This past January, long before COVID-19 took over, I found myself in a unique situation. I got a new job and had a free week between my last day and my first day. Given that I’m 24, and I’m running out of time to hit my “50 states by 25” goal, I immediately started looking up flights.
Since this was so last minute, finding someone to come with me was nearly impossible. It may have been different if I had said “let’s spend a weekend in Aruba in February,” but “let’s grab our parkas and maybe possibly see some bison” was somehow less appealing.
So, I found myself booking a flight for the NEXT DAY to spend some time by myself in Yellowstone.
The Best Way to Visit Yellowstone in Winter
The true “best way” to visit Yellowstone will probably depend on where you live. Since I’m in Nashville, nonstop flights to the Yellowstone area in February don’t really exist (at least not yet). Plus, I had already checked Wyoming off my list. Most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, but part of it spills into Montana, a state I still needed to visit.
So, I found myself booking a flight into Bozeman, MT.
Flying into Bozeman
The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport is small, but not tiny. I’ve been to much smaller airports (pro tip: don’t fly into Santa Fe, it’s smaller than you think).
Here was the tricky part: even though Bozeman is one of the best airports to fly into when you visit Yellowstone (the airport is literally called Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport), it’s not exactly close to Yellowstone. My plan was to stay in West Yellowstone, Montana, where the hotels are about a mile from the west park entrance and the entire town is dedicated to Yellowstone tourists. It seemed like the safest bet for a solo female traveler.
Well, turns out the Bozeman airport is about 90 miles from West Yellowstone. Oops.
Driving from Bozeman to West Yellowstone in Winter
Since I was booking so last minute and trying to save every dime I could, the transportation piece was a challenge. I actually booked my hotel in West Yellowstone before I realized how far Bozeman was…which is SO unlike me!
Well, what I discovered is that there are actually shuttle companies that will take you from Bozeman to West Yellowstone (good luck finding an Uber to drive you 90 miles in Montana)…but those shuttle companies were closed for the winter season (not for lack of tourists, but for weather hazards).
I started to panic, thinking I’d have to cancel my hotel…or my flight…or the whole trip. I knew I didn’t want to drive a rental car through snowy Montana.
Thankfully, after doing some research, I learned that the road between Bozeman and West Yellowstone is actually a truck route, so it’s well taken-care of. According to the travel forums, I didn’t have to worry. Plus, I had gotten that far.
Another pro tip: car rentals from tiny airports in Montana in February can be pricey. I was looking at $200-$200 per day originally. I was able to find great discounts through my fiance’s employer and ended up with an $80 weekend rental from Budget. Check to see if your employer offers car rental or any other travel discounts!
The drive to West Yellowstone was worth every penny and every minute of stress.
I took advantage of the pull-offs in the road to snap a few pictures, and I turned the hour and 45 minute drive into a two hour and 30 minute one. There weren’t many others on the road, either, so that was easy to do.
The Madison river, which runs along and into Yellowstone, creates the most majestic landscape. Plus, as you get closer to the Wyoming border, you start literally driving next to Yellowstone. You’ll pass a Yellowstone National Park sign, and then everything on your left will be Yellowstone property. Incredible.
Staying in West Yellowstone in February
Normally I’m not one to stay in tourist villages. I like to see where the locals live and try out the off-the-beaten-path places. However, as a solo traveler in a completely different part of the country from what I’m used to, I thought this would be best.
Now, I can confidently say that West Yellowstone is a fantastic place to stay if you plan on visiting Yellowstone and seeing Old Faithful. Truthfully, most people visiting Yellowstone are there to see the park and not much else, so West Yellowstone is the perfect place to stay.
There are rows of hotels and old western-themed shops and restaurants. Granted, in February, all you really see is a thick blanket of white and a few buildings sticking out. Only one of the main roads is really paved well, so tourists ride their snowmobiles up and down the roads.
There’s a Yellowstone museum, a visitor’s center, and plenty of gift shops. The hotels are appropriately themed and many have their own restaurants, so you don’t have to venture back out into the cold unless you want to. Several tourism companies have set up shop in or near West Yellowstone, the biggest being Yellowstone Vacations, so you really don’t have to drive anywhere or leave town at all.
Holiday Inn West Yellowstone
For my solo stay, I chose the Holiday Inn. It was a bit cheaper than the other options, it looked clean, it had good reviews, and it was something I was familiar with. I was not familiar with traveling solo, so having a hotel room that looked like something I’d maybe seen before was helpful.
I was not disappointed. In fact, it was one of the better Holiday Inn’s I’ve stayed at. The bed was comfortable, everything was very clean, the walls weren’t too thin, the staff was friendly, and the food was decent.
Their restaurant, “The Branch” is about what you’d expect from a hotel restaurant in a tourist town. It wasn’t phenomenal, but it was perfectly edible and just what I needed. The prices aren’t too bad, given that it’s a gimmicky hotel restaurant.
My biggest recommendation (and biggest regret) is that if you do plan on going into Yellowstone for a full day (which you should), order a boxed lunch from The Branch or from your tourism company at least 24 hours beforehand. I booked too late to take advantage of that, and the Yellowstone park food is…well…national park food.
