We were discussing where to travel during the thanksgiving break. We were already late for making reservations and given that it was November first week, most of the famous tourist destinations were either booked or super expensive. Four of my friends decided to fly over to Phoenix airport and then drive to Albuqurque White Sands national monument for the thanksgiving break. However, on looking up the state in tripadvisor, it seemed like there was not much to do apart from white sands and given that it would be freezing, camping or staying in tent was not in the option. While discussing other options, one of my friends suggested Yellowstone… again!
We visited Yellowstone park in 2012 during our christmas break and it was an awesome trip. Instead of reminiscing about the trip, we decided let’s do the trip again. Most of the park stays closed for cleaning during thanksgiving break and only part open is a route between Gardiner, MT and Cooke City, MT that passes through Lamar valley. We called up the West Yellowstone snowmobile company we used the last time named Two Top snowmobile and they confirmed that the park didn’t allow for snowmobiles to go in either.
Finally, the day of the trip arrived and I was super sick with cough and cold and it seemed at a point that I might not go on the trip but I was too thrilled to miss out on it. We went to pick up our car but the Avis at San Jose airport was out of AWD suv, the kind we needed to drive through the snow storm Cara fast approaching the northern US states. Moving around from counter to counter at the rental car centre, we finally got a nice AWD SUV with full coverage for ~500$ from Firefly rental. We started our drive to Yellowstone from San Jose at around 7 pm on 25th November and reached West Yellowstone at around 5 pm on the 26th. Do make sure to carry food with you as most of the places along the route stay closed for thanksgiving break. We grabbed lunch at an IHOP in Pocatello, ID and bought some snow tubes from Walmart there.
The drive is a bit longer from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, MT because the internal road from within the park is shut off and that causes us to take a detour via Bozeman. We had booked a room at Super 8 motel in Gardiner, MT and checking in our stuff, we went right to the North entrance at around 10 PM. The weather had dropped to a chilly -9 degree F. However, we got to see a few Bisons and elks resting around a patch of river that had lukewarm water from the volcanic activity in the park. Tired and stank up from the long drive, we went back to the motel to relax.
The next day we woke up and had a dip at the heated pool in the motel. They also serve a good breakfast of cereals, toast, yoghurt, coffee, apple and orange juice and boiled eggs. Many of the places in Gardiner close out early during winter and once you enter the park, it is difficult to find anything to eat unless you cross over the Cooke City.
Having had a good breakfast, we left the motel and stopped at mammoth hot springs first. It is a small spring of hot water that melts the snow and creates nice steam on its way down. There is a hike that takes you on top of the mountain to get a better view of the valley. We were able to catch a herd of deers on the park entrance itself. The whole area had received fresh snowfall and was covered in a white sheet! It is mesmerizing and beautiful to drive through the open road within the park. We drove through the Lamar Valley to witness huge bisons just eating through the snow, Elks and deers stopping on the warm street and the hordes of scientists and tourists trying to figure where the wolves are at. Yellowstone has several packs of wolves and many people visit the park in winter to take a class on the habits of wolves. We met with a couple from Ireland who showed us how to setup our tripod and shared information with us to visit the park early at around 7 AM the next day to witness packs of wolves in the valley.
We crossed over to Cooke city for lunch at Soda butte lodge. They had a veggie sandwich for vegetarians and it is possible to rent snow mobiles/skis from Cooke city. However, we just had our lunch and turned back to Gardiner. The drive between the two cities takes around 2 hours. On our way back, we met another group of scientists who showed us Mountain goats on their telescopes. By the time we returned to Gardiner, the only place open for dinner was K-bar. I have added information for the restaurants at the bottom of the page.
The next morning, I stayed back as wasn’t feeling well but the others left at around 6 am to catch the wolf packs. They were able to catch Mollie’s pack and Lamar pack with their telescopes. It is amazing to watch these wolves walk around the vast valley in early morning. Everybody was exchanging information about the habits and behavior of the wolves. Oddly enough my friends also caught a bison mating ritual and it was funny because the male would keep eating, suddenly try to mate with the female and on her rejection, start eating the grass again.
Once the group returned from the wolf chase, we visited Boiling river. Boiling river is a small natural pool where scalding hot water from the park mixes up with the icy cold river water to provide a lukewarm reservoir for people to bathe in. There is a small hike to get to the place and in winter the place is not much crowded. The day we were visiting boiling river, the temperature was -21F. We took off our clothing and dipped into the warm water. However, the problem is the water at surface is warm and you still get a icy current at the bottom causing you to scream with cold. It is a fun activity though and we met a bunch of tourists there. Getting out of the water is the real ordeal as you are suddenly hit with the force of winter and as soon as I stepped out of the water, my hair turned into solid ice, I stopped feeling my hands and feet for the time I was dressing up. The walk back to the car from this pool was horrendous with shivers ran through the spine within the large snow jacket and pants.
Places to eat in Gardiner for Vegetarians:
K-Bar is a pizza place that also serves half glasses of beers. The owner of the place is also a San Franciscan and so we hit it off really well. He gave us suggestions on the pizzas and we ended up ordering garlic bread with marinara sauce (Their alfredo sauce was watery and tasteless), tostada pizza and a make our own with pesto sauce. K-bar has really good Pesto sauce and the pizzas were delicious. Given that we were super hungry after a day filled with snow tubing, waddling snow and running around, we devoured the pizza in no time at all. We ended up eating twice at K-bar on this trip as this was the only place open till 10 PM.
Yellowstone grill had several veggie options. We tried their Thai style burrito and black bean burger and both were good. Their french fries were not that good however but do try out the soup of the day with their grilled cheese which is also delish. The grill is warm and cozy and is right opposite K-bar.
Tumbleweed bookstore and cafe
Tumbleweed bookstore and Cafe is a small shop with lot of informative books on yellowstone area. We were lucky to have the owner make warm soup as we entered. They also had some hummus sandwiches.
Wokking Panda chinese
Wokking panda is a very small chinese place that has a very few vegetarian options. In case you are bored of the american fare, you can try this place out. It closes really early at around 8 though so do plan to be here early. Also, the place can not sit large groups so take out would be your best bet.
Finally, if nothing works there is a subway in a gas station near the park entrance.
Many people claim that Yellowstone is best in summer but we have found it is simply astounding with its wildlife, snow covered peaks, hot water springs and frozen lakes to be a sight to behold in winter. In case you have time, do stop by at Chico hot springs or Janitzio mexican restaurant in Twin Falls, ID. A winter wonderland, a heaven on earth; Yellowstone in winter is one of the best places I’ve ever visited.