20 Apr DIY Winter Adventures in Yellowstone National Park
In the winter, Yellowstone National Park is a magical place. The weather may be unpredictable, but if you are willing to venture out and explore, you will be rewarded. There are so many fantastic winter adventures in Yellowstone National Park, such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, snowshoeing, encountering an abundance of wildlife, and more.
When a work trip sent us to Wyoming this past winter, we were excited to extend the trip to venture over to Yellowstone for a couple of days. We had never been to the park, and we are always up for an off-season adventure, especially during the winter season. During our visit, we set out on several activities without booking a tour, and we had a great time finding fun DIY winter adventures in Yellowstone National Park.
Winter brings plenty of changes to Yellowstone. For one, the only road open in the park during the winter is the road at the North Entrance from Gardiner, MT, to Cooke City, MT. This road takes you to the Mammoth Hot Springs area and through Lamar Valley. In the winter, most other locations in Yellowstone can only be accessed via snow roads on a tour. Sometimes the park has several feet of snow on the ground (the park averages over 12 feet of snow per year), and sometimes there is less than a foot like there was during our visit. Another change is that dining and lodging are limited as many of the restaurants and hotels close for the winter season. But due to these changes and the challenging winter weather, the park sees fewer visitors. To us, this was a welcome treat!
Our visit to Yellowstone National Park was in January of 2021, so we also had the additional limitations of the pandemic in place. This meant even fewer resorts and hotels open, fewer tours offered, some amenities closed, social distancing measures in place, and mask requirements. None of these regulations negatively affected our trip though, and we felt comfortable with how the park was adhering to pandemic regulations and protocols.
Read on to hear all of the fun DIY adventures we had during our visit to Yellowstone National Park in the winter. And if you travel there yourself, be sure to check the park’s website for current park conditions, openings, closures, and updated information.
Where we Stayed: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
When we found ourselves booking a short, last minute trip to Yellowstone National Park, we had to figure out where to stay. In the summer, lodging can book up almost a year in advance. Thankfully, the winter season often offers more flexibility and options for last minute bookings. Since our trip was so short, we wanted to stay in the park to maximize our time. After I noticed a 30% off promotion for winter stays, our decision was made. We were staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for two nights.
The hotel’s recent renovation was completed in 2019, and it felt both new and historic at the same time. Our room was quite large with two queen beds (the only option available when we booked two days in advance!), a small sitting area, and a large bathroom. We enjoyed the historic nods throughout the hotel, such as the bellhop calls in our room and the giant wooden map in the Map Room. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was a cozy place to stay, and the location really can’t be beat!
During the winter of 2020-2021, the only hotel open inside the park was the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. The other hotel that is typically open in the winter is Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins, but it was closed this year due to the pandemic. Park visitors can also camp in the park or stay at lodging in nearby towns.
If you want to drive into the park yourself during the winter season, the closest town to stay in would be Gardiner, Montana. The North Entrance of the park is located in Gardiner and it is the only park entrance open to individual passenger vehicles during the winter. The other towns that are gateways to Yellowstone National Park are Cody, WY; West Yellowstone, MT; and Jackson, WY. If you decide to stay in any of these locations during the winter, you can access the park through a guided tour as the park entrances are closed for the season.
Explore the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
The Mammoth Hot Springs are hydrothermal features that some people say look like an inside-out cave. And that description is pretty accurate! Hydrothermal features always fascinate us, and the Mammoth Hot Springs were no exception. Observing the multicolored terraces steam, hiss, and spurt, almost made us feel like we were on another planet.
A boardwalk was built around the springs to create a trail that is roughly 1.75 miles long. You can explore both the Upper and Lower Terraces on the boardwalks via foot. If you want to cross country ski or snowshoe around the area, the Upper Terrace Loop Ski Trail is a groomed 1.5-mile-long trail. We wanted to snowshoe this trail, but unfortunately, we ran out of time. However, we did manage to walk around the Upper and Lower Terrace boardwalks to explore.
We wandered along the boardwalks and caught a fantastic sunset from the upper terraces. The skies turned cotton candy pink and were reflected in the glass like surface of the hot springs.
We even bundled up and made our way back to the springs at night for some star photos. Micah was dragging his feet and wanted to stay in for the night, but I convinced him to come with me to check on the skies. Well, we were both so glad we ventured out. There were some clouds in the sky, but the stars were still so bright and beautiful!
