Since being dropped off by a “snowcoach,” a van fitted with tank-like treads as a substitute of tires, on the Cygnet Lakes trailhead just a little to the southwest of the geographic middle of Yellowstone National Park 4 hours earlier, I’ve seen no signal of people — not a lot as a ski or snowshoe observe. The park does groom tracks and paths for cross-country snowboarding, however Piper Gillard, a ski information on the Yellowstone Expeditions yurt camp, and I are usually not on any of those.
We’re taking turns breaking path by a foot of snow, by tight forests of younger lodgepole pine, alongside the banks of — and generally on prime of — a frozen tributary of Otter Creek and round steaming thermal areas which can be so small and inaccessible that the map we’re utilizing to navigate doesn’t hassle to indicate them. While ours are the one ski tracks, they cross a mess of wolf, bison, snowshoe hare, coyote, ermine and pine marten tracks.
When Yellowstone was based — 150 years in the past this March — it was to guard its geothermal wonders, of which it has the best focus anyplace in the world. Today the park is as particular for its variety and density of wildlife as its geology. It is exclusive in the Lower 48, as a result of the entire giant mammals — grizzly bears, bison, wolves and others — that lived in the world earlier than the arrival of Europeans nonetheless reside right here in the wild.
When I pictured a February journey to Yellowstone, this — trail-less tromping to a secluded backcountry scorching spring with solely wild animals for firm — was all I might think about and the whole lot I hoped for.
After soaking for about half-hour, Piper and I put our moist bathing fits and towels into plastic luggage, change again into our ski clothes, shoulder our day packs and ski 4 miles throughout Hayden Valley. We give a herd of grazing bison a large berth. When a number of animals in the herd pause their grazing — they use their ponderous necks and heads to push snow out of the way in which to succeed in the grasses beneath — and begin operating, we give them an excellent wider berth. A park legislation states that you would be able to’t be any nearer than 25 yards to a bison, however I’ve at all times interpreted that at the least: A cardinal rule of wildlife watching is that if an animal is reacting to you, you’re too shut.
Half an hour previous the bison herd, energy strains and one of many park’s snow roads become visible. My toes, now sweating inside ski boots for greater than six hours, are the one a part of me completely happy about this. I’ve lived an hour south of Yellowstone National Park for 25 years and backpacked, hiked, snowshoed and kayaked in it extra occasions than I can rely — even disappearing for days in the summer time in trail-less areas and seeing a number of grizzly bears — and that is the primary time I’ve felt the marvel of its wildness.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into legislation March 1, 1872. The act set Yellowstone apart as “a pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It was the nation’s first nationwide park.
In 2021, greater than 4.8 million individuals visited Yellowstone National Park, making it the busiest 12 months on report. Although a lot has been fabricated from Yellowstone’s “overcrowding,” the fact is that, even in the course of the park’s busiest month — July, with 1.08 million guests — solely a fraction of individuals ventured greater than a half-mile from its parking heaps, roads and boardwalks. Yellowstone is greater than 2.2 million acres, in regards to the dimension of Delaware and Rhode Island mixed, and its roads and parking heaps are lower than 0.08 % of its whole space. So it’s extra of a congestion downside than an overcrowding one. Still, you may’t get to the non-congested areas with out navigating the congested ones.
This time of 12 months, although, there’s no congestion: Only about 110,000 of 2021’s guests got here to Yellowstone in the course of the park’s winter season, which runs from mid-December by mid-March. During this time, when the park will get an annual common of 10 to twenty toes of snow, nearly all of Yellowstone’s roads are closed to vehicles, and the one main attraction you may drive to is Mammoth Hot Springs.
Roads shut in early November and are left unplowed. Once there’s sufficient snow, normally beginning in early December, the park begins grooming the roads for snowmobiles and snowcoaches, creating snow roads. You can take a snowmobile or snowcoach to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which is one among solely two motels open in the park in winter. (The different is Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.)
Or you will be one among about 15 individuals at a time who keep at a yurt camp run by Yellowstone Expeditions close to the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here, the one different dwelling creatures spending the evening for 35 miles are a handful of park and concessionaire workers and the wildlife for which the park is known.
Founded in 1983 by Arden Bailey and Dale Fowler, the yurt camp is open for about 10 weeks each winter. Still run by Bailey and, since 1989, Erica Hutchings, the yurt camp is a 30-mile trip in a snowcoach from West Yellowstone, Mont., the gateway city on the park’s west entrance. On a Sunday morning in February, 10 of us pile into two of them — “Uncle Billy” and “Eleanor” — in the car parking zone of the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center. “Each of our coaches is named for someone important in Yellowstone’s history,” Hutchings says. I’m in Uncle Billy, named for Thomas Elwood “Billy” Hofer, a naturalist in and explorer of the park in the late 1800s.
