Morning Glory hot spring at Yellowstone — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Winter in Yellowstone National Park is an enriching and quiet experience. Of the more than 3.4 million annual visitors to the United State's first and 8th-largest national park, fewer than 100,000 visit during the winter season. Between Dec. 15 and March 15 most of the roads here are closed and snow packed.
Except for a few miles of the north entrance, snow coach, snow mobile, skis or snowshoes are the only way to get around (click here for road closures). While it takes a little more effort to visit Yellowstone in the winter, the many rewards are worth it. For starters, there are no "bison jams," where scores of vehicles idle on the roads while a bison decides whether or not to cross the road to get to the other side.
Bison near Old Faithful in Yellowstone — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Within the park during winter, visitors have two lodging choices. Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the park's newest hotel, opened in 1999. Located next to the historic Old Faithful Inn (closed for winter) and the iconic Old Faithful Geyser itself, Old Faithful Snow Lodge offers modern, cozy rooms with a roaring fireplace in the lobby and a lighted ice rink outside.
Right out the door, a snow-packed trail loops you around lumbering bison and impressive Old Faithful Geyser. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in the northern part of the park is an elegant historic property that opened in 1911. The hotel sits at the base of Mammoth Hot Springs, which makes for a fascinating winter hike. Once on the overlook, ski trails take you on an exhilarating loop tour.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge and ice rink — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Cross-country skiing is an excellent way to explore Yellowstone, and ski shops at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel will outfit you and point you to the trails, or you can cut your own country and feel like you have much of the the park's 2.2 million acres to yourself. With the exception of hibernating animals such as bears, wildlife in Yellowstone is at its easiest to observe.
Animals group together and conserving energy as they search through the snow for food (visitors should still not approach or crowd any wildlife). Wolves are active, especially in Lamar Valley east of Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction. On the Winter Wolf Discovery tour, naturalists take you to prime observation areas. Nothing can ever be guaranteed with wildlife viewing, but winter is your best bet to spot any of Yellowstone's several wolf packs and hear their howling.
Wolf pack in Lamar Valley — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Visiting Yellowstone in winter is made cheaper and easier with two Frosty Fun packages offered through Xanterra Resorts this season. The Frosty Fun at Old Faithful package, available Jan. 1 through March 4, 2013, includes a minimum of two nights of lodging at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, two breakfasts per person, a welcome gift, unlimited ice skating and skates, round-trip snowcoach transportation and a Xanterra Snow Card that is good for 10-percent off meals, in-park transportation, park tours, and ski shop services and select retail items. Rates start at $319 per person for double occupancy and $479 for single occupancy, and are a 26-percent savings.
Snow coaches, called bombers, transport guests within the park — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
The Frosty Fun at Mammoth package includes a minimum of two nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in a room with a private bathroom, two breakfasts per person, a welcome gift, unlimited ice skating and skates and a Snow Card. Rates start at $135 per person for double occupancy and $226 for single occupancy. It is available Jan. 1 through March 4, 2013. The rates are 21-percent savings. Winter rates at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for single or double occupancy, plus tax, for individual room start at $91 for a room with a shared bathroom or $123 for a standard hotel room with a private bathroom.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
In addition to the Frosty Fun packages, Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers the cross country ski/snowshoe-themed Nordic Heaven ski packages and snowmobile-based Trail of the Wolf packages, where naturalists from the Yellowstone Association Institute explain the lives of wolves and help you see them yourself. Six Lodging & Learning programs also hosted by the association combining expert guides, accommodations, transportation and meals.
Wolf watching in Lamar Valley — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Winter Getaway packages can be booked by phone by calling 307-344-7311, 1-866-439-7375 or online at www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com. Stay at the Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus and receive a 25-percent discount on a Private Tour tuition.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese