Ice cold and steaming hot
Yellowstone in Winter
Every summer, one of America’s best known national parks is coming apart at the seams due to the number of visitors settling in. In wintertime, Yellowstone paints a completely different picture. Then you don’t have to share the land of geysers, hot springs and underlying volcanoes with anyone. Apart from bison and wolves, that is.
If Ranger Leah Collins wouldn’t have had such a friendly face whilst saying that, those would have been ominous words. During winter, the most North-Westerly corner of Wyoming is impenetrable for regular travelers. And for good reason. This is Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One of the last practically remained intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere. Apart from Yellowstone these also cover Grand Teton National Park, National Elk Refuge and a handful of National Forests. One by one, these are protected nature reserves where wildlife can roam as good as freely and nature is harmed as least as possible.
The chilling Teton Mountains, which, with its giant, pointed, granite blocks, belong to one of the most extraordinary parts of the Rocky Mountains
To get to the Southern entrance of Yellowstone, you keep on driving for about 50 kilometers on a tamped down ice and snow road. Through Grand Teton, another National Park. Along the gruesome Teton Mountains, which with its gigantic, pointy, granite blocks is one of the most remarkable areas of the Rocky Mountains. You follow Jackson Lake where, apart from some ice-fishermen, there is nothing to see other than a white plain. As you continue, you go past a bit of Snake River until the road –indeed- comes to an end. All of a sudden, just like that. A big pile of snow prevents you from continuing onwards. Your phone has lost all connection. And if a snow blizzard would suddenly kick in, you’d only be able to go back once a big snow shovel had cleared the road. Today, the end of the world lies between Moran and West Thumb. And the only piece of civilization is Flagg Ranch. The place where all trips to Yellowstone begin.
On snowy forest roads
Caterpillars and Snowmobiles
From here on you can only continue under supervision. At a height of about 2500 meters, the roads have changed into maintained and groomed pistes, which meander through the mountainous areas like white vains. Only well adapted vehicles can make use of it. Snowmobiles, snowcoaches (elevated buses on gigantic tyres) or Bombardiers. The latter ones dating from the past. They look like strapped Volkswagen Beetles, with added skis at the front and caterpillars at the back. There are only a few of those still driving around. Nostalgia is what’s keeping them alive, because from a practical point of view it’s a miracle these vehicles are still up and running. Where snowcoaches are heated and supplied with the latest technologies, it’s a different story for Bombardiers. The engine is roaring right amidst the passengers and those who aren’t paying attention will definitely burn their hands on it.
Driver Aaron, who’s taking us to the Old Faithful Lodge within less than two hours, just laughs about it. “It’s superb seeing those things drive past every now and again, but as for me, I’m happy to be driving a bus like this.”
Bombardiers date back to years gone by. They look like strapped Volkswagen Beetles, with two skis at the front and tracks behind
The two hours drive to Old Faithful is also the gradient introduction to the National Park. Those impressions are combined with Aaron’s added information and stories. Yellowstone is one of the most renown National Parks in the country. One of the busiest too and at least the oldest. In the world. “As early as 1869, expeditions have been organised to this part of the country. It happened at a time where big parts of the West still had to be mapped. However, when the first people came back with their stories, they initially weren’t believed at all. A place where steam rises from the earth, where the most colourful hot springs were to be seen and where water is shot up into the air on a regular basis, that just couldn’t be real. Or at least, it would be hell. Only when an expedition team packed with geologists, archeologists and scientists reported to American congress, showing them pictures, paintings and sketches, it started to get through to everyone how unique the place was and that it needed protection. This is how, in 1872, the first National Park was proclaimed.”