With information Nadia Garbaj on the wheel, we cease to observe trumpeter swans as they float, feed and, sure, trumpet, in the Madison River. She shares sufficient information about them to take my thoughts off how badly I need to see wolves, which have been reintroduced to the park in 1995 and 1996 and now quantity about 90.
Hundreds of the birds winter in the park — they migrate from Canada — however solely about three dozen nest there. “In the summer, there are fewer trumpeter swans in Yellowstone than there are wolves,” Nadia says. “But now, in winter, they’re easy to see.”
Farther up the river, we cease to observe bison on the far financial institution. Yellowstone is the one place in the United States the place wild bison have lived constantly from prehistoric occasions to the current. (The park’s inhabitants hit a nadir of about 23 of the animals in 1901; in the present day, it goals for a inhabitants of about 5,000.) A pair of trumpeter swans floats by in entrance of them.
Before lunch, we cease at Norris Geyser Basin, one among summer time’s congested areas, probably the most different thermal space in the park and residential to the tallest energetic geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser. Ours is the one car in the car parking zone.
Until not too long ago, Steamboat’s main eruptions, which might last as long as 40 minutes and shoot water greater than 300 toes into the air, have been as irregular as they have been rare. At one level, 50 years handed between eruptions. Steamboat reactivated in 2018, although, and has since erupted 150 occasions. Although its eruptions are not rare, huge ones stay irregular. When we stroll a half-mile on a snow-covered boardwalk to see the geyser, it steams and each minute or so shoots water 10 or 15 toes into the air. “You got to see a minor eruption,” Nadia says after I meet the remainder of my group again at Uncle Billy. “It’s pretty cool when no one else is around, isn’t it?”
We attain camp, tucked into timber on the finish of a snow highway marked “Restricted Access,” round 3 p.m. “For those who want to, we’re going on a short ski in about 30 minutes,” Nadia says. Yellowstone Expeditions’ yurt camp sits in the center of the park’s Canyon Village community of ski trails.
Unlike many yurt setups, in which everybody eats and sleeps in one yurt, Yellowstone Expeditions has a small compound. There are two principal yurts — one is the kitchen, and the opposite is the place company eat and hang around — and 9 “yurtlets,” the place company sleep. Despite the corporate’s title for them, they’re small cabins slightly than yurts. Mine had a king-size mattress, a battery-powered lightbulb, a propane heater and hooks on which to hold gear and clothes to dry. The camp additionally has a sauna, an outhouse with two composting bathrooms and foot-pump sinks, an outside fireplace pit and a number of other further yurtlets for guides. I settle into Yurtlet 8 and gown for snowboarding.
Even although we’re all going to the identical place — the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — I get a information to myself as a result of I’m touring solo. We ski to the rim by way of a barely longer route than the opposite two teams, every of which incorporates individuals who have by no means gone cross-country snowboarding. We begin on the Roller Coaster Ski Trail, which the park grooms after recent snowfall, and take it to the North Rim Trail, additionally groomed. About an hour after leaving camp, we’ve the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to ourselves. During the day, snowmobiles and snowcoaches do cease right here, however by late afternoon, these guests are on their approach out of the park or to Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
From Lookout Point, I can hear Lower Falls, the 308-foot-tall waterfall that marks the canyon’s begin. Perhaps due to the thick ice cone round its base, it doesn’t roar. It sounds vaguely non secular, like a sustained notice on the organ — and in addition type of like a sustained snore.
The following morning, after spinach and ham frittata, granola and bacon for breakfast, we head out as one huge group to Pelican Valley, simply north of Yellowstone Lake, the place the park’s remaining bison retreated in 1901. In summer time, this space is prime habitat for grizzly bears, and entry is restricted. In winter, with trails buried beneath snow and bears hibernating, we’re free to discover. Less than 10 minutes after leaving the snowcoaches, we ski over wolf tracks. Judging by the depth of the trough they left, it was an entire pack, and, as a result of particular person tracks are nonetheless discernible, they in all probability got here by inside the previous day.
After lunch — sandwiches eaten whereas sitting on logs above a flippantly steaming hillside inexperienced with mosses — a number of of us attempt to ski as much as the highest of an excellent steamier hillside. The information calls it “the Valley of Death”; my map calls it the Sulphur Hills. We run out of snow a number of hundred vertical toes from the highest and switch round.
In Yellowstone, snow, even simply an inch, means security. A patch of naked floor in the in any other case snowy panorama reveals the presence of underground thermal exercise. The floor over thermal options will be skinny; it’s finest to keep away from crossing it altogether slightly than threat it giving approach underneath your weight.
Not all of Yellowstone’s thermal exercise is lethal, although.
