Winter in Yellowstone
Northwest editor Mike Lanza discovers Yellowstone's secret: Winter is best for best for scenery, wildlife, and a lot of hot air
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The snowcoach rumbles away, leaving us in a wintry silence disturbed only by a slight breeze and the gastrointestinal emissions of a supervolcano that last let out a really big one 640,000 years ago. Back then, it ejected about 240 cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. Today, as seems always the case with these things, it just sounds a little rude and smells badly.
My wife, Penny, and I, with our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have just stepped off the snowcoach with our cross-country skis in Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Watching us disembark with our grade-school kids, the other passengers stared solemnly, as if expecting they would be the last to see us alive. Clearly, none of them are Nordic skiers, otherwise they might have realized that we’re setting out on one of the coolest half-day adventures in the entire national park system: ski touring along the Firehole River through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.
Skiing two-and-a-half miles up an almost flat valley—with one fun, long downhill that’s not very steep—we’ll pass through an area that’s home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them. When we reach Old Faithful after a few leisurely hours and a lot of stopping and gawking, we’ll rendezvous with the snowcoach for the ride back to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’re staying.
We set out down the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the tracks of previous skiers, though completely alone for now. Across the open valley, white steam clouds billow into the sky from scores of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, giving the landscape the look of Hell bursting up through the Earth’s surface. Steam freezes to lodgepole pine trees, sugar coating some of them while long icicles hang in bunches from others. Elk graze the patches of ground kept open by the heat from thermal features. Bald eagles soar overhead.
Nate and Alex throw snowballs—mostly at me—and every few minutes point excitedly to another geyser spitting or erupting scalding water. We gaze into one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the 23-foot-deep, sky-blue mouth of Morning Glory Pool. A short while later, as we’re watching steam and hot water spurt from the 12-foot-tall mound of Giant Geyser, Nate shouts and points at a plume shooting skyward just a few hundred feet away: Riverside Geyser, named by the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sends a 75-foot-high arc over the Firehole River for as much as 20 minutes.
Two winters in a row, we’ve returned to ski tour in Yellowstone with the kids. I’ve been here several times previously on my own, including 10 years ago with Penny and Nate when he was a baby, pulling him bundled against the cold in a sled. Besides the Upper Geyser Basin, I’ve skied most of the groomed trails in the park, from the Lone Star Geyser Loop in the park’s southwest corner to the north’s Lamar Valley and Blacktail Plateau Drive, with views of the snowy Gallatin Range. I’ve meandered nervously, alone, through a vast herd of bison and seen trumpeter swans, coyotes, bald eagles, river otters, wolf packs guarding a kill and howling atop a ridge, and more elk than I could estimate.
Besides having half the world’s thermal features and the most diverse collection of them—more than 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles—Yellowstone offers a window on pre-settlement America’s bountiful wildlife any time of year. But winter has always been my favorite season here, and not only because the crowds of summer have evaporated. Snow cleans up and quiets the landscape. Wildlife congregate in the valleys and thermal areas—the bison, elk, deer, and others seeking open ground for grazing and browsing, and wolves, eagles, and coyotes following the prey. The Lamar Valley is the best place in the country for viewing wolves—people often see them from the roadside.
Our all-day snowcoach tour from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, run by Buffalo Bus Touring Co./Yellowstone Vacations, features a running naturalist lecture from our driver, Doug Kehl, that’s almost as fascinating as skiing through the geyser basin. A park interpretive ranger in summer, Kehl schools us on Yellowstone’s geology, natural and human history, flora and fauna. He points out a blood stain in the snow along the Madison River where, five days ago, the Canyon wolf pack killed an elk. He informs us that the best time and place to see grizzly bears—from the safety of your car—is between mid-April and the first week of May in Midway Geyser Basin. The bears go there in spring because elk and other animals flock to this thermal area all winter for its warmth, and the bears know they will find the carcasses of animals that did not survive the cold months. (Other outfitters offer similar tours in the park; see Make It Happen section below.)
Just recently, we skied with our kids to a frozen Tower Fall, seeing the water plunging behind a window of ice. We also skied the loop around the multi-colored terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, and through lodgepole pine forest hushed by snowfall on the Virginia Cascades ski trail.
I’ll write about our Yellowstone ski adventures with the kids in my book Before They’re Gone, to be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press. I’ll also explore how climate change is helping wipe out the park’s whitebark pine trees and shrinking winter in a place that has historically been one of the nation’s iceboxes. In February, we will wrap up a year of family national park adventures for my book—sea kayaking in the Everglades.
