Hearing the “whoosh” of skis or “crunch” of snowshoes underfoot. Smelling the clean, crisp air. Viewing breathtaking frozen mountain-scape. These are simply a few reasons winter is one of our favorite seasons here in northern Yellowstone.
Large animals migrate to lower elevations and leave a mosaic of tracks in the snow. Hot Springs steam steadily on the horizon. And often, when you stop moving for a minute to take it all in, it’s so quiet the only sound you can hear is that of your own breathing. Whether you are a seasoned outdoors person or new to being outside you can find a variety of trails to explore less than an hour away from Gardiner, Montana, Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance gateway community.
With plenty of lodging opportunities and restaurants open for dine-in or takeout, Gardiner is the perfect home base for your once-in-a-lifetime winter adventure. Rent skis or snowshoes from Parks Fly Shop, which transitions into a ski shop during winter, or from the Bear Den Ski Shop located inside the Mammoth Hotel in nearby Mammoth Hot Springs (Dec. - Feb). When it’s time to hit the trail, here are a few of our favorite ski and snowshoe destinations:
Upper Terrace Loop
Length: 1.5-mile loop; Difficulty: Moderate (ski) Easy (snowshoe)
Highlights: See steamy hydrothermal features and an overview of Historic Fort Yellowstone and surrounding mountains on this short and scenic groomed loop trail. Steep hills can make this trail a bit challenging for beginning skiers. Travel clockwise for steeper uphill terrain, and travel counterclockwise for steeper downhill.
Trailhead: Upper Terrace Loop Drive parking lot located five minutes south of Mammoth Hot Springs and 20 minutes from Gardiner
Length: 5 miles round trip; Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Highlights: View a frozen waterfall on this out-and-back ski on a groomed road. Relatively level terrain makes this outing perfect for those new to skiing and snowshoeing. Be aware bison can sometimes block the roadway so be prepared to possibly have to turn around.
Trailhead: Tower-Roosevelt Junction located approximately 30 minutes east of Mammoth Hot Springs and 45 minutes from Gardiner
Length: 8 miles one way; Difficulty: East to Difficult
Highlights: Enjoy sweeping views of Yellowstone’s Northern Range on this wildlife-rich ski along a groomed road. The first six miles are a gentle uphill until “The Cut.” After this, the road starts downhill with fast and sharp turns. Turn back at any point to return to your vehicle.
Trailhead: Blacktail Plateau Drive pullout is located approximately 15 minutes east of Mammoth Hot Springs and 30 minutes from Gardiner
If you’d prefer to ski a network of groomed trails with the opportunity to stay overnight on-site, the B Bar Ranch has cabins you can either ski to or drive up to. No matter how you choose to explore during your winter adventure, enjoy the scenery and experience of Yellowstone and the Northern Range. Below are some things to keep in mind before you travel.
While most roads in Yellowstone are closed to automobile travel during winter the road from Gardiner to the park’s Northeast Entrance is open year-round. Check local road conditions upon arrival to learn whether ice or snow could limit travel. Updated road conditions in Yellowstone Park can be found here. Be sure to pack plenty of layers of clothing as temperatures in winter can be variable.
Food and beverage services between Gardiner and Cooke City are limited so we recommend you pack a cooler with lunch, water, and snacks from the Gardiner Market if you’re headed into the park. You can also find gasoline, beverages, and snacks at the Gardiner Sinclair Dino Mart north of town on U.S. Highway 89 South or at the Town Station Conoco in Gardiner.
Camping and RV parking near Gardiner during winter can be extremely limited and are mostly operated on a first-come-first-served basis. We recommend you look into local lodging opportunities instead to stay warm and support our locally-owned businesses.
Public restrooms with flush toilets and running water can be found at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce downtown and at the base of the Mammoth Terraces at the Liberty Cap parking lot. Otherwise, outhouses equipped with hand sanitizer are periodically available between Gardiner and Cooke City.
Keep Space and Respect Local Guidelines
While winter sees fewer travelers than many other times of year be prepared to share boardwalks, ski and snowshoe trails, and local businesses with other visitors. Please remember to maintain adequate space between you and others both indoors and outdoors. And if you feel unwell please wear a mask. We thank you in advance for helping keep our community healthy and safe while exploring and enjoying your visit.
Protect the Outdoors
Remember to always stay on boardwalks and established trails while adventuring in hydrothermal basins. The ground throughout the Mammoth Terraces can be dangerous and deceiving. Only a fragile layer of travertine may be covering the superheated water underneath. Likewise, never touch the water on the terraces as it could burn your skin. Please hold onto your hats – and masks! – when it’s windy so they don’t blow off you and onto the basin. By packing out your trash and protecting these fragile hydrothermal features you can help ensure they are intact for the enjoyment of future visitors.
While skiing and snowshoeing you’ll want to maintain a safe distance from wildlife. Yellowstone requires visitors to stay at least 25 yards, or the length of a school bus, from all wildlife and to increase that distance to 100 yards from bears and wolves. This means that if an animal is blocking the trail you may need to turn around and try a different area. Do not attempt to scare wildlife off trails as this creates a dangerous situation for you if the animal becomes agitated and causes undue stress on wildlife. For additional information on exploring Yellowstone safely and respectfully please click here.
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.