I first hear a few ski journey that features a soak in a thermal creek from Nadia on the drive to camp. It is illegitimate — and harmful — to soak in scorching springs in Yellowstone. You can, nevertheless, soak in transferring water, together with rivers and creeks warmed by thermal runoff, at your personal threat. “It’s a lot of work and route-finding, but worth it,” Nadia says. I inform her the expertise appears like one thing out of my wildest desires.
And after I lastly do it, on my final full day at camp, it exceeds them.
Yellowstone Expeditions yurt camp
Canyon Village, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Tucked into the forest close to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, this camp consists of 9 “yurtlets” for company. Also included are a sauna and a principal yurt, the place meals are served. Available by March 6. Four-day/three-night journeys $1,560 per particular person (double occupancy) and $1,760 (single occupancy); five-day/four-night journeys $1,900 per particular person (double occupancy) and $2,150 (single); eight-day/seven-night journeys $2,700 per particular person (double) and $3,000 (single). Prices embrace transportation to and from West Yellowstone, Mont., and the yurt camp, plus all meals, transportation to trailheads inside the park and guided cross-country ski excursions. Fees don’t embrace park entrance: $35 per automotive for seven-day go or $20 per particular person.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins
2051 Snow Lodge Ave., Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
There are 100 lodge rooms, 24 Western cabins and 10 Frontier cabins at Old Faithful. The alternatives for cross-country snowboarding aren’t as different as on the yurt camp, however there may be electrical energy and indoor plumbing. Open by March 6 this winter and April 29 by Oct. 30 for summer time. From $180 per evening.
123 N. Hayden St., West Yellowstone, Mont.
The proprietor providers the entrance desk at this property a brief stroll from downtown West Yellowstone. From $99 per evening for double occupancy.
121 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone, Mont.
Elevated pub fare — bison brisket nachos, elk medallions, Idaho rainbow trout, a burger topped with chipotle huckleberry unfold — in a relaxed environment. Open each day 5 to 9 p.m. Entrees from $21; burgers from $14.
33 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, Mont.
Grab espresso, espresso, tea and baked items inside Freeheel and Wheel, a Nordic snowboarding and bike store throughout the road from Yellowstone Expeditions’ assembly spot. Open each day 9 a.m. to five p.m.
750 Lone Mountain Ranch Rd., Big Sky, Mont.
You needn’t be a visitor on the Lone Mountain Ranch to get pleasure from its restaurant, which serves a hearty breakfast buffet and “The Skier’s Table” for lunch. Dinner menu options elk, bison and beef. Open each day 7 to 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 9 p.m. Breakfast and lunch $25 per particular person, dinner entrees from $36.
See Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on a day journey in a guided snowcoach from West Yellowstone. Pickup at West Yellowstone motel/motels. Available by March 15 and from Dec. 15 to March 15, 2023. For subsequent season: Ages 16 and up, $150; ages 15 and youthful, $130. Nine-hour personal tour in a 10-seat van from $950.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
307-344-2550 (Canyon Visitor Education Center)
It’s a five-mile round-trip, cross-country ski from the yurt camp on the North Rim Trail to Lookout Point, which affords views of the Lower Falls, the tallest waterfall in Yellowstone. Open each day 24/7. Free with park entry.
50 Big Sky Resort Rd., Big Sky, Mont.
Add Alpine snowboarding to the journey with a cease at Big Sky Resort, which is between West Yellowstone and the Bozeman airport. Here, 39 ski lifts permit entry to five,850 skiable acres. Open by April 24, situations allowing. Adult full-day raise tickets from $178 ages 15 to 69; from $135 ages 70 and over; from $106 ages 7 to 14; and from $1 for skiers and riders 6 and underneath.
330 Gallatin Rd., West Yellowstone, Mont.
The 3.5-mile Boundary Trail is groomed a number of occasions every week for cross-country skiers and snowshoers and parallels Yellowstone National Park’s western boundary. It connects northern West Yellowstone with the Baker’s Hole Campground in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Open each day, situations allowing. Free.
100 S. Geyser St., West Yellowstone, Mont.
There are about 20 miles of frequently groomed trails, for traditional and skate snowboarding southwest of downtown West Yellowstone, in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Open each day by April 1, situations allowing. Dec. 1 by March 31, day passes are $15, three-day passes are $30, a person season go is $100, and a household season go is $190; kids 12 and youthful ski free. November snowboarding is a separate go, and prices $15 per day and $60 for the month; $7.50 for kids youthful than 10.
Potential vacationers ought to take native and nationwide public well being directives relating to the pandemic into consideration earlier than planning any journeys. Travel well being discover information will be discovered on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map displaying journey suggestions by vacation spot and the CDC’s journey well being discover webpage.