Follow this insider’s guide for the best winter experiences in America’s first national park
Some of the best wildlife- and geyser-viewing opportunities are in the height of winter, when the snowy landscape provides the sort of contrast that makes animals and thermal features even more dramatic.Winter is Yellowstone National Park’s best season. Just ask any full-time area resident.“I’m here year-round, but what I love about my job is that I get to work here in the winter,” says Karoline Sleichter.During the peak tourist season, from late May to mid October, Sleichter works as a guide for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which manages the lodges and concessions at Yellowstone. Come winter, she’s behind the wheel of a specially outfitted snowcoach shuttling visitors between Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.“I work summers so I can work winters,” she declares. “I don’t think you can match the beauty. This is why they call it a wonderland.”Yes, temperatures plummet. But so do the visitation levels.Moreover, some of the best wildlife- and geyser-viewing opportunities are in the height of winter, when the snowy landscape provides the sort of contrast that makes animals and thermal features even more dramatic.Two classic park lodges — Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, about 50 miles apart — remain open from mid December to late February to accommodate winter guests. An optimal way to experience winter is via seasonal Lodging & Learning programs, which Xanterra operates in tandem with naturalist guides from the nonprofit Yellowstone Forever Institute. The packages bundle lodging, instruction, in-park transportation and most meals for a program of fun, fitness, and learning.Among the opportunities:Winter Wolf Discovery: This active four-night program combines snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, plus hiking on snow-packed trails to learn more about Yellowstone’s elusive gray wolves on their turf. There’s no better way to spot them than against winter’s pristine white landscape.Winter in Wonderland: View geysers and hot springs up close on a four-night active and educational adventure that takes in Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone via cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and other conveyances. Spot many of the park’s larger mammals, which are more visible on the snowy white blanket covering the ground.Old Faithful Winter Expedition: Journey to Old Faithful Snow Lodge in Yellowstone’s heart on a four-night package via snowcoach, with short walks on foot or snowshoe to the season’s best vantage points for wildlife, steaming thermal features, and photo-worthy winter views.Other Xanterra packages include a two-night (minimum) Frosty Fun deal with skate rental and unlimited ice skating, along with the Snow Card discount card good for savings on tours, activities, meals and gifts, at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and a three-night Couples Winter Adventure Package at Old Faithful, with an option to add a night on either end at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.Consider one of the numerous single-day adventures, too. They include a Wake Up to Winter Wildlife early morning excursion to see bison, elk, coyote, wolves, eagles, bighorn, and more; a daylong Winter Photo Safari with an experienced photographer/interpretative guide; a magical evening program called Steam, Stars and Winter Soundscapes; various ski and snowshoe excursions; and more.If you wish to design your own custom experience, perhaps with some itinerary help from the experts, Xanterra can provide the guide and transportation for private tours as well.Additionally, the Yellowstone Forever Institute has a catalog of winter programs ranging from instruction in winter landscape photography to snow tracking to cross-country skiing. Lodging for those offerings is at Lamar Buffalo Ranch inside the park’s boundaries.
How to Explore
With nine unique lodging options, including the renowned historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park Lodges allows you to have the ultimate park experience. Staying in the park is the best way for visitors to experience all it has to offer. Once the day-visitors leave, Yellowstone remains for the in-park overnight guests alone. Yellowstone National Park Lodges offer tours and activities guided by Certified Interpretive Guides that help create memorable experiences. For more information on lodging, tours, and vacation packages, visit yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311.For a multi-day visit of Yellowstone, consider the six-day guided walking tour from Country Walkers, “ Montana & Wyoming: Yellowstone,” or the six-day walking tour from VBT, “ Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Walking America’s First National Park.”For more than 38 years, Country Walkers has provided active and immersive travel experiences on five continents. They offer two distinct ways to explore: scheduled, small-group Guided Walking Adventures and independent Self-Guided Walking Adventures. On tour, guests enjoy superb local cuisine, first-class guides, fine accommodations, and authentic cultural and natural encounters. Visit countrywalkers.com or call 800-234-6900 for more information.VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations is the value leader in active biking vacations and has been rated among the “World’s Best Tour Operators” by the readers of Travel + Leisure for six years. VBT offers more than 55 deluxe, small-group bicycling, walking, and barge & sail vacations in 29 different countries and 10 U.S. states. Unlike other companies, VBT also includes round-trip international airfare from more than 30 U.S. cities and select Canadian cities for all overseas vacations. Visit VBT.com or call 800-245-3868 for more information.For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.