Yellowstone Vacations Tours in Wintertime
Since I knew I’d be alone, I thought the best way to see Yellowstone would be in a group tour setting. Plus, even if I had wanted to drive in, very few Yellowstone National Park roads are actually open to the public in the winter months. There is literally no way to see Old Faithful and many of the other “highlights” in the winter months without having a guide.
Just like staying in West Yellowstone, I usually judge group tours as being “too touristy,” but I tend to judge too harshly. Our tour guide, who I believe was named Phil, was fantastic. He gave more than we bargained for, but didn’t talk too much. I didn’t expect to learn so much about the park’s history, geology, and ecology from Phil.
I selected the “Old Faithful Snowcoach Tour,” which is an all-day adventure. You are driven through a tiny portion of the park (which takes all day because the park spans over 2,219,789 acres) and make stops at various beautiful points along the way. You are given the chance to walk around and look at various geysers and thermal features.
The tour will pick you up in the snowcoach from your hotel in West Yellowstone at 8 AM and drop you off between 4 and 4:30 PM. It costs $145 per adult. You’ll also have to purchase a ticket into Yellowstone (unless you have a National Park pass already, in which case, have a physical copy handy).
Is Old Faithful Anticlimactic?
This is a weird question I keep asking myself. I guess the reason Old Faithful got its name and became so well-known is because…well…it’s faithful. Usually, geysers and thermal features are fairly unpredictable, but Old Faithful can be timed fairly regularly.
Ironically enough, when I saw it, it erupted 20 minutes late. It’s supposed to be accurate within a ten-minute window, but maybe it’s not so faithful these days! That eruption delay may have had to do with the warm temperatures. I’m not sure. I learned a lot, but I’m not a scientist.
Anyway, the reason I bring this question up is because if you’re going to travel to Yellowstone, Old Faithful doesn’t need to be the “thing” you see, because every inch of that park is amazing. We saw three or four thermal features before getting to Old Faithful, and then saw three or four after. I found some of those other features more or equally amazing to Old Faithful. Some of the landscapes outside of the features were even more incredible, in my opinion. Like…
- Looking out and seeing literally hundreds of bison gathered in their separate herds, completely wild…
- Having to stay quiet as a coyote approached the snowcoach with a bird in its’ mouth…
- Witnessing a bald eagle fly right over our heads…
- Seeing miles and miles of snowy white land without any footprints on it…
- Watching the Madison river roar, bluer than any river I’ve ever seen…
- Imagining how far back the park reached and what sorts of natural things were happening all the way on the other side, where the elk and the wolves may have been…
You can wait in the crowds all day and watch Old Faithful erupt, wait in line to buy your ornaments and your mugs, and eat the park fries, but seeing the parts further from the visitor’s center…the parts where the roads will never reach…that’s what makes a trip to Yellowstone National Park so incredible.
The Weather at Yellowstone in February
One of my first thoughts after stepping outside was, “hey, this isn’t so bad!” It was about 30 degrees. Turns out, that is extremely abnormal. After I left, temperatures dropped to -11. I got lucky and picked a warm weekend in Yellowstone. In fact, it was so “warm,” that our tour guide, who lives in Alaska in the summer and Montana in the winter, kept the heat on the snow coach off and cracked the windows. I wish I was kidding.
Driving from West Yellowstone to Bozeman in the Snow
Like I said, the drive from Bozeman to West Yellowstone was incredibly beautiful. What I stupidly did not plan for was the weather for my last day. It snowed. A lot.
My flight wasn’t until 2 PM, so I wasn’t planning on leaving the hotel until about 10. Seeing the flurries begin to fall, I decided to leave as soon as I could. I pulled out of the parking lot around 8 AM, and I drove for about 30 minutes before the road started to turn white. I was about halfway to Bozeman when I started to get legitimately scared.
I was driving a rented Ford Taurus. In snow. On a windy road with bison-crossing signs. In an unfamiliar place. With no cell service. For part of the trip, there weren’t any other cars passing. Holy sh*t. I’m never doing that again. My parents are probably going to read this and have panic attacks. It’s fine, I made it, and I’m never doing that stupid thing again.
I also strongly recommend that you do as I say and not as I did. Seeing Yellowstone in the winter, covered in white with no traces of human activity, was an incredible experience that I will never forget. I do recommend that part.
However, I recommend avoiding driving if possible. I also recommend driving an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive car that is made for those conditions, if you have to drive at all. Spend the extra money. It will be worth it.
Additionally, take your time. That was one thing I had on my side. Since I left so early, I was driving about 30mph in a 70mph zone. Thankfully, the other cars on the road that I finally found as I got closer to Bozeman were doing the same thing, so I didn’t have to try to let them pass me.
Is it safe to visit Yellowstone in the Winter?
It’s hard to say. It really truly depends on if you end up with a weekend like I did, with 30 degree days and very little snow, or a week like what I left behind, with a few feet of snow and temperatures below zero. It also depends on how you’re getting there and what you plan on doing while you’re there.
A trip to Montana in the wintertime can be a beautiful escape or a terrifying nightmare. It just depends on how crazy you are and how much careful planning you put into your trip.
I’m an advocate for going out and seeing the world, but I want you to come home safe. Take your time, make solid plans, and enjoy it.