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Winter in Jackson Hole, the Tetons, and Yellowstone

By Bud Cole

I do not consider myself a world traveler although I have been to the majority of our 50 states (I still have the southern Gulf states to visit), taken many fishing trips and tours to Canada, several excursions to Mexico, a few cruises and scuba diving excursions among the Caribbean Islands, about a dozen trips to Europe in both summer and winter and an adventure into the jungles of northern South America on a Jeep tour. But high on my list of impressive experiences have been my two trips to Jackson Hole and to the Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in winter.

In the summer you might find yourself sharing the trails with other hikers in the majestic Teton Mountains or viewing the magnificent eruptions of Old Faithful with several thousand fellow gawkers in Yellowstone, but not so in the winter. You also will not see the large herds of wintering elk if you visit Jackson Hole in any other season than when the snow covers the land. In the warmer seasons traffic backs up on the roads each time an animal is encountered where in the winter you are often alone with your animal sighting.

If you’re traveling on Route 80 across Wyoming head north on Route 191 at Rock Springs. Not far north you can enter the White Mountain Wild Horse Herd Management Area. This area comprises 392,000 acres and is administrated by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the wild horses in southwest Wyoming are descendants of domestic stock of various breeds thus the variety of colors. If an over-population occurs the excess horses are rounded up and offered to the general public for adoption. The loop tour is on a well maintained dirt road.

On our way from Rock Springs to Jackson I spotted a large bird on a road killed mule deer. The bird was difficult to identify, so I turned around and went back. What we saw was another highlight of our two week trip. The large dark bird on the deer carcass was a golden eagle, but what made it more spectacular were the four golden eagles sitting on consecutive cattle fence posts about 20 yards back from the shoulder of the road. Golden eagles are generally solitary but will mingle together in the winter. The many pronghorns (in excess of 400) seen along the road added to our adventure.

Jackson, with its unique park entrances constructed from shed elk antlers, the Cowboy Bar with saddle covered stools and its unique stores offering western items of every description is an inviting destination in all four seasons, but I like the smaller crowds of winter.

Our first stop was the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center just north of town. Be sure to participate in one of the horse drawn sleigh rides into the National Elk Preserve. The shuttle buses take participants to the refuge from the visitor center. Massive herds of elk or wapiti as the Native Americans called them have migrated into the level land north of Jackson for millenniums. They move out of the mountains, covered with deep snow, to take advantage of the lower snowfalls in the flat area between the mountains known as Jackson Hole.

The estimated population of elk wintering in Jackson Hole this year is about 7,500. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge was created in 1912 as a result of local public interest in the survival of the Jackson area elk herd. Today the refuge consists of nearly 25,000 acres devoted to winter elk range. Elk from these herds have been used to reintroduce elk in areas where they had disappeared.

This winter’s experience in Yellowstone topped my previous one. During our snow coach excursion from Flagg Ranch to Old Faithful Snow Lodge we saw river otters, bison, elk, bald eagles, magpies and moose. The spectacular displays from the West Thumb and Old Faithful Geyser Basins were unrivaled. Snowfall was much deeper in the park than in the other venues we visited during our 13 day tour. There was no snow along Route 80 in southern Wyoming.

If you get up about daybreak and head over to the Old Faithful geyser basin you may have the same experiences that I’ve had. Several years ago when I visited the area I was the only human being watching Old Faithful throw its hot steam high in the air. The only other beings sharing the experience with me were about a dozen American bison, although they didn’t seem to care about the spectacular eruption as they continued to graze on the open grasses with their heads down. The descending steam keeps the area around Old Faithful free of snow except shortly after a major snowstorm.

This winter I shared the early morning experience with two other photographers. All three of us set up our equipment so that we could take photos of the timely geyser with the sun rising behind it. The packed snow made it a bit difficult to move past each other on the narrow boardwalks. The boardwalks provide safe travel around and through the geyser area. Much of the ground surface is unstable due to underground volcanic action.

I took almost 50 photos of Old Faithful from different angles that morning. Each one has its on unique features. Thank goodness for digital cameras or I would have spent a fortune on film and developing. I deleted many photos that I thought were sub par and still took between 800 and 1000 photos during our two week trip through Colorado and Wyoming . When using the film method of photography you had to wait until your film was developed and often that excitement turned to the blues when the photo results were poor. Digital photography allows you to view, delete substandard photos and continue shooting.

We were fortunate to see the Grand Geyser erupt while we were hiking through the basin later in the day. It erupts about every nine hours. Most people do not see it go off due to the length of time between eruptions which in most cases take place once during the daylight hours. We happened to talk to a couple visiting from Wisconsin that knew the geyser’s schedule. Grand Geyser is the highest predictable erupting geyser in the world throwing steam and water over 200 feet high. It was unparalleled for beauty on a bright sunny day.

There are many trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing as well as side snow coach tours and ski/snowshoe shuttles to other parts of the park.

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If you have the chance to visit Teton and Yellowstone National Parks during any time of the year do not pass up the opportunity. In fact I highly recommend it to be placed at the top of any bucket list. You will not be disappointed. But if you can go in winter when few visitors are there, when the animals stand out against the snowy landscape and the steam from the geysers and hot springs are more defined in the cold air you will be doubly impressed.

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