge into what seemed to be a delicious bath.”-Thomas E. Sherman (1877).
Time for a brief safety message. Yellowstone’s thermal features are as beautiful as they are dangerous. Thin crust and acidic boiling water are no place to test your bravery.
Many adults and children have been injured and even killed by falling into these incredible pools. For your family’s safety, and the safety of these hundred-year old resources, stay on the boardwalks. Need a bit more of a reality check? Read this book.
Now, don’t let the above message deter you from taking the time to learn about the incredible science behind the formation of the geysers and hot springs. The sights, sounds, and smells will provide you and the kids with an experience like no-other.
Keep in mind, that although park rangers maintain the boardwalks, heavy snowfall can accumulate quickly. Expect to walk on snow for a majority of your trip, and if you can, pack or purchase foot traction devices.
Skate, Ski and Snowshoe
Cabin fever is a real thing- especially if you have little kids. After a few car rides or evenings in the lodge, you might start to notice your kids literally bouncing off the walls. Help burn off some of that built up energy with some free or low-cost activities.
Both the Mammoth Hotel and Old Faithful Snowlodge have outdoor ice skating rinks. Grab a pair of the free skates at the warming hut or chill by the outdoor bonfires.
Both hotels in the park and local shops just outside the park’s entrances will have skis and snowshoes you can rent. If you have a real little one bring a baby carrier or call before hand to see if there are any you can borrow. Take a look at some Mountain Mama tested packs to get a better idea of what will work for you!
I’ve found the best way to adventure and log some miles with my kiddos is on snowshoe. It might be slow going, but it sure beats post-holing up to your knees or higher in deep snow.
Snowshoes also allow you to make your own path, which for my oldest is especially important. Each time we vacation, I notice early-on that I’ve over scheduled our days.
Things like picking the activity, or leading the group on a walk are ways that I can involve my kids in the decision making, and help them feel a small sense of independence.
Ranger programs are also available by snowshoe. Take a look at the event calendar each day to see if you can join a free guided educational walk!
- Food and drink: Pack plenty of snacks and encourage everyone to stay hydrated. Long days and higher altitudes can take take time to get used to. Fend off the headaches by increasing your water breaks.
- What to wear: Thicker isn’t always better (especially if luggage space is limited). Layer your outfits with synthetic fabrics. Learn more about cold weather gear and ways to pack smarter.
- Driving safely: Expect park roads to be covered in ice and snow. If you are using a rental vehicle, check to see if they have an all-wheel drive or SUV. Park roads are narrow and wildlife frequent the roadways, so take it slow. Shorter days means less daylight. Try to plan your day during daylight hours of 8am-4:30pm.
- Limited to no cell phone reception: This is a tough one for many people. Yellowstone is able to remain wild and rustic for several reasons, one of them being limited cell phone reception. Although this might be welcomed by some, limited connectivity can be a challenge, especially when out on the road. Tell another person your travel plans and make sure to pack food, blankets, and a flashlight if at all possible.
There are so many things to do and see during the winter! Here are some additional links for your trip planning!
- NPS Trip Planning
- Bozeman International Airport
- Yellowstone National Park Lodges
- West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce
- Gardiner Chamber of Commerce
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