While the annual visitation record in Yellowstone National Park was topped again in 2010, few of the three million plus visitors to our world’s first national park ever experience the beauty and wonder of Yellowstone in its longest season, winter. For most, thoughts of a trip to Yellowstone conjure up images of bison frolicking in green grasses, raging waterfalls, the reflection of the Absaroka Mountains on the surface of Yellowstone Lake–all of which inspire nature lovers to lace up their boots and hit the trails. But for those brave and hardy souls who aren’t willing to wait for the rivers to clear of ice and the trails to become boot friendly, winter in Yellowstone provides a rare opportunity to experience the silence and solitude of this wilderness wonderland. Blanketed by a thick layer of snow, with howling winds and finger-numbing temperatures, Yellowstone presents a perfect recipe for rugged adventure. Regardless of your stamina, experience, or desire, if you’re willing to endure a bit of discomfort, a winter paradise awaits you in Yellowstone!
Most winter visitors to Livingston, Montana spend their days cutting turns on the slopes of Bridger Bowl or Big Sky, and while these ski areas provide unlimited face shots of powder after a big dump, for the wilderness purist or seeker of solitude, a short 1-hour drive south through the spectacular Paradise Valley leads to the ultimate in winter exploration.
Yellowstone’s northern range is the perfect destination for the self-sustained seeker of adventure. Open year-round, the road from Gardiner (North Entrance) to Cooke City (Northeast Entrance) is the only road in the park that is maintained and plowed all winter long. The interior traveler is dependent upon hired snow-coaches or snowmobiles, which entail date and time restrictions, but from the first big winter storm until the onset of spring, this 40-mile section of road provides a launching point for any number of cross-country ski and snowshoe excursions.
While many visitors fear driving the winding park roads in the winter months, locals have long appreciated the Park Services’ efforts that keep the roadways passable to just about any all-wheel drive vehicle.
1. The Upper Terrace Loop: This short 1.5 mile groomed trail is a favorite of locals whether it be a short lunchtime sweat, or a curvy circuit after several inches of fresh snow.
Insider Tip: While most go left (counter clockwise), for the fastest and most adrenaline riddled downhill, go right from the parking lot (clockwise). This can also be connected with all or a portion of the Snow Pass Trail which takes you through a beautiful old-growth Douglas Fir forest leading to the expansive views of Swan Lake Flats and the Glenn Creek Trail.
2. Slough Creek: This can be used as a short snow-shoe or ski with a short 1-mile undulating journey on the road to Slough Creek Camp Ground, or it can be turned into a long day or overnight trip into the first, second or third meadows of Slough Creek.
3. Tower Falls: This is another great choice for snowshoeing and cross-country skiers, one which is suitable for beginners. The trail follows the Tower-Canyon road 2.5 miles to Tower Falls. This 5-mile round trip offers rewarding views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Special Note: When snowshoeing, please respect the tracks made by skiers and stay off to the side to avoid snowshoe tracks on the ski trail.
If you’ve gone to the trouble to make it to Yellowstone in winter, you owe it to yourself to experience the interior of the wilderness Mecca known by many as “Wonderland.” While any of Yellowstone?s back-country trails offer those seeking adventure a respite from the daily grind and a connection to the natural world, to fully experience the mystical nature of Yellowstone during its harshest season, a trip to the interior is not to be missed.
Whether you want to use this as a rest day to let your legs recover from your skiing or snowshoeing efforts, or as a launching pad for a multi-day adventure, peering through the windows of your snow-coach into a frozen wilderness will be a trip highlight you won’t soon forget.
While a night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is well worth the effort and investment, if you only have one day to journey to the park’s interior, the Saturday-only ski tour of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which leaves the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at 7:45 a.m., is a great alternative.
For those seeking sun-up to sun-down, lung- and leg-bursting adventure, the Bighorn Loop, starting at the Indian Creek Ski Hut, is a local favorite. This 5.5 mile loop, with amazing views and minimal elevation gain, is reached via shuttle from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. While there are five shuttles running from Mammoth to Indian Creek, starting at 8:15 am and ending at 3:30 pm (those opting for the 3:30 pm shuttle must ski back to Mammoth), the earlier the start the better for this all-day adventure.
After skiing the longer Bighorn or shorter Indian Creek loop, the 8-mile ski back to the Mammoth area begins with a 2-mile stretch across the scenic flats of Swan Lake, back to the old service road at Bunsen Peak. From there, skiers head east for 3 miles, along a fairly level, groomed trail through burnt lodgepole pine. And then the real adventure begins! The last 3 miles of the trail are markedly steep, with several hairpin curves and a 1,000 foot loss in elevation. Caution should be exercised by all skiers, especially when conditions are icy, as there are many steep drops throughout this portion of the trail.
Insider Tip: If you opt for the Epic Adventure to the Indian Creek Ski Hut for the Bighorn Loop, we recommend bringing a friend and plenty of day gear as the trail markings are spotty at best! If you take your time and pay close attention the loop is doable, but it is easy to get a little turned around on this trail.
If skinning up and skiing down is your game, Yellowstone won’t disappoint. While there are untold numbers of backcountry stashes throughout Mammoth, Canyon, and the Northeast Entrance areas, along with deeper and steeper places like Mount Washburn and Mount Sheridan, they are difficult to access and often offer a limited number of turns. As with all backcountry skiing, know your limitations, ski with a buddy, have all the necessary avalanche equipment (and know how to use it), and always check the Montana avalanche website.
Regardless of the adventure you pursue, after a long day of winter exploration, if you don’t feel up to making the drive back to Livingston, there are lodging options within the park, in Mammoth, and in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance. What better way to end your day than checking into the Mammoth Hotel, walking over to the Mammoth Dining Room for an affordable and plentiful plate, and winding down the night by resting your tired body back at the hotel in the romantic Map Room, listening to the dancing fingers of renowned and beloved Yellowstone pianist Randy Ingersoll?
Before heading back to Livingston–whether it be the following morning or at the end of a long day playing in the snow–any winter adventurer would be remiss not to make one final stop before leaving the park. Enjoyed by many summer visitors, but during the winter months, often overlooked by all but the locals, the Boiling River (2.5 miles south of Gardiner, at the bottom of the big hill to Mammoth, a short .5 mile walk) is a winter rite of passage that can heal the body and fuel the spirit. It will certainly warm your bones for the drive through Paradise en-route to base-camp.
Tours and Shuttle Schedule:
About the author: Michael Leach is a former Park ranger, Montana fly-fishing guide, writer and Executive Director of Yellowstone Country Guardians, a dynamic nonprofit organization. You can learn more about YCG at www.yellowstonecountryguardians.org or visit him at www.yellowstonetroutfitter.com. To read more of Leach’s inspired writings about Yellowstone, visit the Yellowstone Country Guardians blog.