Our Winter Road Trip to Yellowstone, and Why You Should Consider Such a Trip
As we have done for several previous years, members of the Yellowstone Explored staff journeyed to Yellowstone National Park during our holiday winter break between Christmas and New Year’s. Yellowstone in wintertime is a beautiful white snow-covered landscape teaming with active and abundant wildlife engaged in the efforts of survival. This makes for a great adventure if you like to get out and enjoy viewing wildlife in this unique setting – and we do.
Our winter trip to Yellowstone is limited to the northern part of the park because it is the only part of park open in the winter to vehicle travel. We prefer to take our own vehicle, as compared to snowcoach tour, so we can get out and hike and seek for those unique opportunities to capture wildlife photos and the adventure that is the whole process of such an experience.
I thought with this article I would give you a day-by-day review of our trip while highlighting why we feel everyone should plan a trip to Yellowstone in the dead of winter. Our trip requires that we travel through Idaho Park, ID in route to West Yellowstone, then head north up to Bozeman, MT, then east to Livingston, MT, where you turn south again dropping down through Paradise Valley in route to Gardiner, MT and the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. (“Where is Yellowstone National Park Located?”)
Literally the entire trip to the North Entrance of the park is filled with wildlife viewing opportunities. So, our day starts early as we hope to take advantage of early morning animal activity. This article will focus on our journey beginning at West Yellowstone.
Day 1 – Getting to Our Motel and Enjoying Our Trip Along the Way
Leaving West Yellowstone, we navigate north on Hwy 191 through Idaho before entering that small part of Yellowstone National Park through which this highway travels. It is interesting to note that of all the roads in the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, this roughly 5 to 6-mile section of road has one of the highest vehicle-animal collision rates of all the roads in the park. To me it is amazing the see the numerous animal tracks that penetrate the snow-covered hillsides and valleys. One would tend to think that the only time the animals are not out and about is when you are driving through the area.
It seems as though this part of our drive is usually filled with discussion of previous winter adventures and the experiences we had and the hopes for similar, or different, adventures with this trip.
As soon as Hwy 191 meets with the Gallatin River that flows from the northwest point of Yellowstone National Park we really start focusing our spotting efforts on the river in hopes of catching an otter rising out of the water and playing on the frozen ice that covers most of the river this time of the year. This year we hit the jackpot with three otters moving about on the ice and dipping back into the river. As you can see in the photos, they had the success of catching a nice sized rainbow trout and were enjoying the spoils of their victory. The wildlife photo opportunity part of our trip had officially begun, and our excitement elevated.
The drive from West Yellowstone of the turnoff to Big Sky Mountain Village and Ski Resort takes less than an hour. You are sure to see some deer and a lot of elk on the distant hillsides as you near the area. Once you arrive at the turnoff area you are in territory that has an abundance of Big Horn Sheep that can be easily seen on surrounding hills and on the roads as they often come down to lick the salt from the road.
From Big Sky you continue to parallel, crossing over a few times, the Gallatin River as it moves down the canyon and on to the Gallatin Gateway area before you turn north and head toward Bozeman, MT. This part of the drive you are sure to see deer and elk herds scattered across farmland and hillsides as they have chosen this area as their wintering grounds.
The Abundance of Wildlife in Paradise Valley
Once in Bozeman our next destination is to Livingston, MT traveling along Interstate 90. Once at Livingston we jump on Hwy 89 driving south down through scenic Paradise Valley before reaching Gardiner, MT, a drive of about 52 miles. Also running through this valley is the Yellowstone Riveras it flows northward out of the park. As with previous years we saw hundreds of deer and elk who have chosen this beautiful valley as their winter range. Along this route you will come to a sign for Corwin Springs located 8 miles north of Gardiner, MT and the North Entrance to Yellowstone National park. Here you will find Yellowstone Hot Springs (yellowstonehotspringsmt.com), a mineral spring situated next to the Yellowstone River and a great place to relax and soak after a long day of adventuring. The hot springs is open on some weekends during the winter months.
Also located here, after crossing the bridge over the Yellowstone River is an area rich in Big Horn Sheep. We stopped here to capture a few photos of the sheep as they grazed along the hillside just across the river.
Over the years we have stayed at motels in Bozeman, Livingston, and Gardiner. Most have been good lodging facilities with good service. This year we opted to stay at the Ridgeline Motel in Gardiner, MT. The accommodations were excellent and the early morning availability of the buffet breakfast which comes with the room fee was great, allowing us to get an early start on our adventure into the park each morning. We chose to eat at local grills during our stay for our evening meal after our day in the park. For this night we chose the Cowboy’s Lodge and Grill which specializes in BBQ entrees and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the service.
