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Our favorite season in Yellowstone is winter. When snow blankets the landscape, the crowds disappear and our country’s first national park is transformed into a snowglobe. A trip to the park this time of year is a must, but the charming Montana towns surrounding Yellowstone are worthy of a visit of their own. From downhill skiing to dog sledding, relaxing hot springs soaking to incredible eats, you need to put Montana on your winter radar. Fly into Bozeman–a hip mountain town that’s easily accessed by most major airlines–and rent a car to start your winter adventure. Here are four of our favorite Montana winter itineraries for snow-fueled fun.
Strap on Your Skis in Bozeman
(Photo by Charlie McLaughlin )
One of the West’s coolest mountain towns, Bozeman is just as fun when the snow starts to fly as it is in summer. With Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport offering year round flights to major cities across the country, it makes the perfect basecamp for a winter adventure.
This part of Montana is known for its incredible powder skiing, dubbed “cold smoke” by locals. Follow their lead and head to the unpretentious Bridger Bowl, 20 minutes from town. A locally owned nonprofit, lift tickets are affordable making it a great choice for a day on the slopes with the family. You’ll find beginner terrain alongside extreme skiing and everything in between across 2,000 acres. Farther south, Ikon and Mountain Collective pass destination Big Sky Resort offers the kind of skiing that makes you understand how it got its name: big. Check out the new Lone Peak Tram which opened in December 2023. It provides access to expert terrain, or just stunning views from the top of 11,167-foot Lone Peak to sightseers. If you still have energy, don’t miss taking a twirl around the town of Big Sky’s ice skating rink.
If you’re looking for a more peaceful excursion in nature, hit up the cross-country ski and snowshoe trails at Crosscut Mountain Sports Center next to Bridger Bowl. Rentals are available on-site. If you rent skis in town or have your own, Hyalite Canyon is another nearby popular spot to tackle groomed and ungroomed trails. As you glide through the winter wonderland, keep your eye out for climbers scaling Hyalite’s world-class ice on frozen waterfalls.
After a day spent on slopes or trails, relax at Bozeman Hot Springs and then take a stroll through downtown, ducking in and out of galleries and shops, on your way to dinner.
Ready to get out of the cold? Museum of the Rockies, a Smithsonian affiliate, is an amazing educational experience for kids and adults alike. See the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the country and let the little ones’ curiosity soar at the Martin Children’s Discovery Center, a great place for infants to 8-year-olds to learn through play.
Explore Yellowstone’s Northern Gateways of Gardiner, Cooke City and Silver Gate
Gardiner is home to Yellowstone’s only year round entrance–marked by the stately Roosevelt Arch–making it the perfect place to stay for a winter trip into the park. While most park roads close to everything but snowcoaches and snowmobiles when winter sets in, regular vehicles can drive through the North Entrance and explore Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls and the Lamar Valley, known as “America’s Serengeti.” Winter is one of the best times to spot wildlife like wolves, bison and bighorn sheep. Book a tour with one of the many outfitters based out of Gardiner where knowledgeable guides will give you the best chance at spotting animals. While you’ll still find plenty of winter magic in Gardiner, it doesn’t snow quite as much here as in other parts of the state, making it easy to walk around town and even into the park.
In Gardiner, you’ll be centrally located to explore Yellowstone, but also Paradise Valley. Home to two different hot springs experiences, this gorgeous stretch of country is the best spot to spend a relaxing weekend. Just outside Gardiner, the serene Yellowstone Hot Springs offers peaceful soaking along the Yellowstone River. Farther north, outside of Pray, Chico Hot Springs is a one of a kind resort experience. Book a room in the historic Victorian-style lodge, or opt for a private cabin rental. Spend your days soaking in two outdoor pools, relaxing at the spa or eating at the Historic Dining Room, a James Beard Award semifinalist.
