by Lee Foster
Only 3 percent of the 3 million people who visit Yellowstone National Park each year arrive in winter, roughly from October 1 to April 1. However, during that time, the main pleasures of Yellowstone–sighting animals, watching scenery, and visiting the thermal basins–are most spectacular. If you can come to Yellowstone in winter, do so by all means.
Yellowstone was our first national park and in many ways has advanced the concept of national parks more than any other unit in the system.
Spectacular wildlife viewing in this most successful wildlife reserve in the country makes Yellowstone a perennially favorite destination. Where else in the lower 48 states can the average American encounter 2 million acres of pristine wilderness and hope to see wild, unfenced bison, moose, elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep on a typical day?
Other favorite winter pleasures of Yellowstone include cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and watching the dependable geyser eruptions of Old Faithful.
To enjoy Yellowstone, a winter visitor must plan more carefully than the more casual summer traveler.
Airlines fly into Jackson, Wyoming, south of the park, Bozeman Montana, northwest of Yellowstone, and Cody, Wyoming to the east.
Winter ground transportation in the park is different than in summer. From the south, it is not possible to enter the park with a private car. At Flagg Ranch, outside the southern entrance to the park, you must board a track vehicle, called a snowcoach, or a snowmobile for the ride north to the Old Faithful area. From the west, similarly, only snowcoaches, plus snowmobiles, can enter the park, traveling over the groomed but unplowed roads. The restrictions on snowmobiles are an ongoing controversy, so seek the latest information before making any trip plans. A usual plan, when entering from the south, is to take the snowcoach in to Old Faithful and stay at Snow Lodge. Advance reservations for lodging and transportation are a must.
From the north, private cars can be driven into the park from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, then east all along the north side of the park, past Tower and out to Cooke City, the northeast entrance of the park. This road is kept open all year and allows access to the tremendous animal viewing possible in the Lamar Valler. Vans operated by the concessionaire also can take you animal viewing or to cross-country ski sites in this northerly area.
The concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, and the park service determine the dates each winter when full-service operations are in effect. Consult them to determine that the time frame of your visit falls within their full-service period, if you want all services. The full-service winter season usually runs December 15-March 10.
THE PARK IN WINTER
Until the arrival of treaded vehicles in the early 1970s, Yellowstone was a relatively quiet place in winter because it was inaccessible. Yellowstone has always been open in winter, but difficult to penetrate. The concessionaire has gradually expanded its winter program.
Because of the often bitter cold and the heavy snowpack, plan carefully for winter activities here. West Yellowstone flashes across the nation’s TV sets on many nights each winter as the coldest spot in the nation. The prudent traveler, especially if snowmobiling, arranges for insulated boots, an all-body parka, an insulated helmet, and thick insulated gloves. Combine below-zero temperature, wind, and the speed of a snowmobile and you get the recipe for frostbite. Some Yellowstone winter patrons even come with knit nosewarmers. The snowpack from winter storms can often reach ten feet.
Animal viewing at Yellowstone is spectacular in winter. The large mammals, such as buffalo and elk, gather near the thermal basins or are clearly visible in the snowfields. Predators such as wolves watch and wait to attack in the deep snow. Be sure not to disturb the animals, which are often on the thin edge of survival. Aside from the danger to yourself from a territorial animal, the calories an animal expends to move because of your disturbance can be fatal. The animals are easy to spot, partly because they move slowly and deliberately, carefully conserving energy to improve their chances of surviving the rigors of winter. The large animals devote most of their time to searching for food under the snow or nibbling tender twigs of the dormant plants, especially willow.
Good animal-sighting areas extend from Old Faithful to Mammoth, along the west side of the park, for elk and buffalo. The short drive from Mammoth north to Gardiner is especially good for bighorn sheep. From Mammoth east to Tower and beyond into the Lamar Valley, you’ll see numerous buffalo and elk. In winter the large mammals are clearly visible, not only because of snow, but because the broadleaf trees, such as aspen, are stripped of their leaves, heightening visibility.
Grizzly bears hibernate in winter, though they sometimes stir and come out of their dens by late February. Two grizzly bear cubs are born to the hibernating mother in February, weighing about a pound apiece. Nursing brings their weight up to about ten pounds when they emerge from the hibernation enclosure in early spring.
The number of large animals in the park is stable and secure, with the male bison at 2,000 pounds as the massive lord of this particularly hospitable preserve. Bison is the preferred word to describe these American mammals because the word buffalo is used for other members of the ungulate, or hooved, family in other regions, such as the water buffalo of Southeast Asia. Each spring park service biologists at Yellowstone release their official count of the large animals in a book known as Yellowstone Resources and Issues, arguably the best information source on the park. The 2004 estimates are: 280-610 grizzly bears, 500-650 back bear, 174 wolves, 20-35 mountain lion, 2,000-2,300 mule dear, 4,000 bison, 165-225 bighorn sheep, 225-250 pronghorn antelope, and 15,000-20,000 elk.
The winter scenery at Yellowstone has a beauty entirely unlike summer. Deep snowfall cloaks the park, simplifying the landscape. The green of spruce and lodgepole pine provides a counterpoint against the stark white landscape. Hoar frost coats the fence posts. The solitude and quiet of a winter walk or cross-country ski outing could never be duplicated in summer.
OLD FAITHFUL AND OTHER THERMAL ACTIVITY
Especially around the thermal basins, winter presents a different aspect. Steam rising from the Old Faithful geyser basin, with snow ringing the thermal area, reminds the traveler of the immense heat within the earth. Here the heat source is only 1,300 feet below the surface. Though you may have to jostle for a viewpoint of Old Faithful in summer, there is ample space in winter. You can walk easily around the uncrowded thermal basin at Old Faithful.
One appealing walk in the Old Faithful basin is to Morning Glory Pool, where several colors of algae grow in water at different temperature levels, displaying a rainbow effect of volcanism. Animals as well as people appreciate the thermal manifestations. Some waterfowl winter over in the park, living in water that never freezes. When winter snow covers the ground, browsing animals cluster in the geyser basins to eat grass stimulated by heat to grow. Food in the geyser basins is also easily seen when all other food is hidden by a blanket of snow.
The lure of Yellowstone is that of contrast and time. It’s not that Yellowstone is so rich in wildlife and scenery, but that the rest of our country is now so impoverished in these qualities because of our other uses of land. If you feel a certain citified malaise and long for a cleansing encounter with wilderness, head for Yellowstone, winter or summer, where yesterday still exists today.
YELLOWSTONE IN WINTER: IF YOU GO
For lodging and guest services, contact the concessionaire Xanterra Parks and Resorts, PO Box 165, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, 307/344-7901. Their direct website for Yellowstone is www.travelyellowstone.com.
Naturalist-led hikes and various environmental programs are available through the Yellowstone Association Institute, 406/848-2400, www.yellowstoneassociation.org.
The park service releases annually a book about the park titled Yellowstone Resources and Issues, an authoritative volume about the history, fauna, flora, and current decisions being made about the park. The book is eagerly awaited each year by appreciators of the park.
To reach the park service, contact Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park, PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, 307/344-7381, www.nps.gov/yell.
The two winter lodgings, which also have restaurants, are the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel at Mammoth. Winter camping, which primarily caters to travelers in recreational vehicles, is possible at Mammoth, where the campground has heated restrooms. Warming huts are maintained at strategic locations (Madison Junction, Canyon Junction, Fishing Bridge Junction, and West Thumb Junction) for the benefit of snowmobile and snowcoach users.