Yellowstone National Park: A wonderland where animals are spectacular, crowds non-existent!
On this trip to Yellowstone National Park, we approached West Yellowstone from the northwest on Hwy. 287 (coming down from Whitefish/Glacier National Park, MT) along the Madison River, where several fly-fisherman and two bald eagles worked on catching the river’s fabled trout.
Just 15 miles outside the park, we motored through the somber Earthquake area where a quake measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale struck in August, 1959. The monster temblor brought down the side of a mountain, burying 28 campers and tossing boulders the size of buses high on the other side of the Madison River Valley. The quake rubble damned the river, creating Quake Lake – still foreboding almost 58 years later.
We reached West Yellowstone in late afternoon, and spent the night at the Stagecoach Inn. In February, but for snowmobilers and snow skiers, not a lot is going on (only a handful of restaurants and motels are open), so we had pizza across from the Stagecoach, turned in fairly early and waited for the coming cold morning.
The next morning, we took a short drive around the quaint old western town, then I checked out the Riverfront Trail on the town’s east side, which takes cross-country skiers/snowshoers into the park, headed for the lovely Madison River a mile distant, where both elk and buffalo are frequently seen. Visitors also have the option to head into the park on snowcoaches or snowmobiles.
One year earlier, we entered the park through the north entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, the only entrance which accommodates auto traffic inside the park (other roads in the park are closed by snow from November until mid-April). Just inside the park, several small herds of buffalo, grazing in grass and about a foot of snow, lounged beside the main park road. Pictures taken from just 10 feet of these noble animals are dramatic, as they chomp and snort almost within reach.
We proceeded along the entry road to the Mammoth Hot Springs area and were soon stopped in a line of autos, as another herd of buffalo numbering about 40 sauntered along the highway. Both bison and elk prefer walking on the roads rather than wading through chest-deep snows.
At the Mammoth Hot Springs area we took a walking tour on snow-covered boardwalks along the Hot Springs Terrace area. Hot springs and steam vents bubbled and snarled, melting the snows, as steam ascended hundreds of feet into the clear blue skies; thrilling!
Extensive snowshoe and cross country ski trails meander for even more expansive viewing in the Upper Terrace area. The park concessionaire also offers snow coach tours deeper into the park, including the Canyon Village and Old Faithful areas. We savored our final afternoon in the Mammoth area with a late lunch in the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel dining room.
On our very first trip into winter Yellowstone in early January a few years earlier, we took a snowcoach from West Yellowstone into the Old Faithful area and spent three lovely days at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a quarter mile from Old Faithful Geyser. It’s a four-star hotel, with 150 rooms and a cozy, full-service restaurant. We chose the Frontier Cabin option, vintage cabins a block out back and less expensive than the lodge.
Though we packed our cross-country skis, we used them only sparingly. While several feet of snow was on the ground, skiers/snowshoers had packed the miles of snow-covered boardwalk so that we were able to hike the thermal basins and up to the Old Faithful overlook shod only in winter footgear.
We saw shaggy bison throughout the park, including a huge bull just 20 feet off the boardwalk on one of our walking tours (they come down to the geyser basins for warmth in winter). Stunning Trumpeter Swans graced the Firehole River.
Old Faithful Geyser – only a short walk from our cabin – and the park’s many thermal features warmed our hearts during several brisk hikes; often, we would be the only observers when a geyser erupted!
The morning of our departure, a friendly coyote followed seeking a handout; he’ll have to await our next visit! We marveled at elk by the score; our departing snowcoach had to navigate through 60 elk sleeping on the snow-packed road!
Nearest park access: West Yellowstone is 900 miles distant; south park/Teton entrance, 990 miles and Gardiner/Mammoth Hot Springs entrance, 1,065 miles. Visitors have the option of flying into Bozeman or West Yellowstone, MT or Jackson Hole, WY airports.
What to take: Binoculars and camera, winter clothing, skis/showshoes, chains for your vehicle, even if you have a 4-wheel drive.
Where to stay: In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn, several times; in Gardiner or Mammoth Hot Springs, both the Absaroka Lodge (Gardiner) or Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge are good choices; the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only winter option deep in the park – Zanterra books both the Mammoth and Old Faithful lodges (see below).
For more information on Yellowstone National Park, nps.gov/yell; (307) 344-7381. For West Yellowstone lodging and snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, (406) 646.7701. For Yellowstone’s north park entrance and south park entrance lodging and snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge, contact Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, (307) 344.7901.