Top Things to do in Yellowstone During the Winter Months of December, January & February
Updated: Feb 13
There are many things to do and see in Yellowstone during the winter months. There are snowmobile and snowcoach expeditions into the park that will take you to various places like Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and other destinations. If you are interested in a snowmobile or snowcoach, adventure into the park visit (https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/snowmobiles-snowcoaches.htm.
The focus of this article is to present the exciting opportunities available to those who select to drive their own vehicle into the park during the winter. While all other roads in the park are closed to winter vehicle travel, the northern part of the park, from the North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs, on to Tower-Roosevelt, and then all the way east to Cooke City, are open year-round to regular traffic. To drive these road sections in the winter is a great opportunity to experience some of the most dramatic events that play out in Yellowstone when the snow and cold cover the landscape and wildlife are working to survive the harsh winter environment. It is an adventure very few will ever experience.
How Do I Drive to the North Entrance in the Winter?
There are really two main paths that folks take to get to the North Entrance of the park during winter, one from Bozeman, MT and the other from Idaho Falls, ID.
1. From Bozeman, MT (Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport – approx.77 miles from North Entrance) drive east to Livingston, MT then turn south and drive through Paradise Valley until you arrive at Gardiner, MT, and the North Entrance.
2. From Idaho Falls, ID (Idaho Falls Regional Airport) drive to West Yellowstone, MT (approx. 108 miles), then head north passing Big Sky, MT in route to Bozeman, MT (another 89 miles). Then drive east to Livingston, MT then turn south and drive through Paradise Valley until you arrive at Gardiner, MT, and the North Entrance (another 54 miles).
Click HERE for more information about entrances to the park.
So, what are some of the top things to do in Yellowstone for those traveling in their own vehicles?
Enjoy the Experiences and Sights Along the Way to the Park
Fortunately, the 54-mile drive on US Highway 89 from Livingston, MT to the North Entrance of the park takes you through beautiful Paradise Valley in Montana. As the Yellowstone River leaves the northwest boundary of the park it runs through this valley that is flanked by the Absaroka Mountain Range on the east, and the Gallatin Mountain Range on the west.
Paradise Valley is an important winter range for elk, many of which have migrated there from Yellowstone, as well as winter habitat for mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and some bison. As you drive the valley during the winter months of December or January, you will likely see literally hundreds to thousands of wintering elk and mule deer, and dozens of the other animals – bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and bison. These animals are scattered across the valley floor and on the hillsides working hard to find food to help preserve them through the winter months. You may also see the occasional predator such as wolf, coyote, or eagle looking to take advantage of the wintering animals who may become too weak from malnourishment to survive the winter, or a predatory attack in their weakened state. So plentiful are the wintering herds that it is recommended to avoid traveling the road at night when visibility is low, and animals may be crossing the highway.
Enjoy Concentrated Park Wildlife
Without question it is the viewing of wildlife that is the focus and highlight of a winter drive through Yellowstone’s northern area. Below the specific “look for” animals likely to be seen on this trip are listed according to where you are most likely to spot them as you make this winter drive.
· From the North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs: As you pass along this 5-mile road section through Gardiner Canyon you are passing through a Bighorn Sheep Management Area. You are likely to see multiple bighorn sheep on either side of the canyon walls. To spot a large ram perched atop a cliff with his powerfully built body silhouetted against the sky as backdrop is a choice experience.
You are assuredly going to see elk in and around the Mammoth Hot Springs area, including hanging out around the buildings and open areas nearby. Of potential interest, at least if you have a warm camper, is that the Mammoth Campground is open year-round, including the cold months of winter.
· From Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt: While there is much to see along this road section, of particular interest is the higher possibility of spotting wolves from the Upper Hellroaring Overlook that provides a vast panoramic of the hillsides and valley to the north. It is one of the favorite places for enthusiasts to set up and spot for wolves roaming the area.
· From Tower-Roosevelt to Cooke City, MT: It is this section of the park where lies Lamar Valley with the highest concentration and diversity of wildlife than anywhere else in the park, both summer and winter seasons. The winter months provide an enhanced opportunity to see large numbers of bison and herds of elk digging in the snow for food. It is common to see bighorn sheep on the hillsides just northwest of the Lamar River Horse Trailhead and easily seen from the road. Coyotes are often seen paralleling the road as they look for a carcass or other feeding opportunity. Another treat is the possibility of seeing otters jumping out from the river onto the frozen ice and back again. Look for holes in the ice frozen river and signs of otter activity.
As you leave Lamar Valley after passing Trout Lake Trailhead and a short canyon drive, you enter a valley known as Round Prairie which extends up to and beyond Pebble Creek Campground. Here you have a good chance to spot moose in the valley foraging along the Soda Butte Creek and wolves howling across the valley as they roam the surrounding hillsides. You may also be able to spot mountain goats on the cliffs around the Pebble Creek area.
Click HERE for more information about “Best Places to See Wildlife” in the park.
Enjoy the Camaraderie of Other Enthusiasts
Because it is a unique breed that enjoys the adventures of spotting for wildlife in sub-freezing temperatures, you can always count on having some enjoyable chats with others who have brought their telescopes and cameras to for an up close view and to capture it for life long memories. There is much to learn about the area and winter wildlife and you can learn much from the regulars of winter excursions into the park. Most folks are so welcoming, will let you look through their scopes if you do not have one for the trip, and will share what knowledge they have graciously. And as you can imagine, you get all these opportunities without the crowds of summer.
It is also important to consider the unique photography that exists in wintertime. You get the snow white background contrasting with the darker color of the animals, the mist filled valleys contrasting with trees and mountains in the background, and the frost covered animals, especially bison, with their thick winter coats.
Walk the Snow-Covered Boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs or Cross-Country Ski the Area
Exploring Mammoth Hot Springs in the winter is an adventure in itself. Winter skiing or snowshoeing the upper terraces provides a different look at this large and dynamic hot springs. The visible steam rises higher and more abundantly with the cold temperatures to produce the contrast.
Soak in Boiling River Hot Springs
Yes, there are hardy adventurous people who, in the dead of winter, hike in the half-mile over a snow covered path to strip down to their underlying swimming suit and quickly get in to relax in this naturally warm location, compliments of the mixing of hot water from the Boiling River Hot Springs with the colder water of Gardner River. It is a much-visited attraction during the summer months in Yellowstone, and a winter favorite among local and regional folks who know and love the place.
When your natural hot tub experience comes to an end, plan on a quick exit, rapid removal of your swimsuit, and rapid dressing back into your winter clothes that you meticulously positioned and sequentially stacked for appropriate access when redressing.
Click HERE for information on Boiling River Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs Sponsored Hotel Winter Activities
Mammoth Hot Springs is open during the winter (mid-December to around the end of February) and has winter themed activities for park visitors, such as photography expeditions, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and wildlife watching tours. For information on activities offered through Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel call 886-439-7375.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone? Click HERE for the Yellowstone Interactive Map to help customize your own Yellowstone experience. It provides detailed information of things to do and see specific to each of Yellowstone’s 14 road sections.