More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year. During this iconic park’s busiest season, the place is packed with tourists — more than 30,000 of them each day in July. Traffic jams are commonplace, and views of the most recognizable landmarks are often obscured by crowds. As spectacular as Yellowstone is, summer is not the time for true adventure lovers to visit.
The genuine Yellowstone wilderness experience can only be had in the winter, when the faint of heart are lounging on a beach in Cancun, or shopping the after-Christmas sales. In winter, the 2.2 million acres of America’s first national park empty of tourists and fill with snow, creating a secret, silent wonderland of immense beauty.
A playground for snow lovers
Just a few main roads are plowed during Yellowstone’s dramatic winter season. The park’s average annual snowfall is 150 inches — that’s 12.5 feet — with even more in the higher elevations. Access into the deeper reaches is only possible by snow coach, snowmobile, cross-country skis, or snowshoes.
Perhaps the loveliest way to enjoy the park is on skis. The snow is deep and soft, and the views incomparable. Skiers and snowshoers looking to warm up in the frigid temperatures need look no further than Yellowstone’s world-famous thermal water features; one popular stop is the Boiling River. There adventurers can strip down to bathing suits and relax in water ranging from 60 to 104 degrees.
For a slightly less demanding way to travel, guided snowmobile and snow coach tours are available from a number of outfitters near the park. Imagine the stars glittering overhead, and the snowy mountains in the distance as a steaming geyser erupts — this is the romance of a night time Yellowstone snow coach tour.
A wonderland for animal lovers
Wildlife viewing tours are a popular way to experience Yellowstone in the winter. Against a backdrop of snow, it’s easy to spot animals, even from a distance. And with the park’s great grizzly bears deep in hibernation, exploring the park is much safer than in the summer months.
It’s one thing to see an American bison in the zoo. It’s another thing entirely to see a herd of bison trooping through the snow, their breath frosty in the cold air. Yellowstone is teeming with animal life — bald eagles, bison, otters, coyotes, foxes, elk, moose, and wolves. A winter safari through this stark, pristine wilderness is like a trip back in time, into the early days of the American West.
With daytime temperatures averaging between 0 and 20 degrees and sub-zero nights, this is not a trip for the casual tourist. But if you’re looking for a true wilderness experience, the backcountry is alive, well, and sublime at Yellowstone National Park in the winter.