Want to see Yellowstone in winter when the crowds are nonexistent and social distancing is easy? Here’s our advice. Explore the park, but plan on spending time in Montana’s charming, authentic towns and ski areas that surround the park. The easiest way to do this is to fly into one of the West’s coolest cities —Bozeman — and build your itinerary from there. Here are four spectacular itineraries that bring you in and around the best of Yellowstone.
Best of the Bozeman Area
Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Bozeman, Bridger Bowl is where the locals go to ski. This means you’re not stepping into a resort layered with shops when you arrive— it’s just a good old-fashioned ski hill. With 75 uncrowded trails on 2,000 acres, it offers everything from beginner slopes to extreme terrain. It’s also an affordable place to ski since it’s a locally owned non-profit. Head to Snowsports on the hill to rent your skis and/or sign up for lessons. You can get warm in the Snowflake Warming Hut on the mountain and break for lunch at the Jim Bridger Lodge.
Take a day off from skiing to explore Bozeman, one of the West’s most charming towns. It’s home to a number of really great shops, restaurants and breweries. Warm up from the cold by spending time soaking in Bozeman Hot Springs on the southwest side of town. And then escape the outdoors for a couple hours and head to The Museum of the Rockies, a Smithsonian affiliate, that offers something for everyone.
It boasts the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the nation, including the largest Tyrannosaurus skull ever discovered. It’s also home to the Martin Children’s Discovery Center, which provides a fascinating look at Yellowstone. Geared toward infants through 8-year-olds, it is a great spot for families. You’ll walk through a stone-like archway to enter that bears a striking resemblance to the stone archway at the North Entrance to the park in Gardiner, Mont. Kids can pump up a geyser, look through binoculars on a fire tower, fish at a miniature version of Yellowstone’s iconic Fishing Bridge and more.
If you're interested in cross-country skiing, head to Hyalite Canyon for 30 km of groomed trails and endless miles of ungroomed trails. You'll see ice climbers scaling the frozen waterfalls in this canyon. With more than 200 pitches, it is one of North America's top natural ice climbing destinations. It's known for reliable ice and diverse, accessible climbing. At night, Hyalite Canyon is a popular spot to view Montana’s star-studded night sky. With dark skies, you'll see more stars than you can imagine. You could even witness the Northern Lights with December through March being excellent times to see them.
On the Way to Yellowstone’s North Entrance
To visit Yellowstone’s North Entrance, which is open all year, fill your gas tank in Bozeman and head east first to Livingston, a charming historic town with a vibrant community. Stop at Faye’s Cafe inside the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts for a creative and delicious breakfast or lunch served all day.
Then continue toward Yellowstone National Park where a string of fantastic hot springs locales await along the way. Read more on Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Mont., and Yellowstone Hot Springs just north of Gardiner, along with the Boiling River in the park.
The North Entrance is the only park entrance open to vehicle traffic in the winter. Once inside the park, you’ll be able to take Hwy. 212 past Tower Junction through the Lamar Valley to Cooke City and Silver Gate. Learn more about what to do in this wildlife-filled area of the park. Although the bears are in for a long winter’s nap, bison, elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, antelope, wolves and coyotes are out and about. With a blanket of snow on the park, it is easier to spot wildlife than in summer. That makes wildlife viewing prime. Pack your binoculars, your mask and your knowledge of wildlife safety, and see for yourself. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the ever-elusive lynx or wolverine.
Cooke City, Mont., which sits on the edge of the Lamar Valley and is accessible by car in the winter via the Mammoth entrance, is an equally amazing place to go full throttle, with late-season backcountry snowmobiling extending into early summer. For an exclusive ride through America’s first national park, book a guided snowmobile excursion of Yellowstone.
On the Way to Yellowstone’s West Entrance
For ski enthusiasts, Big Sky Resort is arguably the closest you can get to heaven on Earth and it’s about an hour’s drive from Bozeman. With 5,850 skiable acres and 36 lifts, including North America’s first 8-person lift, you can spend days at Big Sky and not ski it all.
“It’s world-class skiing without the world,” says Colin Bonnicksen, a Montana local.
Its most iconic peak is Lone Peak, a towering snow-capped mountain that stretches 11,167 feet into the Montana sky. If you’re an advanced skier, take the Lone Peak Tram to the top and ski down the black diamond Liberty Bowl for an exhilarating run. Otherwise, just enjoy the incredible views and board the tram to go back down.
For a day off, try dog sledding with Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures or Spirit of the North. At night, enjoy dinner at Mountain Village, but be sure you head to Lone Mountain Ranch one evening to take a horse-drawn sleigh to an elegant prime-rib dinner in a snow-covered cabin in the forest. The ranch also has 80-plus miles of Nordic ski trails that are open to the public- just buy a day pass for $25.
Farther south down 191, you’ll reach West Yellowstone, Mont., which sits on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. It’s known for its incredible Nordic trails — the Rendezvous Ski Trails — as well as its vast and diverse snowmobiling terrain. You also can go dog sledding here with Klondike Dreams Sled Dog Rides. Learn more about all the incredible things to do in West Yellowstone.
Most of the roads in Yellowstone, including the one road into the park from West Yellowstone, are closed to vehicular traffic in winter, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing the park this time of year. If you’re not up for exploring by ski, snowshoe or snowmobile, board a snowcoach tour. These transport vehicles are made for snow and ice and allow you to sit back, relax, stay warm and spend the day experiencing the pure magic of a Yellowstone winter.
This west side of Yellowstone is home to beautiful birds, even in winter. Grab your binoculars or spotting scope. In winter you can see trumpeter swans in the Madison River stretch as well as just outside the park at Hebgen Lake and the surrounding area. You’ll also find resident eagles and migrating ducks, plus other birds that can be viewed year-round in Yellowstone Country, like the gray jay, redbreasted nuthatch, American dipper and mountain chickadee.
Hebgen Lake is also home to one of the best ice fishing spots in the region. This 15-mile-long lake sports a solid foot of ice during the winter and plenty of brown and rainbow trout. Locals say it’s not uncommon to pull in a 20-incher here. Or, head to Hyalite Reservoir and catch cutthroat, arctic grayling and brook trout. Cooney Reservoir State Park is a walleye and rainbow trout hot spot where you’ll find hardcore folks ice fishing after dark.
North of the Park
If you’re dreaming of staying in a cozy historic ski town, head to Red Lodge, Mont. Red Lodge Mountain is affordable and uncrowded with 1,600-plus acres of skiing. Red Lodge may be the “coolest ski town you’ve never heard of," where you'll enjoy big mountain fun without big mountain crowds, prices or lift lines.
You can eat lunch at Midway Chalet and stay for apres ski at Bierstube, a local favorite where there’s 10 beers on tap and live music, along with pub food. At night, stroll Broadway, the town’s vibrant main street, and eat at one of its great snow-lined restaurants. For incredible steak and ambience, hit the Carbon County Steakhouse.
On your return route from Red Lodge to Bozeman, stop in Columbus to visit New Atlas Bar, which opened its doors in 1906 and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s affectionately known among Montana locals as the “horniest bar in Montana.” Don’t let that scare you, though. It earned its name from all the 60-plus mounts that hang from its walls, including 15 elk mounts. Above the gorgeous historic wooden piano, there’s a glass case of a white albino fawn and elsewhere you’ll see a brown wolf and a two-headed calf. As the story goes, the calf was born in 1961 and lived for three weeks.
Learn more at www.visityellowstonecountry.com.