January 18, 2009 in Travel

Winter at Yellowstone shows park at its peak

By William Kronholm Associated Press
 
Associated Press photos photo

A bighorn sheep ram sits on a ridge above Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park. Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

If you go

Yellowstone National Park

Getting there: To reach the park’s north entrance, take Interstate 90 east past Bozeman to Livingston, then south through the Paradise Valley to Gardiner. From the north entrance, the 44-mile road to Cooke City is open to autos. Snow tires are required; be prepared for winter driving conditions. The park’s east, west and south entrances also are open, but only to tracked over-snow vehicles with a commercially guided group.

Weather: Yes, Yellowstone in winter is cold; for brief periods, it may even drop to those mind-numbing lows of your imagination, 20-below or lower. But much of the time, daytime winter temperatures are in the teens and 20s, with low humidity. Best fabrics for clothing: polypropylene, polyster fleece and wool – not cotton.

Accommodations: Gardiner offers a variety of chain and independent motels and bed and breakfasts; go to www.gardinerchamber.com.

The century-old Chico Hot Springs ( www.chicohotsprings.com), about 30 miles north of Gardiner, is extremely comfortable, has one of the best restaurants in Montana and boasts a wonderful hot springs pool. Montanans visit Chico for celebrity watching as well; many Hollywood types have Montana retreats in the Paradise Valley. Accommodations range from rooms with bath down the hall, $52 a night, to luxurious cottages up to $355.

Lodging is available in the park, but it fills up quickly. The Mammoth Hot Springs hotel is reachable by auto. Rooms are a bit spartan, but the location is superb.

The Snow Lodge at Old Faithful is a magical place to stay, but you’ll leave your car at either Mammoth or West Yellowstone, Mont., and travel to the lodge by snowcoach or guided snowmobile. When budgeting for the trip, remember you must pay for your room as well as for transportation; look for package deals.

For more on park lodging, go to www.travelyellowstone.com.

Activities: Skis and snowshoes can be rented at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. Some of the best snow for skiing is past the wolf-watchers, along Soda Butte Creek on the way to Cooke City. For hot lunch, try the cafe past the general store in Cooke City – great pie. The Mammoth visitor center has maps of ski trails and latest conditions.

The park’s interior can be accessed for skiing or sightseeing via snowcoach or guided snowmobile tour. Make arrangements at the activities desk in the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel lobby. The park requires quiet, four-stroke machines, and has always required snowmobiles to stay on roads and observe speed limits. That can make a guided snowmobile tour on a rental an unforgettable and even low-impact experience.

Dog-sled excursions are offered through Chico Hot Springs. You’ll travel on an unplowed Forest Service road on the edge of Montana’s Abasaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Outings range from two hours to all-day; you’ll get the chance to run the team yourself. Mush!

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – We were expecting to see plenty of wildlife on a winter outing to Yellowstone National Park, but – silly us – we thought we might have to get through the entrance first.

As we drove through the gateway community of Gardiner, Mont., toward the Roosevelt Arch, the century-old ceremonial north entrance to Yellowstone, we were distracted by the action on the gridiron at Gardiner Public School.

A herd of bison covered the field. More grazed on the school’s front lawn, lounged on the sidewalk at its main entrance, wandered among the cars in the parking lot.

“Those kids must have to be awfully careful going to and from class,” my wife remarked.

Indeed, more people in Yellowstone are injured by bison than fall victim to grizzly bears – though numbers for both are very low.

A few snapshots, and then it was through the Arch for the short drive to the entrance station. More bison grazed just inside the park boundary. Interspersed among them were bands of elk and pronghorn antelope.

Within the next two hours, we also would see bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, a bald eagle and more bison – all from the road.

Summer visitors to Yellowstone also expect to see wildlife. But most don’t realize that winter can be prime time for wildlife viewing.

Deep snow in the high country drives elk, deer and bison down into the open valleys, where the weather is milder and they can more easily paw or push snow aside to get to the dried grass beneath.

And where the grazing animals gather, predators follow – particularly the gray wolf, which has achieved star status since its reintroduction to Yellowstone in 1995. At any given moment on any winter day, dozens of binoculars and spotting scopes are sweeping the Lamar Valley in northeast Yellowstone from pullouts, looking for any sign of wolves.

My wife and I live in Helena, only a three-hour drive away, and we tend to visit Yellowstone more in winter than in summer. We enjoy telling stories of being serenaded by wolf and coyote howls echoing off the mountains, of watching a coyote stalk and pounce on a mouse by listening to it scurrying under the snow, of inadvertently skiing so close to a bison that we could watch his bloodshot eyes zero in on us – and of not exhaling until we had put a safe distance between us and him.

But there’s more than wildlife in Yellowstone in winter. The frigid air enhances the steam spouting from its famous geysers, making them even more spectacular. Its plateaus and broad valleys are made for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing; some scenic drives in summer are designated cross-country ski trails in winter.

Most of Yellowstone is closed to auto traffic in winter, but the part that is open to cars offers some of the richest wildlife viewing opportunities in the park. It runs from the northern entrance at Gardiner to the snowbound community of Cooke City, Mont., at the northeast entrance (the road beyond Cooke City is closed in winter).

En route, it passes through the Lamar Valley, which some have called America’s Serengeti. This is where most of the park’s wolf watchers hang out.

Even areas closed to auto traffic remain open to visitors, via snowmobile or snowcoach. Visitors can travel by snowcoach to Old Faithful and ski the circuit around the Upper Geyser Basin, the largest geyser concentration in the world.

After skiing, visit the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a modern hotel that invites visitors to curl up in comfy lounging chairs in front of lobby fireplaces.

Those staying in gateway communities can also take snowcoaches into the park on day trips. Cross-country skiers can access scheduled ski drops and pickups for specific trails from in-park hotels.

And for those staying near the north entrance, winter is the best time to try that special Yellowstone experience called hot-potting.

As you drive the five miles from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, you will cross the Gardner River. You may notice a big parking lot to your left – seemingly serving nothing. It’s not marked, but this is the best opportunity in Yellowstone to take a dip in a wild hot springs without having to hike for 20 miles first.

Park rules require that you walk upstream about a half-mile from the parking area to where the footpath reaches the river. Here waters from the Boiling River hot spring mix in pools with cold water from the Gardner River. (Note that hot-potting is allowed during daylight hours only.)

You won’t be alone. And take care in how you dress – there are no changing rooms (but bathing suits are required), and you’ll have that hike back through the snow and wind after your dip.

But the experience of soaking in steaming hot water in a river during a snowstorm is one you will never forget.

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