The summer Yellowstone crowds disappear, and serenity settles on the land for both people and animals. Bison gather in the geyser basins where food is more abundant. Elk graze along river banks. Wolves and coyotes come to pick off the vulnerable.
Yellowstone is unique in the world – 2 million acres with 10,000 hydrothermal features – hot springs, mud pots, and geysers. All of the park’s roads close from early Nov. to mid-April, except one road from the NE entrance into Mammoth Hot Springs. Once there is enough snow, you can enter this ethereal paradise only by snowcoach or snowmobile.
We came in from West Yellowstone on a 4-hour snowcoach ride along the Madison River, then south along the Firehole to Old Faithful, stopping to observe and photograph wildlife – bison, elk, coyotes. We spotted the carcass of a bull elk, his skull and antlers lay in the snow. A pack of wolves had brought him down. Coyotes feasted after the wolves had eaten their fill. Raccoons, mice, and other smaller creatures followed. Ravens were taking their turn when we arrived. Insects will finish the job. Raw nature and the vivid cycle of life.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only lodging in the park. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is closed in the winter for renovations. It should reopen in winter 2018-19. We stayed in a cozy cabin. There is a grill, a good restaurant, and a comfortable lounge. Even though they have a monopoly, prices are reasonable.
Old Faithful is the central attraction. More than 1,000 people will gather to watch it erupt in the summer - in the winter, maybe 20-30. We hiked for hours through the Upper Geyser Basin, meeting only a few other hikers. What a contrast to the summer throngs.
Deep hot springs, with brilliant blue and yellow pools, steam in the cool air. Geysers, each with its own personality, bubble and spout or fire jets of boiling water and steam high into the sky. The beautiful Firehole River meanders through the basin, geysers steaming along its banks. At times we needed to take a detour around a gang of bison or a single bull.
Bring your cross country skis and snowshoes, or rent them once you arrive. You can ski or snowshoe on trails from Old Faithful or take a shuttle and ski back. We hiked the geyser basin trails with tracs, traction devices attached to our boots. They are sold in the Old Faithful store.
Lodging at Old Faithful Snow Lodge starts at $149/night. For reservations, call 307-344-7311 or go to www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. Enter the park by snowcoach or snowmobile tour from the west, north, or south entrance. Start your research at www.nps.gov/yell.
Leaving the park, our driver, Les, spotted a lone wolf, ½ mile away. With binoculars, we saw a nearby pack of five. The lone wolf slowly approached the pack. This was the first time Heidi or I had seen a wolf in the wilds. Les, a retired park ranger, was as excited as we were to watch this drama. He speculated that the lone male was searching for a pack to join.
“They are pack animals,” he said, “and a lone wolf will not thrive.”
The lone male approached slowly, tentatively. Things did not go well. The pack spotted him. We could not hear the exchange, but it was clear he was not welcome. The pack moved forward, menacing, and the lone wolf streaked away over the hill and into the woods.
Add winter in Yellowstone to your bucket list.
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