At first glance, the winterscape of Yellowstone National Park looks like a tonal wash of white.
Depending on the weather, snow rolls up ridgelines to seamlessly blend with the sky, differentiated only in some places by trees that run up mountain faces. In meadows it is white-upon-white as though it might be that way forever, reaching the edge of the world.
But if you look closer you’ll see the story of winter in Yellowstone in the texture of the snow. Wind creates ripples like in an ocean, frozen in time by the cold. Bison wallows rip jagged tears in the landscape like a plough randomly cut across the otherwise pristine terrain.
Patches of dirt appear suddenly, marking nearby thermal features even before you can see the steam rising, or the mud bubbling, or the strips of vibrant colored bacteria mats in the hot water.
Warm water in streams creates pillows of white on the boundary of their heat. Tracks of wolves, ermine, snowshoe hares and pine martens cross meadows and wend in and out of trees. Rivers and waterfalls shrink as their edges become ice.
These are things you can only see in Yellowstone in winter.
Yellowstone is a special place, but it is in the winter, when the crowds are nearly gone, that you can truly experience its wildness.
“Winter is entirely different than summer,” said Jody Lyle, spokeswoman with Yellowstone. “Not only is there the obvious weather shift, there is an entire experience shift.”
The park’s winter season runs mid-December to mid-March. Of the more than 4 million visitors the park sees each year, only about 1 percent or less, visit in each of the winter months. The only way to enter the park is via snowcoach, snowmobile, or on snowshoes or skis. The park limits the number of snowcoaches and snowmobiles that can enter each day.
As what used to be Yellowstone’s shoulder seasons in the spring and fall continue to become more popular — May and October are seeing the biggest spikes in visitor growth, Lyle said — winter is one of the few times you can see some of the park’s famous attractions, while also experiencing the quiet.
On a February day I watched otters slide across the snow, slithering in and out of the icy-rimmed Yellowstone River. It was so quiet I heard them chirp, a sound I’d never heard in the wild.
Later we watched a pack of nine wolves go after a lone bull bison in the Hayden Valley. We stood, mouths agape, straining to see as the bison floundered in deep snow, the wolves circling it, nipping closer until the bison reached solid earth, stood its ground and the pack retreated. Such sights are what make Yellowstone famous, but watching such an event with only those in your party and no other crowds is a rarity.
From a snowcoach, Yellowstone’s landscape moves slowly by. On skis, you are in it and become part of it. Without the added stimulus of summer crowds, every sense becomes magnified. You can smell the sulphur from thermal features long before you see them. Even slight temperature changes are apparent as your skis sink in the soft powder, or stick to massive clumps of snow warmed in the sun.
We skied by remnants of a bison carcass, teeth marks apparent on the bones and we wandered thermal basin trails without jostling for space.
Sometimes I’m jaded when I think about Yellowstone National Park. I immediately imagine cars crawling slowly and stopping at random for a glimpse of another bison. But I keep returning and every time the park gives me something special.
I’ve seen Yellowstone in the winter from the windows of a snowcoach. I’ve warily watched bison from a road bike. I’ve summited peaks, gripping my bear spray as I walked trails to the woods. I’ve fought the wind on a paddleboard in the backcountry on Shoshone Lake and traversed the trail-less Mirror Plateau.
Skiing by waterfalls, navigating trees as snowflakes fall quietly, watching thermal areas that might only be mud in the summer gurgle with life from the moisture of winter, and looking out across vast meadows of white, reading the texture of the snow is among the greatest adventures I’ve experienced in the park.
Often when I leave Yellowstone I’m ready. This year I left and all I can think about is next winter and going back.