Story and photography by Allan Seiden
I wasn’t sure I was prepared for the 27 below zero that greeted me on my first morning in West Yellowstone, the south Montana town that serves as the winter gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Winter is the perfect time to visit Yellowstone, a time when bison drift into view, slowly escaping a morning fog. A place where you awake one morning to find trees outlined in fallen snow, ending the day to vibrant sunsets that silhouette the world against orange skies that pale to magenta
and pink, fading to darkness and the last echoing cry of a wolf. Or the roadside stop
overlooking Lake Yellowstone as mist, clouds and an intermittent sun played the landscape with an ever-changing patchwork of shadow and light, sound muffled by pine needles and snow, breathing revealed by small clouds of vapor lingering long after the words had been spoken.
My first two nights of my six-day stay were spent in the comfortable town of West Yellowstone,
with shops featuring Western and winter gear, native jewelry and art. Frozen snow covered roads and sidewalks, making easy progress by hitting the ice, heals first, anchoring my forward momentum. Snowmobile rentals are available in West Yellowstone,
with many miles of trails in the surrounding mountains outside the park, an exhilarating highlight of my visit. Snowmobile tours are offered in the park as well, although daily numbers are limited. Warm hat, gloves and scarf are comforting necessities
Nights three and four were at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the park’s signature property that overlooks Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s most renowned and predictable geyser, whooshing steam-heated water up to 184 feet into the air in a show that lasts from 90 seconds to five minutes an is repeated anywhere from 35-120 minutes, with estimated eruption times posted in the lobby. A
Snow Lodge provides access to central Yellowstone attractions the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls, its waters frozen and dusted with snow.
The two nights that followed were spent at historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel a rustic
inn adjacent to the layered travertine terraces formed by heat, water, limestone and fractured rock that allows limestoine saturated water to reach the surface, the terraces reached by a short trail that begins at the hotel, with the nearby
Lamar Valley home to elk, deer, bighorn sheep, wolves and an occasional mountain lion.
Word is radioed to our van that a mountain lion, secretive and rarely seen, has been spotted. We head to the lookout where we’d
watched dawn inch in upon the nighttime sky. Now it is crowded with people taking turns looking through binoculars focused on a distant mountain lion feeding on the carcass of an elk. My thoughts go back to a trip to Kenya, a cheetah and her cubs making a meal of a recently killed impala, its eyes in the fixed gaze that marked the end of life. Now it was an elk’s glazed eyes that stared into the void.
Here in the heart of the American West, Pele manifests in pools of boiling water, steam vents, and the world’s largest concentration of geysers and bubbling mineral pools. Nature is at work on a grand scale in Yellowstone. Lava and ash have blanketed these lands many times over the past two million years. Beneath these now-forested mountains the Earth is violently alive, an explosive mingling of molten rock and water filtering down from the surface.
Past eruptions have exploded with a fury 70 times more powerful than the eruption that blew apart Mt. St. Helens back in the ‘80s. The results were planetary in their impact, Nature’s primal energy still prevails, with another bout of volcanic turmoil inevitable, as apocalyptic television specials have dramatically made clear.
Today that volcanic energy is more benign and predictable, the warmed earth providing
a milder microclimate that attracts wildlife in winter, mild being a relative term, with morning temperatures dropping well below freezing, potentially warmed to the mid-40s on a sunny day.
Elk, deer, wolverines, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, and bison survive winters that start in October and linger into May, foraging for grasses and other edibles hidden beneath the snow and seeking out places where thermal warmth melts the snow and allows for easy grazing. Wolves, successfully reintroduced from Canadian packs after having been wiped out in Yellowstone and much of the West now roam in territorial pack. Trumpeter swans and bald eagles are both abundant, the eagles preferring the most exposed and vulnerable perches for their nests. A raucous call reveals an eagle overhead, a small wolverine trapped in its claws: triumph and tragedy in a single image.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone provides an up-close look at wolf pack reality, a prowling hierarchy deferential to the alpha male. Here and there a loner, muzzle raised, bays at the moon,
the sound repeated from the wilds beyond. The Center provides a refuge for orphaned or endangered animals, including lumbering grizzlies. I lingered until the afternoon closing, the color fast-fading as I headed back to my hotel, about three blocks away.
A pink-and-orange sunset lit the sky, silhouetting trees and surrounding mountains with razor sharp precision. Two sounds marked my progress: The soft crush of brittle snow underfoot triggering poignant childhood memories, and the plaintive, primal baying of wolves.
On to Grand Teton…
From a mountain accessed by skimobile lands just outside the Park, I could see the Tetons rising from a lush river valley, grandscale even at this 100-mile distance. Next morning, as a pale dawn emerged from the starry night sky
we set out on a half-day-long trip south, traveling through east Idaho to reach the Tetons since the more direct route through the Yellowstone was closed.
For sheer impact the Tetons are hard to beat. Grandscale, graceful, granite monoliths, powerful and inspiring, they dominate the pine forest, river valey and lakes that surroundt them and the lakes that in winter are a solid expanse of white.
While some might question the comparison, to the French explorers who discovered them in the mid 1700s, each of these magnificent granite mountains resembled a great breast, a grand teton.
The town of Jackson Hole is south of the Park, complete with its own in-town ski lift. Best thing in town is the Cowboy Bar, where local color prevails in winter when the visitor count is way down. Jackson Hole’s got character and a range of accommodations, with less pricey motels along the highway
heading north from Jackson Hole. Much of Grand Tetons National Park’s infrastructure (hiking trails, lodges, activities) is closed during the winter, the snow-covered Tetons are magnificent compensation with a number of roads plowed.
IF YOU GO
Thermal underwear (tops and bottoms) are a must if you’re going to enjoy long hours outdoors. Weather is changeable, alternating sunny and cloudy, with fog and snowstorms also on the menu. Dress layered so you can peel or dress as weather dictates. Gear can be rented or bought in shops in West Yellowstone.
Few roads within the park remain open during the winter. Access to the Park’s 2.2-million acres is by lumbering (but heated ) snowcoach
and snowmobile, with a maximum of 720 snowmobilers per day making advance reservations a recommend. This is the best way to really experience Yellowstone. Visit www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/snowmobiling.htm.
To book either the Old Faithful Snow Lodge or the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel visit www.xanterra.com or www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or call 866-GEYSERLAND (866-439-7375). Splitting a stay provides access to the full range of park attractions. The atmospheric Mammoth Hotel Springs offers under-the-stars thermal soaking tubs in a garden setting. Xanterra, which operates both hotels, offers a variety of winter tours, including an eight-day, small group, touching-all-bases January 11 tour with documentarians Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan among the lecturers.
Tauck Tours is offering six nine-day wintefr tour packages that include both Yellowstone and the Tetons, with a stay at the historic Wort Hotel in Jackson. Call 800-468-2825 or visit www.tauck.com.
For information on Jackson Hole visit www.jacksonholechamber.com. For Grand Teton NationalPark visit www.nps.gov/grte/
All pictures and text © Allan Seiden, 2011