Seeing all fifty-nine national parks was never a dream of ours--especially not in fifty-nine weeks. We'd call it more of a whim, an impulse or an inspiration. Going to Yellowstone National Park in the winter was something we had long aspired to do. Last January we were able to fulfill our long held dream.
On our January trip we visited three other national parks in route to Yellowstone--the Badlands, Wind Cave and Theodore Roosevelt. Because we were going to spend so much time in the north in winter we made exhaustive preparations and took extensive precautions. We purchased things such as snow pants, hand warmers and specialized snow boots. We assembled an emergency car kit, hauled a bag of kitty litter and stored a shovel under our truck seat. It turned out that none of these things were necessary. During our seventeen day trip that included South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado bad weather was not a factor. On a forty-four hundred mile road trip, we were on about fifty miles of slick roads. There was no measurable snow at any of the stops we made. The day we went to Wind Cave in the Black Hills, the high approached sixty degrees F (about 15 C).
Our plans called for seeing Yellowstone in four sections--the northwest corner, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Old Faithful area, and the Lamar Valley. The northwest corner is a twenty mile section of road that runs through the park as visitors drive from Bozeman, Montana to West Yellowstone, Montana. Most of the traffic is local. Few people stop and the road is free to travel. We took our time along U.S. 191 to enjoy the scenery.
Near West Yellowstone, U.S. 191 crosses the Madison River. We captured this scene along the road as big trucks rumbled by.
The northwest corner offers excellent wildlife, cross country skiing, and several hiking trails. There is no park entrance fee for this part of Yellowstone. Exploring this lonely corner of Yellowstone was a great start to our trip.
We allowed two days to drive from Medora, North Dakota to West Yellowstone. With good road conditions we made it in one day. That extra day gave us some time to explore the West Yellowstone area before entering the park. The one thing we did which we recommend to all is to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The Center is home to eight Grizzly Bears and six Gray Wolves. Remember, you may never see either inside of Yellowstone. The Grizzlies are all rescue animals. The Center works hard to keep them in a natural environment and stimulate them to act like bears. It is not a zoo, but a place for learning and scientific inquiry. We were able three feet away from this large gray wolf. Fortunately there was a thick glass between us. Beautiful, right?
Most of the roads at Yellowstone are closed to traffic in the winter. Visitors can still see parts of the park by going on snowmobile or snow coach tours. We booked two snow coach tours from West Yellowstone. The first day we traveled to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The second day we toured the Old Faithful area. Both trips were fantastic day long excursions thanks to Alpen Tours and our excellent guides John and Connie. Alpen tours uses vintage 1950s Bombardier snow coaches which come equipped with a touch of park nostalgia. These snow coaches can seat up to thirteen which would have been uncomfortable. Both days, we had just four passengers. In case you were wondering, that's John below.
Our trip to the Canyon area started along the Madison River. It was a cold, gray morning. Still the beauty of the Valley was incredible. Remember, there is no car traffic in the Winter. We had plenty of time to stop, enjoy and take photographs.
Yellowstone wildlife in the snow is a different experience from the summer. They are easier to spot. We watched this bison clear a path in the snow for food for about twenty minutes. He seemed unimpressed with us and unaffected by the snow.
Eventually, we made our way to the Canyon, Lower Falls and Upper Falls. Lower Falls rushed through the snow and ice all three hundred and nine feet just like it does in the summer. That was the only comparison we could make. The view and the experience was fundamentally different from the many times we had seen the Falls in the summer. We shared this view with at Artist's Point for twenty minutes with just four other people.
As we headed back to West Yellowstone, we encountered a traffic jam on the Yellowstone loop. This "maternity herd", which is a common mix of cows and immature bison, lumbered slowly along the road unconcerned about our timetable. We shot this photo standing up in the roof of the snow coach. Close, but we felt safe. The bison have nothing to worry about either.
Our guide, John, was aware of a bobcat that was working the Madison River for waterfowl. At the very end of our first day we found him. We had seen bobcats before but only for a second or two along a highway. This one was likely accustomed to people and didn't dash off as we watched him. It was a great way to end a rousingly successful first day inside the park.
Snow coach day two dawned cold but dry as we left for Old Faithful. This tour is more popular. There were a lot more snowmobiles on the road to the geysers. Old Faithful Lodge is open as well as other concessions. The Old Faithful Visitor Center seemed to be fully staffed. While there were more people in the area, the eruption of Old Faithful that day was witnessed by only about a hundred people. When we saw Old Faithful last July, there were several thousand people in the Upper Basin. This was better.
Our snow coach tour (again just four people) made stops at all of the major thermal features and Basins. Despite the cold, Firehole River remained unfrozen with temperatures as high as sixty degrees in January.
The next day, we packed up for Gardiner, Montana home of the North Entrance to Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs. The road from Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana (home of the Northeast Entrance) stays open year round largely to accommodate school buses. The road goes through the Lamar Valley which was our destination. We were hunting for wolves.
There is no need for snowmobiles in this part of Yellowstone. Cars and trucks are allowed year round. Wolves are regarded as "common" even though the entire park has a current population of only one hundred thirty-two. Wolves are typically closer to the road in winter and the snow makes them easier to spot. We were optimistic. We had never seen a wolf in the wild.
We arrived in the Lamar Valley at 8 AM. It was two degrees, calm and a little foggy. Wildlife were scarce with a few bison roaming by the river. Still it was quite a scene. We regard the Lamar Valley to be one of the most beautiful places in America. The snowy peaks only enhanced its majesty.
As the day went on we spotted a few coyotes and elk. We also found a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. The wildlife was starting to stir. A good sign we thought.
We went to the upper end of the Valley. The vistas were incredible. The snow was about three feet deep. We saw Snowshoe Hare prints everywhere. No signs of the wolves that so many others had promised to us.
We decided to drive through the Valley one more time about 4 PM. South of the road we saw a large canine streaking towards a ridge. It seemed too large to be a coyote. By the time we stopped our truck to look, it had vanished. We believe we had spotted a wolf but couldn't be certain. The next day, we did, however, uncover the object of its interest.
Our second day in the Lamar Valley was much like the first. Fantastic but wolf free. As we headed out of the Valley for the last time we noticed several cars parked on the side of the road. People with spotting scopes and long telephoto lenses strained to see something. It had to be a wolf.
What everyone had noticed was a lone coyote cleaning up the remains of a bison carcass. This was the identical spot where we thought we had seen a wolf the day before. Had we seen this same coyote running across the ridge? We don't think so but can't be certain. We left satisfied with this photo and experience knowing that a confirmed wolf sighing would have to wait until another day. Time to go home.
Our winter adventure to Yellowstone National Park was the fulfillment of long held dreams. We can imagine a different winter experience in the park but not a better one. We plan to test this theory by going back to Yellowstone sometime in the near future.