North Yellowstone’s Winter Road
Winter in Yellowstone is truly a wonderful thing to experience, its deep snows, bitter cold, abundant wildlife and stark beauty can imprint memories that can last a lifetime.
Access to Yellowstone in winter is the problem, it has become illegal to take a private snowmobile into Yellowstone and very few of us have snow coaches of our own or are capable of marathon ski expeditions too access Yellowstone’s winter wonders, but it is not as inaccessible as many think.
The snowmobiling destination resort of Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana need groceries regularly to keep its citizens alive so Yellowstone Park maintains winter access to these communities. US-212 can be accessed through Yellowstone’s north entrance in Gardiner Montana, so Yellowstone visitors can access a smidgen of Yellowstone’s treasures in winter by car.
US-212 is well maintained provided a heavy storm doesn't get ahead of the plows. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley seems to provide prodigious amounts of wind so drifting snow can be a problem, but the snow removal team does a stellar job of keeping the drifting snow at bay.
Although Yellowstone’s bears are hibernating for the winter there are abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. The stretch of road between Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs, and the bluffs above the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River are good places to see Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. There are many elk that graze inside the town of Mammoth Hot Springs and the surrounding area. Many elk and bison can be seen anywhere along the route form Gardiner to Cooke City. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and moose may be seen but the chances are much smaller than with the abundant elk and bison herds. The ubiquitous Coyote is always a treat to watch and his cousin, the wolf, although more allusive is often seen along the route.
The grandeur of Yellowstone’s Valleys that reside at the south end of the magnificent Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains provide many scenic photo opportunities. The peaks of the of the Gallatin Range and the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains add majestic interest to the skyline; Yellowstone Park has provided ample scenic turnouts along the route enabling abundant opportunities to safely get off the road to capture grand scenics and special moments with Yellowstone Park's wildlife.
Wildlife is more active in the morning and evening so it is good to start early and stay late for the best candid photos of the Park’s mega fauna. The first and last light of day will provide the best scenic photos but the magnificent terrain can provide good photos all day long. If your hope is to view or photograph the wolves, you greatly increase your chances by being in the Lamar Valley a half hour before sunrise. By working the roadsides in the park winter wildlife photography can be done with relative ease and comfort but if you are fortunate enough to encounter wolves at close proximity be prepared with every warm thing you own because rangers don’t allow parking within a mile of where wolves have a kill close to the road so some hiking may be in order followed by extended periods of stationary observation or photography in adverse conditions.
For the cross-country skier, there are plenty of opportunities to see some of the territory off the beaten path. Yellowstone Park grooms and maintains some trails for skiers and other trails are skier packed. Bushwhacking your own ski trail seems to be popular I have deduced due to the many empty vehicles parked in turnouts, but you better know what you are doing before attempting such a ski adventure. I have footnoted some of the park’s ski trail opportunities.
These trail thumbnail descriptions are not meant to be a guide, research them more if you intend to ski them.
The Upper Terrace Loop Trail (1.5 miles) begins at the Upper Terrace parking area in Mammoth. A moderate climb leads to views of hot springs, terraces, and the surrounding mountains. At the top of the climb, a trail veers off to the southwest which connects with the Snow Pass Trail. The Terrace loop Trail descends past more hot springs before completing the circuit. Elk and deer are often seen in the Terrace area.
The Snow Pass Trail (4.2 miles round trip) leaves the west side of Mammoth-Norris snow vehicle road 0.4 miles south of the Upper Terrace parking area. The trail ascends 700 feet in 1.5 miles through a series of steep grades along an old wagon road to Snow Pass. Good views of the surrounding country are frequent. From Snow Pass the trail continues a half-mile over rolling terrain to a trail junction at which the ski route turns left (south) and follows Glen Creek over fairly level terrain for about two miles, returning to the snow vehicle road just south of Rustic Falls.
The easiest and best-groomed trail of the area is the Tower Falls Trail; it is a five-mile round trip that follows the road from Roosevelt Lodge to the Tower Falls store. Bison and coyotes are frequently seen along the trail, and the canyon scenery is great. Upon reaching the Tower store, you can hike down to the base of the Tower Falls for a truly spectacular close-up view of this magnificent frozen waterfall.
