Winter in Yellowstone: Adventures in Wonderland

Flagg Ranch Sign
Flagg Ranch sign

Roger and I were married on Dec. 15, 1978, and we spent our honeymoon in Yellowstone. In our memory, it was place of other-worldly beauty and mystery. Was it really that exquisite, or did our “love glasses” simply make everything more beautiful? We decided to find out. Forty one years later, we rolled into the park again. The verdict? Winter in Yellowstone really is a place of other-worldly beauty and mystery.

Yellowstone’s winter season opens Dec. 15th. All but one of the park’s entrances are closed to vehicles, so guests have two options for transportation: snowmobile or snow coach. We opted for snow coach!

Yellowstone has two winter lodging sites, one in the north at Mammoth Springs and one in the center of the park at Old Faithful. Although you’ll find thermal features and wildlife in either location, the northern location is prime for wildlife because it gets less snow, whereas most of the thermal activity is around Old Faithful.

We wanted to be in the Old Faithful area, and we planned our trip to include time in Jackson Hole before and after Yellowstone. After spending last Christmas in Jackson, I couldn’t wait to get back. We had to be at Flagg Ranch, just outside the park, by 7:00 am to catch our snow coach. It was 15 degrees below zero when we left Jackson in the pre-dawn hours that morning. Brrrr!

Winter in Yellowstone: vintage and modern snow coaches
Snow coaches, vintage and modern

We were delighted to see that the old “bombardier” snow coaches, like the one we took in 1978, are still in use. We were even more excited that we didn’t have to ride in one this time! Our first trip in the bombardier took 4 hours, and the coach was cold and fumey. In the new and improved coach, the trip took less than 2 hours, and we rode in complete comfort. Yay for comfort!

The coach cruises along on top of the snow pack, which at this point was about 20 inches. Our driver said it would be about 60 inches later in the winter.

Winter in Yellowstone: sunrise
Yellowstone Sunrise

We’d been driving for almost an hour when we crested a hill and stopped to watch the sun rise over the tree tops. Absolutely breathtaking!

Winter in Yellowstone: swan at sunrise
Sunrise swan

One element of Yellowstone magic is something called “alpenglow,” when the rising or setting sun reflects off the snow in a rosy hue. Photographers chase alpenglow, and it’s not hard to see why. I captured these images with my iPhone and made almost no editing enhancements. The scene really was that lovely.

Winter in Yellowstone: waterfall at sunrise
Waterfall at sunrise

On arrival, one of the first things I noticed was that the air seemed to be filled with glitter! Little sparkling crystals swirl around in the air, and it feels for all the world like you’ve just stepped into a Christmas card. Those little crystals settle on the pine trees, coating every needle with a frosty blanket. In the sunlight, the trees just glisten.

Winter in Yellowstone: close-up of frosted pine tree
Frosty pines
Winter in Yellowstone: Old Faithful Lodge
Old Faithful Lodge

Old Faithful Lodge stands like a grand dame in the mist. Completed in 1904 after just one year of construction, this amazing structure continues to survive the earthquakes that rattle this region. Someday earthquake or fire will get it, so love it while you can. In winter, however, you can only admire it from the outside. The old gal is considered too drafty for winter lodging these days.

In 1978, however, we spent a lot of time in the old lodge, toasting our toes in front of the fire after skiing. This time, we stayed in the relatively new Snow Lodge, and we were still able to toast our toes in front of the fire. But these old bones did a lot less skiing!

So, what do you DO in Yellowstone in the winter? It’s a “choose your own adventure” buffet, in three categories: 1) outdoor, self-guided, 2) outdoor, guided, and 3) indoor cozy. We sampled all three.

Outdoor, Self-Guided

You can do a great deal of exploring around the upper geyser basin, just outside your door from the Snow Lodge. There are miles of boardwalk, and depending on snow depth, you may not even need snowshoes. For deeper snow or longer treks, rent snowshoes or cross-country skis. I took all the following photos while hiking around the upper geyser basin.

