Making Your Yellowstone Park Winter Trip Memorable, Not Miserable
It's on every Montanan's bucket list to make that wintertime visit to Yellowstone National Park. Our imaginations are spurred by the beautiful still pics and videos of the bison grazing in the snow, the wolf pack chasing elk in survival mode, and the steaming thermal features.
And while those experiences are magical, there are still some points to consider when planning a Yellowstone winter trip, whether traveling with one of the guided tours, a non-commercial guided snowmobile group, or by car on the park's Northside.
First and foremost is the cash.
While room rates around the park have soared unbelievably since the pandemic travel boom, bargains can be had during the winter season. You can find a room at many of the mainline hotels in West Yellowstone from $100 to just over $175 a night, although custom destinations that include words like "adventure" and "cabins" in their names can still set you back $300 to $400 or more per night. The bigger challenge can be booking a room, although even during the Christmas holiday rooms are available. Weekdays can be a better choice than weekends.
Gardiner remains an affordable option if you want to stay outside the park and then drive through to Cooke City.
Face it, there's a reason the bison have their big winter coats on. Yellowstone is COLD, with West Yellowstone frequently the coldest location in the Lower 48. Daytime temps, on a "normal" day, range from zero to 20 above. But at night, and when the wind blows, temperatures will dive well below zero. That's not so bad if you're in a heated snow coach. But if you're getting out at all you can be miserable if you're not prepared. The same is true for driving through the North Entrance. Take the cold very seriously and watch for frostbite.
Capturing those gorgeous "Nat Geo" shots is nearly impossible for the average person. Still, you can get respectable images if you're prepared. Most of all, bring batteries. Lots and lots of batteries. The cold can sap power in minutes and common camera batteries will likely last only a third of the time you'd normally expect. Practice keeping your camera warm by limiting the time outside shooting, and protecting your lens from snow and ice. However, balance that against moisture, which can fog your lens and slow down shooting. Consider carrying only 1 or 2 lenses for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Changing increases the risk of getting moisture in your camera. If you use a tripod, use a simple sturdy model (flip leg locks are much better in the cold), or consider a monopod for those long shots.
The same goes for camera phones. Batteries will drain quickly, so pack along USB power "sticks" and plan recharging time. Remember there's limited connectivity so you won't be able to "share" those pics until later, so using "airplane mode" could extend battery life.
And for GoPros, don't even bother unless you have the "Enduro" batteries for cold weather.
Other suggestions by the park
Much the same as in the summer, don't feed or approach wildlife. Don't block the roads. Don't get off the boardwalks in thermal areas. And this of the year, expect limited services.
Yellowstone's winter season runs through mid-March, so make your plans for a great experience. But if you're not ready this year, don't push it. Prepare for next year. The park will still be there.