Winter in Yellowstone National Park (part I)

Eventually, I’ll sort through my thousands of pictures from all of my trips to Yellowstone National Park and organize them into a few (hopefully) coherent posts. It’s a daunting task for which I just haven’t found the motivation. So in the meantime, I’m going to take a more unique approach and talk about winter in Yellowstone.

Most people visit Yellowstone in the summer, which makes sense because most of the park roads are closed from November-May. The only section remaining open year-round is Grand Loop Road and US Highway 212, stretching across the northern portion of the park from Gardiner, MT to Cooke City, MT. Access to the rest of the park is by ski, snowshoe, snowcoach tour, or (much to my chagrin) snowmobile. I’ve yet to take one of the snowcoach tours but it’s on my to-do list. Up to this point, our winter experiences in Yellowstone have all been on skis.

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Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, MT
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You often see bighorn sheep along the road in from Gardiner to Mammoth – Yellowstone National Park, WY

One of our favorite cross-country ski routes is Upper Terrace Loop Drive at Mammoth Hot Springs. Yellowstone is roughly a square, and the roads in the park form a figure-eight. If you’re looking at a map, Mammoth Hot Springs is just inside the Gardiner, MT entrance in the upper left corner. Unlike the hot springs and geysers for which Yellowstone is most famous, Mammoth is a giant mineral terrace built up over thousands of years. Hot water still bubbles out in some locations; in fact, Yellowstone is very dynamic, so the active spots at Mammoth are different each time I’m there. Aside from the obvious water and steam, active areas are highlighted by the presence of brightly-colored thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria that thrive in the hot water and mineral environment.

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Palette Spring – Mammoth Hot Spring, Yellowstone National Park. WY

The terraces themselves are visible from the Mammoth townsite and boardwalks provide a path around the base. Upper Terrace Loop Drive is located on top of the terrace. It’s very easy to find in the winter – we just followed the main road approximately 2 miles from the Mammoth Visitor Center until our path was blocked by snow. There was a parking lot on our right, though we probably could have parked anywhere because clearly no one is going to be driving beyond that point.

The 1.5-mile loop road is one-way for cars, and though skiers can travel in either direction, I recommend following the signs. In this direction, the loop ends with a half-mile stretch of downhill. We first encountered Grassy Spring, which wasn’t all that grassy in the winter. There are boardwalks out to the terraces with perhaps better views, though we didn’t take these, as we had skis on our feet as there are quite a lot of stairs involved. Sounds like a recipe for a disaster, especially for a klutz like me.

It’s also important to remember to stay on the road! The ground in Yellowstone can be hot, thin, and fragile, and is extremely easy to damage. Ground conditions also change constantly. There is evidence of this on Upper Terrace Loop; where roadside areas are fenced-off, new hot springs have pushed their way up through the asphalt. Therefore, even in snow it is dangerous to leave the established paths.

Okay, obligatory safety speech concluded. Moving on.

Ahead on the right, we came to an overlook with views of Canary Spring, Main Terrace, Jupiter Terrace, and the aptly-named New Blue Spring. Behind and to the left of this first set of features, other lower parts of the terrace were visible. Views from this first section of the road also extend beyond the steaming hot springs. To the north, the town of Mammoth sits as the base of the terraces, with the Gallatin Mountains in the background, and the flat-topped Mount Everts rises formidably to the east. Owing to the fact that I was wearing gloves under my mittens (Yellowstone can be really cold in the winter!), and didn’t particularly feel like losing my fingers to frostbite, I unfortunately only have one photo of this area.

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View from Upper Terrace Loop – Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, WY

The road then curves back away from the edge of the terrace. As the road loops around, we found ourselves amidst trees and remnants of old hot springs. Nothing in this area was very active – but as I’ve said, things are constantly changing so you never know. It will probably be different next time. As the road continued around, we came upon one of the more prominent features on the upper terrace – Orange Spring Mound. It looks pretty much like it sounds – a giant orange-colored mound. Last time I was there, it wasn’t quite as active as it used to be; nevertheless, the name still applies. There’s a smaller orange mound behind the main one that most closely resembles a boob – I guess it can carry on the name once the other one dries up.

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Orange Spring Mound – Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, WY

Orange Spring Mound is often mistaken for White Elephant Back Terrace. However, White Elephant Back lies further up the road and is no longer active. From there, the road began to head downhill; since we were on skis, this was where the real fun began! The road travels down down and around a fairly sharp curve – my mom wiped out here, you can get going pretty fast. The last feature was on our left just before the end of the loop. Angel Terrace is expansive and dotted with sections of color and a lot of dead trees. Most trees are unable to withstand the silica and other minerals deposited by the hot springs, so if one pops up in the area, existing trees usually end up dying.

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Angel Terrace – Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, WY

Beyond Angel Terrace, we arrived back at the beginning of the loop. From here, we hopped back in the car, headed back to Mammoth, and followed Grand Loop Road to the east for a snowy tour of the northeastern section of the park.

To be continued…


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: in the winter, the only way in is via US Highway 89 south out of Livingston, MT
  • Fees & passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
  • Camping: in the winter, the only open campground is Mammoth, located 5 miles inside the park from the north entrance – $20 per night
  • Hiking: a few trails can be accessed in winter – probably best to ski or snowshoe rather than walk, as Yellowstone receives quite a bit of snow
  • Other: the only road open in the winter is the northern section of Grand Loop Road and Highway 212 from Gardiner, MT to Cooke City, MT
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2 thoughts on “Winter in Yellowstone National Park (part I)

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