Yellowstone: Winter Road Trip
From Paradise to the Park – Yellowstone’s Quiet Season
By Donnie Sexton
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Take little kids on a road trip of any length, and you’re bound to hear, “are we there yet?” from the back seat.
Our family, with sons Jed and Tanner, was no exception. After they were grown and out on their own, I found time to pursue my passions of travel and photography. One of my favorite destinations wasn’t far from my back yard, Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone Road Closures
Every year in early November, most of Yellowstone’s roads close to traffic. Once enough snow has accumulated, snowmobiles and snow coaches use these roads to get visitors into and around the park.
The only exception is the road between Mammoth Hot Springs at the north entrance and Cooke City, the park’s northeast entrance. This 51-mile stretch is open to regular traffic all year and is the only way to reach this historic mining town during winter.
I was itching to get out of the house on a dreary January day. Tanner heard me talking about a winter drive to Cooke City.
Neither son possessed the travel bug like their Mom. To my surprise, he said, “I’ll go with you.” I hesitantly replied, “Okay, but just so you know, there is a lot of driving and many stops for photos, so you’ll need to be patient.” “That’s cool,” he responded.
I mapped out a three-day adventure that included snowshoeing. A family friend who had never seen Yellowstone got wind of our trip and asked to join us. Why not?
We turned into a party of three venturing out to Yellowstone’s quiet side that hopefully was teeming with wildlife.
We followed US 89, from Livingston, Montana to Yellowstone’s north entrance. This route took us through Paradise Valley with its continuous string of picture-worthy landscapes. Our drive of 58 miles paralleled the mighty Yellowstone
River, the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48. The snow-capped Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains rose from the valley floor to the left, while the Gallatin Range defined the right side of the valley.
Montana’s Best-Loved Resort
We stopped midway through Paradise Valley for our first overnight at Chico Hot Springs Resort.
This historic property is a much-loved hangout for families, ranchers, cowboys, and celebrities. You can dress up or dress down at Chico – flip flops or designer boots, well-worn Carhartts, or designer jeans – it’s all about comfort.
We opted for a soak in the hot springs pools before dinner. It’s no secret that Chico ranks as one of the top places for exquisite dining in Montana (number one in my book). My choice was the delectable BBQ Bison Short Rib Ravioli, wrapped in house-made pasta and swimming in a sweet corn cream sauce and chili oil.
Dinner ended on a fiery note when the waiter brought out The Flaming Orange dessert in a small cast-iron skillet. The hollowed-out orange, filled with ice cream and topped with meringue, was sitting in a layer of rum.
The waiter ignited the rum and blue flames danced around the dessert for a few seconds, much to our amazement.
Mammoth Hot Springs
On our second day, Tanner and his friend Kiefan hoped to sleep in. But in short order, they learned that this Mom doesn’t waste time on road trips. I bribed them to the car with hearty breakfast burritos, and we were off to Cooke City.
Our first wildlife sightings were deer and elk, grazing in Paradise Valley. We entered the park through the famed Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana.
President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the partially constructed arch in 1903, during a ceremony that attracted over a thousand guests.
Five miles further and we reached Mammoth Hot Springs, a small village home to the park headquarters and employee housing. Elk is often spotted hanging out in and around the buildings, oblivious to humans.
A variety of visitor services are available, including Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, a restaurant, and a general store.
The name, Mammoth Hot Springs, comes from a series of terraces, a result of water mixing with limestone and creating chalk-white travertine. These formations dry up quickly, then re-appear in another spot, keeping the terrain always in flux. We opted to explore Mammoth on our return trip.
Plenty of Critters
It was a bluebird sky day as we slowly made our way through the Lamar Valley towards Cooke City. There was no shortage of bison, their large muscular heads rocking back and forth to push the snow away foraging for grass. We came across an elk carcass where a pair of coyotes, along with magpies, were picking the carcass clean.
We spotted a bighorn sheep looking down at us from his rocky perch. In the far distance, Tan’s eagle eyes spotted two moose munching on willows.
The landscape was very peaceful and pure, weighted down by a heavy winter blanket of snow. We stopped many times to stretch our legs, soak up the scenery, and observe the wildlife in action.
We arrived late afternoon to the historic town of Cooke City, piled high with snow. Lodging and dining are very limited, but I had called ahead for a room at the Super 8. Miners Saloon was recommended for pizza and didn’t disappoint.
The town has its roots in gold that was discovered back in July of 1870. There are roughly 75 year-round residents, hardy folk that can tough out the cold, snow, and isolation that comes with this territory.
The town averages 80 inches of snowfall in the winter, so keeping the snow off the highway and the roofs is a never-ending job.
This area is a hot destination for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers that crave the deep powder and steep terrain. The town survives the winter accommodating these outdoor enthusiasts.
Lamar Valley Wolves
Wolves in Yellowstone are a controversial topic. By 1926, they were eradicated from the park but brought back in the mid-1990s. Ranchers view them as a nuisance when they kill their livestock.
Others believe the wolves have their rightful place in the park. Regardless, there are folks passionate about these carnivorous canines and make the trip to Yellowstone for the sole purpose of observing them.
Heading back thru the park on our last day, we saw wolf watchers with their sizable spotting scopes in Lamar Valley. We pulled over and walked a short distance to check out the action. This gregarious group directed our view to the pack of four, barely visible to the naked eye, then invited us to look through their scopes. Returning to our car, a beautiful red fox stood at attention five feet from me, posing patiently for a photo.
Back at Mammoth’s terraces, we broke out the snowshoes and did a short tour on a path designated for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. We continued to explore on foot using a series of boardwalks that weave through the terraces. Mineral deposits and bacteria mats that mingle with the travertine yielded a range of colors, from every shade of yellow, orange and brown to vivid green.
All’s Well That Ends Well
The three-hour drive to reach home was looming, so after a quick bite of lunch, we headed back through Paradise Valley. Our drive into Yellowstone was as much as a lesson in ecology as it was a breathtaking drive. We meandered through an ever-changing landscape, mostly unaltered by humans.
It was a privilege seeing first-hand Yellowstone’s wildlife interact with the challenges of winter. Sharing it with my son was the frosting on the cake. As I dropped the boys off, Tanner said, “I had a great time. We should do this more often.” Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Tips for the Trip
Reserve lodging in advance if staying in Gardiner, Cooke City, Chico Hot Springs Resort or at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
Bring plenty of cold-weather clothing that can be layered. Snow boots with a good grip are a plus.
Make sure your vehicle (rental or personal) has good tires and a tank full of gas. Roads are generally well maintained but can get snowy and icy. Slow down and take your time.
Snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented in Livingston at Dan Bailey’s Outdoor Company or in Gardiner at Parks’ Fly Shop.