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 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.
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