Misconceptions that a person must be rugged and hardy to enjoy a winter visit to Yellowstone’s Northern Range keeps some would-be explorers from making the trip – but don’t be fooled! In fact, your stay can be cozy and quite enjoyable. Referred to as “Wonderland” by some in its early years, the area—coated in a blanket of white snow and sparkling frost—truly lives up to its moniker.
Bison walk along snow-covered roads. Hot springs send up plumes of steam. Wolves hunt prey and howl hauntingly in the distance.
Nearby, in the normally bustling North Entrance town of Gardiner, Montana, time slows down. Migrating elk and other wildlife wander downtown. The quiet is thick. And woodsmoke perfumes the frosty air. Gardiner provides refuge, an escape from the cold, and a place to recharge during this unsung shoulder season. Below are some ways you can stay warm, comfortable, and entertained during your winter visit.
One needn’t stray far from Gardiner to have a quiet, relaxing, wintry-weather experience. Purchase a book on Yellowstone from the Yellowstone Forever store on Park Street and cozy up with a steaming cup of tea, hot chocolate, or coffee in front of the fireplace at the Wonderland Café and Lodge. The café provides a full menu and games for groups to play. On the opposite side of town, the Tumbleweed Bookstore and Café also sells books—featuring regional nonfiction as well as a variety of fiction—warm drinks and delicious homemade soups and sandwiches. Both locations provide free Internet access if you need to work on your laptop. To stretch your legs, take a short walk through the towering Roosevelt Arch and look inside the historic stone structure. Here, in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the arch when he laid a cornerstone during a visit. A short interpretive video about Roosevelt Arch can found here. Enjoy signage explaining the arch and other aspects of Gardiner’s rich history as the park’s original entrance along your walk. Be sure to bring your camera!
Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley
For a short foray into Yellowstone visit Mammoth Hot Springs, a mere 15-minute drive into Yellowstone National Park from Gardiner. Colorful travertine terrace pools steam alongside wooden boardwalks. Here you can explore on foot while looking for elk, bison, deer, and other wildlife foraging in the hot springs’ runoff. The Albright Visitor Center offers a chance to warm up and learn about Historic Fort Yellowstone, the hot springs, and animal adaptations through hands-on exhibits. You can also purchase a souvenir from the Yellowstone Forever park store. To extend your day, drive into Lamar Valley along the Northeast Entrance Road—the only road open to noncommercial vehicular traffic during winter— to look for wolves, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife. No food or beverages are available between Mammoth and Lamar Valley so be sure to pack snacks and water if you decide to make it a day. Return to the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for a warm beverage and live music (seasonally) in the newly renovated Map Room.
Paradise Valley includes a wide stretch of ranchland between Gardiner and Livingston, Montana, and never fails to impress with the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains soaring overhead and the frosty Yellowstone River carving its course through the valley. Take an enjoyable drive along Hwy 89 and look for migrating wildlife foraging next to horses and cattle. Don’t forget to look along the river for bald eagles hunting fish! Halfway between Gardiner and Livingston, approximately 30 miles into your drive, the hamlet of Emigrant, Montana, offers food and other services. Here you can enjoy a late breakfast at the Wildflour Bakery and Café or lunch at the Old Saloon (they make a delicious spinach salad). If you choose to make a late-afternoon trip, consider making dinner reservations at Sage Lodge or Chico Hot Springs for a true treat in fine dining. Be sure to stay alert while driving Hwy 89 as wildlife tends to frequent the roadway.
However you choose to spend your time in the Northern Range during winter we hope you enjoy your adventure. For a packing list of winter gear compiled by our friends at Yellowstone National Park Lodges please click here. A short video depicting a winter visit to Gardiner and Yellowstone can be found here. And a list of answers to frequently asked questions can be found here. You won’t regret trying a different time of year for your visit!
Freelance writer Chelsea DeWeese pens from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.