Most people head out to the Wild West in desolate wintertime for one thing only: skiing some of the best terrain North America has to offer (we’re looking at you, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort). But what most travelers don’t realize is that Yellowstone in the wintertime is a completely different way to experience the world’s first national park. It’s snowcapped, it’s raw, and it’s full of wildlife. While the bears are busy hibernating, there’s a whole world of fuzzy critters lurking in the picturesque, frozen wonderland—and elusive gray wolves that nearly went extinct from the park in the 1920s.
The most rewarding way to explore Yellowstone when it morphs into winter mode is by embarking on a six-day wolk-trekking safari with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. “Seeing a wolf in the wild brings me back in time,” says founder Taylor Phillips. The gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after being eradicated for nearly 70 years. As of December 2021, approximately 95 wolves with eight distinct pacts were identified. “To see them move across the landscape and howling in the distance stops the clock,” says Phillips. “The rest of the world becomes insignificant.”
Nicknamed the American Serengeti, Yellowstone’s ecosystem offers an exciting array of scenery and wildlife, including its very own Big Five—grizzly bears, bison, wolves, elk, and moose—and you don’t have to fly across the world to experience it. This specific tour starts and ends in Bozeman, Montana, an up-and-coming ski town, which has direct flights out of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, and New York City. By dusk, you’ll be hanging out with a naturalist guide over a cozy dinner in Bozeman to prepare for the week’s adventure ahead.
How to get there and where to stay
You might wonder what it’s like to get to Yellowstone in the winter. Driving in the snow, you ask? Not a chance as a tourist, nor would you ever want to. While Yellowstone is open to visitors year-round, it’s hard to navigate in the colder months due to the excessive snowfall (think on average 150 inches or more). Most roads close for the season in early October and the only way in or out is via snowmobile, snowcoach travel, and vehicles with chains. Maybe you’ll get a bit of The Shining vibes, but in a 2.2 million acre park instead of a deserted mountain hotel.
For lovely lodging, you could go between the Element in Bozeman, with easy access to the park, and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, an iconic hotel built in the 1930s and one of the first grand hotels built inside of a national park. The luxury of staying here is that you don’t have to leave the park when the sun goes down, and if you’re lucky, might spot elk grazing around the hotel. Not many can boast seeing a sky full of stars on a clear evening in Yellowstone.
Wake up early to see the most animals
If you’re not a morning person, you’ll quickly learn to be one with a French Press of pre-sunrise coffee before making your way into the Lamar Valley—the most prominent place to spot wolves. The animals’ peak playtime is dawn and dusk, making it nearly impossible to spot them unless you’re in the thick of the park before sunrise or at sunset. Most people enjoy a very long day trip into Yellowstone, but the magic happens when all that’s left to hear is the crisp snow crunching underneath your snowshoes.
Josh Metten, a senior Naturalist with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, has previously spotted the 16-member Junction Butte wolf pack galavanting through the snow. “We excitedly watched as the pack tested a herd of bison, walking within a few feet of the giant beasts,” says Metton. “Wolves are coursing predators, preferring to visibly approach prey, looking and smelling for weakness before choosing a target.” This time around, the bison were healthy and strong, so the wolves moved along.
“To see the wolves in their natural habitat is a really wonderful and intimate experience,” says Phillips. “There’s a bear den that’s visible with a spotting scope. Last year and at the start of this hibernating season, the bear’s head was poking out,” Phillips notes. “It’s really a fun sighting.”
Spend the afternoon refueling and learning
If you’re in the northern part of Yellowstone, head to Cooke City, population 77-ish (probably way less in winter), for a lunch break at Miners Saloon. This Gold Rush-inspired tavern offers fuss-free food and craft beer. After lunch, a journey into the park in search of moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats on the peaks of the Absaroka Mountains is on the agenda—followed by an evening safari in search of a wolf pack.
Later in the day, during a presentation by a Yellowstone wolf biologist, you’ll become even more fascinated by these creatures after realizing their habits. Metten points out how there’s a “disproportionate influence of older wolves over the age of five years on pack success,” and that packs with older wolves are more likely to win territorial disputes with other packs. “The old wolf was more valuable than even a big, strong, younger male in these conflicts,” he adds.
Take in other winter sights
Having the park to yourself in peak winter is the real prize. Spending a week in Yellowstone will give you a newfound appreciation for the park’s ecosystem, filled with diverse wildlife, spewing geysers, rivers, sharp jagged peaks, forests, alpine tundras, and more. In addition to identifying and tracking various wildlife, the naturalist guides will reveal tidbits about the area’s geology, history, ecology, biology, as well as current political issues.
“In winter you get the best of both worlds—you get to be intimate with wolves and also explore the interior of Yellowstone National Park via a SnowCoach,” says Phillips. To see Old Faithful erupt in winter, on the snow-covered walkways of Biscuit Basin and Fountain Paint Pots—which are wildly overcrowded in summer—is otherworldly. “It’s just amazing,” Phillips says. While Phillips offers year-round excursions and safaris that are superb, a wintertime visit is a big check on the bucket list.