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Winter in Yellowstone

Avoid the warm-weather crowds. Experience nature in all her frozen glory.

Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park. Just the mention of it conjures images of spectacular geysers, wide-open spaces and howling wolves. A photographer’s paradise, people say. The crown jewel of the national park system.

Yet most visitors only see Yellowstone in the summertime – alongside hordes of other tourists. In 2005, of the park’s 2.8 million annual tourists, a whopping 97 percent visited between the relatively warm-weather months of April and October.

Some outdoor-adventure travelers contend, however, that if you think you’ve seen Yellowstone based on your summer RV trip, you’d better think again. Between November and March, they say, a whole different park emerges, one without lines of traffic or crowded campgrounds. One where glistening snowfields stretch as far as you can see, where icicles clinging to stark trees stand in stunning contrast to steaming hot springs, and where the air is so still that merely breathing seems too loud.

In this Yellowstone, elk, bison and moose, in perpetual search of their next meal, travel openly through whitewashed valleys and congregate near hydrothermal pools. Their predators – the elusive mountain lion and the majestic gray wolf among them – are never far behind. And for the hardy souls who visit during winter (fewer than 89,000 during the 2005– 2006 season), the whole show is theirs for the viewing.

“It’s just absolutely gorgeous,” says Katie Fellows, of Hudson, N.H., who visited the park in February 2004 with her husband, Jeff, and sons, Aaron and Matthew. They participated in the Yellowstone Association Institute’s five-day “Winter in Wonderland” program (see “A Study in Nature“). During their cross-country ski outings, they saw nearly a dozen species of animals in their natural habitats and explored hot springs and geysers. “We felt like it was all ours,” adds Fellows.

Navigating the Terrain

Only one road in the 2.2 million–acre park remains open to automobiles during the winter. It runs between the north entrance of the park at Gardiner, Mont., to the northeast entrance at Silver Gate and Cooke City. All other transportation to popular spots – such as Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River – is by ski, snowshoe, snowcoach (a kind of van with snow treads) or snowmobile tour.

In November 2004, after years of controversy, a ruling to ban snowmobiles in the park during the winter 2004–2005 season was lifted, much to the dismay of silent-sports enthusiasts, environmentalists and other opponents of the vehicles. The park has since put in place a temporary plan that allows entry to a maximum of 720 snowmobiles per day. These must all be assigned to commercial tours and must meet Best Available Technology (BAT) standards for reducing noise and air pollution. This policy is in effect through winter 2006–2007, at which point it may change.

Meanwhile, skis remain the most popular mode of human-powered transportation in Yellowstone. Whether you are a novice or an advanced backcountry skier, miles of maintained trails and acres of pristine wilderness provide first-rate cross-country skiing for all levels.

Jennifer and Brad Bennett, of Missoula, Mont., began visiting the park in 1993 and find it particularly enchanting in winter. “Last winter we took a late-night ski under the full moon. Old Faithful was erupting, and no one was there,” says Jennifer. “It was like something out of a book – so quiet and amazing. It’s almost like a religious experience for us, being in Yellowstone.”

This winter, the Bennetts plan to take a “Yellowstone on Skis” tour offered through the Yellowstone Association Institute. Other visitors prefer to leave the trail and guides behind and head into the backcountry on their own.

For Brook Detterman, of Portland, Ore., a six-day backcountry skiing-and-camping trip offered beauty and challenge. Detterman and a friend chose a southwestern route known for its hydrothermal features, including Lone Star Geyser and numerous hot springs and pools rich with algae. They came across bison and elk, and saw the prints of other animals. At night, they listened to wolves calling out to each other across the miles.

But Yellowstone in winter is not all open ski fields and rare-animal sightings. The park experiences some of the coldest weather in the United States, and winter storms can be ferocious. On the third night of their excursion, a surprise cold front and snowfall caught Detterman and his friend off-guard. “It was probably 20 to 30 degrees below at night,” he says. “It was too cold for our GPS to work.” They built snow caves and hunkered down. Over the next few days they found themselves at times skiing through chest-deep snow and decided to cut their route short. While Detterman enjoyed his trip, the backcountry of Yellowstone, he says, “is not a place for a novice.”

Natural Selection

Facing a Yellowstone winter’s unadulterated challenges and beauty is exactly what many of its adventurous fans love most. People come to Yellowstone during the winter months because they want to experience nature for nature’s sake, in all her cold, frozen and unbridled splendor – and precisely when she can be least friendly to casual sightseers.

“The most magical time of the season may be right around Thanksgiving,” says Bill McKibben, renowned environmentalist, avid cross-country skier and author of The End of Nature (Random House, reprint edition 2006). “Snow has begun to fall, but the park isn’t yet open to snowmobiles…. You see the animals not as part of a crowd parked at the side of the road, but as snorting, surviving wildlife; the geysers are less attractions than a magical fact of life. There’s a sense that it should be a little hard to get to see something this beautiful.”

A little hard, perhaps, but hardly impossible. And if you’re looking for an unforgettable outdoor experience, you’re likely to find winter in Yellowstone well worth the trip.

Kelle Walsh is a writer and editor based in California.

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