Another day, another snowcoach trip, this time to Canyon. Penny, the kids, and I click into our touring skis and follow Sam Bollinger, a guide with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs this all-day snowcoach-and-skiing tour from Mammoth Hotel to Canyon. Twenty minutes down a gentle trail through lodgepole forest, we stop at a very deep, broad, and spectacular hole.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River falls away almost a thousand feet below our ski tips. Snow coats much of the yellow walls—this is the spot that gives the park its name. Pine forest clings in places to the steep, crumbling slopes. In the canyon bottom far below, the dark Yellowstone River churns noisily through rapids and smaller waterfalls—but nothing like what awaits ahead of us.
We glide slowly along the canyon rim, from Inspiration Point to Grandview Point, stopping frequently because it’s hard to ski forward while you’re constantly admiring the view to one side. At Lookout Point, we watch the roaring, wide wave of Lower Yellowstone Falls drop a sheer 308 feet, crashing onto a cone of ice at its base that’s nearly half the height of the waterfall.
Before we leave the park for home, we’re already planning another return next winter.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone capable of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing relatively flat terrain for two-and-a-half miles for the Upper Geyser Basin tour or four-and-a-half miles for the Canyon Rim Trail. Other routes involve shorter or longer distances and in some cases hills; see The Itinerary below. Standard waxless or waxable touring skis or sturdy backcountry snowshoes are adequate; you don’t need telemark or alpine-touring skis. Skills for traveling in the backcountry in winter are needed, but not avalanche-safety skills or gear. Many beginner skiers and snowshoers explore these trails without a guide.
Make It Happen
Season While the park remains open year-round, all but the North and Northeast entrances close in November while most roads are being groomed for snow machines; and again from mid-March until mid-April, while those roads are being plowed. The winter season, when interior areas like Old Faithful and Canyon are accessible by snow machine, begins once there’s enough snow on the roads, usually by mid- or late December, and it ends in mid-March. The northern road connecting Gardiner to Cooke City, MT, remains open to private vehicles year-round.
The Itinerary The major areas with cross-country ski trails, some of which are groomed, are Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, Canyon, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Tower-Roosevelt.
For the 2.5-mile Upper Geyser Basin tour from Biscuit Basin to Old Faithful, ride a snowcoach (usually from West Yellowstone) to Biscuit Basin on the Grand Loop Road, and then ski or snowshoe southeast on the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the Firehole River upstream to Old Faithful. Arrange to rendezvous with the snowcoach there for the return trip, or stay in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
The 4.5-mile Canyon Rim Trail is done on a day trip via snowcoach from Mammoth or West Yellowstone. There is a warming hut at Canyon, but no lodging open in winter.
Besides the Upper Geyser Basin tour and Canyon Rim Trail, some of the best ski or snowshoe tours are:
• The Upper Terrace Loop at Mammoth Hot Springs (1.5 miles), Tower Fall (five miles out-and-back), the Chittendon Loop (10 miles, including Tower Fall), and Blacktail Plateau Drive (seven miles point-to-point), all accessed from the park’s northern road;
• From Old Faithful, Black Sand Basin (four miles out-and-back), the Lone Star Geyser Loop (nine miles), and Fairy Falls (five miles out-and-back);
• The Virginia Cascades ski trail on the Norris-Canyon Road (2.5 miles point-to-point), usually done with a snowcoach drop-off and pickup on a day trip to Canyon.
Getting There Most skiers and snowshoers stay in one of three locations:
• Mammoth Hotel, reached by private vehicle, from which you can drive to several trails in the northern sector and get a snowcoach to Canyon;
• In the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, reached by snowcoach;
• At lodging in West Yellowstone, MT, where there are local ski trails inside and outside the park and companies offering snow machine transportation to interior areas like Canyon and Old Faithful.
Where to Stay Mammoth Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are run by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, (307) 344-7311, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. West Yellowstone, MT, has numerous lodging choices; see westyellowstonechamber.com.
Outfitters Snowcoach tours are offered from West Yellowstone by Buffalo Bus Touring Co./Yellowstone Vacations, (800) 426-7669, www.yellowstonevacations.com; and from Mammoth by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. There are numerous snowcoach tour operators; see a complete listing at www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/wintbusn.htm.
Map Trails Illustrated Yellowstone map no. 201, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
Concerns Temperatures can drop well below zero Fahrenheit. Proper clothes, including warm gloves, and an understanding of layering are essential. You will likely encounter bison and elk; park regulations require that you keep a distance of at least 25 yards from them.
Contact Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381, www.nps.gov/yell.
BACKPACKER Northwest Editor Mike Lanza also blogs at TheBigOutside.