Born to Be Wild: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Yellowstone Year-Round
Although seasoned travelers may complain about the crowds, there’s a reason that Yellowstone is so famous. In addition to the spectacular splendor of all that nature, there’s nowhere else in America where you can reliably count on being an arm’s length away from a herd of bison at any given moment (but please, for the love of God (and the wildlife), try to refrain from the selfies).
Though best known as a summer destination, fall, winter, and spring are also great times to visit this national treasure. From hiking, to fishing, skiing, snowshoeing, and camping, there’s no shortage of things to do here year-round. In fact, there’s now a daily shuttle operating in the winter, taking travelers from Bozeman Airport to Yellowstone and back, so there’s even more incentive to book your flight and head west.
Where to Stay
The lodge at Old Faithful is a classic any time of year, but with its wooden interiors and roaring fires, it’s perfect for the wintertime. The Old Faithful Snow Lodges are only accessible via snowcoaches (which you can take on tours to explore the springs and geysers). Note when packing: Due to space limitations in these vehicles, the max you can bring is two suitcases and one carry-on per person, plus a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes.
For those who think the luxury of a king-sized bed and private bathroom is cheating at the whole roughing-it experience, the cabins at Roosevelt Lodge were made for you. Named after former president Theodore Roosevelt who loved to camp in this area of the park, the sparsely furnished cabins are ideal for those who wish to reconnect with nature on a more visceral level and provide a peaceful alternative for the wellness-seeking traveler looking to check in and drop out of the noise of day-to-day life. No WiFi, no problem.
What to Do
Yellowstone offers some of the most immersive outdoor opportunities in the country year-round. We recommend trekking through Lamar Valley to observe the wolf population if you visit in the winter. Lamar Valley, located in the northeast corner of the park, is one of the more remote areas of Yellowstone and is a prime spot to see wildlife. Aside from being the top destination for wolves, it’s also home to buffalo, bighorn sheep, and river otters.
Fishing opportunities abound along the Lamar River, although you should also be sure to visit Yellowstone Lake or Madison River for lure or fly fishing. Madison River, on the west side of the park, is especially recommended for fly fishing, and fall is the best time to catch the large trout coming in from Hebgen Lake. All three fishing areas offer plenty of tranquil places for solitude, so pack your boots and waders and wander down the riverbank in search of a serene spot; then find your bliss and cast away.
If you’re visiting in the winter, book a snowmobile or snowcoaching tour to explore the geysers and view the park’s legendary wildlife. We recommend Old Faithful Snowmobiling; the park is less crowded in the winter season, so the view of the famous geyser Old Faithful won’t be obstructed by hordes of tourists. Or, you can opt for a winter safari and explore the snowy terrain via snowmobile, snowcoach, or even a luxury van (a good choice for the frostbite-prone).
Keep in mind that the park is huge, and there’s simply no way to do everything in a day. Though, of course, we suggest getting out into the wild as much as possible, inevitably you’ll spend a fair amount of time in the car — either waiting in traffic caused by roadwork (a killer on winding roads), or stopped by buffalo meandering around your vehicle.
While you’re driving around the Figure 8 loop of the National Park, be sure to tune in to Yellowstone Public Radio for a fascinating glimpse into local culture. They recently interviewed people who survived bear attacks in the park, which is either comforting or terrifying, depending on your perspective and your propensity for anxiety. (Hey, we told you to pack the bear spray.)
Where to Eat and Drink
The ambiance in the dining room of the Old Faithful Inn simply can’t be beat: The wooden beams, bear murals, and bustling crowds are practically synonymous with the park itself. If you’re looking for a more serene environment, Grant Village Lake House Restaurant is situated right on the water. Its dramatic view of the sunset (and if you’re ambitious, sunrise) is the best way to start or end your day — nightcap or cup of coffee required.
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel offers the perfect pit stop for your last meal before leaving the park. Recently renovated, the hotel overlooks Lake Yellowstone, and the food is incredible. As a general rule, opt for the elk or the bison (when in Rome). Of course, any place you stop in the park for a meal will have its own appeal.
Visit a cafeteria for lunch in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, and you’ll be greeted by a large sign on the door with a step-by-step guide on the consequences of feeding the wildlife. As if that weren’t alarming enough, a smaller sign beside it warns “No Firearms Allowed.” Only in Montana.
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(Photos via Getty)