Photo: Layne Kennedy/CORBIS

Yellowstone National Park is one of America’s beloved national parks, sitting within the volcanic northwest corner of Wyoming, with a subterranean network of lava and heat that bursts in the form of geysers, muddy paint pots, and hot springs on the surface. But all this heat coming from below doesn’t exactly keep the skies from snowing during the winter months, and when it does, Yellowstone becomes a picturesque winter wonderland of snowy hills and frozen rivers. In fact, many people believe the park is at its best during the winter season, from December to March, when the bus tour crowds have died down and it’s still accessible from the northern border town of Cooke City, MT. Lodging is even available during the winter, albeit with limited vacancy.

Yellowstone’s natural attractions may be great during the spring and summer, but the visuals of eruptions of sulfuric steam and water amidst a canvas of white can only be seen during the winter. And while there are animals that are easier to see during the winter — the gray wolf, for example — the year-round sightings of elk and bison are different when they are surrounded by ice and snow.

Photo: Jeff Vanuga/CORBIS

Photo: Frank Lukasseck/Corbis

Not surprisingly, there are particular activities you can only do during the winter in Yellowstone, including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on over fifty miles of trails. Snowmobiling is permitted on snow-filled roads, while heated coaches bring winter sightseers on plowed ones.

However, all this winter activity has spawned serious discussions on how it impacts the environment; according the National Park Service, “how experience Yellowstone in winter can affect the park’s plants, animals, geothermal features and wild character in ways more profound — and potentially more damaging — than at other times of the year.” A “One-Year Rule” has been instated for the 2011-2012 winter season, in which the current policies for winter use of the park will remain for one more transitional year, after of which a long term usage plan will be in effect. What the long term policy will mean for snowy activity is still in the works; so if you want to experience Yellowstone in the winter as it has been for the past couple of seasons, pack up your bags and start planning for this winter now.