Yellowstone in Winter
Go in the winter.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter provides an amazing opportunity to experience an impressive combination of hot and cold. Access to many geysers and Old Faithful Lodge is only by tracked vehicle, cross country skis or snowshoe due to the tremendous amount of snow. The nation's first National Park hosts maybe 2% of its annual visitors in the winter months and yet the geothermal activity continues. The combination of the hot steam and the cold air creates quite a show. During our time there, we rented snowshoes and cross country skis from the on-site outfitter and had a great time exploring the Upper Geyser Basin.
Our journey to the Old Faithful complex began in Helena, Montana. We drove to West Yellowstone, MT in a few hours; most visitors will likely fly to Bozeman and cut that journey in half. We pre-arranged a shuttle from a local hotel to the geysers and the lodge.
The shuttle looks just like an airport-variety shuttle with four important differences that transform it into a "snow coach". The kids loved the snow coach and after paying our park access fees, we were on our way.
Dress warmly. We left during a warm-spell which fortunately remained with us for our entire time at the Lodge; the highs stayed around 5F. At night, however, the temps dropped to below -20F. Temperatures below -40 are not uncommon, but if the temps dropped that low, we were blissfully unaware, sleeping in our beds.
On the journey to the lodge, the coach driver made sure to stop and give the passengers plenty of time to get outside and take in the sights. On the way there, we saw Bald Eagles, elk, moose and squirrel, and, of course, bison.
This guy was about 20 feet from the camera, and they got even closer at times.
Some of our first geyser sightings were just off the side of the road to the Lodge. Yellowstone contains more than half of the planet's collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. All of the hydrothermal activity is powered by tremendous heat (from an underlying body of magma) combining with water from snow and rain that percolates down through the permeable rock. The rock keeps the water from expanding and results in superheated water with temperatures exceeding 400F. This water rises to the surface creating sometimes violent but all-times beautiful displays of activity.
That is Old Faithful right behind us, and is the first eruption of the famous geyser that we saw. We had just unloaded from the shuttle and checked into the lodge and decided to stretch out a bit. We noticed the signs predicting the next eruption and headed straight out to the most famous of geysers. This is several hours after getting on the shuttle and the temperature had dropped significantly. We didn't stay out too long, but didn't fear not seeing another eruption. Old Faithful is so-named because it is one of the most predictable of all geographical features on Earth, erupting every 60 minutes, with a 10-minute margin of error.
After a good night's sleep in the Lodge, we spent the day playing in "Geyserland", the Upper Geyser Basin complex. The hot steam continually mixing with cold air gave the area a very surreal and alien feel. Of course, the earth violently spewing water into the atmosphere and the faint sulphur odor added to this impression.
Old Faithful sits in the western half of the greater Yellowstone caldera, the overlapping of four smaller calderas which all demark the dome of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Scientists predict that a full-scale eruption of the supervolcano would result in a catastrophic loss of life and global climate change. Fortunately, there is no indication that such an eruption is imminent, so we were able to enjoy all the little eruptions.
Each eruption from this geyser is extremely active and the small-size of the geyser allows for a close encounter with superheated water (no one got scalded). We were close enough to see the bubbles and the splashes. That stream is right at 100C.
Here is a little hot spring that looks like it would be a perfect soaking place. The park rangers posted many signs warning people to stay on the trails. The ground surrounding geysers is rather treacherous, being continually eroded by very hot water. One false step could lead to a serious medical emergency no matter the season. In the winter, snow and ice serve to mask the ground leading to even more danger. We made sure to stay on the trail.
During our stay in Yellowstone, we saw more bison and other wildlife than people. The wild animals were attracted to the relative warmth of the geysers and had no problem ignoring respectful onlookers. Above, bison staying warm in the thermal areas near the lodge and below, a coyote taking a mud bath 30 feet from the trail. We heard reports of a wolf in the area but no confirmation. My wife went solo snow shoeing right into the area of the purported wolf sighting. She made it back.
What few people we did see (out of the lodge) were far away and obscured by mist, leading to a feeling that we had the outdoors mostly to ourselves.
But we did run into enough people to make sure that we had good family photos.
While the Lodge had a reduced staff, it provided more than enough amenities to come inside and warm up with a tasty beverage. That beer is called "Moose Drool", which tastes much better than it sounds. The hot cocoa for the kids was on the way. Or maybe they got ice cream sundaes this time.
The area wasn't all geyers - that water has to go somewhere, and when it goes, it creates picturesque streams surrounded by astounding natural beauty. This is the aptly named "Firehole River", fed by geysers upstream of Old Faithful.
Geysers define this section of Yellowstone, however. The bottom half of the above photo looks like it could be a high altitude image of a river cutting through a desert. The green algae is fed by the heat of the water.
This is the "backside" of Old Faithful in all of its glory - the lodge is obscured the steam. This photograph shows the cone in pretty good detail. While the steam is accentuated by the frigid air (and creates a moody mist) it does hide some of the detail of the water jet.
Our exit from the lodge was in the same type of snow coach in which we came, and the driver made sure to take us on some of the side roads for interesting sites. The weather had changed; the clear skies were replaced with snowy clouds and fog. This bison was rooting around for any grass that could be found under the snow.
The Park can impart a sense of solitude.
A rather unique scene provides a fitting end to the Yellowstone experience. We were at one side of a large snow field, covered in very low hanging clouds. The clouds gave way on the other side, allowing the sun to illuminate the the far hills. The clouds took on the blue hue of the sky above them which the snow reflected. This view made us all feel like Clint Eastwood.