Yellowstone's Winter Glory Is Not For Wimps, but You Don't have to be Daniel Boone
By Kathy Chin Leong
A small herd of bison shuffle their hooves around the back of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel like awkward boys at their first middle school dance. With clumps of snow clutching their beards, the chunky beasts graze as sporadic tourists pass by. Little do these creatures know they were once hunted to the brink of extinction.
Today at 4,900 strong, these celebrities have returned to healthy numbers within Yellowstone National Park. Elk and wolves have also dropped down to the valley floor where it's much warmer. Within the confines of this animal dynasty, everyone is welcome to the party.The home of Old Faithful geyser in winter morphs into a winsome wonderland, a fanciful Narnia minus the great Aslan.
For folks who dread crowds but have long wanted to visit, December to March is the best time to savor snow and solitude, and see an abundance of wildlife. On average, winter guests comprise only 3 to 6 percent of annual visitors, according to Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts Yellowstone. Why the dip? Getting there isn't simply a matter of jumping into your car to make the drive. You must prepare for the transportation anomalies. Of the four Yellowstone entrances, just the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana opens up to personal autos.
During this season, the National Park Service limits the number and types of vehicles it admits into the park. Other roads are available only to Yellowstone-approved vehicles and permit-sanctioned tour operators. To make life easier, visitors can fly into Bozeman, Montana, book an airport shuttle to Mammoth Hot Springs for a smooth arrival, and reserve a snowcoach to travel within.
Hoeninghausen notes most guests find that booking a package offers the best winter-season value and the simplest way to experience Yellowstone in the winter. Be forewarned that temperatures sometimes plummet below zero, explains Jeff Brown executive director of the Yellowstone Association, the non-profit educational arm of the park. However, "those who brave the cold weather are rewarded with a spectacular wilderness experience," says Brown. "The cross-country skiing and wildlife watching are superb."
Yellowstone could be the heavy weight title winner among all the national parks. Although it has not erupted in hundreds of thousands of years, Yellowstone sits on top of one of the world's largest volcanos known as the Yellowstone Caldera. It reigns as the world's first national park established in 1872. Covering 2.2 million acres, it boasts the world's highest concentration of geysers with 10,000 thermal features. The park is so crazy huge it overlaps three states: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. While lodging prices stay the same throughout the year, they are relatively low compared to big city hotels.
Of the nine official Yellowstone properties, two remain open in winter. Rates at Old Faithful Snow Lodge start at $109 per night while Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel publishes minimums of $90 nightly. According to Hoeninghausen, in the winter only 230 rooms are available, but in the summer tourists have their choice of more than 2,000. Both places offer basic-to-deluxe rooms, restaurants, and complimentary morning coffee and tea. You can borrow ice skates and glide for free at the two outdoor rinks. Folks craving a Zen-like experience can sense the environment touching their very souls. Inundating their eye gates are views of snow-blanketed mountains and stream-cut valleys.
Hisses from natural steam vents and the howling of wolves penetrate the silence. It is so cold that plumes of steam rise constantly. Quiet gems include needle ice, frozen crystalline structures that erupt from the ground in thin, palm-sized columns. "Winter in Yellowstone is my favorite time of year," says Shauna Baron, resident instructor with Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI). "No matter what your age, you can be a kid again. I catch 75-year-olds sticking out their tongues to catch snowflakes, something they probably haven't done in 50 or 60 years."
Yellowstone is an animal Mecca, touting 67 species of mammals alone, which gives it the distinction of having the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. Hence, critter aficionados can check off their favorites while snowshoeing or snowmobiling. They can join a group tour or hire a naturalist to take them on a private snowcoach photo safari in the Lamar Valley, where many creatures are found. A recent trip in January gifted travelers with sightings of the top dozen animals including wolves picking off meat from an elk carcass, mountaintop bighorn sheep scanning the horizon, and a coveted bobcat scrambling up a tree.
With acres of whiteness, animals are easily spotted compared to summer when they move to higher altitudes and are camouflaged by leaves and exposed ground. "I've been an animal lover my whole life, and I have watched documentaries of Yellowstone, but seeing it with my own eyes was remarkable," says David Lang, an outdoor enthusiast from Rowland Heights, California who was on a private tour. "I can see why Yellowstone is called the Serengeti of the United States."Formal trips with YAI feature staff naturalists who lead groups on excursions such as Winter Wolf Discovery, a four-night adventure to witness the carnivores in action. These Lodging & Learning programs provide comfortable lodging at night while sightseers brave the elements in the day.
The YAI Field Seminars, on the other hand, are a different breed. As guest lecturers convene one to ten-day courses on everything from photography to tectonics to Native American history, participants sleep in rustic, tiny, heated cabins. Restroom and shower facilities are outside.Students also cook their own grub in a group kitchen. Adventurers who prefer roughing it can camp and tackle back country snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
But for others with tamer tastes, Yellowstone delivers on easy hikes, thoroughly majestic. A trek to the Fountain Paint Pots brings tourists face to face with sputtering mudpots and erupting geysers within a half-mile loop. The one-mile terrace trail at Mammoth Hot Springs reveals stair-stepped blue green mineral pools and other-worldly limestone formations. Steps from Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the famous namesake geyser. A wooden boardwalk encompasses Old Faithful and bluish hot springs leaving visitors spellbound.
"One morning I found myself by Old Faithful, and only four or five people were there," describes Lang, the traveler from Southern California. "In all the brochures I have ever seen, hundreds of people are crowding around the geyser. I felt that in that quiet moment that I had the whole geyser to myself. It was magical and very special." Emily Stone, a naturalist and education director from Wisconsin, tells of her own Yellowstone moment when she went cross country skiing with a group of women. They encountered the Lone Star geyser just as it erupted. "It was going up and down at least 15 minutes." she recalls. "It had been a cloudy day, and all of a sudden the sun came out. And there was a rainbow in the steam of the geyser. We had a great time."
At night, not all activity has to cease. Guests at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge can opt for a moonlight geyser walk or warm themselves by a crackling bonfire. At Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge, folks gather around the National Park Service rangers who often give nature talks while local musicians entertain. In the gathering rooms, visitors swap stories of what they did and saw in the day. "There's a real community feeling here, and people will just start talking to the person sitting on the couch next to them," observes Hoeninghausen. "There's no denying that the experience in winter is intimate. It's a different world."
Things You Should Know If You Plan To Go:
*The only road open to personal cars is through the Yellowstone North Entrance located in Gardiner, Montana.
*Airport shuttles are available from the Bozeman International to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for $56 adults/$28 children (ages 3-11) each way. See and book through www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com.
*Snowcoach transportation is available within the park with reservations from Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
*Learn more at the Yellowstone National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/ .
*For housing, check out Yellowstone National Park Lodges at www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com .
*Details on nature, photography, and history classes can be found at www.YellowstoneAssociation.org.