On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park for all to enjoy
the unique hydrothermal and geologic features. Within Yellowstone's 2.2 million
acres, visitors have unparalleled opportunities to observe wildlife in an intact
ecosystem, explore geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active
geysers, and view geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
River. Winter in Yellowstone is as surreal and magical as it could be.
It provides a more intimate experience for fascinating snowy landscapes and
frosty wildlife encounters without any crowds (there were ~4 million visitors in
2019, but only ~30,000 visited Yellowstone in Feb, 2019).
Getting there ...
We flew to Bozeman, Montana and entered Yellowstone from its northern entrance
at Mammoth Hot Springs because it is the only open access to regular vehicles in
winter. It was a perfect day to travel to the winter wonderland:
warm and sunny, and summer-like driving condition. We stayed in Mammoth
Hot Springs Hotel (2/12-2/15, 2/19) and Old Faithful Snow Lodge (2/15-2/19)
because they were the only
lodges open in winter inside Yellowstone.
- Lower Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs
We arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs
at about 2:30PM, and we were able to check in to our room at this earlier
time. After a short coffee break, we headed to the Lower Terraces
which was just a short 3-min drive. Terraces form when water
rises through limestone, which then allows the water to carry high amounts
of dissolved calcium carbonate. At the surface, carbon dioxide is released
and the calcium carbonate is deposited, forming travertine, the chalky white
rock of the terraces. Yellowstone is a place of change, and the
travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs highlights a place where change
is constant and evident.
Day 2 (2/13) ...
- Wakeup to Wildlife Tour
I booked the early morning tour (check-in
time at 6:15AM) to Lamar Valley for a winter wildlife safari. The
Northern Range is an excellent habitat for wildlife. There are wide open
grassy valleys that in the winter are covered with less snow than other
locations in the park making it a bit easier to get to that food source.
Lamar Valley and an area called Little America are home to bison, elk,
coyote, wolves, eagles, bighorn, and many other smaller but no less
interesting creatures. There was a pack of wolves on the distant
hill in Lamar Valley where there were many people watching with the scope.
But the wolves were too far away and they were just tiny dots even using the
- Norris Geyser Basin Tour
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest,
and most dynamic of Yellowstone's thermal areas. There are very few thermal
features at Norris under the boiling point (199°F (93°C) at this elevation).
Each year at Norris new hot springs and geysers appear; others become
dormant. Geologic events trigger many of these changes. Even small
earthquakes can alter hydrothermal behavior. We
walked down to the Porcelain Basin, which is barren of trees and provides a
sensory experience in sound, color, and smell.
Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest active geyser
(only Waimangu Geyser in New Zealand has rocketed to greater heights—but not in
more than one hundred years). Its major eruptions shoot water more than 300 feet
(91 m) and last from 3 to 40 minutes, and its minor eruptions are most common
and reach 6–40 ft. (2–12 m) and last 1–4 minutes. Over the years,
Steamboat’s eruptions have been sporadic and unpredictable. We were quite
excited to see several "minor" eruptions with water and steam expelling out from
the vents. We later learned that it had a major eruption on the next day
Day 3 (2/14) ...
- Drive to Lamar Valley
Since the road condition was very good, we
decided to drive ourselves to visit Lamar Valley again with our own pace.
It was much more flexible with our own car and also much more productive to
see and photograph wildlife along the way.
- From Cooke City back to Tower Junction
The only road open year-round
to automobiles is from the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, through the
park to Cooke City, Montana. We had a lunch at the small town Cooke
City (probably only has 10-15 buildings along the main road). On the
way back, we stopped by a few vista points and had a few more bison traffic
- Tower Fall
Framed by eroded volcanic pinnacles, the Tower Fall drops
132 ft (40 m) along the Tower Creek. In winter the unplowed
Tower-Canyon road becomes an easy ski/snowshoe trail (5-mile round trip)
with a gradual slope past Calcite Springs Overlook to Tower Fall.