The Lost Lake Trail (ten-mile round trip) can be accessed at the Petrified Tree turnoff is a bit more difficult, and takes the skier into the Yellowstone backcountry, The route travels the road to the Petrified Tree, then leads through a narrow, open valley to Lost Lake, then following the near shore (on the ice) the trail reaches the head of the lake. It then travels through intermittent forest and meadows, offering spectacular views of mountains, forests, Lost Lake, streams and a waterfall. Elk and bison are commonly seen along the way.
The Blacktail Plateau Trail is quite difficult, and takes the skier through intermittent patches of forest burned by the 1988 fires. This eight-mile trail may be skied from either end. It begins eight miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs at a parking area across the road from the trail, or at a service road approximately one mile farther east. The trail gradually climbs 900 feet in six miles through open meadows to “The Cut.” From The Cut, the trail descends two miles down a moderate grade through a spruce-fir forest to rejoin the Mammoth-Tower Road. Grand vistas, elk, deer, coyotes, and occasionally bison may be seen along the way.
Although Yellowstone’s north road lacks the spectacular geysers of the interior of the park, it does have one of Yellowstone most awesome geothermal features, Mammoth Hot Springs.
Mammoth Hot Springs is a large hill of travertine that has been created over thousands of years as hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate. Although these springs lie outside the Yellowstone Caldera boundary, their energy has been attributed to the same magmatic system that fuels other Yellowstone geothermal areas. Geothermal activity here is extensive both over time and distance. Terrace Mountain at Mammoth Hot Springs is the largest known carbonate-depositing spring in the world. The most famous feature at the springs is the Minerva Terrace, a series of travertine terraces. The terraces have been deposited by the spring over many years, but due to recent minor earthquake activity, the spring vent has shifted, rendering the terraces dry.
There is a boardwalk so you can experience this geothermal wonder and near the center is the long, steaming slope tiered with delicate terraces. Boardwalks, and paths meander among hot spring terraces. Edged with fragile scallops of travertine, the pools are tinted with oranges, yellows, greens, and blues--colorful signatures of some 65 different thermal algae that thrive in various temperature zones in the springs. Carry your skis along and you can loosen up on the 1 1/2-mile roadbed of the Upper Terrace Loop.
A geothermal feature you can swim in is at Boiling River Hot Spring, A short hike to this magical spot doesn't appear on the maps or in the pamphlet of day hikes but you can find the parking area at the 45th parallel sign marking the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole between Mammoth and Gardiner. This spring is believed to be part of the underground outflow of Mammoth Hot Springs. The stream emerges from beneath a travertine ledge and rushes for only 145 yards before emptying over a small water fall into the a pool at the Gardiner River. It is illegal to swim in the Boiling River which really is just a stream, but you can swim in the "pool" where the Boiling River falls into the much colder Gardiner River.
The North Yellowstone winter road is truly a treat for those who experience it. This special 56-mile section of road provides the last vestiges for Yellowstone’s independent motorized winter travel and is a treasured microcosm of what world travelers, American families, photographers, and other outdoorsmen used to be able to experience throughout Yellowstone’s developed road system, in winter, by snowmobile.
Gallatin Field Airport in Bozeman, Montana is the best place to fly into to access North Yellowstone. Although not a large city, it is the gateway to this part of Montana and Yellowstone and therefore has good airline service. Northwest, Delta, Horizon Air, United Express all have flight service to Gallatin Field.
If you are driving, head to Livingston Montana on interstate 90, then head south on highway 89 till you hit the park.
Where To Stay
Gardiner, Montana, a small town with reasonably priced motels and restaurants and is a good place to use as a base. I recommend The Super 8 in Gardiner because of the indoor pool for the kids, the hot tub I use for defrosting at the end of a frosty day.
Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana on the Northeast entrance of the park offers many lodging options as well and is closer to the Lamar Valley. The Cooke City and Silver Gate communities also offer access to some of the best snowmobiling in the world.