Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous national parks in America as well as being the first national park in the world established in 1872.
Why travel to Yellowstone?
I travelled through here two years ago in summer and fell in love with its bubbling geysers, canyons, wildlife and rugged beauty. It was also where I saw my first grizzly bear so that goes a long way in my book. Plus it’s an active geothermal area so it’s constantly evolving and changing, new geysers begin and others end throughout the year.
The history of the national park is quite extraordinary. It was established by the US Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. Straddling the three American states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, it maintains a directive to let the park operate naturally i.e. forest fires are left to burn, wildlife are left to kill each other and fallen trees are not cleared. But what I like most about this national park which expands over 3,472 square miles is that wildlife is protected and the reintroduction of the wolves and bison which were hunted to dangerous levels by the fur-trappers, is key to not only its popularity but the survival of many of its ecosystems.
Why did I return to Yellowstone National Park?
Since leaving the borders of Yellowstone for Grand Teton National Park on my first trip I’ve always wanted to return and what better time than when everything is covered under a blanket of snow. Apart from the lack of bears (hibernating), there are loads of benefits for visiting during winter:
– There are fewer tourists to the point when it actually felt as though we were the only people in the park. Even at some of the more popular sites like Mammoth Hot Springs, it felt like we were alone to explore in peace, seriously, when does that ever happen?
– Fewer vehicles to scare off wildlife and generally make noise and get in the way
– Everything is covered by a layer of the white stuff which accentuates the contours of the land. As the sun changed in the sky, the surrounding mountains illuminated in a way which managed to burn through my memory card really fast
– And finally…it’s just really bloody beautiful
Bozeman – Hilton Garden Inn
I began and ended the trip in Bozeman which is convenient to the park, staying at the Bozeman Garden Inn. The hotel was perfect for me and had all the usual conveniences such as gym, pool, excellent breakfast (US$6.95), Wi-Fi but honestly, we got out of Bozeman as quickly as possible as it wasn’t our focus.
Montana – Chico Hot Springs
Chico Hot Springs is about 30-40 minutes’ drive (in snow) from Mammoth Hot Springs. The thing I liked about this hotel is there is a huge outdoor hot pool so there is something to do in the evening when it’s cold and dark outside. The whole place is huge and you have the option of staying in the lodge, cabins or in motel style accommodation. I stayed in the cabins and would recommend this, yes it’s a bit further to walk but the views are awesome and a bed is a bed right? Top tip is to visit the saloon and try the local moonshine, if you don’t have hairs on your chest, this will grow you a few! If you have the time and money it’s worth booking yourself a dogsled tour through Absaroka Dogsled Treks who came highly recommended.
Yellowstone – Old Faithful Snow Lodge
OK so it’s not cheap but I’m on holiday and why not. The location is about as good as you can get being minutes away from Old Faithful and a host of other geothermal wonders, not to mention being able to sleep within the national park borders. You have to pay for Wi-Fi but the connection is fast, rooms are spacious, and meal options are limited to one restaurant so if money is tight then bring your own. The lounge has an open fireplace, perfect for warding off the cold and it’s just a very beautiful building which falls under the National Park Lodges umbrella. Treat yourself and stay here but be sure to book early!
You’re really going to need a car for the first four days of the trip, first to get from Bozeman to Yellowstone (which is a stunning drive) and secondly to navigate within the park. Keep in mind there is only one road within the park open to traffic during the winter months, but not for private transport. So to travel onwards from Mammoth Hot Springs (leaving your car there) onto Old Faithful you’ll need to hire a snow-coach and driver/guide or join a snowmobile tour. Please do this folks as the guides will unlock the wildlife and secrets of the park for you. There are a few different operators but I suggest starting with Xanterra Parks & Resorts which has a high quality of guides and vehicles.
What to do?
Below I’ve penned the itinerary we followed and one which suited me perfectly. Obviously you can flex days to suit your personal preferences but I never felt like I was rushing, saw everything I wanted to and left with a cheeky grin on my face.
Day 1 – Bozeman
Depending on the time of your flight you may have time to explore the city of Bozeman in Montana, or ‘Big Sky Country’ as it is better known. Shortly after arriving I noticed a strong influx of monster vehicles, pick-up trucks and cowboy hats. In truth Bozeman didn’t set the world on fire for me but as I mentioned, I wasn’t there for that. It’s worth spending an afternoon walking around the centre and I highly recommend trying a Bison steak at Ted’s Montana Grill to get your trip off to a killer start (no pun intended).
