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Yellowstone: Winter Wonderland

Visit Yellowstone National Park in the winter for fantastic wildlife viewing and some of the best cross-country skiing on the continent.

A wolf in West Yellowstone, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Alison Wright
Photo caption
A lone gray wolf stands out against the white winter backdrop in West Yellowstone.

On a subzero January evening, two cross-country skiers wait for Old Faithful to blow. A few elk lie on the warm mound circling Yellowstone's famous geyser. Bison graze in the shadows nearby, sweeping their massive, shaggy heads across the snow to expose the grass beneath.

Then, at the predicted moment: a rumble, a hiss, a tentative spurt. A white plume of steam billows hundreds of feet up into the moonlight. The spectators murmur, turning their faces to the sky.

Minutes later the show is over. As the geyser subsides, a plaintive call sounds from the hills to the east, then a reply echoes from another ridge—coyotes, in a community sing-along beneath the moon. The visitors turn back toward the comforts of Snow Lodge to lounge in big wicker chairs before the hearth.

Winter is truly the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife-watching is at its peak and some 10,000 hydrothermal features, including erupting geysers and steaming rivers, provide stark contrast to the biting cold. The crowds of summer are gone (no more than 140,000 of Yellowstone's 3 million annual visitors come during winter), and the glories of the park are wide-open.

Animals—except for the hibernating bears—are much easier to spot in sharp relief against a backdrop of deep snows than they are in the deep grasses and shadowy forests of summer. Great herds of bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, deer, and bighorn sheep, struggling to survive the harsh winter, migrate down to the relative warmth of the thermal basins and the easier grazing in the open valleys. Otters frolic in snowbanks along the rivers. Moose move into the willow and fir to browse; bobcats, mountain lions, and foxes hunt in the woods. Swans drift across misty pools. And you have a pretty good chance of seeing wolves in the wild.

Yellowstone's snow-packed roads are closed to cars from December through March except for one plowed road running from Gardiner, Mont., across the northern end of the park to Cook City. Otherwise only over-snow vehicles are permitted—snowmobiles on commercial guided tours or snowcoaches, either passenger vans on snow tracks or the cozy old 10-passenger Bombardiers that first came to the park in 1955. A busy fleet of these vehicles carries visitors into the park from gateways in Montana (north and west) and Wyoming (south). Five warming huts along these routes are open 24 hours a day.

I've been to Yellowstone three times in the icy white silence of winter—first in 1972, when the park celebrated its 100th birthday. For me, the main attraction is some of the best cross-country skiing on the continent. The high plateau above 7,500 feet elevation offers dazzling otherworldly scenery, gentle terrain, and powdery snow for swift gliding. Miles of well-marked ski trails lace the areas around Mammoth, Tower, Old Faithful, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The National Park Service does an admirable job of interpreting Yellow-stone's 2.2 million acres, with informative visitor center exhibits, evening talks, and ranger-led tours. But last winter I decided to dig even deeper and signed up with the Yellowstone Association Institute for one of its field study programs. The five-day Winter Wonderland session included lodging at the only two park hotels that welcome overnight guests at this season: Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a 5-year-old gem of "national parkitecture" designed with an exterior of log columns and a cedar shingle roof, and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at the park's north entrance. Most of the hotel was built in the 1930s, though one guest wing dates back to 1911. The whole place is delightfully creaky with history.

Our group wandered through the world's oldest national park in snowcoaches and on cross-country skis with a bright and affable naturalist-guide, Julianne Baker, who offered insights on thermal geology, vulcanism, and winter wildlife ecology. From high around the caldera rim of an enormous collapsed volcano, we gazed upon mountain ranges near and far: the Gallatins, the Absarokas, the serrated line of the Tetons.

We saw bare hills and blackened tree trunks left from the 1988 wildfire that had raged across more than a third of Yellowstone, but also healthy regrowth of lodgepole pines pushing up through the snow.

One day we skied three miles from the Old Faithful area alongside the Firehole River to Lone Star Geyser, which erupts about every three hours. It was bumpy going: Bison had left big potholes in the trail. We had just arrived and spread our picnic when the geyser began to roar and spout, the droplets of water falling in crystal curtains through the sunshine. The show lasted almost half an hour.

Over the next few days, as we rode in snowcoaches or relaxed over drinks in the hotels, Baker led lively discus-sions about a number of issues facing Yellowstone, among them the park's fire policy, the use of snowmobiles, and conflicts with local ranchers over wolves, grizzlies, and the bison that wander onto their grazing lands.

We learned that the Clinton administration, in its final days, had instituted a plan to phase out the thousands of snowmobiles that whined around the park every week in winter creating noise and pollution. The Bush administration rescinded the plan, which was then batted back and forth in the federal courts. This winter, 720 snowmobiles will be allowed in the park each day, but only on guided tours, and the noisier old two-stroke engines have been banned.

But of all the topics we discussed, it was wolves that fascinated us most.

Predator controllers killed wolves in Yellowstone until the creatures were rare in the 1940s and gone by the 1970s. Then in 1995–96, government wildlife biologists reintroduced gray wolves, bringing 31 of the animals from Canada to the park's northern reaches. By last winter, that population had grown to 306 wolves in 31 packs roaming the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Because almost half of them have wandered outside park boundaries, occasionally picking off domestic sheep and cattle, the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife has set up a fund to compensate local ranchers for depredations by wolves and grizzlies.

Wolves are also playing a part in re-shaping the park's ecosystem. They and other predators—along with the effects of a six-year drought—have trimmed the elk population from 20,000 to 10,000, thereby promoting the growth of trees. Groves of young aspens and willows are reappearing as wary elk dislike foraging for new shoots in wooded areas where approaching wolves are difficult to spot. The spread of young trees, the main food source for beavers, has in turn resulted in the first beaver dams built in 50 years. The succulents that grow in the ponds behind those dams provide food for grizzly bears waking from hibernation. And the wolves' leftover elk carcasses are yet another new food source for scavengers such as black bears, grizzlies, coyotes, eagles, and ravens. Although the "wolf effect" is just one piece of a complex environmental picture, changes like these suggest that it has already amplified the call of the wild in Yellowstone.

Even with the increased number of wolves, we didn't see any until our last day in the park. It had already been a rewarding morning. Our group had left Mammoth before dawn to drive out to Lamar Valley, sometimes called "North America's Serengeti." It lived up to its reputation; we reveled at the sight of so many animals in one place. Several groups of bison shambled down the road, strings of elk moved along the riverbank, and an eagle swooped down and plucked a hapless goldeneye from a pool. When we pulled up in our van to Hellroaring Overlook in the park's northeast section, an excited crowd had gathered around the viewing scopes. Far across the valley, a mountain lion worked an elk carcass—feeding from it, rolling on it, piling snow over it. Then the big golden cat climbed on top to stare down the waiting ravens and magpies. Suddenly, someone discovered that about 50 yards to the right of the kill, a trio of gray wolves was lazing beside a pine, yawning and stretching in the radiant sunshine. We had finally spied Canis lupus. We spent a long, happy time watching the group.

That evening back at Mammoth Hot Springs we soaked in the hotel's hot tub, then retired to the dining room for crab cakes and lamb shank. Later we wandered into the Map Room and listened to a pianist play "Streets of Laredo," "Buffalo Gals," and other tunes of the Old West, while another winter's night wrapped Yellowstone in its cold and solitary beauty.



This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.