Updated 12.17.2019: For years, I’ve wanted to visit Lamar Valley in the winter, especially to see wolves. Located in the remote northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Lamar Valley is America’s version of the Serengeti. Or so I’ve read. And Montana Highway 212, the only road that’s open to vehicular traffic during Yellowstone’s winter season, just happens to travel through the valley.
How to visit Lamar Valley in the winter
After obsessively watching weather forecasts during a particularly stormy winter season in the Bitterroot Valley, Alan and I finally see a window of opportunity in mid-February. Road reports are good, there’s little snow forecasted and Yellowstone National Park’s brutal winter temperatures have moderated to above 0 F. It’s time to roll.
We’re lucky that Gardiner, Montana, northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, is only a five-hour drive from our home—a little more if Alan and I take the scenic route through the Big Hole Valley, which of course we do.
If you’re flying to Montana to visit the Lamar Valley, fly into Bozeman (start your search here), then rent a four-wheel-drive car for your adventure.
Where to stay on a Lamar Valley winter visit
If you’re looking for Lamar Valley lodging, I’m sorry to tell you but there isn’t any. So Alan and I make Gardiner, Montana, our headquarters for this brief, Yellowstone winter vacation.
We arrive in Gardiner in the late afternoon for a one-night stay at the Best Western Plus Mammoth Hot Springs. The plan is to spend the next day exploring the Lamar Valley before driving to Grey Cliffs Lodge for a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway. Next time, we’d like to try the newest luxury property in the area, Sage Lodge in Pray, Montana.
Yellowstone National Park lodging at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins would have been our preferred choice but the hotel has been closed for renovations during the 2017, 2018 and 2019 winter seasons.
After discussing dining options with the Best Western hotel clerk, Alan and I walk a couple of snowy blocks to the recommended hamburger joint. It’s closed. And so are several of the hotels that we pass.
If you’re planning a visit to Gardiner in the winter, it’s a good idea to confirm reservations before arriving. And, yes, we did find dinner at the Yellowstone Mine Restaurant located next door to the Best Western.
The next morning we fuel up at the hot buffet of the Yellowstone Mine Restaurant—free breakfast coupon provided by Best Western. And then it’s a short drive through Gardiner to the park.
Yes, you can drive through Yellowstone in the winter, well sort of
If you’ve ever wondered about driving in Yellowstone in the winter, the simple answer is yes, you can. But the more complicated reply is, you can only drive through the Montana portion of the park from Gardiner to Cooke City. Otherwise, Yellowstone National Park winter access is off limits to vehicular traffic.
But you can book Yellowstone National Park winter tours for access to other parts of Yellowstone. Choices abound from cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, wildlife watching or touring the geysers as they spray a frosty shimmer over the landscape. The Yellowstone Old Faithful Snowcoach Tour is a popular option.
Our day of Yellowstone winter wildlife watching begins. Will we see wolves?
After driving through the iconic Teddy Roosevelt Arch, it’s as if Yellowstone is trying to prove to us that it is indeed America’s Serengeti. We haven’t entered through the park’s guard gate and already large numbers of buffalo, elk and pronghorns are visible as they graze on the hillside below Electric Peak.
Take a look at this; Yellowstone National Park web cam. You might see them, too.
After a friendly chat with the park ranger, we’re on our way up the road to Mammoth Hot Springs. Since we only have one day to visit Lamar Valley, Alan and I agree that this trip is a reconnaissance mission for future adventures. The goal is to drive to Cooke City for lunch, taking it slowly and stopping at all the turnoffs, before retracing the drive back to Gardiner.
We’ll save any snowshoeing, winter hiking or prolonged wildlife watching for another time. Unfortunately this also means a walk on the boardwalk of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces will wait for our next visit.
Driving Grand Loop Road to Tower-Rosevelt
At Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Loop Road, Highway 212, turns east. Although there’s lots of snow on the ground, the road is mostly in good shape. Because this is the only winter road access for Cooke City citizens, ploughs clear the road during daylight hours.
