Yellowstone’s Winter Wonderland

For many years, my vision of Yellowstone National Park was one of breathtaking vistas, stunning wildlife, gushing geysers and people — lots of people.

It’s not that I mind sharing my view of a bugling bull elk with dozens of other photographers lining the roadside or resent the scores of foreign tourists waiting for an eruption of Old Faithful geyser. Those people are as welcome in the park as I am.

Russell Lord meets the ski shuttle near Swan Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
Russell Lord meets the ski shuttle near Swan Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

Sometimes, though, I crave the solitude and silence of wilderness. Don’t you? Up until about 10 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of finding true solitude in Yellowstone short of hiking 20 miles to escape the crowds. That is, until my wife and I donned rented cross-country skis and hit the park’s trails in winter.

Since that first visit we’ve witnessed wilderness up close and personal. On one trek we watched a bounding short-tailed weasel nab a careless mouse not 20 feet from our resting-place in the snow. We’ve also been startled by the yipping of coyotes just off trail and watched a trio of wolves lounging about on a far away carpet of white. Silently surveying the snow-crusted spires of the Gallatin Range after an invigorating glide over new powder is a far cry from navigating the crowded boardwalks of Yellowstone’s attractions in the summer, yet is within the reasonable limits of any moderately fit individual.

If you’ve never experienced the delight of cross-country skiing, but think it would be a great way to see the nation’s oldest national park, rest assured that it’s not a difficult sport to enter. Entry level ski packages can be rented or purchased for less than $200. Once you have skis, you can blunder about and learn on your own, but it’s much easier to become proficient by taking a couple lessons. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, there are numerous trails in Yellowstone suited for any experience level.

Before we highlight a couple of my favorite Yellowstone trails, let’s think about comfort and safety. Like other destinations in the mountain west, winter conditions in the park can literally change by the hour. Sunny, 30-degree afternoons might yield a blizzard and minus 5 degree Fahrenheit by nightfall.

Experienced skiers wear layers of clothing that can be adjusted to prevailing conditions. They also keep a vigilant eye on approaching fronts and consult a forecast before heading out. At the first sign of a storm, the wise head for the trailhead. Fools press on, and risk returning as stiff luggage on a ranger’s sled.

In addition to dressing appropriately and watching the weather, make sure you have plenty to eat and drink lots of water. Because it’s not hot, many skiers fail to stay adequately hydrated. Even moderate levels of dehydration impair the body’s ability to do work and transfer heat. Drink at least a quart of water a day (more is better) to replenish your reserves. In addition to water, ingest enough calories to keep pace with your energy expenditure and carry some extra food for emergencies.

Itching to hit the trail? These are two of my favorite Yellowstone treks:

Blacktail Plateau

The Blacktail Plateau is 7.5 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs, just before you top the rise that yields a fleeting view of the far-flung reaches of the Lamar Valley. Why it’s called the blacktail is anyone’s guess. Blacktail deer, a coastal variation of mule deer don’t venture within 1,000 miles of the area.

Despite the absence of namesake blacktail deer, there’s plenty of wildlife to be seen from the trail. Bachelor herds of majestic bull elk, fuzzy-faced mule deer and snow-covered, stoic bison are all regularly seen, along with the occasional coyote and wolf.

Bull Elk
Besides the absence of tourist in the winter, another appeal of cross-country skiing in Yellowstone is the abundance of wildlife such as this bull elk.

There’s two ways to experience the blacktail. One is to ski the entire 8-mile route, which terminates at the parking area 1.4 miles west of Tower Junction. Or, you can ski in a couple miles and then retrace your tracks to the trailhead.

The Bighorn Loop

Favored by my 4- and 5-year-old sons, the Bighorn Loop begins with a snowcoach shuttle from the Mammoth Hotel. The heated snowcoach jounces over about eight miles of snowpacked highway to the trailhead, which is found at the Indian Creek campground, south of Mammoth.

The ski route heads west through stands of pines, some burned by the Yellowstone fires of 1988. A couple miles out the track swings east and climbs onto a ridge that yields impressive views of the rugged peaks of the Gallatin Range. This is an excellent place to kick back, eat lunch and soak up the scenery. From the ridge, the loop hooks back around to the main trail.

Looking for a true wilderness experience this winter? Vanquish your vision of summer crowds and find it on Yellowstone’s wonderland trails.

Make sure you have the right gear for hiking and camping. Visit Sportsman’s Guide for an assortment of camping gear.

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