WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Geysers, buffalo and bears. To most people, that's what Yellowstone National Park is all about. But most people visit the park in the summer.
In winter, when snowfall averages 150 inches and daytime temperatures hover around zero, Yellowstone is a different animal. The bears are hibernating, and Old Faithful's skirt is hemmed with ice. There are no crowds. The 1.5 million people who visit during the summer have dwindled to 130,500.
Wheeled vehicles aren't allowed, for the most part, from early November to late April. To get around, visitors must rely on cross-country skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles. Or they hop on a snow coach, a funky over-the-snow tank that seats about a dozen passengers and has big steerable skis in front and tracks in back for navigating the park's groomed, snow-packed roads.
I came here for four days in early January, mostly to ride in a vintage Bombardier snow coach. I never expected that winter would turn out to be my favorite season in Yellowstone. But when icicles hang on the eaves of Old Faithful Lodge, the geothermal wonders spew gigantic mushroom clouds of water vapor into the frigid air and alpenglow paints the flanks of the Gallatin Mountains a nail-polish pink, the 2.2 million-acre national park - America's first and, in the hearts of many, the foremost - seems most intensely wild, untrammeled and majestic.
Getting here was surprisingly easy. I flew to Bozeman, Mont., and caught a Karst Stage bus from the airport to West Yellowstone. I spotted a bald eagle and fancied every snow-frosted lodgepole pine we passed as the perfect Christmas tree. The sun was starting to set, and it looked as cold as the North Slope of Alaska.
The bus took me directly to my hotel, the Hibernation Station on the south side of town, bordering the Gallatin National Forest. The 38 cozy and stout log cabins in the enclave have whimsical carvings of fly fishermen, coyotes and cowboys on the ridge lines of the roofs.
The snow coaches ride like a concrete mixer on a dirt road in Baja, as I discovered on a daylong tour with Alpen Guides and six other passengers to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The tour company has half a dozen fire engine red, retro Bombardiers.
The hatches on top can be opened for shutterbugs (the vehicles also have windows) and the machines can reach a death-defying 40 mph. Their size alone makes them king of the road in wintertime Yellowstone, despite the pesky snowmobilers who don't pay attention to the speed limit or stop signs.
My tour group's driver and guide was Mike Bryers, a bearded, self-proclaimed old hippie who has lived in the area for 30 years. Along the road to Madison Junction, Mr. Bryers showed us trumpeter swans, white-rumped cow elk, a burn area from the 1988 fire (now covered with baby lodgepole pines 3 to 5 feet tall) and a lava flow.
When Yellowstone is cold and snow white, it's hard to comprehend that the park is centered on the 24-by-36-mile caldera of a volcano that erupted 630,000 years ago. But we had only to stop at Norris Geyser Basin, 14 miles north of Madison Junction, as the Great Whirligig geyser began to erupt, shooting a curtain of boiling water into the sky, to appreciate the area's geothermal volatility.
From there it was on to the gorge of the Yellowstone River, which is breathtaking when the falls are crusted with ice and the canyon walls are draped in snow. I snowshoed from the road to the edge of the canyon, a delightful three-mile round trip through the silent forest. I'd never snowshoed, but there was really nothing to it beyond picking up one foot after the other. At Inspiration Point I ate my box lunch, then plodded back to the road for a rendezvous with the snow coach.
The next morning I packed my bags and boarded another snow coach for the trip to Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where I planned to spend the night and do a little cross-country skiing. Patrick Metheny, the driver and guide, mentioned that Gary Cooper drove a snow coach in Yellowstone in the early 1920s before making it big in Hollywood.
Gary Cooper was about all the Old Faithful Snow Lodge lacked. Its construction in 1997 posed challenges because it lies in a National Historic District, next to the grand and venerable Old Faithful Lodge, built in 1904 but too drafty for winter use. The park did a superlative job on the new lodge, a low building with rooms lined in burnished wood, a restaurant, bar, ski shop and comfortable lobby where guests play checkers and read by the fire.
There are lots of things I didn't have time to do in Yellowstone this winter. I wanted to ski around Bunsen Peak just south of Mammoth and take a wildlife tour with a national park ranger into the Lamar Valley to see a pack of gray wolves, which are supplanting bears as Yellowstone's most popular creatures, although they're people-shy and much harder to spot.
But I'll be back to Yellowstone in winter.
For more information: Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381, www.nps.gov/yell; and the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 458, West Yellowstone, MT 59758; (406) 646-7701, www.westyellowstonechamber.com.
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