Yellowstone National Park in December

Yellowstone National Park is a truly remarkable place in December. It’s cold, but the summer and fall crowds are gone, and the wildlife spotting opportunities are spectacular.

In particular, December is a wildlife wonderland in Yellowstone. Animals moved to the valleys, and at the same time, almost all visitors have ‘moved out’. It’s as if the animals retake the real estate in the valleys during this month. There is no better time for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone National Park than December, January, and February.

Bison near Tower Junction in Lamar Valley

A December visit to Yellowstone is quite different compared to summer or fall. We will show you which things to do in December besides wildlife viewing. It is also essential to know which roads are closed and where you can stay overnight.

Weather in December

Mammoth Hot Springs Boardwalk

In December, it is cold, frosty and it snows eight days on average in Yellowstone National Park. The temperature drops below freezing with average highs of 24°F degrees. The average low hovers around -3°F degrees.

Temperatures vary depending on the time of day and whether you visit Yellowstone early or late in December. Because it’s freezing cold in the park, especially in the mornings, keep our clothing suggestions below in mind.

Early December (average highs):

  • Morning (9 AM): 18°F degrees
  • Early Afternoon (2 PM): 28°F degrees
  • Evening (6 PM): 22°F degrees

Mid-December (average highs):

  • Morning (9 AM): 14°F degrees
  • Early Afternoon (2 PM): 24°F degrees
  • Evening (6 PM): 18°F degrees

Late December (average highs):

  • Morning (9 AM): 12°F degrees
  • Early Afternoon (2 PM): 19°F degrees
  • Evening (6 PM): 16°F degrees

As you can see, the temperatures until mid-December are already frigid in Yellowstone. However, when visiting early in the month, it’s not as ice-cold as in late December. Keep that in mind when planning your visit to the park.

Buffalo Ranch in Lamar Valley

Temperatures in December also vary slightly depending on where you are in the Yellowstone National Park:

  • West-Yellowstone: 26°F (average high)
  • Mammoth Hot Springs: 28°F (average high)
  • Old Faithful: 27°F (average high)
  • Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: 26°F (average high)

December is not necessarily the coldest time in Yellowstone (despite the official temperature charts). From our experience, February has more snow and sometimes frequently lower temperatures than December.

Crowds in December

Mammoth Hot Springs at Sunset
  • December Visitation: 28,000 – 33,000

December is a quiet time in Yellowstone. No tourist crowds and no congested areas. With only 30,000 visitors, Yellowstone statistics show that December has the second-lowest visitor numbers after November. The peak summer month, for example, sees over 1 million visitors.

That means your chances of solitude are excellent during a December visit due to low visitation. Visit Yellowstone in the winter, and you’ll have an entirely different experience than if you went in summer, spring, or fall. It gets slightly busier between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but nothing to worry about.

Sunrise at Mammoth Hot Springs

Places: In December, it’s not even busy at the popular spots. In winter, watching the geyser eruptions at Old Faithful (on a guided tour only) means standing there with only a handful of others or in total solitude.

Walking the wooden boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs and watching the fascinating steams alone or with just a handful of other visitors is priceless. In the summer, this is by far the busiest place in Yellowstone, with hundreds of visitors at the same time.

What is Closed/Open in December?

Tower Junction Sign in Lamar Valley
Roads, Areas, Facilities

If you’re not visiting with a guided tour, the only accessible part of Yellowstone in December (and other winter months) is the northern area. Everything else is either closed or only accessible via a guided tour. However, the north region is fantastic in the winter and absolutely worth it.

Open entrances and accessible roads:

Main areas you can visit on your own:

  • Mammoth Hot Springs (Albright Visitor Center is open)
  • Lamar Valley

Areas not accessible or only via guided tours:

  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  • Old Faithful
  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Hayden Valley
  • Every other area in south Yellowstone

Driving/Entrances

The NE Road is the only open road to the public in winter

The only open road from December to March is the US 212 between Gardiner (North Entrance) and the Northeast Entrance (Cooke City). The road is kept plowed during the day.

AWD: You can drive without an AWD (4WD). However, we highly recommend renting an AWD for this time in Yellowstone.

US 212 in Lamar Valley

Regardless, the key is to drive at a reasonable speed, given the conditions. Allow enough space between yourself and the vehicle in front of you, and avoid letting your tires drift close to the fog line, as the snow will drag you off the road into deep snow.

Lodging in December

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel

The only lodging options within Yellowstone are the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (expensive) or the Old Faithful Lodge (only accessible via guided tours with snowcoach).