It provides great views of the Yellowstone River Canyon, and occasional
bison encounters (when they blocked the trail, we had to wait patiently in a
safe distance...). We started our snowshoe hiking a little bit after
2PM and we were alone on the trail most of the time (only saw a few skiers
coming down). When we almost reached the waterfall at around 3:30PM,
we saw 2 park rangers also ski down on the trail, and we realized we were
probably the last people in the Tower Fall area...
Day 4 (2/15) ...
- Upper & Lower Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs
When we woke up this
morning, we were surprised by the scene outside our window: everything
was coating with white snow (including
our car). We drove to the Upper Terraces Loop Drive, which was closed in
winter as ski/snowshoe trail. We did a small section of the Upper
Terraces (to the White Elephant Back Terrace), and then came down to the
Lower Terraces where the
boardwalk was covered by a layer of fresh snow.
- Snowcoach to Old Faithful Snow Lodge
In winter, the park’s interior
is accessible only by commercial over-snow transportation, and Yellowstone’s
snowcoaches are essentially
the ultimate 21st-century (heated) sleigh. The snowcoach traveled over
groomed snow-covered roads, and the ride was like a guided tour of
Yellowstone’s extraordinary winter scenery.
We stopped by Norris Geyser Basin and walked to the
Steamboat Geyser because it just erupted yesterday (less than 23 hours ago) and
its previous eruption was 22 days ago. It is difficult to image we almost
got to see its rare eruption: a visit one day before and another visit one
day after (Oh....)
Day 5 (2/16) ...
- Canyon Tour
The full-day snowcoach tour followed the road north from
Old Faithful through the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins to Madison Junction
(it was a busy rest stop for many tours and snowmobiles). The
tour continued north along the Gibbon River through excellent wildlife
habitat, following the road east from Norris to the Grand Canyon of the
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is roughly 20 miles
long, measured from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area. The canyon was
formed by erosion as Yellowstone River flowed over progressively softer, less
resistant rock. The 308-foot (93 m) Lower Falls may have formed because the
river flows over volcanic rock more resistant to erosion than the downstream
rocks, which are hydrothermally altered. The 109-foot (33 m) Upper Falls flows
over similar rocks. When we had our lunch on the bridge cross the
Yellowstone River, a coyote
appeared below on the snow covered frozen river and ran through the open
space into the woods.
After the viewpoint at the Grand View of the canyon, the
tour continued to visit Hayden Valley and West Thumb along the shore of the
Yellowstone Lake. Hayden Valley is one of the best places in Yellowstone
to view wildlife. But maybe we were out of luck or too tired to look hard,
we just drove by the Hayden Valley with a few quick scenic stops.
- Old Faithful
We were back to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge at ~5:30PM,
just in time for the next eruption predicted at 5:50PM (video)
Day 6 (2/17) ...
- Old Faithful
The prediction for Old Faithful eruption was only
available when the visitor center was open (typically after 9AM and before
6PM). I had to make my own prediction for the eruption time close to
the sunrise time (~7:20AM) which coincided with the full moonset. The
timing, the weather, and the lighting were all so perfect for an Old
Faithful dawn eruption (and there were only 3 people around to witness
- Upper Geyser Basin
We explored the Upper Geyser Basin on our own pace
this morning. The schedule was working out nicely: Old Faithful
Geyser at 9:15AM, Riverside Geyser at 10:35AM (predicted at 10:20AM +/-
20min, video), and Grand Geyser at 11:30AM (predicted at 10:50AM +/- 60min,
We were pretty sure that we were the only people who saw all three eruptions
this morning (in fact I saw 4 eruptions including the earlier Old Faithful
at dawn). The winter landscape was so beautiful in the Upper Geyser
Basin that we enjoyed both the hiking and waiting for the geysers.
Yellowstone, as a whole, possesses close to 60 percent of the world's
geysers. The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest numbers of this
fragile feature found in the park. Within one square mile there are at least
150 of these hydrothermal wonders. Of this remarkable number, only five
major geysers (Castle, Grand, Daisy, Riverside, and Old Faithful) are
- Madison Wildlife Tour
After the lunch, we joined the Madison Wildlife
Tour which followed the Firehole River and went through the Firehole Canyon
to Madison Junction, and then followed the 7-mile corridor that parallels
the Madison River west of Madison Junction. Many species of birds and
mammals winter along this scenic route.
