For many of us, a visit to Yellowstone is a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list event, and when I had the opportunity to see the park with friends in January, I jumped at the chance. But with a greater abundance of wildlife, more services available, and easier travel through America's first national park in the warmer months, why on Earth would anyone want to visit in the winter?
There's no one there!
According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone is routinely one of the most visited national parks and hosts more than three million people each year. I appreciate how accessible some of our national parks are - it's easier to build advocacy for wild places if people can easily build strong connections with them - but I'm also a big fan of solitude.
Seeing Yellowstone's completely unique and fascinating sights was on my bucket list for a long time, but I couldn't bring myself to visit knowing how busy it would be in warmer months. Only three percent of Yellowstone's visitors come in the winter (December, January and February), so if, like me, you'd prefer to watch Old Faithful erupt with a dozen other people instead of hundreds, winter is a great time to go.
You can do all of your favorite winter activities, or try new ones, in the first national park
The unplowed roads make getting in your car and driving to a trailhead impossible, but it's also the perfect opportunity to explore Yellowstone using unique means. Instead of hiking to geyser basins or driving to amazing viewpoints, you can cross country ski, snowmobile, snowshoe, or take a snowcoach all over the park. After snowshoeing in the Tetons at the beginning of our winter vacation, my group opted to rent cross country skis to see the sights near the Old Faithful Snow Lodge via a means of transportation I'd never used before. We covered a good bit of ground quickly and it was a blast.
You get to see the park from a unique perspective
Visitors to Yellowstone have an abundance of lodging, dining, shopping, camping and tour options when all of the park's facilities are open during the high season. Everything you could possibly need to make the most of a trip into the park is available. In winter, however, the story is a bit different. Park concessioners do operate some lodging, dining and retail facilities, but access is limited and most of the roads aren't plowed.
On our trip, the entire park was blanketed by a fresh layer of fluffy snow. It was profoundly quiet. Aside from a snowmobile group here and there, the two geyser basins we skied to (Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin) were deserted. Visiting in winter gave me an incredible appreciation for how special Yellowstone is. Though I'm sure it's special in the summer, I'm glad I took my first trip there during a less popular time of year.
Getting in and out of the park is a lot more fun
Though roads between the north and northeast entrances to Yellowstone are open all winter, few other roads are. On our trip, we came in through the south entrance and opted to take a snowcoach in to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge after driving to Flagg Ranch, the last stop on the road before it was closed to auto travel. Getting to see the park from what I dubbed an oversized snowmobile with our driver/tour guide giving us an-depth overview of the park was pretty special. It was much more fun than driving around ourselves!
Thermal features look even cooler in the snow
With fresh snow on the ground when we arrived in the park on the second day of 2014, I knew we were in for something special. On our ride in from Flagg Ranch, we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin and I could see steam rising from the ground long before our snowcoach pulled into the parking lot. The cold air also made the steam visible from a good distance away on our cross country ski around Old Faithful.
Warm patches of ground near geothermal features were obvious; large swaths of dirt and gravel were uncovered, but surrounded by snow. The steam cloud accompanying the 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of water routinely expelled from Old Faithful was massive in the winter temperatures. All of the geothermal activity that makes Yellowstone unique seemed even more spectacular with the added interaction between the boiling water and cold weather.
Though these are five of my favorite reasons to take a trip to Yellowstone in the winter, I'm sure those of you who've been have more. Why else should a potential visitor plan a winter vacation instead of a summer vacation? If you prefer Yellowstone in the warmer months, why? What did we miss by visiting in the winter? Sound off in the comments!