We just returned from our fifth visit to Yellowstone National Park in the winter; literally no crowds and abundant wildlife in a park blanketed by winter’s majesty. It’s almost the opposite of summer, when huge crowds frighten much of the wildlife into the back country and finding a place to spend the night or camp is virtually impossible. And, spoiler alert, I met my future wife as we were both summer park employees in the late 1960s and we each returned for two additional summers — so Yellowstone and the adjoining Teton National Park have long been favorites.
On this trip we were headed for Whitefish, Montana, to ski with a bunch of veteran ski patrol pals; going by way of two sides of the U.S.’s oldest national park, at West Yellowstone and the north entrance of the park at Mammoth Hot Springs, wasn’t much out-of-the-way.
West Yellowstone is 900 miles from San Joaquin County and we prepared for a cold, snowy trip. We have an all-wheel drive SUV, and took cable chains and extra blankets, just in case (on a West Yellowstone visit two years ago, overnight temperatures descended to 40 below zero, and even AAA had a hard time helping us get our car started that next morning). We pulled into West Yellowstone, at 6,200 feet, to find about four feet of snow on the ground, balmy temperatures in the teens and 20s, and a passel of snowmobilers who fan out from the town both into the park and the surrounding National Forest land.
The next day, I made it to the city’s eastern edge, where I took a cross-country ski track along the Riverside Trail (snowshoes also welcomed) through a snowy forest and to the banks of the lovely Madison River. I could’ve gone further, but I’m not that much of a cross-country skier. From West Yellowstone, one can arrange snowmobile trips or snowcoach trips into the park’s inner sanctum, such as the Old Faithful area. We spent too cozy nights in the Stagecoach Inn, and dined out at Bullwinkle’s, a lively pub serving savory food, including bison burgers and steaks.
We then journeyed northward, past the huge Big Sky Ski Resort to the town of Bozeman, where I attended school for one year in the late ’60s. From there, we turned east 30 miles to Livingston, a quaint, historic railroad town, then 60 miles due south to the town of Gardiner on the northern edge of Yellowstone. We entered the park through the historic Roosevelt Arch, its cornerstone laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and followed the road four miles to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs are wintering grounds for much of the park’s wildlife. This side of the park is at lower elevation than the balance of the park, so less snow makes for easier access for elk and bison to feed on grass. Just outside the park, we spotted two bighorn sheep on a rocky escarpment, scores of elk both inside and outside the park, herds of bison at almost every turn and several sightings of coyotes.
The next day we toured, on foot, the boardwalks around the massive Mammoth Hot Springs, with fumaroles and steam vents spitting scalding clouds into the sky and huge hot springs cascading from the hillsides above the historic town. Those with cross country skis or snowshoes can also take a ski trail around the Hot Springs area.
In mid-afternoon, we drove east along Montana Highway 212 through the Lamar Canyon and Valley, hoping for sightings of wolves which prosper here. We continued to see many elk throughout the valley and several large herds of bison, including a memorable view of one of the herds carefully crossing the Lamar River. Alas, it wasn’t our day to see wolves. Talking briefly to more seasoned wolf aficionados, we found they travel with spotting scopes, telescopes and huge telephoto lenses mounted to their cameras, more able to see wolves from miles away. Our binoculars just weren’t up to the task. Next trip, we resolved.
From Mammoth, the park concessionaire runs modern snowcoaches into the park, to destinations of Canyon Village and Old Faithful. We took the snowcoach tour into Old Faithful five years earlier, a magical place made more stunning in the depths of winter.
Where to stay: In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn, yellowstoneinn.com; in Gardiner, the Park Hotel is a classy, nicely appointed 120-year-old hotel with nine cozy suites. Inside the park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter choices, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
For more information on Yellowstone Park, nps.gov/yell. For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646-7701. For Yellowstone’s north park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park), snow coach service, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact park concessionaire Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
Contact Tim Viall at email@example.com or follow his blog at recordnet.com/travelblog.