Author's Note: I wrote this a year ago after a winter trip to Yellowstone. It was a fabulous adventure, and I highly recommend you put it on your bucket list.
A Winter Adventure in Yellowstone Park
By Deborah T. Bucknam
In 1962, my parents decided to take the family on a camping trip to the west. Four teenagers, one eight year old, and two adults piled into a 1958 Chevy station wagon with our camping gear on top in a wooden car carrier made by my father. We camped in a ten-man circus-like tent, and saw, among other things, the memorable sights of Yellowstone Park. I always wanted to go back.
In January 2010, I went back to Yellowstone with my husband, Charlie, to cross country ski in the Yellowstone backcountry. We were not at one of Yellowstone’s famous old hotels or lodges, but in a yurt camp located near the winter-abandoned Canyon Village, about 45 miles northeast of Old Faithful. The camp is run by Yellowstone Expeditions, which enjoys the only yurt concession (and has for 37 years) in Yellowstone. Because of our remote location and strict limitations on motorized vehicles, we were virtually alone in the Yellowstone wilderness.
The yurts are a bit more modern than the ones located on the Central Asian steppes. They are individual structures with wooden sides, a canvass top, a propane space heater, one light bulb, and a bed on a wooden platform. That did not keep out the cold entirely, so the bed sheets were flannel inside sleeping bags. It was quite cozy. The camp also boasted a large, more traditional yurt that housed the kitchen and dining room, heated by a rather decrepit wood stove and softwood, as there are virtually no hardwood trees in Yellowstone. The toilet facilities consisted of an outhouse heated by a space heater, its blue flame a welcome sight in the middle of the night after a cold walk from the yurt. Another outdoor shed housed a shower, which was considerably more pleasant than the outhouse. The shower shed contained a floor to ceiling space heater, which made the small shower area satisfyingly warm, and almost made me forget that I was going to have to step out to the cold dressing room after the shower. The shower consisted of a large bucket of very hot water hauled from the yurt kitchen, with a hose at the bottom and a clamp for turning the water on and off. The bucket was large enough for a satisfactorily long shower. Another luxury item at the camp was a real sauna ferociously heated by a propane space heater. It was wonderful. The finest luxury: there was no satellite, phone or wireless service so we had no communication with the outside world.
We had two guides who cooked our meals, cleaned up afterwards, and took us on ski tours. During the week we were at the yurt camp, there was only one other “camper”. Oregonian Peter Reader was 71 years old and a veteran of 32 marathons, so his overused knees would not allow him to ski. Consequently, we had a ski guide all to ourselves while Peter took to the snowshoe trails with the other guide. In Yellowstone in the winter, the roads are groomed, not plowed, so that only snowmobiles and motorized snow-coaches can travel the roads. Snowmobiles are limited to no more than ten in a group, with a licensed Yellowstone guide in the lead. They are not allowed to travel anywhere except on the roads. Snow coaches are regular vans fitted with skis and tracks similar to snowmobiles, and as a result, they can only go about 35 m.p.h.
The first day, we took a daylong tour on the snow coach to Old Faithful and other thermal areas on the way to the yurt camp. Old Faithful lived up to its promise, and the other thermal features were impressive in the winter landscape. There were about 40 people viewing Old Faithful—far less than the hundreds of sightseers present for the event on a summer’s day.
The second day, we skied from camp along the north rim of the Yellowstone canyon. It was a beautiful clear day, and we viewed the icy lower and upper falls from our perches on the rim. While there was plenty of snow, the canyon was still colorful as it has several thermal features where there was no snow, and the steep sides did not allow much snow to stick. Our guide, Sarah McCormack, is a biologist and knowledgeable not only about Yellowstone wildlife, but also about the geology of the area. So we were treated to information about the geological features as well as information about the Yellowstone animal and plant life. Sarah pointed out tiny mistletoe growing on the pines, which caused cancer like thickening in the affected area, and eventually death to the tree. The 1988 Yellowstone fire—the devastation still evident in the hundreds of thousands of dead trees still standing—killed not only the lodge pole pines, but also the native mistletoe, allowing for young healthy trees to rejuvenate the forest. In the evening, we were treated to Sarah’s baked salmon and good political talk. Peter is an avowed socialist, and we had fun sparring cordially about politics.
The next day, we trekked across alpine meadows south of the Yellowstone canyon region to a thermal area hidden in a valley of lodge pole pines. We ate lunch on top of a meadow in a grove of pines, then skied down to the thermal area. We saw bubbling mudpots, steaming geysers and emerald green hot springs.
On the morning of the third day, we skied to the top of Dunraven pass, not going further because of avalanche risk, and enjoyed a magnificent view of the Washburn Range. In the afternoon, we skied to another thermal area, crossing sage covered hills and valleys. This area boasted the blue geyser, which spouts sapphire blue water. We saw much evidence of bison that had relaxed on the warm thermal ground, as well as wolf and coyote tracks crossing through the area.
The last day of skiing featured a fun downhill ski along a snow-covered road beside a stream that turned into a large waterfall, and around one corner, a view of the western mountains. Sarah dropped us off and picked us up at the bottom of the road, a nice relaxing ski trip after some fairly strenuous (for me) ski treks on the previous days.
Each day we saw wildlife up close and personal. The bison herds were large, and the bison often trudged along the roads, causing our snow coach to stop for long periods waiting for them to get out of the way. They used their large heads to scoop out the snow to reach the frozen grass below and their heads were often snow covered. Coyotes periodically trotted along the road or through the meadows comfortable in the cold snowy landscape. Trumpeter swans, Golden Eye and Bufflehead ducks swam in the thermal heated waters of the Yellowstone River, and otters slid and played along the colder upper reaches of the Yellowstone. One morning we were treated to the sight of a small wolf pack—one male and two females—loping along the road out of Canyon village. We were in the snow coach, alerted to the wolves by one of the guides who had been out early that morning looking for wolves after hearing their early morning howls. We kept a respectful distance until a ranger and a wildlife photographer on snowmobiles came the other way. We all stopped, but the wolves felt trapped. The two females were brave enough to finally trot by the snowmobiles, but the Alpha male would have none of it. After hesitation, he jumped into the woods. We traveled on slowly, and our guide said that she thought the Alpha male would come out of the woods eventually to find his female companions. Sure enough, the male came out of the woods behind us, and screwed up his courage to trot by the snow coach to find the rest of the pack. So we had a splendid view of the black male wolf right next to our vehicle.
Because of our remote location and the strict rules for snowmobiles, when we went off the road to ski, we were absolutely alone. I could imagine this dazzling place as John Colter first saw it in the winter of 1807-1808 when he left the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the western mountains by himself. Colter reported his findings of bubbling mud pots, geysers, and hot springs when he returned to civilization. He was derided by Easterners, who called his descriptions of Yellowstone “Colter’s Hell”. Exploring Yellowstone as Colter did made me appreciate the wonder he must have felt as well as the Easterners’ skepticism.
January is an ideal time to visit Yellowstone. The geologic and thermal features are more distinct in the winter and the wildlife is abundant. And exploring Yellowstone alone in the wild is an unforgettable experience.