Yellowstone at the Edge of Winter
It was 34 degrees. The wind was howling and the rain felt like stinging ice pellets. Mammoth Campground — the only campground still open in the entire park — was virtually deserted. Only a handful of RVs and a few grim-faced tent campers were committed to staying on. This was the bitter end of the season.
To most everyone, including ourselves, these conditions were absolutely miserable. However, the foul weather allowed us to experience something extremely rare and beautiful. We had been in Yellowstone National Park for over 48 hours, and we had yet to see a single selfie stick.
With only a couple days to see the park, we suddenly found ourselves in the shoes of the weekend warrior.
Having been on the road for over three months, we’ve learned that schedules are nice, but ultimately we’ll get there when we get there. So while we might have hoped to have arrived early in the season, the reality was we didn’t make it to Yellowstone until the very end of October. Little did we know how close we were cutting it.
As we checked in at the north entrance gate, we were informed that in three days 90 percent of the roads would be closing for the winter. The park was essentially shutting down until April. Upon hearing this news we realized we needed to accelerate the pace of our visit. With only a couple days to see the park, we suddenly found ourselves in the shoes of the weekend warrior. The only difference was we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.
Editors Note: If you're visiting Yellowstone this winter, be sure to check in with a ranger to find out which roads and sites are open.
Yellowstone experienced an unprecedented surge in visitors in 2015, hitting four million people for the first time in its 143-year history. We talked with some rangers who relayed horror stories about the peak summer months: hour long lines just to get into the park, traffic jams for miles because of cars stopping to look at animals, and overflowing parking lots around major attractions. In July, one of their friends circled around the sizable parking lot of Old Faithful for an hour and a half before giving up completely. During the summer, people, not the wildlife, turned this park into a zoo.
During the summer, people, not the wildlife, turned this park into a zoo. But by October, the crowds had all but disappeared.
But by late October, the crowds had all but disappeared. Every hotel was closed, there wasn’t a single tour bus to be seen, and only a handful of cars were on the road. Each parking lot we pulled into seemed comically oversized, but the rows and rows of empty spaces reminded us of what the park looks like when operating at full capacity. Despite the gloomy weather, we never stopped being grateful for arriving when we did.
While the rain and snow might be uncomfortable at times, it does nothing to diminish the spectacular natural beauty of the park. If anything, it only enhances it.
Yellowstone is actually perfectly designed for cold-weather touring. Despite being nearly 3,500 square miles, most of the major attractions are accessible by car — allowing for ample time to warm back up. Most of the trails are fully developed, making them easy to navigate even when covered by a sheet of ice. And while the rain and snow might be uncomfortable at times, it does nothing to diminish the spectacular natural beauty of the park. If anything, it only enhances it. We were so awe-struck most of the time, it wasn’t until we got back to the car that we realized we couldn’t feel our faces.
So if Yellowstone is one of the places still on your bucket list, here is a little preview of what the park looks like after the hustle and bustle of summer has passed. And if you’re as crowd-averse as we are, this might just be the best time of year to go see it.
If you’re arriving late in the season, Mammoth Campground is likely to be the only campground that will still be open. It sits at lower elevation than the rest of the park, just outside the townsite of Mammoth, and can be accessed by a road that remains open all year long. All sites are first come, first serve.
For those who are not aware, much of Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a supervolcano. Over the past 2.1 million years, a series of super eruptions have resulted in a depression known as a caldera. Today, there is a ring road that circles the caldera where many of the park’s most fascinating geothermal features can be found. If you have limited time to see the park like we did, this is the loop you want to take.
Just south of the campground is Mammoth Hot Springs: a multi-leveled complex of hot springs that have created an massive travertine hillside (that is, limestone created by calcium carbonate). Divided into an Upper and Lower section, these hot springs are a great introduction to geothermic activity that underlies Yellowstone.
Continuing south, you’ll come across Roaring Mountain, which gets its name from the numerous fumaroles (steam escaping from in the earth’s crust) that are found on its slopes. As the steam is discharged, it produces an audible noise, ranging from a hiss to a roar. In the early 1900s, Roaring Mountain could be heard from miles away.
Billowing towers of steam can be seen from the road as you drive down into Norris Geyser Basin, which has the distinction of being the hottest basin in the entire park. Situated at the intersection of two active fault lines, Norris is prone to rapid and dynamic change. A network of boardwalks lead you right out into the basin, which is dotted by active geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.
After visiting Norris, you could easily miss the tucked away entrance to Artist Paint Pots, but this is an absolute must see. Between the bubbling mud pits and the cascading hot springs, nearly every color of the spectrum is represented here.
Midway Geyser is home to one of the most iconic hot springs in Yellowstone: Grand Prismatic. With a deep blue center, turquoise shallows, yellow rim, and orange outline, this hot spring is absolutely stunning. In cold weather, Grand Prismatic can kick off a lot of steam. But catching even a glimpse of it between the passing sheets of white is well worth the stop.
The one and only. Old Faithful is the second largest geyser in the entire park, but its punctuality is second to none. With a margin of error of 10 minutes, Old Faithful will erupt 65 minutes after an eruption lasting less than 2.5 minutes, or 91 minutes after an eruption lasting more than 2.5 minutes. And if you happen to arrive a few minutes late, the substantial visitor center and surrounding geysers offer plenty to do while you wait for the big one to blow.
Heading up and over Craig Pass, you actually cross the Continental Divide twice. With an elevation of over 8,000 feet, this was one of the most treacherous sections of the Caldera Circuit. It was lightly raining at Old Faithful, but up on the pass, the roads were covered in snow and ice.
West Thumb is actually a caldera inside a caldera. Situated on the banks of Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb is fueled by its own heat source that extends out underneath the lake at a relatively shallow depth of 1,000 feet. Hypnotically deep pools of dark blue allow visitors to faintly see the underwater details held in their depths.
At this point of the tour, you might be suffering from Geyser Fatigue. This is natural. Thankfully, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the perfect cure, and with a single glance can erase any geothermal malaise you might have developed.
While not as expansive as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, it is no less spectacular. The Yellowstone River plunges down two stunning falls, with viewing areas on both the north and south rim. When we were there, the canyon was covered in a light dusting of snow, making each ridge and contour remarkably distinct.
After spending a frigid night at Mammoth Campground, you’re going to want to warm your bones in the morning — and you’re in luck. Just up the road there is a section of the Gardner River that is partially fed by hot springs. The icy river water mixes with the scalding hot spring water to create (in certain spots) perfect hot tub conditions. Finding these spots can be tricky, as the river currents and spring temperature fluctuate constantly. But once you’ve found it, you’ll want to stay in all day. [H]