Hibernate with the Animals in Yellowstone This Winter

You're Invited

Bev Hosford  |   Wednesday Dec. 31st, 2014

Yin and Yang. Pleasure and Pain. Hot and Cold. Contrast makes the world go-round. In Yellowstone National Park, the thermogenic effects beneath the earth, mix with the cold wintry air and create quite the concoction. In his book, Grizzlies on my Mind, Michael Leach a former Yellowstone Park Ranger reminisces of his first winter in the park and taking a dip in the boiling river. How’s that for contrast!?!? Maybe taking off most of your clothes in sub-zero weather isn’t your thing, but luckily you have other options…

While the bears, bison, deer, wolves, rabbits and many other habitants of Yellowstone National Park are shivering and scavenging their way through winter, you can enjoy the comfort of a touring vehicle and cozy cabin, with warming huts along your journey through the park. Take advantage of a unique opportunity in your own back yard this winter.

Five reasons to visit Yellowstone in the winter

1. Take a trip back in time
In the 1800’s only a select few spent winter in the park, clearing snow off rooftops so they didn’t collapse. They wrote about the joys of solitude and simple life while “wintering” in the park. Today, 3.2 million people visit the park each year, with only 100,000 stopping through in the winter. You can experience the peacefulness and solitude of this special place by visiting December through March.

2. Perspective is everything
The cold air illuminates the steam from the geysers, making it more dramatic. The colors around the hot springs pop against the white back-drop of snow. You might even get some time alone to observe a geyser quietly with the absence of the crowds!

3. Walk on the wild side
Satisfy your inner animal by hunting for tracks in the snow. It’s neat to stumble upon evidence of animals by observing footprints in the white powder.

4. Snow decorates the park for the holidays
The serenity of the snow covered landscapes allows the mind to escape. Sip on a cup of hot coffee, cocoa or cider while contemplating what life was like before modern day comforts. For decades, people have chosen to spend their winter in this magical place for a very good reason.

5. Modern day miracles and phenomenon
As if the hot spring themselves weren’t enchanting enough… Some ponds and rivers won’t freeze over and parts of the pavement stay free of snow and ice due to the thermogenic effects. Early settlers actually built green houses over hot spots in the winter. So neat!   

Compromise emerges in the midst of controversy
In 1955 snow coaches began visiting Yellowstone National Park, with snowmobiles close behind in 1963.  It was decided that roads would be groomed for over snow usage, rather than plowed. Almost 40 years after the park welcomed it’s first snowmobiles, the gates closed due to disturbance of hibernating wildlife and over-crowding concerns, only to re-open again this December.  Select companies have permits to guide tourists through the park with snow vehicles. The public can also visit the park on foot, via nordic skis or take a chance at the lottery for private snowmobiling access.

Some people believe that loud vehicles coming through the park, stress out the animals, causing them to burn their stored hibernation fat. By limiting the number of vehicles allowed through the gates each day, the amount of “noise events” are reduced. Regardless of whether you side with this theory, it’s tough to argue with a cleaner and quieter environment. While it’s frustrating for some people to have these limits placed upon them, it’s a good compromise.

What’s your story?
Compared to the 1900’s there is plenty going on in the winter and memories are waiting to be made. There are free ranger programs happening in the winter for both kids and adults. Movies are running at the Old Faithful visitors center and Imax theater. Pick up the Yellowstone Winter guide to view the full range of opportunities. Check online for when the sled-dog races are happening for an extra special treat, but bring your ear plugs because it gets noisy in town at night with all the howling!

Enjoy a cozy retreat in one of the Explorer Cabins near the entrance to West Yellowstone. They have a fireplace and kitchen, so it feels like a vacation home. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the amenities at the Branding Iron Inn, Holiday Inn or Gray Wolf Inn & Suites. Adventures with friends, romantic getaways and family vacations can all be accommodated to create the experience you are looking for. Get in touch with Yellowstone Vacations to explore their many options. This family run business has been accommodating visitors in the park for decades.

Take a tour and hear the tales
Yellowstone Vacations operates the Buffalo Bus Touring Company, utilizing snowmobiles and snow coaches to see the sights. Snow touring is the perfect choice to have it all. Ride in a warm vehicle and make new friends from all over, while seeing geysers and wildlife along the way. “You look, we drive” is the motto of Buffalo Bus Touring Company. If you’re looking for a workout, you can ride the coach to Biscuit Basin and nordic ski the rest of the 2.5 miles to Old Faithful, with a warm ride home afterwards.

I had the opportunity to ride with two snow coach drivers, Scott and Jon. They both radiate a passion for the landscapes and animals of the park. Being around people who love what they do for a living and appreciate their environment is just as uplifting as being in the park itself. Their stories, sense of humor and knowledge make the tour worth every dollar of the average $100 tour fee. Break it down, $100/6 hours = $16/hour for gas, warmth, stories, safety and good company. It seems like a lot until you realize you’re getting a once in a lifetime insider look at Yellowstone in the winter. People come from all over the world for this opportunity and it’s so close to home for us!

Jon was very excited to share the geysers at Biscuit Basin, particularly Jewel Geyser. “It’s like a toilet emptying and refilling!” Jon exclaimed to us. Sounds quite ordinary until you see everyones chin drop open as they watch it happen. Jon’s enthusiasm was contagious and our tour group was like a close group of friends by the end of the day. He told many stories, but one that stuck in my mind was about a bison who decided to flip an unattended snow mobile just for the heck of it. You never know what could happen when you are amongst mother nature and her many creatures!

Final Words of Wisdom
While there are places open to eat and shop during the winter months, call ahead and check the hours. The internet is not always updated for seasonal towns like West Yellowstone and many restaurants are closed during the slow hours of the day. Wear layers of clothing, warm boots, hats and bring hand warmers just in case… If your car or tour vehicle breaks down, you’ll be grateful for the extra warmth. Compared to hundreds of years ago, the park is quite accommodating, but bring an attitude of flexibility. If you’re lucky…something extraordinary just might happen on your winter adventure to Yellowstone National Park.

“Beyond and at our feet now lay the Great Basin of the Yellowstone, with its dark forests, its open spaces all wintry white, and its steam columns shooting upward in every direction. It was like coming suddenly upon the confines of the unknown, so differently did the snow landscape appear in the summertime.” Gustavus Doane, 1876

Excerpt from Snowshoes, Coaches and Cross Country Skis: A Brief History of Yellowstone Winters by Jeff Henry (2011)

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