Search for Wildlife in the Lamar Valley
Most of the roads in the park are closed to regular passenger vehicles during the winter season, but as we mentioned, one road remains open for visitors to explore on their own. It starts in Gardiner, MT, at the Yellowstone Park North Entrance gate, and runs through the north portion of the park all the way to Cooke City, MT. The road that goes beyond Cooke City (Beartooth Path) is closed for the winter season, so you’ll have to head back through the park to continue exploring.
The open park road runs through the Lamar Valley, which as luck would have it, happens to be a great spot for viewing wildlife. As we drove through the park, we spotted more bison than we could count, deer, elk, and even a few wolves.
We stopped for deer as they grazed the hills and crossed the roads, and we pulled over and observed bison in the snowfields. When bison were walking along the side of the road, drenched in heavy snow, we stopped to wait for them to pass.
We laughed as we watched a giant elk hang out in front of the Mammoth General Store. And, when we pulled over in the Tower Fall parking lot, our car neighbors shared their binoculars with us so we could see the tree wolves in the nearby field. The wildlife sightings were fantastic and pretty constant, too!
Throughout our time driving around the Lamar Valley, we encountered both clear roads and icy/snowy roads. The first afternoon that we ventured out we lucked out with blue skies and dry roads. The next day was a different story. We started with partially snow-covered roads and took care to drive slowly. As the day progressed, the roads improved, but just as we got close to Cooke City, the snow started to fall. We stopped in town for a coffee and were told to be careful out on the roads because a tow from the ditch is $500! Thankfully, we are used to snowy roads and have a larger vehicle with good snow tires, so we were fine as long as we drove with caution. The roads did get icy as we made our way back through the park, though, and we did get stuck behind a car getting towed out of the ditch. The weather changes fast in Yellowstone National Park, so be sure you are ready for all conditions if you head out on your own. There are plenty of lookouts and spots to pull over, so take your time and keep an eye out for wildlife when you stop!
Snowshoeing the Tower Fall Trail
We knew we wanted to get out and explore Yellowstone on foot, so we packed our snowshoes for the trip. When we arrived, we stopped in the Bear Den Ski Shop at our hotel to ask about the current trail conditions and for any recommendations. The Tower Fall Trail was their suggestion, and after learning a bit more about it, we were excited to give it a go.
The trail starts near the parking lot at Tower Junction, and it follows a road that is closed during the winter months. In the summer and less snowy parts of the year, guests can drive the loop to reach the waterfall via car. But winter tells another story when the road is off limits to cars and transforms into a cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking trail. The trail to Tower Fall is 2.5 miles each way, and you can continue on along the Chittenden Loop Trail for an additional 5.3 miles if you really want to get away from it all.
To start, we strapped on our snowshoes and made our way along the trail. Snowshoers and hikers have to stay on the left side of trail and off of the groomed cross country ski trail. The trail starts out relatively flat, but it continues with a pretty steady incline the majority of the way. In no way was the trail steep, but after the continuous incline, our legs were sure feeling it! Around a mile into the hike, we decided the snow wasn’t deep enough for snowshoes, so we slipped them off, strapped them to the backpack and continued by hiking the rest of the trail.
About 2 miles into the hike, there is a viewing platform at Calcite Springs Overlook that provides views of the Yellowstone River, as well as the narrowest part of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. The views from here were spectacular and you could even see steam that was created by hydrothermal vents rising from the river.
The overlook was definitely worth a stop…the actual waterfall, Tower Fall, not so much. It’s not that the waterfall isn’t scenic, it’s just a bit of a letdown after the Calcite Springs Overlook. The waterfall was frozen over, and the ice was so thick that it was hard to tell there was even a waterfall in front of us. If we had not heard the water rushing behind the ice, we might have actually missed it!
The basalt columns and rocks that you pass along the trail were very impressive though, so we were still glad we completed the entire hike to the waterfall and back.
The views along the trail were beautiful, and we almost felt like we had the park all to ourselves. We hiked for roughly 3-3.5 hours and around 6 miles in total, and we only ran into a handful of other hikers, snowshoers, and skiers. We heard some days you can do the hike and hardly cross anyone’s path and other days it gets busy, so it’s hard to say what’s most common.