Day 7 (2/18) ...
Winter Photo Safari
We booked this all-day Photo Safari tour hoping we
could focus on some more photo opportunities. It turned out we were
the only people signed up for the tour today, so it became our private tour!
The tour guide Lisa was an knowledgeable and fantastic photographer (she has
her photos displayed in the Snow Lodge). We did not have any pre-set
itinerary: we just went to find any possibilities. The winter scenery
around the Midway Geyser Basin (where trees were coated with thick snow and
ice) was one of the most dramatic winter scenes I've ever seen.
Along the Madison River, we had a good time to shoot the
serene winter landscape around the river bend. We also spent some time to
observe interesting interaction between 2
pairs of swans.
When we were back to Lower/Midway Geyser Basin region, we
spotted a coyote on the road about 100 meters in front of us. We parked
our snowcoach on the roadside to wait and see what it was going to do. It
started to come toward us, crossed the road, entered the woods, and walked just
right by us. I was sitting on the stairs of our snowcoach (using it as
a blind) to take pictures of this close encounter (video).
We were back to Old Faithful just in time for its next
eruption at 4:20PM. Lisa was kind enough to drop us off at the visitor
center to save us a few minutes of walk. This was my Old Faithful eruption
Day 8 (2/19) ...
- Black Sand Basin & Upper Geyser Basin
I originally planned
to join a snowshoe walk tour, but I decided to cancel it so we could have a
more free and flexible morning. We walked along the groomed road to
the Black Sand Basin, and then returned via Daisy Geyser back to the Upper
- Old Faithful
It's time to check out our cozy cabin at Old Faithful
Snow Lodge. It's much easier to have the sleds to transport our
luggage on snow (we did not have those sleds when we checked in a few days
We went to wait for Old Faithful eruption at 11:20AM (my
eruption #5). There were quite a few tourists from day tours around for the
eruption at this time of the day. In order to avoid the crowds for lunch,
we left Old Faithful Geyser a few minutes before the eruption ended (we could
tell the eruption had started to weaken). These 5 minutes made a big
difference between eating at an empty table vs. waiting in a long line ordering
After lunch, we took a break at the lodge back door where
there was a sitting area without many people. I checked NPS website and
found that Daisy Geyser had a predicted eruption time at 12:10PM +/- 20min (and
it was already 11:45AM). I decided to go there as quickly as I could
(Woanyu refused to go with me...). I was lucky that Daisy Geyser was
erupting almost on time which allowed me to have sufficient time to get there
close enough to view the eruption.
When I walked back to Old Faithful, it was due for another eruption at ~1:00PM.
I decided to stay and see my Old Faithful eruption #6!
- Snowcoach back to Mammoth Hot Springs -- Fountain Paint Pot
the afternoon snowcoach to head back to the Mammoth Hot Springs.
We stopped by the Fountain Paint Pot where you can take in all four of the
park's major hydrothermal features: fumaroles, geysers, hot springs, and
mudpots. The boardwalk trail was quite icy but we had packed our
Yaktrax in our luggage so we had
to walk slowly and carefully...
Day 9 (2/20) ...
- Lower Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs
This was the last morning we had
in Yellowstone. We decided to go back the Lower Terraces again (but
hiked down from the Upper Terraces trailhead with our Yaktrax). The filtered sunlight and the mist
floating above the hot springs made it a scene full of mystery.
Going Home ...
Since the weather forecast showed snow shower was coming later in the
early afternoon, we decided to drive back to Bozeman early. When we were
about 15 miles away from the airport, it started to snow and the driving
condition became a little bit intense. Luckily we were already on the
final segment of the journey on the highway, and we had a smooth arrival to the
airport (and we could comfortably watch the snow shower inside the airport
Yellowstone in winter is truly a magical place. Its
beauty and serenity are beyond imagination if you only visit in summer. We
have experienced all types of Mother Nature conditions during our 9-day trip (we
were very lucky that it was not extremely cold during our trip...). If you
are well prepared, you will have an unforgettable memory from a winter trip to
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