Day 2 – Mammoth Hot Springs
The drive into Yellowstone takes about two hours and after arriving at Yellowstone we drove directly to Mammoth Hot Springs where the lack of tourists meant we practically owned the place. This wintery geothermal wonderland is a wonderful introduction to the park and one of its famous highlights. Given that Yellowstone doesn’t interact with wildlife, you’ll see elk and bison roaming around freely. Leave yourself a few hours here to really take your time, walk on the boardwalks and breathe in the aromatic sulphur smells. After taking in the views, it hit me just how different the views were compared with the summer months, almost like a different park entirely but be sure to keep your distance from the animals as it is still very much a wild park.
Day 3 – Lamar Valley
The drive from Chico Hot Spring takes about 40 minutes, mainly because of the snow on the road. We had a wolf and wildlife tracking guide who we met at the Gardiner, and organised through Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The sheer amount of knowledgeable and experience these guides have is incredible and really challenges the information you will read in a guide book. Do yourself a favour folks, spend the money and hire one of these specialists; not only do they know where the most recent sightings of wolves and other wildlife are, but they also give an insight into a national park which gets more interesting the more you understand it.
The Lamar Valley is the result of a gigantic glacier which carved its way through the area, but typically in summer has the Lamar River running through it and attracts a bountiful supply of wildlife as a result. Shortly after arriving into the Lamar Valley, we were lucky enough to spot a pack of eight wolves ranging from old to young. They spent their time making fresh tracks in the snow and picking off a bison carcass from a few days earlier. My most memorable experience on this day was to hear wolves howling from the base of the valley, and hear it reverberating against the surrounding mountains! Epic stuff! We also saw Big Horn Sheep, eagles, bison, elk and coyotes. Back for a chill and a gin & tonic in the hot springs afterwards.
This is a link to a very interesting Podcast on how everything is connected. The speaker has highlighted the detrimental effects on the ecosystem of Yellowstone when wolves were hunted to the point of being endangered, and how the reintroduction helped ease this. It’s been named ‘re-wilding’ and is pretty interesting stuff.
Day 4 – Snow-coach to Old Faithful Snow Lodge
You can make your way to Old Faithful Snow Lodge by snowmobile and to be fair, it looks awesome but based on my experience the snow coach is a very cool way to travel around. It meant we were warm inside, had large viewing windows to spot animals and the driver gave us a commentary along the way, everything from the parks history, animal behaviours, flora and what hikes to go on. We basically took the entire day stopping at viewpoints, going on short walks, stopping for pictures of bison and coyotes and learning more about the park before arriving at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Day 5 – Old Faithful Area – Cross Country Skiing
During winter there isn’t loads to do but there are a few very good options and cross-country skiing is one of them. The lodge rents gear and gives lessons if you aren’t that comfortable on skis, or if like me you have never been on them. The lesson takes two hours and is conducted at a steady pace, even managing to build in a small downhill ski before we were set free inside the park with a map and handful of trails. It’s fairly easy to pick up and a great way to get around the park, sometimes faster and sometimes slower but taking in the views. Top tip is to remember to look up once in a while as the skis will typically do what the feet tell them to.
Day 6 – Old Faithful Area – Snowshoeing
This was one of my favourite days in the park and was actually the one I expected not to enjoy. It’s basically walking…but with really big shoes on – I couldn’t quite see the point. But in all fairness it was the snowshoes that stopped me falling through the snow, kept me upright with teeth that dug into the ice, and meant I could get further, quicker. The lodge offers a guiding service which we opted for which typically entails a 3 hour walk through the forest, learning about flora and fauna and spotting bison, coyotes and any other animals. After this I headed out on some of the backcountry trails where there were no other footprints in the snow apart from animal tracks, another rarity which may not be available during the summer months.
Day 7 – Snow-coach back to Mammoth Hot Springs and onto Bozeman
With the last day in mind we made our way back slowly towards Mammoth Hot Springs and back to Bozeman. As we had the snow coach again we took our time to enjoy some of the better known geothermal wonders along the way including Grand Prismatic Spring which is epic but very slippery on the boardwalks over winter, and Fountain Paints Pots which has an array of geysers with regular eruptions. Worth noting is that in 1981, a 24 year old dived head first into Fountain Hot Springs to save his friends dog and ended up dying from his burns. A top tip to purchase and read whilst you’re here is ‘Death in Yellowstone’ by Lee H. Whittlesley. We finished off with a drive up and down the Firehole River keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife before picking up our own vehicle and heading back to ‘Big Sky Country’.
Having been to Yellowstone twice and found out so much about it, I wouldn’t hesitate to return. It’s true that the more you understand about how the park works, the more you want to know. So there you have it, seven days in this wintery wonderland. A host of incredible landscapes, adventure and animals. What more could you possibly want!
Don’t forget to read up about your ESTA before you travel.
I’ll leave you with this video of my photos, enjoy.