Winter Activities in Yellowstone National Park


The majority of Yellowstone’s main highways may be closed during winter, but that does not put a damper on the park’s activity. Yellowstone’s winter recreation is renowned, but visitors must use extra caution.

Since winter temperatures in Yellowstone can be severe, winter recreationists must dress in a layered clothing system. Wear long underwear, wool or synthetic pants, and wool or other insulated shirts. Thick wool socks, gloves, a hooded windproof parka, and a stocking cap are musts. Refrain from wearing jeans, cotton sweatshirts, cotton undershirts, and cotton socks, as they do not effectively wick moisture away from the body. Be sure to carry extra clothing as well as dark sunglasses and sunscreen. Even though temperatures may be below zero, the high altitude sunlight and reflection of pristine snow can cause serious sunburns.

Winter services are limited within the park’s boundaries, but a few of Yellowstone’s main regions do operate year-round. Lodging and food are available at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, while fast food is served in the Canyon and Madison warming huts. Snowmobilers can locate fuel at Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Fishing Bridge, and Canyon. Warming huts and restrooms are situated at the Canyon and Madison warming huts, Mammoth Hot Springs Campground, Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center, and the Old Faithful Visitor Center.

No matter the winter activity in which you engage, be alert for signs of hypothermia, and be prepared for all types of weather conditions. The following is a brief description of the most popular winter activities in Yellowstone.

Camping
Although camping is typically associated with summer, a few hardy souls do camp in Yellowstone each winter. The Mammoth Hot Springs campground is the only site available during winter season, and backcountry winter camping requires a permit. For additional information regarding campgrounds, amenities, and fees, see the “Camping in Yellowstone” section under the General Visitor Information heading.

Cross Country Skiing/Snowshoeing
With most of its 2.2 million acres managed as wilderness, Yellowstone provides a winter wonderland for cross country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts. Many of the park’s trails are marked with orange metal tags fastened to nearby trees, and most trails have no set track. In order to accommodate these conditions, skiers should select touring or mountaineering boots and skis. All other skis are inappropriate for breaking Yellowstone’s trails. Should you decide to ski on the park’s unplowed roadways, stay to the right while watching out for snowmobiles.

While skiing or snowshoeing into Yellowstone’s backcountry, visitors should learn as much as possible about winter survival and be prepared for changing weather patterns, avalanche danger, deep snow, and unfrozen streams hidden under blankets of fresh snow. Those who ski or snowshoe should also dress appropriately for Yellowstone’s harsh winter weather. Wear a layered clothing system, a wind and waterproof parka, warm gloves, and a stocking cap. Be prepared with extra clothes, plenty of water, and a large supply of food.

When planning a winter cross-country ski or snowshoe trip, accommodate for shortened daylight hours, the experience and physical capabilities of those going on the trip, and expected temperature and weather patterns. Keep in mind that December and January trips are most difficult due to extreme temperatures and fairly continual snowfalls. Also be aware that proper snow conditions are only found between 7,000 and 10,000 feet.

Prior to embarking on a backcountry ski or snowshoe excursion, tell someone where you will be going, and always check in with the nearest park ranger. If you plan to stay overnight, you must acquire a backcountry permit.

Wilderness users are encouraged to supply their own skis and snowshoes, but a limited selection is available for rent at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Most rentals average $12-$15 per day. In addition to providing rentals, the above facilities also provide guided ski tours, ski lessons, and shuttles to various locations in the park.

Ice Skating
As one of Yellowstone’s cheapest winter activities, ice skating at the Mammoth Hot Springs Skating Rink is a popular choice. For those who can stand the cold, the outdoor rink rents out affordable skates at both hourly and daily rates. During December, holiday music sounds from the rink’s PA system, and occasionally, campfires are lit beside the rink’s edge to help patrons warm their frosty hands and feet.

Snowcoach Tours
Not up for braving Yellowstone’s weather on a snowmobile? Then consider taking a snowcoach tour. Snowcoach tours offer a more protected option for viewing Yellowstone’s pristine mountain scenery with the added comfort of turning over the wheel to an experienced winter driver. Snowcoach tours depart from West Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Flagg Ranch near the South Entrance, and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. For more information, contact Xanterra Parks and Resorts at (307) 344-7311 or Yellowstone National Park at (307) 344-7381. Advance reservations are highly recommended.

Snowmobiling
Snowmobiling is by far the most popular winter sport in Yellowstone, and thousands of speedy machines zip through the park each winter. Although controversy clouds the winter sport in a haze of heated debates and environmental concerns, snowmobilers still roar through the park every December through March.

As with other winter sports in the park, dressing and being prepared for winter weather is critical. Underneath snowmobile suits, dress in a layered garment system consisting of long underwear, wool or synthetic trousers, and wool or insulating shirts. Warm socks, gloves, stocking caps, and appropriate footwear are key.

For those not owning a snowmobile, rentals and guided tours are available from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, as well as in the neighboring towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner. Lessons are also available at many places offering rentals, and all first-time users are encouraged to receive some basic instruction prior to riding in the park.

To maintain the Yellowstone snowmobiling tradition for years to come, all users should keep in mind the following regulations and safety tips.

  • All snowmobile operators must possess a valid driver’s license, and all machines must be registered within their home state.
  • Snowmobiles must feature working lights and brakes, and exhaust and mufflers must be in excellent operating condition. Maximum noise from exhaust systems cannot exceed seventy-eight decibels at full acceleration with a fifty-foot distance. Currently, most stock exhaust systems are in accordance with this mandate, but aftermarket exhaust systems are often too loud. To avoid being denied park access, check the levels of your exhaust system prior to arrival.
  • Snowmobiles are subject to the same guidelines as cars. Always use hand signals to stop or turn, drive on the right side of the road in single file, pass only when visibility is high, never exceed the maximum speed limit of forty-five miles per hour (seventy-two kilometers per hour), and obey all traffic signs.
  • Always stay on designated routes and park roads. Off-road travel, including sidehilling and berm-riding, is strictly prohibited and punishable with a fine up to $5,000.
  • Snowmobiling and alcohol do not mix, and those driving while intoxicated will be caught and charged. Any open alcoholic beverage container is also illegal, including the popular botabags.
  • Since they are permanent park residents, Yellowstone’s wildlife always have the right of way. Never approach, feed, or chase the wildlife. Winter alone is hard enough on animals without wildlife being forced to exert extra energy to quickly move off the road.
  • If wildlife blocks the roadway, stop no less than twenty-five yards away, and wait for them to move. If the animal begins walking toward you, turn around if possible, and move to a different location. If you do not have time to turn around, step off your machine, and protect yourself by keeping the machine between you and the wildlife. In all cases, never attempt to pass animals if they appear agitated. In such scenarios, animals are likely to stampede, and your safety is at risk.

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