Known as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone (spanning from Wyoming to Montana to Idaho) is visited by over three million people each year. With 10,000 thermal features and 400 miles of park, it feels nearly impossible to fully grasp and understand the beauty of this natural wonder. I’ve experienced other national Parks like the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah and Grand Teton National Park during the summer, spring and fall – but nothing compares to what it felt to take a winter snow coach tour of Yellowstone.
Although Yellowstone is most popular in the summer, the winter at this national park is a journey into what feels like a mystical adventure. With rising steam from the thermal features, trumpeter swans resting comfortably in the Madison river, bison and elk – every turn of the head takes your breath away.
Five reasons to take a winter snowcoach tour of Yellowstone National Park
1. Transportation from Big Sky Resort
If you are staying at Big Sky Resort, which because of its proximity, feels like a basecamp to Yellowstone, tour operators like Yellowstone Tour Guides include transportation from your lodge to West Yellowstone where you will pick up your snow coach tour. This was a no brainer for us, because spending the rest of our time at Big Sky Resort on the mountain skiing, having a car seemed superfluous.
More than the convenience factor, the transfer from Big Sky Resort was educational and provided us a chance to see wildlife even before entering the park. Our guide and driver, David Reeves, was incredibly knowledgeable about the elkhorn sheep, bison, and lodgepole pine trees that lined our drive to West Yellowstone. I had always thought that forest fires were a bad thing- and in many cases they are, but as we drove en route to Yellowstone, I learned that they are an essential part of the eco system, providing the extreme temperatures that the lodgepole pine trees need to open their cones and reproduce.
(David is also a brilliant photographer and was game for my daughter’s idea of trying to snap a picture of the elk that we spotted on our drive through his scope).
2. Easily see the beauty in Yellowstone
Although you can drive yourself into Yellowstone National Park in the winter, cars are extremely limited to what they can drive on because of the snow (in fact even if you are staying at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge you will only have to be taken by snowmobile or snowcoach from the entrance to the lodge itself). The best ways to see Yellowstone in the winter are by snowcoach, snowmobile or by cross country skiing. While snowmobiles offer you potential access to more miles in the park, driving a snowmobile requires focus on the road- which makes it hard to look around and take in everything around you. Taking a snowcoach tour of Yellowstone National Park on the other hand, gives you much of the same access and affords visitors the opportunity to look around while driving through the park as well as opportunities to walk and explore many of the geyser basins and thermal features. (Yellowstone Tour Guides also offers a two day winter wildlife adventure in the northern range of the park as well as cross country skiing or snow shoe tours).
Another reason to take a winter snowcoach tour is that unlike the summer, the numbers of visitors in Yellowstone in the winter are regulated. Only 110 passes (for groups of up to 24 people) are given each day, about 45 of those going to snowcoaches. Doing the math, this means a whole lot of quiet amidst the lodgepole pines, bison, elk, coyotes and thermal features. As opposed to the summer where car lines can run long on the main roads in the park, there is a tranquility coupled with powerful energy that comes from Yellowstone National Park in the winter.
3. Expert guides
You know that your tour guide is amazing when they can entertain and educate visitors of all ages- from elementary school children to more mature travelers. Our snowcoach guide, Cord Halmes provided morsels of history and statistics as we drove, like the differences between the four thermal features that you can see at Yellowstone (mudpots, fumaroles or vents, hot springs and geysers).
One of the things that I most appreciated about taking the snowcoach tour with Yellowstone Tour Guides was the savvy approach to scheduling our park visit. Knowing the droves of snowmobile and other snowcoach tours were stopping at the many photo opportunities on the road to Old Faithful, Cord drove without stopping so that we could have lunch at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge Geyser Grill before watching Old Faithful erupt. He promised that the same wildlife would be there for us to see later in the day- but that we would in the end be able to have more time exploring if he beat the crowds. As we made our way from lunch to Old Faithful, seeing the many snowcoaches and snowmobiles that had assembled, we were glad not to have to stand in line behind all of those people in lunch so that we could head back out to stop and explore the winter wonderland around us.
(My daughter will tell you that she loved our tour guide because he let the kids sit in the passenger seat up front and help as “co-pilots” by announcing the feature or area that we were approaching over the microphone. We had no idea that she had such a flair for ad-libbing when given a microphone and luckily Cord was fabulous to allow it- as was the rest of our group who encouraged and applauded her announcements).
4. Old Faithful and beyond
Yes, the Old Faithful geyser – named in 1870 by members of the Washburn Expedition – erupts about every ninety minutes. And yes, it boasts average eruptions of water as high as 150 feet. But I will be honest. As powerful as the Old Faithful eruption was, and as fascinating as it is to know that they geyser has been consistently erupting so predictably- it was the other thermal features and smaller geysers that stood out as remarkable.
During our tour, we took in the sights and sounds of Firehole Falls, the Emerald Pool at the Black Sand Basin and the Fountain Paint Pots. Whether you believe in religion or not, it is hard not to feel like you are in a mystical or spiritual place when the steam from the hot springs or geysers rises towards the clouds.
My favorite of all the features was the Fountain Nature trail which features one of many mudpot areas at Yellowstone. The first thing you notice in this area is the accumulation of bacteria – which forms a beautiful ribbon of green, brown and orange coloring.
The volcanic history of Yellowstone has created an ecosystem where organisms and bacteria live and in fact, thrive- creating stunning displays of color from crystal blue to rusty orange to neon green.
I could have listened to the bubbling of the Fountain Paint Pot all day long.
(Whereas my daughter thought it was magical to be swept away by the warm steam as it danced through the sky.)
5. Trumpeter swans and bison, Oh My!
I have never thought of myself as an aficionado of wildlife. I am not all that knowledgeable about the many species. Although I can appreciate the beauty and power of many animals, I have never wanted to camp out with my camera to see what I could capture….until our day at Yellowstone.
There is something about being so close to a herd of bison that makes you respect these animals in a whole new way.
From the power of the bison to the serenity of the trumpeter swans, it is easy to understand the passion of those that follow and track the wildlife in the park.
The good news about visiting Yellowstone National Park is that no returning visit will ever be repetitive. From constantly evolving thermal features, to the mystery of where or when you might spot wildlife, this caldera whose history spans at least 11,000 years is one of those bucket list destinations that is not to be missed. Although spending a day at Yellowstone meant one less skiing day for us, I cannot imagine being so close to this national park without having visited, and look forward to going back in the future to explore the northern ranges.
(Another reason that I am such a fan of Yellowstone Tour Guides is that they have a Facebook page where they share pictures from their day trips to Yellowstone which somehow makes me a little less sad to not live in Montana).
**Yellowstone Tour Guides provided complimentary tours for part of our family. All opinions are my own- no other compensation was received.