Cold Winter Morning
The lone bison is breathing little clouds. They look like frosty speech bubbles that the chilly North Wind juggles through the crisp air, until it loses interest and blows them apart with one powerful puff.
The old bull stands in the snow, quiet and motionless. The white stuff reaches almost up to the buffalo’s hips, and more fresh flakes are falling onto his shaggy coat.
His massive back is already dusted like a powdered sugar cake-topping.
It’s another cold winter morning in Yellowstone National Park, with temperatures dipping to 5° F (-15° C). Here, in Wyoming’s northwestern corner, the frosty season lasts six long months.
I can see through my binoculars thin icicles extending down the bison’s muzzle, and the thick fur fringes under his mouth are frozen stiff in an icy moustache. The poor creature must be dreadfully cold.
Seeing the Bison
Bjorn Anderson grins. “I bet the bison is not nearly as cold as you are,” he says. “Look, he is perfectly insulated. Not even the snow on his shoulder hump is melting.”
The giant animal doesn’t move in order to save precious energy, which is difficult to replenish now, when food is scarce.
It takes a lot of strength to use his giant head as a snow plow, to dig deep down for the last bits of leftover grass. Bison are pretty smart, Bjorn surmises.
And he should know, as every day he shuttles tourists through the park and past the heavyweight beasts in a canary-yellow snow coach.
Most park roads are closed to wheeled private traffic from the first Monday in November until mid-March. Annual snowfall averages about 150 inches (3.8 m).
Higher elevations can easily receive even more. To reliably clear the park’s 310 paved miles (499 km) on a daily basis would be a tremendous (and expensive) effort — almost impossible to keep up during the occasional violent blizzard.
Visitors Safety First
For the safety of visitors, only tracked “over-snow vehicles” with ski-like runners in front and tank-like treads, like tour guide Bjorn’s vintage Bombardier, are allowed on Yellowstone’s groomed winter roadways.
“Had enough northern exposure?” Bjorn asks jokingly as he notices the frozen red tip of my nose. I could easily compete with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, now.
So I nod and pull my head back into the vehicle as Bjorn closes the two roof hatches through which his passengers had peeked at the frosty bison.
He turns the ignition key and the engine howls.
The Bombardier, built in 1978, makes a deafening noise. Perhaps I should have taken some of the earplugs that Bjorn knowingly offered to his nine passengers when we first climbed into the vehicle at Flagg Ranch Resort.
The starting point of our bumpy, 45-mile (72 km) journey to Old Faithful Snow Lodge, in the heart of Yellowstone National Park.
If only he hadn’t boasted at the same time that we would be the “lucky ones,” riding in Bombardier’s “luxury” edition, as coach number 710 had been especially padded and soundproofed to carry the Olympic torch part of its way to Salt Lake City’s Winter Games in 2002.
After his enthusiastic praise, I couldn’t possibly expose myself as a wimp and reach for the earplug box. No ear plugs for me. “Thank you very much.”
Enjoying the Background
My fellow passengers had also declined. So we are all enjoying the authentic background noises of an endangered species of snow coaches.
Less than two dozen of these historic snow crawlers still belong to the active park fleet. Invented in the 1940s by Canadian Joseph Armand Bombardier, all Yellowstone Bombardier models stem from the late 1970s.
Many a time they have been scheduled to be replaced by quieter and environmentally cleaner alternatives.
Yellowstone concessionaire Xanterra Park & Resorts, which operates all hotels, restaurants and ski-rental facilities.
It also runs sightseeing tours and shuttle trips to and from park hotels, is already utilizing a new generation of more comfortable snow coaches on some routes — ordinary minivans modified to run on tracks, instead of wheels.
Independent tour operators also offer sightseeing trips in modern track vehicles. “Not nearly as well geared to master extreme snowy conditions as my old lady here,” Bjorn Anderson proudly declares, and pats the dashboard of his trusty snow machine.
We glide through silent pine forests where trees wear puffy snow hats, and over wide, open clearings, that are, in reality, frozen lakes.
We drive past murmuring creeks fed by hot thermal springs where we are told elk wade through the water to warm their hooves.
Waterfalls plunge down snow-padded cliffs. White spume sprays shivering aspen trees, freezes, and wraps the bare trees into a sparkling garb of frozen water droplets.
Wafting vapor clouds ascend from smoking fumaroles, aquamarine-colored pools, bubbling mud pots and hissing geysers.
Encircled by snow and ice, lush green grass grows from the thermally heated ground. Bison and deer are attracted by these heat islands of warmth.
River otters splash at the edge of the frozen West Thumb Lakes, where discharging hot springs have melted the ice and created small bathing coves for the frolicking animals. Yellowstone in winter is a surreal mix of fire and ice.
The Historic Hotel
The Old Faithful Inn, the historic hotel adjacent to the legendary geyser it was named after, looks like a gingerbread house, with its pointy, chocolaty brown gables covered in a thick layer of snow icing.
The more-than-a-century-old inn is closed in winter. At this time it plays the role of Sleeping Beauty, as newer accommodations next door — the 1999-completed Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins — are more energy efficient and easier to heat during the cold season.
The newer inn is constructed from heavy timbers with log accents and a cedar-shingle roof to reflect the rustic grandeur of other Yellowstone buildings.
Western furnishings were used throughout the hotel, in spacious rooms and the inviting lobby area. Although the Snow Lodge is much fancier, its laidback atmosphere reminds me of a cozy youth hostel.
Guests play a game of Scrabble by the crackling fire in the main lobby. Some of them wear felt slippers to the in-house Obsidian Dining Room.
Everyone either arrived by snow coach or guided snowmobile tour, and most chose to limit their luggage.
Returning (and experienced) winter visitors didn’t even bring an extra pair of shoes besides heavy boots, and wander the halls in thick woolen socks.
Surprisingly, the Snow Lodge is rarely booked up in winter.
Prices are quite affordable, as the park service regulates prices within Yellowstone National Park, including the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
The only disadvantage is that you won’t see the geyser from your window.
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.
Mammoth Hot Springs
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.
Drive to Lamar Valley
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.
“That’s a beautiful spot; I could not have picked better,” says Brad, as he nods approvingly.
“If you want to see a wolf, you’ll have to learn to think like one,” he smiles, and adds, “They are, of course, much easier to find in the winter when the vegetation is sparse and hiding places are fewer.”
No wonder winter is Brad’s favorite season for a trip to Yellowstone. “Don’t tell anyone,” he winks.
If You Go
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park Lodges