There is a subtle beauty in Yellowstone in winter. There is texture everywhere. Snow doesn’t line the ground in smooth blankets, but instead appears like gravel in some areas, and suddenly disappears in others, melted by the heat below.
The steam, muted colors and solitude give you the sense of arriving on another planet not yet inhabited, or maybe deserted.
It was a negative degree day in January when my family and I boarded a snowcoach in West Yellowstone, Mont. A native of Montana, I’d done countless trips to the park in the summer, but I’d never seen the interior of the park in winter.
My feelings about Yellowstone have always been mixed. Each visit amazes me. I forget how surreal the bacteria mats in strange colors and bubbling springs and geysers are, or how remote the park’s backcountry is once you leave the roads and popular trailheads. However the park is often so crowded I find myself exasperated, crawling along the roads in summer behind lines of RVs full of people craning from the windows to take pictures of bison. How many pictures of bison do people really need?
Perhaps it is a combination of being used to seeing the wildlife, or maybe it’s the sense of purpose trips in the summer seem to have — there’s always a trailhead to find, a destination to reach.
The winter trip was different from the start. It wasn’t about the destination. It was about scanning the side of the road for foxes and bobcats and stopping to take pictures of coyotes and wolves and steam engulfing the area as the hot water met the frigid air.
We saw wolves, eagles and elk in a park I thought I knew well, but was suddenly unrecognizable.
The most obvious different about visiting the park in winter is the weather — it’s colder and there’s snow, said Rich Jehle, the south district resource education ranger for the park.
But what that means is extra steam from the geysers and thermal features as the hot water meets the winter air.
“It’s just a completely different environment,” Jehle said. “It’s almost a different park in the winter than it is in the summer. You’ll see features you wouldn’t even notice in the summer, but are obvious in the winter.”
Even familiar features, like Old Faithful, look different. The extra steam can make the geysers look fatter and taller. The power is more apparent in the winter, Jehle said.
The first seasons Jehle worked in Yellowstone National Park he was seasonal, spending time there in the summer. He’d hear other employees talk about the winter the park. It sounded so different than the park in the summer; Jehle was intrigued. It was almost like the litmus test of how well a person knew Yellowstone — if they’d see it in winter.
Jehle saw his first Yellowstone winter on a trip to Mammoth where he skied around the geyser basin.
“There isn’t anything else like it,” he said of seeing the park in winter.
The cold weather also changes wildlife habits. While bears are less frequently sighted, bison and elk tend to be more concentrated at lower elevations, which is where the roads are open in the winter.
With more prey animals at lower elevations, predators follow, Jehle said. People probably have a better chance of seeing wolves in the winter and for the past several winters bobcats have been spotted near the West entrance, he said.
The park also gets a large influx of trumpeter swans that migrate from Canada and winter on the Firehole, Madison and Yellowstone rivers which don’t freeze because of the hot thermal water that flows into them.
Between Dec 15 and March 15 other roads open for snowcoach and snowmobile trips, as well as cross country skiers and snowshoers. Access is limited to guided commercial tours that allow people to head to Old Faithful and then explore the backcountry on skis.
Wherever you head, you likely will have the space mostly to yourself. In the winter there is no jockeying for a spot at Old Faithful, or craning around people for a view off the boardwalk.
In January, February and March of 2012, there were less than 30,000 recreation visitors per month, while in July there were more than 888,000 recreation visitors and more than 780,000 in August 2012.
At popular boardwalks where our snow coach stopped, we were often the only people wandering. Our guide talked about recent changes in geyser behavior and the history of exploration of the park.
At the end of the day, as the afternoon light softened and we made our way back to the West Entrance. We’d seen wolves and swans and elk, coyotes and eagles. Our guide asked who’d like to stop and take a few more pictures of bison before our trip ended. I found myself reaching for my camera, eager to get out one more time and get just one more bison shot.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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