Yellowstone in Winter 2019 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Feb 21, 2019

If I were asked to select the best season to visit Yellowstone National Park, I would unhesitatingly choose winter. Why winter? In winter the roads are not plowed so the hordes of summer visitors, and their cars, are not present. No miles-long traffic jams caused by a bison sighting, no long wait times at area restaurants, no suffering parents trying not to yell at their kids for not looking at the scenery, no overbooked motels. Winter visitation means avoiding all the problems brought out by the sheer number of summer visitors. Winter also offers another story, far more personal and intimate.  The animals look their best in prime winter coats. Mammals that are hard to see in high elevation summer forests are now easily visible against the snow. Tracks in the snow reveal just who has been out and about. Medium-sized canine tracks? Must be a hunting coyote.  A far smaller canine footprint? A fox has also been around. A single line of large hoofprints through deep snow? Ah, the indication of a solitary bison bull since female bison form into small herds with other females and their young.

And then there is the quiet. Yes, there are groups of snowmobiles (which are required to be with guides) but even these are quieter now since the Park banned two-stroke engines. No snowmobiles nearby, and you can hear the falling snow actually falling.

I recently led two back-to-back winter tours (well, back-to-back given that there were two days between the tours, a necessity due to flight arrival and departure times in Bozeman, Montana, the nearest airport). The itinerary for both tours was identical.  We based first at a motel in West Yellowstone. From there we spent two full days exploring the park via snow coaches (think of oversized vans with earth-mover style tires). As in summer, all motorized travel is restricted to the existing main roads, which are groomed during the winter. In the mornings we worked along the Madison and Firestone Rivers, and in the Lower Geyser Basin area with its Fountain Paint Pots thermals. We found bison in the flats and swans on the rivers. A favorite area for graphic design photos was along Tangle Creek with its “bobby socks” trees. These are dead lodgepole pines which have soaked up the mineral laden water; as the water evaporates the minerals are left behind turning the lowest portion of the trees white, as if the trees were wearing “bobby socks.” During the afternoons we drove further, exploring the Hayden Valley on the west side of the park with its open meadows, and the Mud Volcano thermal area.

We spent the third day photographing our way from West Yellowstone to our new base, the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful, in the Upper Geyser Basin. On the way we stopped to explore two more geyser basins, Biscuit and Black Sand.

For the next day and a half we explored the Upper Basin on foot. This area has the highest concentration of geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs in the entire park, and a series of boardwalks and trails offers close access to most of these. While Old Faithful is the most well-known geyser, many of the hot springs, with their vibrant colors, are more photogenic.

A final afternoon snow coach trip took us through the park to the small town of Gardiner, Montana, at the northern entrance to the park. At the official park entrance is the well-known Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The arch commemorates the creation of this very first US National Park on March 1, 1872, by Ulysses S. Grant. The top of the arch is inscribed with a quote from the legislation which created Yellowstone, which reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

On our last full tour day we traveled from Gardiner through the Lamar Valley to Cooke City and back. This final trip was not via snow coach but by our own private mini-bus, as the paved road to Cooke City is the only road kept plowed throughout the winter. Why is that one road keep open? Well, during the winter months that solitary road is the only access to Cooke City. The Lamar Valley is usually a good location for spotting wildlife, and it didn’t disappoint either tour, yielding good bison photos, otters playing in the rivers, and, on the second tour, a cooperative red fox.