Winter travel through Yellowstone offers top viewing opportunities

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Five wolves move into Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley last week. Wolves are just some of the wildlife visitors to Yellowstone can expect to see while traveling during the park’s winter season.

POWELL — As brilliant rays of sunlight cleared the peaks in the east, streaming warming beams of light across the peaks surrounding Lamar Valley, the Junction Butte Pack of wolves were on the move through the snow-covered hills. Below them a small herd of about 30 bison tightened their ranks, preparing to protect their young if threatened. But the 10 wolves weren’t looking to take them on this day and kept moving east through the valley.

As the pack passed near parking areas, the sound of high speed cameras clicked and whirred. On a typical summer day, 10 wolves could have resulted in a wildlife jam halfway back to Mammoth Hot Springs. But with temperatures in the single digits and 3 inches of fresh, crunchy snow on the ground, this was hardly a typical day for tourists in Yellowstone National Park.

For most, the end of the summer season in November begins a long wait until the first Friday in May. But for adventurous souls, winter is the preferred time to visit the nation’s first national park.

In December 2020, only 28,640 visitors entered the park — and just 185 through the East Entrance near Cody. Compare that to July, when more than a million visits were recorded, and the park seems luxuriously empty in the winter months. The only way into Yellowstone in the winter by automobile is through the North Gate just south of Gardiner, Montana. It’s a 450-mile round-trip from Powell that few make. Few cars are on the only road, which means you are free to scan the horizon for critters rather than keeping your eyes on the bumper in front of you. And if you wish to pull over and park, there are seemingly endless opportunities.

“It’s amazing. You can find a parking place in the middle of day,” said Larry Allen of Pinehurst, North Carolina, who also traveled to the park in August.

Despite knowing their plans could be challenged by severe weather, enthusiasts from around the country make their way to Yellowstone in the offseason. The reason? Winter is one of the best times of the year for wildlife viewing, said John Roth from Buffalo, New York.

“Wildlife is more easily visible in the winter. And they
congregate here in the valley,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”

“It’d be hard to pick a favorite [species],” added Laura Pyle from Stanton, Virginia.

She and her husband, Dan Wright, booked a guided winter tour of the park through Earth Spirit Excursions, a nonprofit organization of wildlife lovers based in Orchard Park, New York. The group saw a black bear, wolves, elk, bison, a fox, coyotes and moose on the first day of their 10-day trip. 

When the couple decided to book the tour they figured it would be like “doing winter with training wheels, because we’re here with people who have done this before,” Pyle said.

Once they get some experience, Pyle and Wright plan to return on a solo trip. Of course, the weather in the Absaroka Range is far more volatile than that of Virgnia and there was much to learn for the couple. Yet, they were willing to risk the hazards of winter in the mountains for a chance to see the park in winter.

If the road to Cooke City, Montana, wasn’t open, the group’s plan was to just wait it out in their rental cabin, enjoying home-cooked meals, some adult beverages and many laughs around the fireplace. 

“Plan ahead. You know, just in case you get stuck in a storm,” Roth said. “But, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at how well they do keep the road clear.”

Roth flew in and rented a vehicle. He suggested choosing a 4x4 or all-wheel-drive model “just to be safe.” 

He also suggests making sure the vehicle is loaded with supplies and extra clothes in case you get stranded. “Just be prepared for everything,” Roth said.

Three old friends from Nebraska traveled to the area and were delighted with the opportunities to photograph wildlife while in the North Fork and the park for a week. The road was clear, despite snowfall on the night of Thursday, Dec. 9. By Friday they were packed up and ready to head back to their homes in the Cornhusker state, but a blizzard stopped them in their tracks. They were forced to shelter in place in Casper for two days until the interstate system reopened.

“It was quite the odyssey,” said Steve Moseley, a former Powell resident who now lives in York, Nebraska. “Fun trip, but not without its challenges,” he reported on Facebook.

As of Wednesday, the East Gate was supposed to open for oversnow travel. But the snowmobiling season has been delayed.

“Due to limited snow, travel will be restricted to snowcoaches until conditions improve,” Yellowstone’s public affairs office reported Tuesday.

Snowcoach tours can be arranged at Mammoth Hot Springs and in West Yellowstone. The only option for guided tours by snowmobiles through the East Gate is through Gary Fales Outfitting. The company offers all-day tours including trips to Old Faithful, the Geyser Basin areas, Yellowstone Falls, and Yellowstone Lake. Overnight trips are also offered and can be customized to fit visitors’ needs. 

“Our goal is to show you the amazing sights and wonders from the unique perspective of a snowmobile traveling through the East Gate, the wildest and most dramatic way into the park,” said Dede Fales, co-owner of the company.

Park officials offered important tips in advance of the winter season. Most facilities are closed during winter. They suggest visitors check winter operating hours in advance of trips for visitor centers, stores, restaurants, campgrounds, lodges and warming huts.

“Fill up on fuel and pack extra food and water,” they advise. There is food available during limited hours at Mammoth, Canyon and Madison, with vending machine snacks available 24 hours a day at all three locations. 

Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel are open during winter. Make reservations as far in advance as possible, the park cautions. The only campground in the park open year-round is in Mammoth Hot Springs, located 5 miles south of the park’s North Entrance.

For those driving to Gardiner, Montana, there are rooms available, often without reservations, but restaurants and bars close early during the winter season and many of the town’s establishments were lost to a 2020 fire, so choices are limited. Livingston may be a better choice, but is a 60-mile drive from the gate.