|Yellowstone in White||Published Nov/Dec 2004|
Winter is the best season to visit
our most spectacular national park.
By Chris King
|It is difficult to imagine someone so bored with the earth that he wouldn’t want to visit Yellowstone National Park. This 2.2 million-acre expanse of wilderness, which occupies the northwest corner of Wyoming and dribbles over into Montana and Idaho, would be a sight to see even if it had no geysers. It has the largest concentration of free roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states, and visitors can glimpse many of these creatures, even through the windshield. It is heavily visited, yet feels instantly remote to anyone who departs from the motor road. And, of course, it has those geysers, geothermal features that spit scalding water into the air.
Old Faithful is the most famous of the park’s geysers. Its reliability (erupting approximately every 81 minutes) and name magic make it so popular that the National Park Service has erected two rows of benches for the Old Faithful faithful. But it is not the largest geyser in the park (Steamboat Geyser is), and given that Yellowstone is the world’s hot spot for geothermal features, you can observe one in relative privacy if you want to avoid the herdespecially during the winter.
Eighty percent of the park’s visitors come between June and mid-September. Though summer crowds never create the degree of congestion, human and automotive, that typifies New York, winter in Yellowstone guarantees more of the quiet contact with nature we seek at a national park. Also, winter cold provides the ideal atmosphere for viewing the geysers, as the collision between water heated by magma (the molten rock from the earth’s core responsible for the park’s geothermics) and icy air turns Yellowstone into a mystical, steaming wonderland.
Winter brings mixed blessings for those who seek wild things. In the winter, bear hibernate, so you won’t see themor have to fear running into one in the back country. As snow deepens in the basin, many bison and elk leave the park for lower elevations. Still, during a mid-winter snowcoach tour with the excellent Yellowstone Alpen Guides (406-646-9591; www.yellowstoneguides.com), I saw an amazing range of wildlife, including a coyote, elk, bison, bald eagles and trumpeter swans.
"I get surprised almost every day in here," our guide, Curtis Loeffler, said with genuine awe.
In Yellowstone, you really can view the wild through a windshield, though you shouldn’t rest content with that experience. Some mode of on-foot exploration is irresistible for the able-bodied. In winter, cross-country skiing makes the most sense. Inside the park, one finds any number of freshly broken ski trails, and confident skiers are free to ski out their own trails on journeys into the back country.
Just outside the park lie the Rendezvous Ski Trails, perhaps the best cross-country trails in the country. Doug Edgerton, chief of grooming for the 2002 Olympic cross-country trails in Utah, grooms them, and his expert craftsmanship is greatly aided by local conditions.
"Snow comes early and stays late up here," he said, "and the temperatures are consistent." The lay of the land is also generous, sloping gently enough for this beginner, freshly sprung from sea-level New York, to hack it with boundless pleasure.
The Rendezvous Ski Trails wind through the Gallatin National Forest and skirt the edge of West Yellowstone, Montana, the western gateway to the park and a choice hub for any visitor wanting to ski cross-country. (In town you will find several options for renting skis and guides, if needed.) You can walk or ski to the trails and the park from any point in town. You may have to avoid snowmobilers to do so, however, because West Yellowstone becomes a non-stop snowmobile rally whenever there is powder on the ground.
Snowmobiling has become a contentious issue in Yellowstone. The National Park Service, deciding that extreme levels of snowmobile traffic disturb wildlife, once planned to phase out snowmobile access to Yellowstone. But this met with local protest, so West Yellowstone in winter will continue to be a snowmobile derby.
If that sounds annoying, you can stay in one of the park lodges (307-344-7311; www.travelyellowstone.com), which are certain to be quiet at night, or you can stay on the outskirts of town.
For all its coziness and beauty, Yellowstone in winter needs to be taken seriously. After all, its dangers include the rare double whammy of hypothermia and scalding waternot to mention potential goring by wild animals that appear far more cuddly than they are in fact. Observe the customary precautions for cold weather (dress in layers, wear wicking fabrics, use the buddy system, etc.), be very sure you know where the hot springs are (so you don’t fall into one), and keep a respectful distance from the wild things, and you will be rewarded with one of most intense experiences of nature in winter that this grand old earth has to offer.
Chris King is the former editor of “Car & Travel” magazine in New York.
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