By Georgette Diamandis:
Having two million acres to yourself is an indescribable feeling. OK, so there are a few crazy snowmobilers out there, but for the most part, this is serenity at its best. I went out to Yellowstone in mid-January, and although it was probably the coldest it ever gets (-43 degrees F at dawn in the Lamar Valley!), the scenery was incredible: stark white snow against brilliant blue sky, ghost-like trees covered in layers of frostiness, and wispy steam emitting from the frozen ground.
Let me start at the beginning, with my flight into Jackson Hole airport. United Airlines may have one me over as my favorite airline. I have noticed that the crew are extremely professional and go out of their way to be accommodating. I had to bring a ton of warm clothes, so that meant I had to break my routine of bringing only a carry-on and check a huge purple L. L. Bean rolling duffle. Doing it online the night before saved $5, but more importantly, a lot of time in line at the airport. Also, the jets I flew from Burlington, Vermont, and then Chicago were not new, but the windows were sparkling clean and I appreciated the views over the Grand Tetons. When I arrived at the small airport of Jackson Hole, I hopped in a van to Flagg Ranch, where a snow coach from Xanterra‘s Old Faithful Snow Lodge met us to drive the three hours into the National Park-the only way to go (except for snowmobile).
Snow Coaching it to Yellowstone
The Bombardier is a classic 1978 tank-like vehicle originally used to haul mail and milk in Canada. Now the beast shuttles adventurous guests into nature’s playground in the winter. It is actually called “historic,” but I take umbrage at that since 1978 is the year I graduated high school! On this occasion our guide was Zac, an educated geologist from Virginia with a vast knowledge of everything anyone ever needs to know about any aspect of Yellowstone. He is only 25 but has spent several years in the park honing his knowledge. Every guide I have met in Yellowstone has impressed me. Zac had the charm to match his intelligence and the good old-fashioned chutzpah to be able to knock on the throttle with a mallet every time it froze due to the ridiculous temperatures. His laid-back attitude assuaged our fear and he also told us there would be another coach to pick us up if he couldn’t get it unstuck-but he did! It was a fun adventure on a starlit night. The group I was with became acquainted real fast, as we were sitting close for body heat under Yellowstone blankets! Pulling into the Snow Lodge in the winter is a unique experience; there are no cars and only a handful of snow coaches. In the distance is the historic Old Faithful Lodge, only open during warm weather. Our coach arrived in time for us to go snowshoeing, so off I went to the Bear Den rental shop with my new friend Sean, and then to the most famous geyser in the world to see it go off as predicted at 6:19 p.m. It was a fun half-hour adventure, though cold (below 0 degrees F). And without other tourists around, this was very different from the experience I had last summer when many fans of the old geyser were there. Did you know that Yellowstone has half of the world’s hydrothermal features? It has more than 10,000-now that’s smokin’!
Warmth at the Lodge
We then all headed to dinner at Snow Lodge. The warm dining room and amber lamps with forest motifs relaxed us for a wonderful and delicious meal. The lodge has the ambience of a rustic yet upscale camping lodge. The salads were fresh and the Alaska salmon with ginger sauce was divine. After dinner we went to the bar and sat by a large fireplace to have drinks and recount the day. My room at the lodge was cozy, decorated with pine paneling and tawny lamps, with white wainscoting and a tile bathroom. I love the little bear soaps. This year they have added Keurig coffee machines to the rooms and Green Mountain Coffee from my new home state of Vermont.
The next morning we had breakfast in the Snow Lodge and heard about the way-below-zero temperatures. There were several snowmobiling folks who were deciding what to do since the wind would create dangerous sub-zero wind-chill factors. We watched a brave gal ice-skate outside the dining room. I contemplated skating, as the lodge provides skates free of charge. We checked out of Snow Lodge to head north to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. In the summer the drive is about an hour and a half, but with the snow coach it would be more like three and a half. There are many scenic mud pots, paint pots, and fascinating thermal features to check out along the way. It is very interesting to see a bubbly cauldron of mud and gas while everything else is covered in frost-including us! The new snow coach looked like a mini-bus with tank treads, large windows for great views, and heat that really works. When we stopped to view Fountain Paint Pots my hat and hair instantly froze. But I had to admit, I was getting used to the cold (the hot packs in my mittens and boots contributed)! The contrast of the steam rising in the snowy wonderland was something I had never before witnessed. The frost on the trees was stunning.
Animals in Winter
Yellowstone has been called the “Serengeti of the north”, but with the snow, it looked more like Alaska. Herds of elk lying in the snow were spotted on our trip north, along with bison, who like to share the road. They’re not dumb; it is a lot easier than walking in the snow! We stopped at Madison Junction and visited the cabins that accommodate students taking classes in the Yellowstone Association Institute. The institute offers day and weekend courses in subjects ranging from wolf tracking to photography for individuals and families. The prices are reasonable and the instructors are top-notch. Later we arrived at the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, where some people got out to cross-country ski or walk the boardwalk down to the travertine terraces, interesting new geological formations that emerged a hundred years ago. Guide Zac came with us and talked about rime frost and hoar frost. I spotted a white jackrabbit, bigger than my cat, hopping towards us through the steam.