Old Faithful
Old Faithful
Winter in Yellowstone: boardwalk around the upper geyser basin
Boardwalk around the upper geyser basin
Winter in Yellowstone: frosty trees, geyser in background
Trees frost in the geyser steam
Winter in Yellowstone: ghost trees in the mist
Ghost trees in the mist
Winter in Yellowstone: Grotto geyser
Grotto geyser
Winter in Yellowstone: Skis outside the snow lodge
Hot chocolate break
Winter in Yellowstone: sunlight through steam
Sunlight through steam
Winter in Yellowstone: Morning Glory Pool
Morning Glory Pool
Winter in Yellowstone: eagle on high perch over river
Looking for lunch from his high perch over river
Winter in Yellowstone: eagle diving for prey
Diving for lunch!
Winter in Yellowstone: lone bison in the pines
Lone bison in the pines

Outdoor, Guided

It’s a little overwhelming when you go online to book your reservations because there are SO MANY excursion and package options. I explored the website to narrow my options, then called the helpful folks at Xanterra for additional guidance. Bottom line, if you want to explore the park more broadly than the upper geyser basin (and you definitely DO!), you’ll need to book an excursion. You’ll take a snow coach or snowmobile, and then explore on foot, on skis, or on snowshoes. There’s something for everyone, whatever your fitness level or interest.

We chose two excursions. The first was Steam and Stars, a 2-hour nighttime trek in the upper geyser basin. It was awesome! We never would have trekked around in the dark on our own (hello, wolves!), but we felt quite safe with our guide and a whole snow coach of fellow adventurers. Still, it sent a shiver down my spine when my flashlight beamed on glowing orange eyes watching us in the dark! I think it was just bison. Yeah, just sleepy bison… The perk of an excursion is the wealth of information you glean from the guide. These folks love what they do, and they are walking encyclopedias! We learned so much and enjoyed hanging out with the other guests. The sweet mug of hot chocolate at the end sealed the deal. Two thumbs up for Steam & Stars.

Snowmobile excursions sure seemed popular. Maybe we’ll try that next time. These ravens definitely wanted to go!

Winter in Yellowstone: ravens ready to snowmobile
Ravens ready to ride

Our second excursion was the all-day Winter Photo Safari — my favorite day! Our guide, Lisa Culpepper, loaded eight photographers into her coach and struck out to see what wildlife we could find along the Firehole and Madison Rivers. While we didn’t spot everything on our wish list, it was a fabulous day. Lisa took time with each of us to coach us on camera settings, composition, etc., and I learned so much.

Winter in Yellowstone: snow coach
Traveling in style…and comfort
Winter in Yellowstone: bison grazing by the Firehole River
Bison grazing by the Firehole River

Winter photography is tricky, with its monochromatic color scheme. But just when everything looks flat, the light changes and a scene comes alive.

Winter in Yellowstone: sunlight on the Firehole River
Sunlight on the Firehole River

We experienced a 30-minute delay when two large herds of bison converged on the road. Not surprisingly, the bison find it easier to walk on the road than through the deep snow! Wildlife always has the right-of-way in Yellowstone, and we kept a respectful distance while they meandered along. I’m guessing the two herds totaled 80-90 bison.

While we watched them, Lisa educated us on their habits and answered all our questions. After working in the park for 20 years, she knows a thing or two!

Winter in Yellowstone: bison on the road
Bison on the road
Winter in Yellowstone: bison close-up
Is she giving me the stink eye??

We spent quite awhile watching Trumpeter Swans. The largest bird in North America, they are simply majestic. These swans migrate from Canada to the warmer waters in Yellowstone.