Day 2 – A Full Day in the Park
Arising early, enjoying our breakfast buffet, and getting on the road before daylight is a must as we chase the light for those optimal photo ops. As you enter the park through the North Entrance you enter Big Horn Sheep range and the chance to see the majestic and powerfully built animals on both sides of the hills that border the road to Mammoth Hot Springs. We saw a few up high on the cliffs, too dark for pictures and too far away for a good photo. That’s okay as we were heading directly toward Lamar Valley over on the northeast part of the park and the chance to see a large pack of wolves that had been seen in the valley.
The Butte Junction Wolf Pack
Sure enough, located atop a high hill were, by our count, 16 wolves laying around doing very little beyond a brief get up and move about before settling down again. The distance to the wolves, unlike many previous trips, was too far away for any photos, even with our large camera lens, and unfortunately for most of the day even into the evening the wolves stayed hunkered down only to eventually leave at dusk and traveled a path that brought them closer, but not close enough for any good photo ops. Glad we chose to explore different areas as the wait for these wolves did not pan out for the photos we would have liked to snap.
An Abundance of Wildlife
As we roamed around driving the roads between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cook City just outside the northeast corner of the park, we saw multiple elk including a lone bull taking a break sitting on a hillside, multiple bison moving across landscapes and when stopping to forage systematically moving their heads back and forth to move the snow as they search for food, dozens of big horn sheep including a buff looking ram with distant mountains as his backdrop, half a dozen moose holding out among the willows, several coyote – 5 in a two mile stretch along Lamar Valley – looking to pounce on small critters under the blanket of snow, a beautiful rustic red colored fox moving along a white band of snow separating sagebrush and tree line, a scurrying badger heading towards the den, multiple pronghorn grouped together in a lower valley, a majestic looking bald eagle sitting atop a dead tree, and with the aid of our scope, a couple of white male (called billy) mountain goats high on the snow covered cliffs of Barronette Peak.
Recommendations for Being Prepared for Your Winter Trip
1. Warm layered clothing: As you can imagine, the winter months in Yellowstone can be very cold, and you need to properly prepare for subzero temperatures. Dressing with layered clothing to accommodate cycles of getting into and out of your vehicle when wildlife is spotted is very important. There will be times when you get out of your vehicle to set up your scope to view animals or scope the landscape in hopes of finding animals, or when you want to go on a hike to explore an area in hopes of finding that perfect photo of an animal or landscape. As you hike and your body heats up you will want to shed a layer or two and the ability to do so helps keep you comfortable during your outing.
We begin with under layering of merino fabric top and bottom for its warmth providing attribute as well as its soft and comfortable feel. Over this some will choose a fleece jacket or a thin down-filled jacket. Finally, as an outerwear, a warmth retaining and cold, wind, and waterproof coat for protection from the elements.
2. Head and face covering: A significant amount of heat is lost from the head and exposed ears are very subjective to getting cold and making your experience uncomfortable. Depending on the temperature and other environmental circumstances, we like our Carhartt hats and underlying face shields.
3. Good gloves: Just like cold ears can make a winter experience less enjoyable, so can cold fingers. And, because we are usually engaged in picture taking, we like gloves that are mittens for warmth and can also have the top pulled back exposing the fingers for the needed dexterity of working the many functions on a camera.
4. Warm boots: We like to get out and hike a lot during our Yellowstone adventures and we want proper protection to keep our feet from getting cold. For us, the boots with which we protect our feet and toes are Columbia’s Bugaboot 600 grams of insulation. And, a good pair of merino wool socks to cover your feet.
5. Spotting scope or binoculars. Sometimes you are lucky to be able to see wolves and other wildlife at close range. However, often they will be hundreds of yards away or farther, out in a meadow, on a mountain side, or across a valley. The right scope with the right power can allow you to see the animals up close and personal – their eyes and other facial features, the contour of their fur, or some other desirable detail. It’s fun to watch the animals close with your naked eye, but when they are far from you, it’s a wonderfully unique experience to view them and their details up close.
6. Cameras. It is amazing to see the power of camera lens that folks bring to the park to capture photos of animals. We each have our favorite type of camera, but if you want to capture animals up close, 200-500 mm power lens.
7. Drink and Snacks. During our Yellowstone winter adventures we are in the park before sun up and leave the park after sun down. Time is precious so we come prepared with a cooler with plenty of water bottles or Gatorade, snacks, and pre-made sandwiches.