Best Alternative: We highly recommend staying in the north in Gardiner. There are so many awesome lodging opportunities in December, and it’s only a short 15 minutes drive from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs. You can also enter Yellowstone from right there and drive the US 212 through Lamar Valley (see above).

Our top lodging tips in Gardiner:

And a little further (50 minutes drive) is the Sage Lodge. If you can afford it, please stay there for one night. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Things to Do in December

Self-Guided

December is a fantastic time to explore the northern tier of Yellowstone on your own, without any crowds, but with fascinating wildlife and a mesmerizing area at Mammoth Hot Springs to explore. Plan 2-3 days for this adventure.

With a Tour

Booking a guided tour means you can explore the fascinating parts of Yellowstone in December, like the Old Faithful Geyser and other areas in a heated snowcoach. The big tours, which either start at Bozeman (north) or Jackson Hole (south), include everything. So you don’t need to worry about booking anything else.

Good to know: If you stay in Gardiner, you can always book a day or half-day tour, additional to your self-guided explorations, from there. Just ask at your hotel or lodge. Many excellent private wildlife tour companies operate out of this small town. The advantage: They pick you up right in Gardiner.

Cross Country Skiing and Snowshoeing

Many lower elevation trails are accessible in the winter, allowing you to explore snow-covered Yellowstone areas by snowshoe or cross country ski. Snowshoes and skis can be rented in Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs also offers snowshoe and cross-country ski tours. These trips provide an in-depth look at the park, featuring geysers, frozen waterfalls, and plentiful animals amid snow-covered meadows.

December Wildlife Viewing

Bison in Lamar Valley

December is an excellent time for wildlife viewing: You can spot bison, wolves, elk, and bighorn in Lamar Valley (driving US 212, see above). Just grizzlies are not active in December since there are hibernating in winter.

The higher elevations are just too cold for the Yellowstone mammals in winter. Want to spot wolves? You’re lucky to spot one in the summer months. In the winter, it’s not unlikely to spot a pack of wolves in Lamar Valley.

Exploring Mammoth Hot Springs in December

Mammoth Hot Springs

We highly recommend spending at least a few hours at Mammoth Hot Springs in December. If you stay in Gardiner, it’s a short 15 minutes drive (Google Maps Route – Gardiner > Mammoth Hot Springs). After your explorations, you could return to your lodge in Gardiner and spend the rest of the day in an outside hot tub, or you could continue on the road to Lamar Valley.

Mammoth Hot Springs is divided into two sections: the Lower Terraces, which are explored on foot via a network of boardwalks and stairs, and the Upper Terraces, which are linked by a number of pullouts along the one-way road.

Surnise at Mammoth Hot Springs

This is an incredible area with remarkable views. These hot springs are even more stunning in the winter, as the snow, dramatic weather going in and out, and cold air causing more steam give the place a surrealistic atmosphere.

Exploring Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs

Good to know: The Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs is open throughout the winter. We strongly suggest visiting the center, get insights from the ranger, and exploring the visitor center itself.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

Wildlife at Mammoth Hot Springs: Bison are commonly spotted in the area of the hot springs in winter. Especially in the adjacent area of the Albright Visitor Center you can spot elk.

What to Wear in December | What to Pack

It’s freezing, but when you wear enough layers in December, you’ll be fine! We know you’ve heard about layers in cold winter regions a thousand times, but it’s crucial when visiting Yellowstone in the freezing months. Don’t bring or buy cotton layers. Instead, pack merino layers. Preferably with a 250 weight as they are the warmest.

Jacket: Bring a warm winter jacket. We recommend a thick one for extreme weather, which doesn’t restrict your movements at the same time. Remember that you’ll walk a bit when exploring the Mammoth Hot Springs terrace in December or when stepping out of the car for wildlife in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.

Buy one with a faux fur hood trim to keep your face from freezing. It creates a nice warmer air pocket. With that kind of jacket, no extra layers are needed. Our tip:

Base Layer

A good merino wool base layer will keep you warm and dry in December in Yellowstone.

For men:

For women:

Pants

Do not wear jeans or similar pants. Not even with a base layer. We saw people wearing jeans in December, and they couldn’t stay outside for longer than a few minutes.

We don’t suggest ski pants as they are often less comfortable. However, this depends on the brand and type. Our recommendations are comfortable winter trekking pants.
Waterproof is not 100% required since the snow is so cold that even sitting on it for a while won’t melt.

Tip for men:

Tip for women:

Leggings: Regardless of the warm pants, leggings are essential for a December Yellowstone visit for outdoor exploration.

Tip for men:

Tip for women:

Other essential pieces of clothing for a Yellowstone December visit: