I spent a year out west during the pandemic. We got a place in Bozeman, MT – about 90 minutes north of Yellowstone’s northern gate. This enabled us to spend a great deal of time in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Though the winter weather can be extreme, -30 degrees F on some days, the wildlife is definitely easier to spot against the snow than against the sagebrush. Route 212 through the northern loop stays open all year round so the Lamar Valley was always accessible, unlike other areas of the park. Hopefully that access will return soon after the floods.
Map with Bozeman, MT and Yellowstone National Park, WY
Choice of vehicle matters when traversing the roads out west during winter. We got a modified Jeep Rubicon which handled the snow and ice extremely well. I never worried about driving anywhere in this Jeep. If the 4 wheel drive couldn’t get you out of difficult situations, the winch would. One thing that is easy to miss if you live in highly populated cities elsewhere is that cell phones don’t always work in the mountains and this was often true in Yellowstone.
Another thing which really matters at Yellowstone in winter is gear. I bought some waterproof boots rated to -50 degrees F which seemed excessive at the time but worked incredibly well – my feet never felt cold and I was able to hike in wet snow. Dressing in layers and choosing pants wisely is also key. I would wear leggings, a pair of Kuhl goretex snow pants and a pair of water & wind repellant pants over that, with several layers on top such as shirts, wool sweaters and a down coat. If I was going to be outside for any length of time I would buy hand warmers to put inside my gloves which clicked on and worked like a small heater. Such measures were a necessity in a Yellowstone winter. I grew up in the Boston area and thought I knew winter. Yellowstone taught me a different version of that season which lasts six months and has temps which rival Antarctica.
Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone
While wolves could be seen in Lamar, coyotes were often a more common site. They would come very close to the road and often followed the wolves’ tracks and kills. Their winter coats were much thicker than in the rest of the year.
While you can see bison in winter, particularly on the roads, much of the herds go to different, inaccessible areas of the park at that time, but there are still small groups to be seen.
Wolves in Lamar
Lamar Valley is a great place to see wolves in Yellowstone. There is a learning curve to spotting them and after awhile you get to know where the dens are, as well as their typical routines, which helps in knowing where to look for them. As I said, coyotes can be in the same areas so it is important to know the difference. Long lenses are a must in this park as the wolves are often set far back against the trees or up on the hills.
Hiking in Hyalite & Snowshoeing in Yellowstone
There is another park just south of Bozeman worth visiting – Hyalite Canyon. It is known for ice climbing and some big names in the climbing community frequent here (Conrad Anker lives in Bozeman and climbs here). It is open all winter and has some beautiful trails. I also went snow shoeing in Yellowstone with a group. If you don’t want to buy snow shoes you can rent them at REI for a reasonable amount. If you’re going to spend a lot of time here in winter you may want to buy a pair with poles. Bear spray is still recommended even though they should be hibernating at this time.
Snow Shoeing in Yellowstone