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Tough winters aren’t enough to deter tourists from Yellowstone

Sun., Nov. 11, 2012

Yellowstone National Park winters are harsh. At 7,000 feet there can be subzero temperatures, blizzards creating deep snow and bone chilling wind. It seems that only the young, hardy and foolish would consider venturing into such an unforgiving climate.

You might be surprised.

Visitors of all ages and physical conditions can explore Yellowstone in the winter – and stay warm and comfortable.

The scenery is out of this world with huge clouds of steam rising above the hot spring and geyser basins. Noise from the steam vents and the geysers is amplified by the frigid air. The trees, covered with snow and ice, look like tall, ghosts. Valleys, with snowy peaks rising in the distance, are covered with a deep blanket of snow. Numerous tracks are seen in long, meandering lines leaving evidence that this land, even in winter, is home to many animals.

Then in the distance there are small brown spots slowly appearing out of the steam and snow. The excitement mounts as they move closer and can be recognized as bison. Here is an icon of the American West, slowly moving their massive heads from side to side, pushing the snow away to reach the grass below. With snow and ice sticking to their brown coats, winter survival is obviously a daunting task. Some are found near hot springs where warmth and exposed grass can be found. Others trek through in the deep snow of the mountain valleys.

Then farther along there is a flash of red as a fox dashes across the snowy trail. Then another animal is spotted in a field. It’s a coyote hunting for lunch. It stops and freezes, cocking its head, ears pointed straight ahead. Then it explodes into a giant arching leap diving face first into the deep snow successfully rising up with something furry in its jaws.

Later in the afternoon several animals are seen in the distance, following each other single file with the lead animal breaking trail in the snow. Using binoculars, they are confirmed to be a pack of wolves. Only in Yellowstone are wolves being consistently seen. Here is another icon of the American West making an amazing comeback. Shortly after being spotted they disappear behind a low hill but the excitement of seeing them lingers. Finally in the vastness the low, unmistakable sound of a wolf howling and from the opposite direction the shorter, higher pitch of howling coyotes. Such is a trip into Yellowstone in the winter.

All these adventures and animal sightings can be done in a snow coach. Two types of enclosed and heated snow coaches are allowed to enter Yellowstone National Park. One is like stepping up into an SUV. In fact it looks like an extra long SUV but there are four tracks where the wheels should be. The wide tracks support its weight while traveling over snow. Visitors sit in comfortable seats with seat belts and a heated cabin. Almost anyone, at any age who can pass through the sliding side door can make the trip.

Bombardiers are the other way to travel. The older, historic ones are red. The newer coaches are bright yellow. The vehicle has two tracks underneath to support and propel it over the snow. Under the body in the front are two skis that the driver can turn left and right. Inside the cabin, passenger seats arranged in a semicircle facing in. These historic snow cats were used years ago in Yellowstone and are still maintained and used to transport visitors around the park. They provide a rougher ride with less room for seating than the modified SUVs but they are more fun to ride in.

Both kinds of snow coaches have roof hatches that open up and allow passengers to take photos out over the top. Drivers will make unscheduled stops along the way at photo opportunities. It’s like taking a winter safari.

And snow coaches aren’t the only way to experience Yellowstone in the winter.

Unless there is a raging snowstorm, there are plenty of outdoor activities. Trails leading to some of the hot springs are free of snow because of the heated ground. The geyser basins often have snow packed trails that can simply be walked on with care. Old Faithful, Castle, Riverside Geysers and others can be walked to. To venture further, cross country skis and snowshoes are available to rent at the lodge.

Although the temperature can get extremely cold, there are days when the sun shines and everything becomes brilliant and clear. Temperatures will climb into the 20s on a sunny day. With good, cold weather clothing and snow boots, exploring outside can be comfortable and fun. Yellowstone National Park in the summer is spectacular but in the winter it becomes a landscape that is really out of this world. It may be a once in a lifetime trip but it will be an adventure you never forget.

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