Exhaled breath creates a steam cloud in front of the face that lingers and then drifts away in the windless air. Gradually it evaporates and disappears. The frigid air is a wakeup call to the senses. Stepping out into the winter landscape at Snow Lodge in Yellowstone National Park is an incredible experience.
It’s winter in the park. There is snow on the ground – lots of it – but the sidewalks have been plowed or shoveled.
It is early morning, and a path leads to the Upper Geyser Basin where Old Faithful is expected to erupt. The dry snow squeaks under boots. A small crowd is already standing around, quietly chatting, in anticipation of seeing Old Faithful.
Most are speaking in English, some with strong accents, and others in foreign languages. A splash of water and steam rises out of the geyser mound, and everyone turns toward the sound. But only a whiff of steam is rising from the mound surrounded by bare ground.
A louder chatter of expectation rises from the crowd. Minutes pass, and suddenly water with billowing steam rises up 20 feet, 50 feet and on up to 150 feet with the steam rising higher yet. Everyone has become quiet and only the sound of the eruption can be heard. Old Faithful Geyser has in its timeless way thrilled and silenced visitors in Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful is a must-see attraction at any time of the year, but the geyser offers an example of the park’s different look in winter.
On this trip, getting there is part of the destination. If you arrive by vehicle in West Yellowstone, Mont., or Gardiner, Mont., to the north of the park, you must arrange for over-snow transport to the interior of the park and to Snow Lodge. Overnight accommodations can also be made at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or in West Yellowstone before proceeding farther.
Some will choose a guided snowmobile trip to Snow Lodge. This is an exceptional way to travel to the park’s interior. Even in subfreezing temperatures, the trip is not uncomfortable. The outfitter provides outer clothing, helmets and gloves to keep you warm. Additionally, the Park Service has warming huts along the route with hot drinks and wood-burning stoves. It’s a memorable method of transport.
The second way, and most common, is to travel to Snow Lodge by an over-snow vehicle. Some of the vehicles have skis under the front chassis with tracks like a tank under the rear body. Other vehicles are SUVs with each wheel modified with a snow track instead of a mounted tire. They are warm and comfortable with standard car seats and windows. The ride into the park and a stay at Snow Lodge may be all that is required for a successful Yellowstone visit.
But those who want to explore the park in detail have other options. Both the Yellowstone Association and the park’s concessionaire offer winter classes and tours. For example the Yellowstone Association instructors are asked to log animal sightings while conducting a class or tour. If you think Yellowstone is a barren landscape in the winter, these entries may change your mind.
Feb. 3, 2009
Course: Winter Wolf Discovery.
Observer: Shauna Baron, instructor.
Location: We decided to take a break from the wolves and go in search of some winter birds and maybe a rare sighting of otters. We drove along the Lamar River in search of the smaller characters of Yellowstone. Finding a golden eagle, we walked off into the snow to watch from a distance. The eagle swooped down toward the river, catching an American dipper in midair. It then flew off to the side of the road to sit down for a meal.
A second eagle suddenly appeared, flying in to try to steal the prey away. The two eagles became locked together by their talons and went tumbling down the hill, somersaulting together for about 20 feet. When the wrestling match was over, the second bird had stolen the prize and flew back up hill to eat it. When the excitement ended, the birds had left in their wake the most wonderful set of tracks, wing-tip marks and feather marks in the snow.
Feb. 7, 2009
Course: Winter In Wonderland.
Observer: MacNeil Lyons, resident instructor.
Location: While in Hayden Valley we watched an otter catch a fish and drag its meal up onto the snow-covered bank to eat. It seemed to delight in the afternoon snack while keeping a close eye out for eagles or coyotes that might try and take its fish.
Feb. 9, 2009
Course: Old Faithful Winter Expedition.
Observer: Julianne Baker, resident instructor.
Location: While snowshoeing the Upper Geyser Basin, we noticed that Beehive Geyser was bubbling. We stopped and saw the indicator spout, so we waited a few minutes. Suddenly Beehive erupted in a jet column of water 200 feet high. As the eruption continued, the wind blew the spray toward us, and we got “kissed by Beehive.”
Feb. 19, 2009
Course: Winter in Wonderland.
Observer: MacNeil Lyons, resident instructor.
Location: Even in winter, the American badger will rise from its slumber to look about for food. At Madison Junction I observed a large pile of dirt and snow from a badger that emerged through the soil and dug up through 3 feet of snow for a short winter walkabout.
Feb. 22, 2009
Course: Private Tour. Observer: John Langan, volunteer program assistant.
Location: While wolf-watching this morning, we observed an alpha female displaying dominant behavior over another female in her pack. This time of year is mating season for the wolves, and it is a good time to witness this kind of behavior.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts has trained its drivers to provide a running commentary as the over-the-snow vehicle travels through the park. Riders learn about the park’s history, geology and wildlife. When animals appear, stops are made for viewing and taking photographs. The vehicles have custom roof hatches that open, allowing for a safe, 360-degree scene while remaining inside. Getaway packages include a variety of tour options, breakfast, a welcome gift and other discounts. Xanterra offers more than 24 winter tours.
Yellowstone National Park presents a different appearance in the winter. There is, of course, a snowy landscape, and there’s more steam coming from the many colorful geothermal hot springs and geysers. What might be imagined as a desolate landscape is occupied by a variety of wildlife. Here is a place where hot springs, mud pots, noisy fumaroles and hot ground provides a scene unlike any other in the country.