Winter in Yellowstone

Tourists walk by the Old Faithful Visitor Center in February 2016 in Yellowstone National Park. A park concessionaire, Xanterra Travel Collections, is closing lodging at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge early this fall because of the pandemic.

As it nears the end of a busy and successful summer season, Yellowstone National Park’s largest concessionaire has announced big changes to overnight lodging for the coming winter, as well as some earlier-than-planned closures this fall.

More than 100 guest units in Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful area are closing for the season ahead of schedule as a precaution to guard against the pandemic.

There was no big COVID-19 flare-up among staff stationed at the famous geyser’s developed area. But the Old Faithful clinic closed for the season, and with a steady number of cases in the workforce, management for Yellowstone concessionaire Xanterra Travel Collections thought it would be prudent to snip the last 10 days off of the lodging season at the Snow Lodge and accompanying cabins.

“There’s very little medical services available in the interior of the park now, and just for safety reasons — not being able to have a medical response on site — we felt it was the best decision,” Mike Keller, Xanterra’s general manager for Yellowstone, told the Jackson Hole Daily.

For the same reasons, Xanterra made the call to close down the Madison Campground on Sunday, one week early. The Snow Lodge shutters for the season on Tuesday, right after breakfast is served, Keller said.

The Old Faithful Inn never opened this summer because of staffing issues related to the pandemic.

The Snow Lodge closure means that guest lodging is done for the year in Yellowstone’s interior, although Xanterra will continue to house visitors at the Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel at the park’s northern gateway.

Closing down 102 Snow Lodge units 10 days early cost Xanterra approximately 1,000 guest nights, and some of those visitors’ accommodations are being shifted to Mammoth. Some guests were canceling their trips anyway, Keller said. Other displaced tourists are being encouraged to head to Jackson or West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Montana.

Xanterra has also announced its winter Yellowstone plans, which include big changes from the norm.

“This is the first winter since 1972 we won’t have overnight accommodations at Old Faithful,” Keller said.

The reason, he said, is exactly the same: The nearest medical services are too distant to make it safe.

“It’s even harder in the winter, when you’re coming in by snow coach or snowmobile,” Keller said. “So if somebody came in and was sick, there would be no services to take care of them. If there were a blizzard or extreme cold temperatures, it would be very dangerous for emergency personnel.”

But Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel will be open for the winter, and there will be some services at Old Faithful. Although it won’t house guests, the Snow Lodge building will be open to the public and will function as a warming hut and space for people to use the restroom and get lunch. The Old Faithful wintertime workforce has been trimmed from the usual 180 down to about 60 employees.

Yellowstone’s interior loop roads and its south, west and east entrances are set to close for the season on Nov. 2. The exception is the north entrance road, which will remain open without interruption between Mammoth and Cooke City, Montana.

Although some services are ending early, it’s been a record fall for Yellowstone visitation. The 837,000 visits logged by the 2.2-million-acre national park in September broke the previous high mark, set in 2018, by nearly 16%. This September was busier than Julys were in Yellowstone as recently as a dozen years ago. October is also charting in record territory, Keller said.

“We’ve had a very successful year,” Keller said. “We feel like we’ve been safe, and it’s time to say we’re done for the season — and let’s get out and get ready for winter.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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