Thrilling Reasons to Embrace Winter in Yellowstone and Bozeman
There are some places where you travel to escape cold weather. Then, there are places where you go to experience the sensations that only winter can provide. Here’s a look at winter thrills in and around Yellowstone National Park from West Yellowstone and Bozeman, Montana, including Bridger Bowl Ski Area, Big Sky Resort and other great settings.
Driving snow and steam billowing from a geothermal spring have given the famously scenic landscapes of Yellowstone National Park an unfamiliar, surreal look. I stare into the foggy blizzard in vain until the wind eases, and the darkened muzzle of a solitary wolf fills the frame of my binoculars.
Much about the scene seems pulled from an episode of “Game of Thrones,” but in reality I am inside a heated snow coach, on a pre-pandemic day trip to the park during a winter visit to Bozeman, Montana.
Yellowstone’s Winter Tours and Activities
Yellowstone in winter can be intense. Thermal sites emit prolific clouds of steam. Bitter-cold temperatures are accompanied by powerful winds that cause the snow to fall sideways. And survival is determined by strength and fortitude.
Before our wolf sighting, our group spent hours scanning the terrain for elk, otters, moose and bobcat from one of the snowcoaches operated by our private tour guide. The vehicle itself — picture a shuttle bus whose tires have been replaced by caterpillar tracks in the rear and heavy-duty skis up front — was a sight to behold, but not as impressive as the bison we saw clearing deep snow with their heads to find buried grasses.
During our stop at Old Faithful, we watched the famous geyser erupt from boardwalks buried under 2 feet of snow, while cross-country skiers glided past nearby steamy geothermal fields, on terrain they had all to themselves. (Staying closer to home this winter? Pick one of these great cross-country skiing destinations in Washington.)
Almost all Yellowstone National Park roads are closed to automobiles in the winter, but snowmobiles are allowed and the snowcoach tours implemented new safety rules for the pandemic. Most Yellowstone winter tours depart from West Yellowstone, which is also a gateway for other winter activities at Yellowstone.
Snoga on Drinking Horse Mountain
On a crisp morning, I am hoofing it up snow-dusted Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, about 5 miles northeast of downtown Bozeman, trying to keep up with Bailey Evans, a swift-footed yoga instructor.
“People in Bozeman know how to do winter not only because it lasts so long,” she says, as we pause to catch our breath, “but also because there are so many opportunities to play outside.”
Case in point: “snoga,” a wellness-inspired mashup of yoga and snowshoeing is catching on in cold-weather locales.
Yoga on snowshoes takes some getting used to. The small platforms attached to my feet make it easier to keep my balance, but I’m also wearing several inches of clothing and giant spiky shoes, which makes it hard to hold a pose.
As I acclimate to the conditions under Evans’ guidance, I take time to soak in the sights of the Gallatin Valley below and the distant mountain ranges that give the horizon a toothy appearance in every direction. No indoor yoga studio can offer a view like this.
Cold Smoke Paradise at Bridger Bowl
As I reach the entrance to Bridger Bowl Ski Area, a somewhat hidden gem about 17 miles northwest of downtown Bozeman, I notice a sign inviting me to “Ski the Cold Smoke.” Montana’s legendary snow forms when temperatures drop into the teens and there’s very little humidity. As I glide through 7-inch-deep powder on a bluebird day, I gain an appreciation for the local obsession with dry conditions.
“The classic image of a Montana skier is someone over their head in powder, with only their goggles showing through a cloud,” says Briggs Ganser, a local ski enthusiast. “When you hit a big pocket, it goes ‘whup,’ like hitting your face with the lightest pillow.”
Late in the day, the skied-out runs are covered with a mishmash of globs and mounds that would form a gauntlet of obstacles to avoid back home in the Cascades. But Briggs shows me how easy it is to turn on cold smoke at full speed, blasting the chunks into smooth, fine contrails.
The following morning, I discover a cross-country skier’s playground next to Bridger Bowl at Crosscut Mountain Sports Center, the training center for the U.S. Paralympic biathlon team. Wide, groomed trails zigzag over 500 acres, but it’s the narrow single-track trails for classic skiers that I find most appealing. The snow is so light that I sink to my ankles, but the packed layers below allow me to bob and weave through a fairy tale-like aspen forest. As I glide past the slender trees, I can’t help but howl hysterically, thrilled by the sensation of floating over untracked, wind-blown powder that feels as light as ash.
Afterward, I head to Bozeman Hot Springs to unwind. The therapeutic springs at the edge of town, which date back to the 19th century, offer priceless relaxation at affordable prices. The 12 pools, including four outdoors, are sourced from an underground well and are naturally heated, ranging in temperature from 57 to 106 degrees. For an extra fee, day visitors can use the facility’s fitness center.
As home to Montana State University, Bozeman possesses college-town qualities that add to the fun of a winter visit, with plenty of casual and lively options for dining and entertainment.
Croissants and big sticky buns at Wild Crumb are a delectable way to fuel up for a day of snow play. Another breakfast standout, Little Star Diner, also offers brunch and dinner to-go. For dinner, Montana Ale Works satisfies with artfully crafted comfort foods, including naturally raised beef and bison burgers.
For nightlife when it’s safe to gather again after the pandemic, look no farther than the remodeled Rialto. Tricked out with modern acoustics and lighting, the art deco–inspired theater hosts everything from rock concerts to movie nights.
–Written by Jeff Layton, updated in September 2022.
–Top photo of a bison at Yellowstone National Park by LifeJourneys/iStock
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.