Created by an act of Congress in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (as the welcoming Roosevelt Arch proudly proclaims), the preservation of Yellowstone National Park’s 3,468 square miles of rugged wilderness is widely considered the world’s first government-mandated effort in environmental conservation.
Bypassed during the Lewis and Clark expedition, earnest exploration of what is now Yellowstone did not begin until the late 1860s. As a result, America’s oldest national park is surprisingly pristine, and includes ecotourism attractions such as one of the largest high-altitude lakes on the continent (Yellowstone Lake), the largest supervolcano in North America (the Yellowstone Caldera) and half of the planet’s geothermal features.
As a result, Yellowstone offers the biggest population of megafauna (a.k.a. huge animals) in the Continental U.S., from grizzly bears, moose and wolves to herds of elk, bighorn sheep and bison. There’s plenty of other wildlife as well, including coyotes, foxes, pronghorn, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and myriad other species. Collectively, these features make Yellowstone National Park in winter a nature lover’s dream come true.
Mammoth Hot Springs
With the park’s overwhelming vastness, we were thankful we’d taken a group tour. Our guide, Kurt, who’s been guiding in Yellowstone for over 20 years, had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s geology, history and wildlife that came in especially handy during our first hike through Mammoth Hot Springs.
He explained how the large complex of hot springs was created over thousands of years as water running through limestone cooled and deposited calcium carbonate. Over two tons of the stuff flows into Mammoth every day, creating crazy geological formations that are constantly evolving. The result was an otherworldly setting that took on an even more alien appearance in the winter as cold snow hit hot water.
The next day we made our way east into the Lamar Valley. There were frequent snow flurries when we reached our first stop to find a huge, handsome bull elk grazing nearby. It was the first of many amazing sightings, including a pair of bald eagles sitting side by side in a tree, several coyotes, bighorn sheep grazing on a hillside and numerous herds of bison and elk. My 10-year-old daughter, who sat in the front seat of our passenger van, had a great time serving as our eagle-eyed animal spotter.
There were very few cars on the road, so when we rounded a curve to find several parked in a pullout, we knew there was something worth seeing. As we scanned the hillside, we spotted three wolves– two grey and one black– resting in the snow about a 1/2-mile away. After being eliminated from the park in the late 1920s, Yellowstone’s Grey Wolf reintroduction program began in 1995 and has been highly successful, with an estimated 100 wolves in 10 packs occupying the park at the end of 2011. We watched them for over half an hour, and at one point got to see them chasing each other playfully through the snow.
The wolves and bison (of which there are around 3,000) are the subject of intense ongoing debate between environmental advocates and local ranchers, who fear wolves will attack their cattle and wandering bison may infect their livestock with brucellosis. But American Indian tribes revere Yellowstone’s bison as pure descendants of the vast herds that once roamed the grasslands of the U.S., and we believe that they and the wolves both deserve protection as a national treasure.
Deeper into Yellowstone
The next day found us venturing deeper into the heart of Yellowstone, venturing south from Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, at the opposite end of the park.
The road is closed to regular traffic from November to mid-April, but tour operators use snowcoaches outfitted for traveling over snow and ice (picture an antique 8-passenger PT cruiser with skis for front wheels should be and back wheels that look like a tank). Riding in the odd-looking snowcoaches was one of my daughter’s favorite parts of the trip, and I loved the dual sunroof, which allowed two people at a time to pop out of the top and snap photos without leaving the vehicle.
There were many impressive sights, from the smoke-covered hills of Roaring Mountain and the picturesque scenery of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to numerous waterfalls. But our two favorite sightings came simultaneously: Our group’s other snowcoach spotted a red fox in Hayden Valley (we got there just in time to watch the bushy-tailed beauty pouncing in the snow on a hunt for rodents), and then the sun emerged fully for the first time in days, brilliantly illuminating the mountains of the central plateau.
Our last two days in the park were spent exploring the geyser basin, the most famous feature of which is Old Faithful. The famously reliable geyser was both timely (erupting every 90 minutes) and impressive, but we found the eruptions of nearby geysers such as Anemone, Beehive and Castle equally intriguing. We bumped into a National Geographic crew filming bison in the Upper Geyser Basin, and nearly stumbled onto a coyote on our way to go sledding behind the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
The snow had finally stopped for good by the time our last day in the park rolled around, providing spectacular “Big Sky” views of the Lower Geyser Basin (where we witnessed three geysers erupting at once), National Park Mountain and Gibbon Falls. We were more than a little wistful as we left Yellowstone National Park to make our way to Chico Hot Springs, especially when we saw a small herd of bison and two mule deer in the road, almost as if there to bid us farewell.
In the end, wintertime in Yellowstone National Park was like nothing we’d ever seen before. Our Winter Wonders Tour offered a refreshing taste of a wild, rugged, relatively unspoiled America, showcasing the very best of our nation’s historic environmental conservation efforts.
Photos courtesy of Bret Love & Alex Love.
– Bret Love