A place where steam rises from the earth, where the most colourful hot springs were to be seen and where water is shot up into the air on a regular basis, that just couldn’t be real
Summer vs Winter
Today, over four million visitors a year are in awe of Yellowstone’s natural beauty. Frank and Sue, two fellow passengers from Wyoming, have been visiting the park more often: “In Summer it can be unbearable at times, there are that many people out here. Around Old Faithful, the Park’s best-known geyser, it’s like Times Square, New York. You’re watching an eruption, shoulder to shoulder with other visitors. That’s why winter is such a special time. We bring our cross-country skis. So you can get out on the ski-runs and spend hours and hours without meeting a single person. Yellowstone all to yourself, in this day and age, that’s something that’s really hard to imagine.”. You don’t necessarily need to be able to do cross-country skiing, I’ve noticed right after arrival at the Snow Lodge. I’m walking over to the park’s visitors centre and one of the best known geysers in the world in only a few minutes. There’s not a soul around. The hundreds of benches surrounding the geyser tell you how much space has been made for the visitors. Yet now I have Old Faithful all to myself. I hear the water bubbling, as if there’s a giant pan of spaghetti on the stove. The geyser’s alive, breathing, huffing and puffing. And then, without me having checked the eruption timeframe, the steam evaporates. And the water. Higher and higher, louder as it goes. And no one there to see it except me.
Upper Geyser Basin
Old Faithful is Yellowstone’s best known geyser for good reason. If there’s anything you can rely on, it’s the fact that it’s shooting over thirty thousand litres of water high into the air, every one and a half hour. However, there are about thirty other geysers around Old Faithful. They’re part of the Upper Geyser Basin, which from a distance looks like a British industrial town in the 19th century. Smoke and steam are all around. Thick wisps are floating over the landscape and if a geyser erupts it’s done so with heavy noise. Looking through the steam, though, you see something entirely different. Forested hills as far as the eye can see.
Animals that search for thermal heat live relatively shorter lives than wildlife wintering in colder areas of the park
Do Not Swim
One look at the rainbow colours in the ground and you’ll know why. Volcanic soil is chemical and life threatening. However, those who regard geysers and hotsprings as soothing natural baths, are given the story of David Allen Kirwan by every guide or ranger. Guide Kat tells it at the Fountain Paint Pot, about fifteen kilometers North of Old Faithful, with a mix of spectacle and horror. The largest mud pot in the Lower Geyser Basin is one of the regular stops at an excursion through the park. A boiling witches’ cauldron of red, pink and brown, producing bubbles of iron. Kat: “Almost thirty years ago two friends in their mid-twenties were here to see the mud pools and geysers.
They brought along a dog with them, but were smart enough to leave it in their car. However, the animal found a way to escape through the open window and happily ran towards them. He jumped into one of the hotsprings out of sheer enthusiasm. People who stood by and watched yelled that he shouldn’t do it, but Kirwan didn’t think twice and jumped into the water. Head first. The moment he got to his dog, he realized how big a mistake he’d made. At some points the water is over 90 degrees Celsius. He couldn’t even get his dog out on the edge. Eventually, his friend found a way to get him out of the water, but it was too late for Kirwan. A hundred percent of his body was burned, he died of his wounds a day later at the Salt Lake City burn centre. His dog never immersed out of the water. Due to the heat and acids, it was completely dissolved after a few hours.”.
Wildlife in Lamar Valley
A stir at the entrance of Snow Lodge. Wolves have been spotted around the lodge. According to a visitor, they were walking across the banisters that serve them as walking trails, just like that. “It can happen any time.”, Alice -today’s driver and guide- explains. “There are between eighty and a hundred wolves residing in Yellowstone. Once in a while a pack comes by, in the lodge area as well. But to see them is a rare thing. It’s only happened to me a few times during the years I’ve been working in the park.” We don’t get to see the wolves today.
A thick pack of snow makes for a meeting with a few coyotes, some bison herds, a red fox, four moose and a river otter
Tip: Combine your visit to Yellowstone with Grand Teton National Park. If you go into Yellowstone through the southern entrance, you’ll get through it anyway. In addition, the town of Jackson and the National Elk Refuge are also worth a visit.