Best Side of Yellowstone in Winter
Here are all the reasons why a winter vacation in Gardiner and Cooke City, Mont., next to Yellowstone is one of the most magical you’ll ever take.
Local Jill Warren says the winters are so quiet in Silver Gate, Mont., located at the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, that you can hear the snow fall.
And she’s not exaggerating. It’s the only time of the year where you just may feel like you’re one of the early explorers of Yellowstone in the 1800s. In nearby Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, you’ll spot wolves and bison with ease since they stand out against the snowy landscape. In Mammoth Hot Springs to the west, the steam erupting through the cold air provides a more dramatic show than in summer. And you may only see one other car on the road.
Part of the reason why it’s so quiet is because the North Entrance, which sits in Gardiner, Mont., is only park entrance open to cars in the winter. And once you drive in, the only road open to cars is the ribbon of road that unravels across the Blacktail Plateau and Lamar Valley to the village of Silver Gate and charming town of Cooke City. For those interested in reaching other areas of the park, you must leave your car behind and pay to ride a snowcoach— a van with huge snow tires — run by Yellowstone National Park Lodges from Mammoth Hot Springs.
While the park is covered with a heavy blanket of snow, there is no shortage of fun things to do and explore. From cross-country skiing, solitude-fueled scenic drives, wildlife-viewing, snowmobiling and hot springs dips, your biggest decision each morning will be narrowing down your list of daily adventures.
“You have the complete array of sports from snowshoeing in a quiet and serene setting to pursuing speed and ultimate power with snowmobiles,” says Donna Rowland, executive director of Colter Pass, Cooke City, Silver Gate Chamber of Commerce.
The biggest bonus to exploring the northern edge of the park? It’s renowned for its wildlife, many of which dwell in the famed Lamar Valley. Plus there are two classic Montana towns that sit at the two northern entrances to the park, filled with people who make you feel part of the family: Gardiner and Cooke City.
“If you ask almost anyone in Gardiner what their favorite time of year is, they’ll say ‘winter,’” says Neala Fugere, marketing director at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a really special time — wildlife like bison and elk are right in town. I once saw wolves with binoculars from my office window. Plus, it’s just more relaxed in winter. Guests feel like family.”
Relish Amazing Wildlife-Watching
As Fugere points out, you don’t have to go far to see Yellowstone’s famed animals. You may find several elk loitering in downtown Gardiner or bison in Cooke City. But driving or skiing into the park to see wildlife is an experience you won’t want to miss. If you don’t want to drive, hire a wildlife expert guide in Gardiner who knows where to spot the animals.
For an incredible 1.5-hour (without stops) scenic drive, head out of Gardiner east on the Grand Loop Road through the Lamar Valley to Cooke City. Along the way, you’ll spot herds of bison fanning out along the gentle hillsides, their ancient-looking faces frosted with glistening ice crystals. Keep your eyes peeled for wolves.
“Winter is absolutely the best time to see wildlife in Yellowstone,” says Warren who owns Creekside at Yellowstone in Silver Gate, a small Montana enclave between the park and Cooke City. “We were in the Lamar Valley yesterday and saw a wolf pack. Most of the wolves were black. The pups were tackling each other. In winter they really stand out.”
The Lamar Valley is known as America’s Serengeti because of the extraordinary number of wildlife living there. After wildlife-watching, enjoy a burger or hand-tossed pizza at the Miners Saloon in Cooke City.
Explore on Cross-Country Skis
A fantastic way to explore the Yellowstone area is by skis or snowshoes. From Gardiner, drive a few minutes into the park and ski or snowshoe the Upper Terrace Loop Trail, a 1.5-mile groomed trail that’s easy for snowshoers and involves one downhill that’s a little tricky for inexperienced skiers. You’ll pass steaming thermal features and the upper part of Mammoth Hot Springs.
Farther east in the park is Tower Fall Ski Trail at Tower-Roosevelt Junction. Park on the side of the road near the Roosevelt Horse Corral for a five-mile round-trip easy ski or snowshoe. You’ll pass a beautiful overlook of the frigid Yellowstone River as you move uphill, eventually reaching Tower Fall, a 132-foot frozen waterfall. There are picnic tables under the Tower General Store porch overhang here, so eat your packed lunch before returning to your car. The general store is closed in winter.
For a longer, more challenging ski or snowshoe, take the Blacktail Plateau Ski Trail, an easiest-to-more-difficult 8-mile, one-way trail. You’ll go through open meadows and forests on this outing.
If you’re in Cooke City, take the Bannock Ski Trail to Silver Gate and into Yellowstone. The trail between Cooke City and Silver Gate is three miles and the Warm Creek Trail into Yellowstone is an additional three miles.
The Barronette Ski Trail is an easy 3.5-mile, one-way route down the Old Cooke City road that cuts through the heart of a conifer forest. For seasoned backcountry skiers or snowshoers, try Pebble Creek Ski Trail, a 13-mile, rated by the park service as a “most difficult” tour.
You won’t find REI or the like in Gardiner or Cooke City, aside from premium apparel for snowmobiling, so pack everything you need with you before you arrive in Yellowstone.
Ride a Snowmobile
You know snowmobiling is popular in the Cooke City area when you can only reach three of its lodges in winter via snowmobile: Skyline Guest Ranch, Big Moose Resort and Big Bear Lodge.
You can rent snowmobiles at Cooke City Motorsports, Bearclaw Sales and Services and Cooke City Exxon. All three sell technical riding gear and accessories. Ride on the 60-plus miles of groomed trails outside the park or on the Beartooth Highway, which closes to vehicle traffic in the winter. For trail tips, call the chamber at 406-838-2495 or stop in a snowmobile shops.
Soak in Hot Springs
With most of Yellowstone’s thermal features too dangerously hot to soak in, there are, thankfully, several hot springs venues where you can warm up. One is in the park. The Boiling River near Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs Campground offers travelers an opportunity to soak in a river heated by hot springs. It’s a quarter mile walk to the soaking access area, so dress warmly. Check in at the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs for closure or safety precautions before you go.
But to swim in hot springs pools, head to Yellowstone Hot Springs in Corwin Springs, Mont., 6 miles north of Gardiner off Hwy. 89. It offers 400 square feet of pools in a natural setting. Fresh mineral water is constantly flowing into the pools, so the water is always fresh and clean.
“The focus is on soaking, wellness and taking in the natural scenery,” Fugere says.
For more information on Yellowstone Hot Springs, visit yellowstonehotspringsmt.com
Thirty- five miles north of Gardiner is Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa in Pray, Mont. With two open-air mineral pools, plus incredible fine dining in the resort’s Dining Room, Chico makes for a great outing. It’s known for having one of the region’s best wine lists.
Learn more by stopping in the Gardiner visitor center at 216 Park St. or going to visitgardinermt.com. Learn more about Colter Pass/Cooke City/Silver Gate at the visitor center in Cooke City or at cookecitychamber.org.