Winter in Yellowstone: solo trumpeter swan
Contemplative swan
Winter in Yellowstone: Trumpeter swans
Trumpeter swans
Winter in Yellowstone: Trumpeter swans taking flight
Trumpeter swans taking flight

In addition to swans, I’ve never seen so many bald eagles at one time. They were everywhere! They prey on small ducks who are just cruising along the river, minding their own business. I guess you could say those poor unfortunate waterfowl are “sitting ducks”, right? 🙂

Winter in Yellowstone: eagle in pine tree
Looking for lunch

Indoor Cozy

After two days of outdoor activity, we spent much of Day Three relaxing by the fire. It’s worth noting that there are exactly ZERO televisions in the park! We knew Roger wouldn’t want to spend as much time outdoors as I did, so he loaded his iPad with movies and had a grand time indoors.

Winter in Yellowstone: view out the window of the Snow Lodge
Sometimes it’s nice to enjoy the snow from inside, from your cozy chair with a hot beverage in hand!
Winter in Yellowstone: mug of Belgian hot chocolate
We started the morning with a Belgian hot chocolate before heading out into the snow. Y-U-M!

We found the service and accommodations at the Snow Lodge outstanding. The food was delicious, and everyone on staff seemed genuinely happy to be there. People choose these jobs because they love the surroundings. We didn’t encounter even one grumpy person.

It’s also fun to meet other guests, particularly at meals. They hail from all over the country, and many of them are repeat visitors. We chatted with a couple from Iowa one morning and found we had mutual friends in Joplin. Fun!

Winter in Yellowstone: people chatting around fire pit outside the Snow Lodge
Nighttime is magical!

There’s a small ice skating rink just outside the Snow Lodge, as well as a fire pit for those who can’t stand to stay indoors, even after the sun goes down.

We give our Yellowstone adventure 5 stars, and we highly encourage our friends to check it out! As you might expect, prices vary depending on when you visit. The week between Christmas and New Year is the most expensive, and rates drop by as much as 40% for dates in January or February. Although it’s really special to be there at Christmas, there would be a lot more snow in January or February.

As I mentioned, we spent a day in Jackson Hole on both ends of our Yellowstone adventure. Jackson just sparkles, especially at Christmas. We love the shops, the great restaurants, and the friendly people. The town is packed with young people pursuing snow sports, but we came across a few like-minded Boomers, too!

Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
The Wort Hotel
Antler arches, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Of course, you must have a photo beneath the iconic antler arches on the square!

Jackson’s great magnet is its location on the outskirts of Grand Teton National Park. If you’ve never seen the Tetons, well, I’m sorry for you. They are incomparable in any season, but utterly stunning in winter.

Mount Moran
Mount Moran
Skiers cross frozen Jackson Lake at the base of the Tetons

Some of the roads in Grand Teton National Park are open through the winter, and wildlife abounds. You won’t likely see elk or moose in Yellowstone, but you can’t miss them in the Tetons. Not to mention big horn sheep, mountain lions, and wolves.

Elk parade in Tetons
Elk parade in Tetons
Moose foraging in snow
Moose foraging in snow
Bull moose sparring
Bull moose sparring
Bull moose at base of Tetons
Bull moose at base of Tetons

I have a particular affinity for moose, and the opportunity to photograph these fellows felt like winning the lottery. They hang out in a certain location just outside of Jackson in the winter, and we counted 15 one evening. Message me if you want directions!

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging me! For some REAL photography, check out Lisa Culpepper’s site here. Want to plan your own winter in Yellowstone adventure? Message me with any questions. I’d love to share this piece of heaven with you!

6 Comments

  1. Thank you Aileen. Makes me miss Wyoming. I love the memories your words & pictures provided.
    Teresa Harvey Polson

  2. So nice to have met you Aileen! What a lovely picture you have painted with your camera and with your writing!! Happy Anniversary to the two of you, glad you decided to spend it with us! Hope to cross paths again soon! Thanks for the shout out 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lisa! My friends are really enjoying your site! Looking forward to adventuring with you again in May. Woot!

  3. I took a winter trip in 2018 with my sister and LOVED it! I also booked the photo tour and had the incredible photographer Lisa Culpepper. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I want to go back again. Thanks for the memory refresh!

    1. How fun that we had the same photographer for our photo safari! She was wonderful! Happy to have given you a trip down memory lane!

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