Something special happens in Yellowstone in the winter. The national park’s already impressive landscape transforms into a serene wonderland—the kind most of us usually only see on the side of a biscuit tin or as a screensaver.
The mundane becomes magical at this time of year. Parking lots disappear under blankets of deep snow. Ordinary side roads become epic, twisting snowshoe trails. Bigger roads are also closed, fit only for travel on cross-country skis. The abundance of snow and ice forces you to travel at a much slower pace and notice things that would pass by in a flash during the summer. Streams and waterfalls are frozen, seemingly solid until you stop to see—and finally hear—trickles of water rushing underneath.
Best of all, most humans seem to be in hibernation. It’s not just the bears that disappear at this time of year. You can explore for miles and miles and not see a soul. Bison and elk aplenty, sure, but no two-foooted creatures. You’re almost more likely to see a wolf.
That solitude is especially special now. Yellowstone gets busy, particularly if you’re after that shot of Old Faithful erupting.
In 2021, a record 4,860,242 people visited the park. But the vast majority of those people visit during the summer. Nearly a quarter (1,080,767) visited in July 2021 alone. By contrast, 36,897 people visited in February that year.
Overcrowding in the national parks was an issue long before the pandemic fostered an even greater collective love of the outdoors. Witness the graphs and gifs in this Guardian story, which talks about “two-mile-long ‘bison jams’ in Yellowstone” and worrying human/animal interaction back in 2018.
Driving through the wide valleys of the park’s northern sections earlier this month, we mostly saw rangers and a few hardcore photographers and hikers. The snow-crusted hills, dotted with pines and topped with plump clouds of various shades of gray, reminded me of huge slices of Viennetta, that ice cream dessert that was big in the U.K. in the ’80s. It was a monochrome world and icy cold—although it got milder during the week.
We were there with Austin Adventures, for a week of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on its first Yellowstone and Big Sky Winter Adventure trip. The excursion begins in Bozeman, a college town jam-packed with third wave coffee spots, boutiques, and outdoor sports shops before heading to Gardiner, the gateway town at the north of the park. From here it spends time along the Montana/Wyoming border, in and around the Lamar Valley, and ends with a couple of nights in nearby Big Sky—a huge ski and recreation area comprising mountain, meadow, and canyon.
There were 11 of us, plus two guides. I wasn’t wandering by myself. But I did find many moments of much-needed quiet and aloneness: snowshoeing through silent pines, listening to the windshield wiper rhythms of my feet as gusts of wind blew dustings of snow across all-white meadows; turning a corner to make eye contact with a lone bison sheltering under a tree; skiing underneath cooled lava rock formations at Tower Falls; wandering around Cooke City, a deserted, snowed-in town at the end of the line in the far northeast where snowmobile fanatics make up most of the population.
On average, we encountered a person or two per outing. Even the popular spots like Mammoth Hot Springs, whose travertine terraces house boiling hot water and clouds of steam year-round (pictured top) had few other people. At Lone Mountain Ranch over in Big Sky, where miles of Nordic ski trails are regularly groomed, we passed two people in 90 minutes.
The advantages of group travel in the off-season
Yellowstone National Park is trickier to visit in the winter. That peace and quiet has a trade-off, with roads closed, parking lots snowed in, icy roads, winter storms, and variable weather conditions. Some routes are only accessible by snowmobile or snowcoach (think of a shortened yellow school bus but with monster truck wheels) while many restaurants, lodgings, and other businesses are closed. Only one campground is open year-round. Phone reception (for calls or internet) is extremely spotty.
A guided group tour offers access to the wintery wilderness, but with a full support system. Our knowledgeable and gregarious guides, Steve and Alisa, shipped us to the best parts of the park (having scouted them all out personally the week before) in a minibus with studded tires. They ferried group members to urgent care after cross-country skiing caused a few injuries and were always on hand with what we needed when we needed it—whether medication, extra clothing, or a camping chair and a spiked hot chocolate. Another benefit of traveling in a group? The diverse perspectives and stories you encounter in a small bus with people from a variety of backgrounds.
Where to stay in the northern Yellowstone and Big Sky area
Bozeman is full of modern hotels, from an Element by Marriott to the Kimpton Armory Hotel, which is housed in an art deco National Guard armory and serves great cocktails from a fun basement with live music. The gateway town of Gardiner, meanwhile, has a number of affordable options to make a home base, including the Ridgeline (request a room with a view of the Yellowstone River).
Book now: 320 Ranch
Try not to leave the area without spending a night or two in a ranch hotel. The Austin Adventures trip spends several nights at 320 Ranch in the Gallatin National Forest, a 110-year-old homestead turned guest ranch where log cabins stretch up into a quiet valley and offer peaceful nights among the pines. A regular evening horse-drawn sleigh ride takes guests through the snow to a warm tent for drinks, popcorn, and a restorative chili of venison, bison, elk, and beef. The hotel also offers fly fishing and horse rides among other activities and has a cosy wood-paneled bar for whiskey and a round of pool.
Lone Mountain Ranch
Book now: Lone Mountain Ranch
Another similar option is Lone Mountain Ranch where dozens of characterful cabins sit among the trees and 80 miles of Nordic ski trails await. The restaurant and bar are both worth a visit even if you’re not staying.
Montage Big Sky
Book now: Montage Big Sky
In Big Sky, Montage Big Sky is the place if you’re after extreme luxury after a day or two exploring the snow. With stunning views of the Spanish Peaks, ski-in, ski-out services situated about a hundred feet from a lift, its own bowling alley, huge steaks and an even bigger wine list at Italian restaurant Cortina, it offers everything you’d expect from a five-star mountain hotel.
Austin Adventures currently has six departure dates available for the Yellowstone & Big Sky Winter Vacation trip in 2023, starting from January 22 and priced at $3,999 per person.