The mere mention of Yellowstone conjures up images of geysers, most notably, Old Faithful and plentiful wildlife, usually, bears, wolves and bison, all of which, this jewel of a National Park has in varying degrees of abundance. The vast majority of visitors visit May through October, with July alone averaging over 900,000 visitors, so as someone who doesn’t enjoy being around that many people, the chance to visit in January, with an average of around 20,000 visitors, was perfect.
The Yellowstone experience began at Bozeman Airport in Montana, with the smell of log fires pervading the arrivals hall, offering a true welcome. A very comfortable, exceedingly scenic 80-mile bus trip to the North Entrance at Roosevelt Arch, with an informative guide pointing out wildlife along the way – especially black tailed deer, bald eagles and even elk, which had moved to the lower regions outside the park to feed – was a true indication of an incredible five days to follow.
The first night inside the park was spent at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. The rooms provided a wonderfully warm and cozy place to sleep after a long day of travel.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast and a walk around the travertine terraces, it was time to get on the road for the 4-hour journey to Old Faithful Snow Lodge, in one of the park’s many snow coaches – think 13 seater mini-coaches with big wheels and snow tires, and an experienced and informative guide, too.
The trip takes around four hours, with scheduled stops at Gibbon Falls, Madison Warming Hut and Midway Geyser Basin, plus additional stops, which make for some perfect photo ops of wildlife, when safe to do so, of course! That four hours flies by, as the various sights along the way are sure to take your breath away. A few of the spots we were able to see included Sheepeater Cliff, named after a band of Eastern Shoshone called Tukuaduka (sheep eaters), Obsidian Cliff, Roaring Mountain (although eerily silent these days), Norris Geyser Basin; named after Philetus W. Norris, the second superintendent of Yellowstone, Beryl Spring and Fountain Flats.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the destination and it really is a wonderful place to stay. Built from wood that was harvested entirely from park trees, it feels like being in a log cabin, protected from the snow and cold, but with a dining room serving all manner of wonderful, wholesome food and a well-stocked bar, carrying many local and international liquors and beers.
The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the 8-hour long winter photo safari in a snow coach with 16-year veteran guide, Lisa Culpepper, driving. An accomplished and renowned photographer herself, Lisa helped lesser experienced photographers with settings for winter images by stopping at scheduled points as well as when wildlife was spotted and advising everyone on the best way to capture their picturesque photos.
We were even lucky enough to see a coyote feeding on a carcass of a recently deceased bison, about 200 yards away from us, before it was chased away by a bigger male . The coyote the ran back to the road, to within 30 yards of us, affording everyone ample opportunity for great photos of it in a snowstorm, before trotting off along the trail.
A trip to West Thumb, Yellowstone Lake the next day, a walk to watch Old Faithful erupt and hiking along a couple of trails around Old Faithful took up the rest of the time in that area before returning to Mammoth, going along Firehole Canyon Drive with a stop at Firehole Falls. We then went on to Artist’s Paintpots, an area of hot springs, geysers, fumeroles and mudpots.
While it was cold, with average daytime temperatures lingering around 20 degrees, layering up with a snow suit, thermal socks, gloves and good snow boots was more than enough, although at times, the wind hitting the face, reminded one of just how brutal the weather can get here.
If you want to visit a national park but want to stay away from the crowds and traffic, go to Yellowstone in winter. It is definitely worth every wonderous minute!