Wyoming Hot Spot: Yellowstone in Winter

There are approximately 300 of these volcanic water spouts in the park, the largest concentration of them worldwide. In the past 2 million years, three gigantic volcanic eruptions occurred in the Yellowstone region. The most recent one, 640,000 years ago, left a giant crater that is about 35 miles (56 km) wide and 50 miles (80 km) long, called the Yellowstone Caldera. Hot magma chambers near the surface still fuel more than 10,000 hydrothermal park features.

Old Faithful is neither the highest nor the largest geyser, but it’s probably the most popular. Its heights and intervals vary the least of all the observed geysers, hence the name. Every 94 minutes, on average, Old Faithful spouts a steaming fountain that can be up to 180 feet (55 m) high and may contain as much as 1,122 cubic feet (31 m³) of water.

This spectacle attracts spectators by the hundreds. In summer, when the majority of Yellowstone’s visitors crowd the park, you won’t stand a chance to score a space on the benches that surround Old Faithful.

Now only seven hardy souls — cross country skiers, a couple on snowshoes and a family of three, all bundled up — marvel at nature’s show, braving a sub-zero wind-chill factor. Yet there is still no seating space available, as the park benches are covered in snow.

The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are perhaps the second-most-famous attraction in the world’s oldest national park, which was established in 1872 by U.S. president Ulysses Grant. A snow coach trip to Yellowstone’s northern tip takes another four hours. Up here, visitors on snowmobiles are a frequent sight, riding orderly in single file and led — as is mandatory — by a professional guide.

The gateway communities of West Yellowstone, Cooke City and Gardiner are closer to park entrances than towns in the southern half, making this area more accessible for snowmobiling day trips.

Fort Yellowstone, in Mammoth Hot Springs, is a great starting point for wildlife photo safaris. I glimpse out of my hotel window and see bison stumping through knee-deep snow right below, making their way between the bulky sandstone buildings, which were built around 1910 for the U.S. Army.

Before park rangers watched over the protected area, U.S. army soldiers were stationed here to prevent poaching and the destruction or removal of unique geological features.

The old military barracks have long since been converted into a simple, yet comfortable, hotel, restaurant and ranger residences. Awnings with black-and-white stripes grace restaurant windows, and underneath three elk ladies seemed to have settled in for the night, as it has started to snow once more. However, most wildlife watchers who come to Yellowstone in winter are not particularly interested in hoofed animals. It is wolves they’re after.

Wolf packs originally roamed about the entire North American continent, from the arctic tundra to southern Mexico. They were badmouthed as dangerous predators and cattle thieves, and were hunted relentlessly until the park administration finally abandoned their systematic extermination in 1926 and acknowledged the importance of canis lupus for the ecosystem.

By then, the last wolf had long since disappeared from Yellowstone. Animals from Canada were successfully reintroduced in 1995. According to the last head count, about 170 wolves have reclaimed Yellowstone National Park as their home.

It’s a short drive from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Lamar Valley. The roads are plowed, and wheeled vehicles are permitted here. I am most likely to see one of the secret stalkers in Lamar Valley, explains wildlife biologist Brad Bulin, who guides groups of visitors on multiple-day safaris for the non-profit association Yellowstone Association.

It is still pitch dark when Brad picks us up in a white school bus at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. But as the first sunbeams paint the morning sky a rosy pink, he has already pointed three telescopes onto nearby Hellroaring Creek and discovered the first pack for us — three black and four gray wolves. They jog parallel to the river’s edge until they have found a suitable resting place for the day, on a set of rocky cliffs offering a spectacular view of the valley.

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