Head north to Livingston to stroll locally owned shops and galleries, but make sure you make time to enjoy a meal. For breakfast or lunch, Faye’s Cafe, inside the Shane Lalani Center for the Arts, is the ideal introduction to this creative town. You could order one of the daily specials, but if you’re feeling adventurous, pick a few words off the menu—they range from straightforward “spicy” and “sweet” to the bit more abstract “extra smiles” and “patience”—and let the kitchen create something special just for you. For dinner, don’t miss 2nd Street Bistro at the historic Murray Hotel. The restaurant’s dining room is beautiful, having kept its period Victorian furnishings, and the menu utilizes Montana ingredients with classic French cooking techniques.
Reachable only from the west on Highway 212 through Yellowstone in the winter, you might think the tiny hamlets of Cooke City and Silver Gate would shut down when the snow starts. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you’re looking for a quiet winter getaway with plenty of snow, book a cabin rental. Then, get out in all that fresh powder on a snowmobile tour.
Go Snowmobiling and Dog Sledding on the West Side of Yellowstone
Yellowstone’s most popular entrance doesn’t stop delivering outdoor adventure and Western fun in winter. You may not be able to drive into the park from West Yellowstone in your own car, but you can on a snowmobile. Journey into the heart of the park with any of several great outfitters to see erupting geysers, frozen waterfalls and wildlife. Many tours go all the way to Old Faithful for a truly magical winter experience. If you’re not up for a snowmobile adventure, stay warm and cozy but still get great views of the park on a snowcoach tour. These cool vehicles are like shuttles with monster truck tires and are specially designed to travel over the park’s snowy roads. With big windows and knowledgeable guides, you can see all the highlights on a tour with or without stops to various walkable attractions.
Rent cross-country skis at Freeheel and Wheel in West Yellowstone and then hit the Rendezvous Ski Trails. With more than 20 miles of groomed corduroy, you can enjoy a winter meander through lodgepole pine forests and snowy meadows.
For a unique and magical winter adventure, embark on a dog sled tour. Behind a team of enthusiastic sled dogs, you’ll glide through the snow on an adventure you’re never going to forget. Book with Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures out of Big Sky, an hour north of West Yellowstone, or Spirit of the North out of West Yellowstone in December and Big Sky the rest of the season.
At the end of the day, grab dinner where the locals eat: Bullwinkle’s Saloon and Eatery. You can’t go wrong with anything off the varied menu, but the bison or black angus burgers are always a good choice.
Cozy Up in Small Town Montana
(Photo by Kaden Harrison)
“Our downtowns are very vibrant,” says Montana’s Yellowstone Country executive director, Robin Hoover. “And I travel a lot so I would know. They’re full of great local stores and galleries and fun to walk around, even if you’re just popping into a cafe to grab hot chocolate.”
This winter, spend some time experiencing these fun and cozy downtowns. Start in Red Lodge, a historic ski town you may never have heard of, but is home to Red Lodge Mountain, a great family friendly ski area that’s uncrowded and affordable. Take some time to stroll Broadway, a fun and hopping main street with great restaurants. Head to the counter at PREROGATIvE Kitchen, a James Beard Award nominated spot where shared plates shine. Order dishes from the daily whiteboard menu like bison ravioli, smoked trout mousse and risotto sliders before sitting down and enjoying a winter evening. While “craft beer” and “history” might not be two words that seem to pair, Red Lodge has been brewing local beer since before Prohibition. Stop into Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company to take part in a storied tradition when you order a pint. The on-site restaurant, Sam’s Tap Room, serves great options from the smoker like pulled pork or smoked chopped beef to go with your beer.
For more small town charm, make your way northwest to Columbus where you can warm up and get out of the snow at the “horniest bar in Montana”. More PG than it sounds, you’ll find more than 60 taxidermied animals, including 15 elk, lining New Atlas Bar’s walls. Opened in 1906, there’s also an albino fawn and a two-headed calf on display. Order a drink and peruse the unique decor. For a family friendly beverage stop, grab a milkshake (good year round, trust us) and a sandwich from Cole Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Big Timber.
Learn more and start planning your trip at visityellowstonecountry.com.
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