Visiting Yellowstone in Winter

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park? If the answer is yes, your visit was probably filled with slow-moving tourists stopping in the middle of walking paths or roadways. Most people visit in the summer when temperatures are mild and there are more services available, which is completely understandable. But, here’s a secret: Yellowstone in winter is magic.

An elk stares into the camera with curiosity
An elk studies me curiously

When visiting Yellowstone in winter, you’ll feel as if you have the whole park to yourself. If there isn’t too much snow, you’ll be able to drive the open roads freely without any concerns about other drivers. Elk, bison, and pronghorn will join you, licking salt and enjoying their wild spaces before the next busy season begins. Park rangers will spend more time with you answering your questions and pointing out special locations that remain open. Hours seem like minutes while you take in the beauty that surrounds you.

The Comfort of Solitude

The silhouette of a bison grazing along a snow-covered hillside
A bison grazes along a snow-covered hillside

I first visited Yellowstone on a crowded Labor Day weekend in 2016. When visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, I could barely walk on the boardwalks because there were so many visitors. Nearly all of my photos include other people in the background. It was nearly impossible to find a spot we could visit without other people around. I loved my first visit to Yellowstone and still look back fondly, but I do wish I’d chosen a less crowded time to go.

In April 2017, that’s exactly what I did by visiting Yellowstone in winter. I drove in beneath Roosevelt Arch without a line of cars accompanying me. Elk grazed right next to the arch and surrounding souvenir shops with beautiful mountain landscapes behind them. The historic Horace Albright Visitor Center was mine to freely explore, and park rangers were available to answer countless questions. I went back to Mammoth Hot Springs and had the boardwalk to myself, able to take as many interrupted photos as my little heart desired. I drove the portion of the park road that remained open and viewed grazing bison and pronghorn. Elk walked across the highway, forgetting that it was almost time for it to return to the dangerous road they’ll want to avoid in a few weeks. It was enchanting.

The Facts

The sun slowly sets behind Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance to Yellowstone
The sun slowly sets behind Roosevelt Arch

Yellowstone in winter is not easy. I visited at the very tail end of the season, meaning some services had started running again. Typically, much of the park is only accessible by snow machine in the winter. Wooden boardwalks used to see hot springs and geysers are covered in slick ice, making walking difficult and even dangerous. But the fact is, all of those difficulties are beyond worth it when you experience this special place the way it was meant to be seen: free of disruptive humans discarding trash and destroying natural features, all in the comfort of solitude. I highly recommend visiting Yellowstone in winter. You’ll learn so much more about this place and why it is protected while fully appreciating everything America’s first national park has to offer.