Bison and elk are commonly spotted in this area, but we didn’t run into any during our hike. We did see plenty of fresh prints in the snow though! We noticed some on the way back that definitely weren’t there on our way up the trail. Just remember, if you do run into any wildlife, keep the recommended distance away and always be aware of your surroundings.
Other DIY Winter Adventures
There are plenty of winter adventures in Yellowstone National Park that you can do on your own without taking a tour. We easily filled our two days in the park with adventures on our own, and we still didn’t have time to see and do everything that we wanted.
Some winter activities you can do on your own include checking out the “Old Entrance Gate”, going ice skating, stopping in one of the visitor’s centers, soaking in the Boiling River, and heading out on the trails to hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski. A quick note: during our visit in early 2021, the Boiling River and visitor’s centers in the park were closed due to public health concerns with the pandemic. If you want to visit these spots, be sure to check out their current opening status.
The main park road open during the winter runs from Gardiner, MT, to Cooke City, MT, and there are many ski, snowshoe, and hiking trails that you can visit along this road. Some of these trails are Lost Lake Trail, Tower Fall Trail, Yancey’s Hole Trail, Upper Terrace Loop Trail, Bighorn Loop, Snow Pass Trail, Barronette Ski Trail, and Pebble Creek Trail. There is also a shuttle for cross country skiers that you can take to explore the trails further afield at the Indian Creek Cross Country Ski Area. The shuttle picks up skiers at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and it departs three times a day, and there are two pick up times to return back to the hotel.
Another DIY adventure that sounds exciting is snowmobiling through the park. If you can snag one of the permits through the park’s Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program, you can either rent or bring your own snowmobile to explore on your own. It would be wonderful to have access to a large portion of the park that is otherwise closed to individuals exploring on their own.
Guided Winter Tours
Even though exploring on your own can be an exciting adventure, if you want to see some of the park’s iconic sights in the winter, you will have to join a tour. Tours are also a great option if you don’t want to drive through the park yourself.
There are a wide range of tours to book directly with Yellowstone National Park Lodges, but there are several outside tour companies that have permits to operate within the park, as well. For a full list of approved tour companies, click here.
Some of the tours and activities that you can book with Yellowstone National Park Lodges consist of cross-country ski lessons and rentals, Grand Canyon Day Tour, Tower Ski Tour, Madison Wildlife Excursion, Old Faithful Area Snowshoe Tour, Winter Photo Tour, and more. There are also several snowmobile tours that you can book with operators outside of the park.
During our visit, the tour options were limited due to the pandemic. That mixed with the fact that we had such a short time in the park, we decided to forego the tours this time around and explore on our own. We would have loved to join a cross country ski tour and see Old Faithful during the winter, but the timing just didn’t allow for it. Hopefully we can explore more of the park on a future winter trip to Yellowstone.
Where to Eat
There aren’t many restaurants open in the park during the winter. The restaurants that are typically open during the winter are the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room, Mammoth Map Room Espresso Bar, Old Faithful Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge Geyser Grill. I believe the Mammoth General Store also offers some grab and go food items.
When we visited the park in January of 2021, all of the Mammoth dining options were open, as was the Old Faithful Snow Lodge Geyser Grill. The Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room was open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and takeout. Breakfast and lunch were first come first serve, but reservations were required to dine-in. Guests of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel also had access to an in-room pizza delivery option from the restaurant. Another food offering was a pre-ordered box lunch or box breakfast that you could pick up in the morning to take with while you explore the park.
During our visit, we mostly had food from the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room. We learned that this restaurant is the “First 4-Star Certified Green Restaurant in the National Parks,” which we thought was pretty neat. We ate breakfast at the restaurant one morning, we got take-out for one dinner and one breakfast, and we also had pizza delivered to our hotel room. We also stopped at the espresso bar for a coffee fix. Everything we ordered was good and on par with or a little better than your typical national park dining options. One of my favorite dishes that we had was the Montana Cream of the West Seven Grain Pancakes with blueberries, but a word to the wise: the short stack is huge!
We had so much fun putting together our own adventures during our winter visit to the park. Creating a DIY winter itinerary of Yellowstone National Park gave us flexibility, social distance from others, and still so much to see. It was a wonderful first visit to the first national park in the USA!
Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park? What winter adventures in Yellowstone National Park would you like to do?