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Yellowstone National Park in winter is definitely a special place. The first time I visited in the winter, I was blown away. Now I try to get there every year in the snowy cold months. If you want to see wild animals and avoid the crowds, winter is the perfect time to plan a trip to Yellowstone!
In this post, I share everything I’ve learned over the years about Yellowstone in the winter – the do’s, the dont’s, ways to maximize your time, and general travel tips. Let’s get started!
Yellowstone in Winter (Need to Know)
Yellowstone Winter Road Closures
Every year in early November, most park roads close to regular traffic in preparation for the winter season.
The only road that is open year-round to automobiles is the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance at Silver Gate.
You have very limited driving access to the park, but if you’ve come to see the wild animals, the Lamar Valley section that’s open year-round is all you really need.
This blog post mainly focuses on what you can do if you just want to drive into the park with no guided tours.
Once enough snow accumulates (usually by mid-December), the other roads in the park open to “oversnow” travel only.
If you want to see other areas of the park such as Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you’ll have to book a guided tour on a snowmobile or snowcoach.
There’s also a non-commercial guided snowmobile program if you have your own snowmobiles. Winter oversnow travel hours are 7 am to 9 pm.
Oversnow travel ends in mid-March when plowing crews begin clearing the roads to start re-opening to normal cars in mid-April.
A guided snowmobile or snowcoach option is perfect if you want to adventure further into the park or you’re uncomfortable driving in winter conditions.
The Yellowstone snowcoaches are pictured below!
General Opening and Closing dates for Yellowstone Roads*:
- Early November most park roads close.
- Mid-December roads open to oversnow travel only.
- Mid-March oversnow travel ends.
- Mid-April roads re-open to normal cars.
*Exact dates vary from year to year. Check here for this year’s opening and closing dates.
Driving in Yellowstone in the Winter
Below is a Yellowstone map where I marked the two entrances that are open to automobiles in the winter months, along with a couple of places to see along the drive!
Best Time To Visit Yellowstone In Winter
In general, there’s a lot more snow accumulation the later into the Winter that you visit.
One year I visited in mid-December and there wasn’t much snow in the park. Another year I visited in mid-February and there was a lot of snow.
As the plows clear the road throughout the winter, the snowbanks on the sides of the road can get really high, potentially decreasing visibility out the window.
All this being said, it does vary from year to year and it’s impossible to predict how much snow you’ll have on a particular year.
I personally like to see the park with a lot of snow, so I prefer to visit a little later in the winter.
In addition, the days are shortest around the winter solstice on December 21st. Waiting until a little later in the winter will give you even more daylight to enjoy the park!
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park in Winter
1. Check the weather before you head into the park
Depending on how far you’re driving, the weather can be very different throughout the drive.
I always check the weather in a few places along the drive to get a better sense of what I might be encountering. For example, I usually check the weather in Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Tower Junction.
You can also check current park conditions here.
That being said, the weather can change really fast, and more often than not, the weather reports are not accurate, which brings me to my next tip…
2. Make sure your vehicle is prepared for winter travel
Is your vehicle capable and prepared for winter road conditions such as snow and ice?
The roads can be slippery and there are curves and steep drop-offs along the drive.
If you’re not comfortable driving in winter mountain conditions, or your vehicle is not capable of such a journey, don’t worry, there are other options to get into the park, such as taking a Yellowstone snowcoach!
3. Make sure you have emergency car supplies
I always make sure I have emergency supplies in my car. There is very limited cell service in the park, so it’s important to be self-reliant and prepared should you have to stay out longer than expected.
I always have a warm blanket or sleeping bag, extra food, tire changing tools, jumper cables, a battery-powered jumper cable pack, a shovel, a fully stocked first-aid kit, headlamp or flashlight, and a fire starting kit.
Be prepared to help yourself in an emergency because help from others might be a long way away.
>> Read more on vehicle supplies and preparedness.
4. Pack plenty of warm clothing layers
Speaking of preparedness, we need to take a moment to talk about clothing.
Winter temperatures in Yellowstone range from zero to 20°F (-20°C to -5°C) throughout the day. Sub-zero temperatures are common, especially at night and at higher elevations!
Add in a wind chill and it gets uncomfortable quickly.
The record low temperature in the park is -66°F (-54°C). What the heck?!
Needless to say, warm clothing and plenty of layers are important! Check out my complete guide on what to pack for Yellowstone in winter.
I always wear moisture-wicking clothing like wool, nylon, or merino wool to help me stay dry.
5. Bring lots of snacks, water, and warm drinks
Other than some facilities in Mammoth Hot Springs, there are no food options in the park, so it’s best to come prepared with your own food.
The Gardiner town grocery store has great to-go sandwiches. I like to buy a couple in the morning before heading into the park for an easy lunch.
I also bring a thermos full of hot cocoa or hot coffee to sip on throughout the day. Having a warm drink makes such a difference!
Bring plenty of extra snacks and extra water too. There are no places to get water once you pass Mammoth, so bring plenty.
6. Don’t Forget binoculars or a spotting scope
I highly recommend that you bring at least binoculars. The views throughout the park are so grand!
Having the binoculars lets you see so much more detail and even get a better look at animals in the distance.
If you’re going to spend time and money traveling to Yellowstone in the Winter, it’s worth getting a good pair.
I have the Vortex Diamondback binoculars and I love them! I also pack a tripod so that I can rest the binoculars on the tripod and reduce shakiness from my hands.
A spotting scope can be great for watching animals that are even further away. If you’re serious about looking for animals such as the wolves, you’ll want a spotting scope.
7. Watch Out for Animals on the Roadway
The animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable.
In the wintertime, the bison often use the roads to travel because they’re cleared of snow. You’ll likely have to wait for the bison to cross the road and move off before you can continue.
Bison can run at speeds approaching 35 mph which is as fast as a horse. They’re also extremely agile, so while they might look calm and slow-moving, they can outrun you.
Do not approach the bison. If you see a bison and it stops what it’s doing to look at you, you are too close.
Always stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals, including bison and elk.
Yellowstone in Winter Things Do
Go snowshoeing or cross country skiing
There are a lot of options to snowshoe or cross country ski in the park. All unplowed roads and trails are open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Keep in mind that within the park there’s wildlife, changing weather conditions, hydrothermal areas, deep snow, open streams, and avalanches. You definitely need to plan and prepare properly for your hike.
It’s a good idea to talk with a park ranger before you leave on a trip and get specific information on current conditions.
Trail conditions and status are also available from the ski shops at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful.
Check here for trail options with set tracks throughout the park to help with planning.
See Mammoth Hot Springs
The hot springs (pictured above) are really cool in the winter!
The boardwalks are still open to walk on in the winter, but they’re not shoveled so you’ll need proper winter footwear, but the walk on the boardwalk along the hot springs is one of my favorite things to do.
Drive through the park and take photos
The drive out to Lamar Valley and back to Mammoth is gorgeous! It’s why I come to the park in the winter. You can stop along the way to take photos and look for animals. If you’re lucky, you’ll see plenty of wildlife!
Along this drive, I’ve seen elk, coyotes, wolves, bison, bald eagles, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep! Seeing the wild animals in this epic winter landscape is really special.
Old Faithful (guided tour)
If you want to see Old Faithful, you have to book a guided tour on a snowmobile or snowcoach.
Have questions as you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone in the winter?
Feel free to comment below!
Have you been to Yellowstone National Park in Winter? What did you think?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
If you want to see more from one of my trips to Yellowstone in winter, check out the video below: