In the snowy winter season, Yellowstone National Park is a magical sensory experience, and the scenery takes on an otherworldly look. With a hiss and roar, clouds of steam fume from the winter landscape. Geysers erupt, sometimes with their droplets freezing to tinkle back to earth. It is also the calm season, when crowds evaporate. In fact, winter is one time when you might be one of only a couple people watching Old Faithful Geyser blow.
Only two lodges open for the winter season. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel serves as a drive-to base. You can fly into Bozeman, Montana to catch a shuttle or rent a car to get to the lodge. At Old Faithful, the Snow Lodge houses winter guests. It is only accessible via snow coach. Plan a minimum of two nights in both lodges. Make reservations 9 months in advance, including the snowcoach to and from Old Faithful.
Both lodges have ski shops that rent boot cleats for walking on icy boardwalks, cross-country skis, and snowshoes. They also have dining, and you can buy sack lunches for going out adventuring.
After arriving at Mammoth, get oriented in the Albright Visitor Center and tour the hot springs on boardwalks. The heat from the ground makes much of the snow melt, but cold winter air produces more steam. Since the road remains open in winter from Mammoth Hot Springs to the northeast entrance, take binoculars for wildlife watching and head to Lamar Valley where wolves, bison, and coyotes hunker around the Lamar River instead of higher on ridges. Guided tours also go to Lamar Valley in winter for wildlife watching.
On one day, rent cross-country skis and hop the skier shuttle to Indian Creek. From a warming hut, a gentle trail loop through the snow-buried campground and along the creek. More adventuresome skiers can glide on a trail back downhill to Mammoth rather than returning on the shuttle. Skiers can also tour the Upper Terrace Loop to overlook the hot springs and village. For non-skiers, the lodge ski shop also rents snowshoes.
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No plowed roads lead to Old Faithful in winter. That means, the only way to go from Mammoth to Old Faithful requires a four-hour snowcoach ride. Snowcoaches (small buses outfitted with monster tires or tracks) make stops for wildlife watching a taking in scenery. They also return you to Mammoth.
After checking into Snow Lodge, get oriented and tour the exhibits at Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Check the sign for the time that Old Faithful Geyser should erupt and plan to watch the action multiple times during your stay, including at night. Walk through the Upper Geyser Basin to see the frosty landscape pockmarked with boiling hot springs, steaming vents, and spouting geysers.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers can hop snowcoach shuttles to trailheads to ski to sights and then back to the lodge. A skier-tracked trail goes to Fairy Falls while a groomed trail curves along the Firehole River to Lone Star Geyser.
For a day excursion, guided snowcoach tours go to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In winter, orange canyon walls show where steam vents have melted the snow. The thunder of the Upper and Lower Falls fills the canyon. At the Lower Falls, mist shoots out to build a 100-foot-tall cone at its base. Tours can be to sightsee only or to cross-country ski along the canyon.