There’s plenty to see along the road before reaching Lamar Valley. The pavement climbs and weaves its way through the Gallatin Range with views of the Yellowstone River to the north and Blacktail Deer Plateau to the south. Bison are everywhere, including along the road, so it pays to adhere to Yellowstone’s 35-mile-per-hour speed limit.
When we see groups of wildlife watchers set up with scopes in a turnout, Alan always pulls in, if there’s room to park. Although spotters have the reputation for being friendly, we don’t find that to be the case.
The plowing for Grand Loop Road ends at Tower-Roosevelt. In the summer, the road loops around to Tower Fall, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris and back to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Following Highway 212 into the Lamar Valley
Our route continues east the Northeast Entrance Road, Highway 212. After Slough Creek, Lamar Valley opens up in a large U-shape thanks to the carving action of ancient glaciers. This is the heart of America’s Serengeti and the beginning of our self-guided Lamar Valley wildlife tour. It’s a wildlife watcher’s heaven!
A couple of cars stop in front of us to watch big horn sheep on a rocky hillside. After maneuvering past them, Alan stops at the closest pullout, and then we walk back to photograph the sheep. Park guidelines request that visitors do not stop their vehicles in the road.
Where the road hugs Soda Butte Creek, we come across another pullout with cars. Three buffalo struggling through deep snow have attracted photographers and wildlife watchers.
Don’t startle wildlife by talking loudly or slamming car doors. Remember you are a visitor in their habitat.
Taking a coffee break in Cooke City
The road climbs again as it leaves the Lamar Valley and Yellowstone National Park. After Cooke City, Highway 212 becomes the Beartooth Highway, one of America’s most scenic drives. But in the winter, plowing stops at Cooke City meaning the only access to the outside world for town residents is the journey back through Yellowstone National Park to Gardiner.
Although we had planned to stop for lunch, the drive to Cooke City has gone quicker than expected. So Alan and I enjoy a cup of coffee and mid-morning snack while watching snowmobiles buzz up and down the street.
Miles of trails make Cooke City a prime snowmobiling destination. Now we’re tempted to return for a guided snowmobile tour. There are plenty of vacation rentals for rent. Wouldn’t that be a fun week in the Montana snow?
Avoid a winter drive to Lamar Valley on Friday, Saturday or Sunday when cars and trucks pulling snowmobiles are traveling to and from Cooke City for a weekend of fun.
Waiting at a bison traffic jam
The views are just as stunning on our return back through the remote northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. Although Alan and I didn’t see any wolves—you really need to stake out a spot and stay in one place to see wolves—we’ve lost count of the number of bison that have crossed the road in front of us. To really spot wolves, I recommend bookint a Lamar Valley wolf watching tour.
After about two hours of driving, we’re back at Gardiner. There’s just enough time to drive on to Grey Cliffs for a gourmet dinner and a 3-night Valentine’s getaway. But the northeastern corner of Yellowstone—and Cooke City—is calling our names. We’ll definitely return for another boomer travel adventure.
Lamar Valley winter travel tips
Traveling to the Lamar Valley in the winter requires planning ahead. Here are some websites and tips to help you prepare for a cold weather trip:
- Keep track of Montana road conditions with the Montana Department of Transportation.
- Monitor the weather through the National Weather Service. To get more specific, us the Gardiner, MT zipcode: 59030.
- Check park road conditions, weather and travel alerts at the official Yellowstone National Park website.
- Follow Alan’s tips for making a do-it-yourself winter driving kit.
- Stay warm but pack light with our winter gear tips for women.
Don’t let cold weather discourage you from traveling to Yellowstone National Park. Which winter month is best for visiting Yellowstone? January tends to be brutally cold with winter temperatures moderating a bit in mid-February to mid-March.
More Montana winter adventures
If you’re looking for more Montana winter vacation ideas, consider a Glacier National Park winter trip. You’ll practically have the park to yourself as you snowshoe along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Are you a luxury traveler? Don’t miss the fun on a Triple Creek Ranch winter getaway.
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