A winter trip to Yellowstone – a feast for the eyes in every direction

Art Weber

        Frozen wilderness. A stillness that comes with a deafening silence smothering a landscape blanketed in white.
        Near and far, white plumes rise, looking at first glance like a prosperous industrial complex hard at work. It’s a landscape unique in all the world; the superheated Yellowstone cauldron literally letting off steam in any of a long list of places labeled as geyser basins, geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots.
        The geyser activity is magnified in winter when the scalding waters and steam meet sub-zero air. Wherever it gathers on vegetation or the fur of close-venturing wildlife it becomes an icy veneer, creating an other-worldly beauty unlike any other season or place.    
        Yellowstone National Park is much different and arguably even more beautiful in winter. Plus, there are no crowds, no traffic jams, and no cars except on the most northern of the park’s roads. Your only way in is with licensed guides leading groups of up to 10 snowmobiles or in a specially-equipped snowcoach to navigate the snow-covered roads.
        The payoff for venturing in daytime temperatures that rarely climb above freezing and nighttime temps that average around zero is huge.
        The snow-covered scenery is, well, simply spectacular and often comes with the bonus of viewing the wildlife that remains active in winter, notably bison, wolves, coyotes, elk, ravens and trumpeter swans.
        The first of our many bison sightings was a dozen or so thick-mantled beasts standing up to their chests in snow scattered among a stand of lodgepole pines. In the distance the park’s Midway Geyser Basin was doing its thing, obscuring the distant trees in clouds of steam.  
        It was sunny and the mid-morning temperatures were stubbornly hovering well below zero. How, one wonders, can these huge grass-eating mammals possibly survive these conditions? The grasses they need are in the open, buried in deep snows where temperatures plummet and bitter winds howl. Yet they persevere using their huge heads and powerful hump and shoulders something like a bulldozer, swinging it back and forth until they reach the meager nourishment of buried grasses. All the while they shrug off the wind and cold with a thick fur coat and a massive muscular body that could weigh in at nearly a ton.
        In friendlier seasons, they can propel those massive bodies at 40 mph or so, but not so much in winter when conserving energy is a priority. Keeping a distance isn’t just advisable, it’s the law in Yellowstone. Visitors must stay 100 yards away from grizzlies and wolves, 25 yards from bison and other wildlife.
        Yellowstone National Park in winter can be lonely, frigid, brutal, life threatening. It is also difficult to imagine how summers could possibly be more beautiful than winter.
        The streets of West Yellowstone, the primary staging area for visits, are virtually devoid of traffic, though accommodations for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, wildlife photographers, and the like are open and in demand.
        Even the most popular attractions from Old Faithful to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are deserted or nearly-so. You’ll have these treasures virtually to yourself.
        But there is so much more. Everywhere in every direction is a feast for the eyes, a photographer’s paradise, a stunning image virtually around every corner.
        If you go, prepare yourself for harsh weather conditions, potential bitter cold and be aware of hazards such as ice-covered trails and boardwalks. Many visitor services in the national park are shut down for winter season, which runs from mid-December until late March. A few strategic areas remain open and there are others that provide basic services. Restaurants, lodging, and shopping are open in West Yellowstone. Shuttle services are available from regional airports, notably Bozeman, Montana.
        For more information visit www.nps.gov/yell and DestinationYellowstone.com. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is highly recommended.


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