The northern Rockies’ punishing cold has never deterred Ken Sinay, founder of Yellowstone Safari Company. For 27 years, he’s guided multiday trips into the park in all seasons, so it’s easy to take him at his word that winter is the best time to see “large animals in big numbers, in vast landscapes.”
With warmer air temperatures and thinner snowpack, the relatively low elevations (6,200 to 7,600 feet) across the northern portion of the park attract wintering bighorn sheep, wolves, bison, and elk—lots of elk. As many as 5,000 of the ungulates spend winter here. See them by driving 20 miles east from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Junction along the Northeast Entrance Road, the only route open to auto traffic in winter. Just east of Tower, some of the biggest herds congregate in the open, grass-and-sagebrush plains of the Lamar and Yellowstone River Valleys. From the junction, head out on snowshoes or skis to tour 3 miles east along Cache Creek. The unmarked, streamside route leads through meadows where wolves and bull elk nose for roughage beneath the snow.
Park campgrounds close in winter, but the Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays open. The full-service hotel makes a comfy basecamp for exploring Yellowstone’s interior, particularly Upper Geyser Basin. From the lodge, the 7-mile loop to Biscuit Basin passes scores of neon-colored hot springs, as well as Grand Geyser, the world’s tallest predictable geyser. The hot spring produces a mighty 200-foot column of water every seven to 15 hours (find daily predictions at the visitor center), as well as babbling sounds that are rarely heard in summer, when crowd noise drowns out the watery song. Next day, tour 1.7 miles to see Kepler Cascades crashing over a 50-foot cliff of rock and ice, then continue 2.3 miles to watch Lone Star Geyser stage its aerial show. Rooms at the lodge start at $150; get there via a four-hour snow coach ride from Mammoth or by cross-country skiing 32 miles from the west entrance.
Hire a snow coach from West Yellowstone or Old Faithful to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where the marked, 4.5-mile Canyon Rim Trail lets skiers peer into the thousand-foot abyss. The dusting of snow accentuates the canyon’s famously yellow cliffs, and at Lookout Point, you can see the wide tongue of 308-foot Lower Yellowstone Falls crash onto a pillar of ice.
Top backcountry campsite
The only visitors you’ll have at First Meadow are the trumpeter swans, bald eagles, elk, bison, and wolves that forage in the open valley by Slough Creek. Join them on a 3.8-mile, one-way tour from the Slough Creek Campground Road: With the stream on your left, snowshoe or ski 2 miles north on the snowy road to the official Slough Creek trailhead. From here, continue 1.8 miles east along the snow-covered summer trail (with aspens lining the stream, the routefinding is easy, Sinay says). You’ll pop out at First Meadow, an aspen-rimmed expanse with easy access to Slough Creek. “Seeing wolves here is so much cooler than spotting them from the road,” Sinay says.
No life list is complete without Yellowstone’s classic ski tour from Old Faithful to the Bechler Ranger Station, Sinay says. The point-to-point route spans just 32 miles but requires a week to complete, thanks to deep snow, icy river crossings, and possible blizzards. But solitude is virtually guaranteed. Take a snow coach to Old Faithful, and arrange for a shuttle from the Bechler Ranger Station (prices vary; inquire with the snow coaches below). Spend most of the route paralleling the Bechler River and its waterfalls, like the soak-worthy Mr. Bubbles, a section of stream heated by hot springs near mile 15.
SEASON December to March for best winter conditions PERMITS Required for backpacking (free in winter); obtain from any ranger station. SNOW COACHES Xanterra for Mammoth to Old Faithful ($117/person); Yellowstone Vacations for West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ($120/person) OUTFITTER Bear Den in Mammoth and Old Faithful