Historic Cold Comfort
We slept at the 1937 Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, which reminded me of our old family vacation spot, the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The hotel has tall ceilings in large rooms with large windows. My bathroom had a deep enamel claw-foot tub instead of a shower. The radiators hissed and the rooms were warm. Rooms with shared bath can be as inexpensive as $45 in the winter. The gift shop named For Future Generations has been recently renovated to include only sustainable gifts, many from local vendors. I especially liked the paper made from bison dung, and the name of the company that produces it, Dung and Danger! The gift shop was created by visionary Beth Pratt, whose goal is to make the frog the poster child of climate change, since their numbers are rapidly dwindling or, in some species, completely gone. The store is the only one in the national park system that is dedicated to the effects of climate change, and the items are rated for their sustainability. You’ll find ingenious “plastic” coffee cups made from cornstarch and stuffed bears made from recycled plastic soda bottles. There is also a jigsaw puzzle of an American eagle; on a closer look you can see that the image is pixeled with thousands of aluminum cans, pointing out to us that 3,500 aluminum cans are thrown away every second in this country! The puzzle can then be planted in the ground to create a garden, as the cardboard pieces are imbedded with wildflower seeds. The Restaurant at Mammoth also has wonderful food; visit www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com and click “Dining” to take a peek at their menu.
We were up at 5 a.m. the next day to take a van trip several hours to Lamar Valley to see wolves. The Canadian wolves were reintroduced in 1994 and have been a great addition and attraction at Yellowstone. Our guide this time was biologist Shauna, who educated us about the problems the wolves were having this year. Not only are they shot if they leave the park, but this year some in the park had mange, a devastating skin disease that consumed all of the pups. The park’s philosophy to date is to let nature take its course, and although the pups didn’t make it, the adults are all recovering. Presently there are about a hundred wolves in the park. We also heard about brucellosis, a cattle disease that causes females to abort their young, which is also currently affecting the bison. We were unfortunate to witness this while we were driving through the park as a female bison was in trouble and there were bystanders surrounding her. The ranchers outside of the park fear transmission of this disease to their beef cattle, and shoot any bison that stray out of Yellowstone. (Is it a crazy idea to have a huge fence surrounding the park???)
We arrived in a spot known to have wolf sightings almost every day, our biologist guide told us to stand on a foam mat to preserve body heat. We also intermittently ran back to the van for more cups of hot tea. Die-hard wolf fanatics (wolfies) will spend all day waiting for the pack to appear. We never saw a wolf that day, which is rare. Most visitors in the winter will spot a wolf if they go out early like we did. I suspect it was too cold! We saw their tracks, though, and we had the privilege of meeting Rick McIntyre, who came on our bus with his tracking equipment. He told us the sad saga of wolf 21 and wolf 42, a young male and older female who had several pups together and were tragically separated when the female was killed by another pack while defending her territory. The grieving male howled alone for days before finally rejoining the pack. Rick loves wolves so much that he started out as a volunteer tracking wolves with radio collars and is now a valuable park employee. If you spot his yellow Nissan Xterra, you can wave him down and ask about recent wolf sightings. There are 6 to 10 wolf packs, with names like the Druids and the Mollys, which interact with each other, fighting for elk and territory, and sometimes even killing each other. The packs only intermingle when a young female or male is ready to go off and find a mate. After our morning excursion we stopped back at the Madison cabins used for the Yellowstone Institute Association classes and then headed west to Mammoth for a well-deserved lunch before taking the old Bombardier snow coach back down to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
The Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Winter rates at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge start at under $100 per night. The cozy lodge was a joy to return to. The floor-to-ceiling windows make the lobby an easy place to appreciate nature from the warmth of the lodge. We enjoyed dinner there that night and in the morning skied one of the many cross-country trails the area is known for-there are over 40 miles of cross-country trails just aroundOld Faithful. I did the Lone Star Geyser Trail, down hills, over bridges, and past trees with claw marks from summer bears. I enjoyed it so much. When I came back I was ready for my next adventure toJackson Hole, where I continued the “green” theme with a stay at Hotel Terra and, of course, downhill skiing at the renowned mountain. On the way out ofYellowstone, we soaked in the scenery, spotting trumpeter swans, bufflehead ducks, and herds of elk and bison, but mostly enjoying the peace of no cars and few people. I haven’t had that feeling of serene isolation since visiting remoteWestern Australia. It is nice to know that our national parks remain specially preserved places where nature can be found undisturbed, and in fact protected, by its greatest predator-us! In my experience, the closest I have come to witnessing this is inYellowstone in winter.
- All Trans
- Flagg Ranch
- Yellowstone Summer
- Yellowstone Association Institute
- Travel Yellowstone.com
- Dung and Danger
- Yellowstone Institute Association
- Georgette’s Blog
- Georgette’s Paintings
NOTE: This trip was sponsored by Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country.