The easiest and most enjoyable way to get into Yellowstone in the winter is on the ungainly snowcoaches—machines that look like something the Norwegian Army might have used during World War II. Most were actually built by a Canadian company, Bombardier. They can be noisy, and the windows fog up (hence the spray bottles of antifreeze).
But despite their ancient condition and spartan interiors, these beasts still work well and can carry 10 passengers, gear (two suitcases per person), and skis. You will also see (or ride in) a variety of other over-snow vehicles, including vans on tracks.
A variety of snowcoach tours are provided by Xanterra Parks and Resorts (307/344-7311 or 866/439-7375, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). All snowcoach tours and transportation are half price for kids ages 2-11 and free for toddlers. Adult per-person rates to Old Faithful are $140 round-trip from Flagg Ranch (where the plowing ends just south of Yellowstone), $114 round-trip from West Yellowstone, and $140 round-trip from Mammoth.
Xanterra also provides all-day tours several times a week from Mammoth to Canyon for $125 round-trip and Old Faithful to Canyon for $130 round-trip. Half-day tours from Mammoth to Norris Geyser Basin cost $57.
If you’re just looking for transportation, express snowcoach runs (no tours) are $55 each way between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone.
Shorter snowcoach tours depart two or three times a week from Old Faithful for the Firehole River/Fountain Flats area (three hours; $33 round-trip). Three-hour winter wildlife bus tours to the Lamar Valley ($38 with a box breakfast) depart daily from Mammoth, providing a great opportunity to see wolves.
Visit the Xanterra website (www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) for details on these and other winter treks from Mammoth and Old Faithful. For any of these trips, be sure to make reservations well in advance.
During the winter, Gray Line of Jackson Hole/Alltrans (307/733-3135 or 800/443-6133, www.graylinejh.com) has daily bus runs from Jackson to Flagg Ranch for $106 round-trip, arriving in time to meet the snowcoach departures for Yellowstone. Reservations are required.
Yellowstone Alpen Guides (406/646-9591 or 800/858-3502, www.yellowstoneguides.com) leads snowcoach tours from West Yellowstone. All-day trips are $110 adults, $100 seniors, $90 kids to either Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or Old Faithful. Guests on the latter run have an option of getting dropped at Biscuit Basin, where they can ski to Old Faithful and meet the rest of the group for the return trip. Ski or snowshoe rentals are available. The company’s eight classic Bombardier snowcoaches (one built in 1953) have been modernized but are still a charming anachronism.
Snowcoach Yellowstone/Buffalo Bus Touring Co. (406/646-9564 or 800/426-7669, www.yellowstonevacations.com) operates modern snowcoach vans, with all-day tours from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful ($109 adults, $89 kids) or Canyon ($119 adults, $99 kids). Park entrance fees are additional.
Triangle C Ranch (307/455-2225 or 800/661-4928, www.trianglec.com) also provides all-day snowcoach trips, in a converted Ford Excursion from either Jackson or Dubois into Yellowstone, with pickups directly from your hotel. These head to either Old Faithful or Canyon for the day, departing at 7 a.m. and returning by 6 p.m. The cost is $265 per person ($300 to Canyon) including lunch, entrance fee, and guide.
For a truly unique experience, book a trip with Yellowstone Expeditions (406/646-9333 or 800/728-9333, www.yellowstoneexpeditions.com). The company has day tours from West Yellowstone using converted vans, but is best known for a remote base camp near Canyon that’s perfect for those who want to really explore Yellowstone in winter. Guests stay in eight heated tent cabins, with two yurts providing a central kitchen and dining/social area. These trips start at $1,900 for two people for three nights and four days, and go up to $3,000 for two people for seven nights and eight days.
The price includes lodging, food, bedding, round-trip transportation from West Yellowstone to the base camp near Canyon, and backcountry ski guides. Ski and snowshoe rentals are extra. Days are spent skiing or snowshoeing in the Canyon area or along trails around Hayden Valley, Norris, or Mt. Washburn. Showers are available and the cedar sauna is perfect after a long day in the backcountry. This is the only overnight accommodation in the Canyon area during the winter.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition