Note: For more photographs of Yellowstone from this trip, please check out my new Yellowstone gallery.
No one accidentally ends up in Yellowstone. To get to Yellowstone, you have to want to get to Yellowstone.
Despite its remoteness, it is one of the most visited national parks in the US with almost 3.5 million visitors a year, only trailing the Smokies, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. For every resident of Wyoming, there are almost six visitors to Yellowstone National Park each year. They all go out of their way to visit the world's first national park, but there is a small problem: they almost all go at the same time.
Over 80% of the parks visitors visit during June, July, and August. The park is beautiful during these three months, with lush vegetation, swelling rivers, and elk and bison calves running around. While it is always possible to get away from the crowds in more remote areas, some of the more interesting highlights, like the Upper, Midway, and Lower Geyser basins or the Mammoth Terraces are packed during these summer months.
The remedy is simple: Go when it's less crowded. Late September and early October offer the best opportunities for seeing the entire park easily when there are less people (with the chance of catching the first snowfall of the year and elk in rut), and winter offers the best opportunity to enjoy solitude (less than 5% of the annual visitors visit during winter months).
The benefits of visiting in winter extend beyond solitude; the entire park has a completely different character. For photographers, scenes that are normally too complex are greatly simplified with snow (boardwalks are often covered by snow and steam hides other non-natural artifacts). The geothermal features of the park produce copious amounts of steam because of the low air temperature, often frosting nearby vegetation.
The struggle for survival of the parks' animals is even more evident as they have to work tirelessly to forage for vegetation buried in snow (not all of them make it, much to the delight of the wolves who are often responsible for their demise and to the coyotes, ravens, and other scavengers who clean up where the wolves leave off). Distant wildlife is easier to spot as well, standing in stark contrast to the snow rather than blending in with the similarly colored landscape.
Yellowstone accessibility in winter is however severely limited. All of the park's interior is closed to vehicle traffic. The Mammoth Terraces and Lamar Valley to Cooke City (both accessed through the north entrance) are the only roads plowed and drivable during winter.
To access the interior, one must purchase a roundtrip ticket for a snow coach or go on a licensed snowmobile tour operating out of the parks' major entrances: West Yellowstone in the west, Gardiner/Mammoth in the north, and the south entrance (which is about an hour north of Jackson, WY on the north side of Grand Teton National Park). The snow coaches and snowmobiles are expensive and slow, though the snow coach operators are extremely knowledgeable about the park. The snow coaches also have some scheduled stops along the way (we made stops at Gibbon Falls, Firehole Canyon Drive, and Fountain Paint Pots) - though the stops are usually too short for one to produce any photographs without feeling rushed.
Hotel/motel-like accommodations are open during winter at Old Faithful, smack in the middle of the Upper Geyser Basin, which is within walking (or snowshoeing or cross-country-skiing) distance of many of the parks' best geothermal features. There is a lot of walking involved, up to 4-5 miles roundtrip for some features, but it never seems that long as there is always interesting scenery along the way (and you are almost guaranteed to see some random geyser go off while walking around). Any area that cannot be accessed by foot must again be accessed by a licensed snow coach or snowmobile operator - often at considerable expense - for day trips that are not always suitable for photography. Food options are also limited, there are two restaurants at Old Faithful - neither of them are great (but only one of them expensive). A limited variety of snacks and drinks are available for purchase in the gift shop.
The other consideration of a winter visit are the cold temperatures. Temperatures below freezing are to be expected, and temperatures below 0 Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius) are not uncommon. The topic of winter clothing could take up another blog post by itself, but in general having multiple layers (a synthetic base layer, thermal layers such as fleece and down or both, and an external wind and water-proof layer) is critical (avoid cotton!). Along with the layered clothing, you should bring a warm wool or fleece hat, gloves, wool socks, and insulated (with at least 400g of insulation) winter boots. Micro-spikes and snowshoes are also very useful (snowshoes may be rented but the hours aren't conducive to sunrise and sunset photography).
Cold temperatures necessitate special care with your camera gear as well. Never bring your freezing cold camera or lenses into a warm hotel room without leaving it in the camera bag or a ziplock bag, otherwise interior condensation will result leaving you, even if temporarily, without a working camera. Tripods that have any moisture in them can freeze shut, so I would recommend extended them while inside and letting them dry out before taking back outside (alternately, you can always leave the legs extended, it's more cumbersome to walk this way, but it's always possible to get a lower camera position from an extended tripod, but not always possible to extend your tripod if it's frozen shut!).
For our visit in winter, we spent three nights at Mammoth/Gardiner (arriving the first night), exploring the Mammoth Terraces and the Lamar Valley during the day. We took a snow coach from Mammoth to Old Faithful and stayed at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful for four nights, exploring the Upper Geyser Basin, and then returned to our car at Mammoth via snow coach and drove home. An alternate itinerary, and one we will probably do in the future, is substituting Mammoth and the Lamar Valley for the Tetons (which are likewise stunning in the winter), and approaching Old Faithful from the south via snow coach.
The more complex logistics and lack of mobility make a winter trip to Yellowstone difficult, but the payoff is more than worth any difficulty. The amount of diverse and unique natural landscapes and wildlife in Yellowstone make it a great destination for nature photographers any time of year, but coupled with snow, steam, and frost, along with much lower visitation, a winter trip is especially fruitful.