Our national parks in dead of winter; a once-in-a-lifetime must-do!

Old Faithful Geyser thunders into a winter sky at dusk; with three visitors to watch and one lone coyote.

Trumpeter Swans in Yellowstone’s Firehole River near Old Faithful area.
Buffalo and calf, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Park.
Lake McDonald Lodge, closed in winter, marks end of the Going to Sun Highway.
Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, taken from Going to the Sun Highway.
Spend the night in a caboose at the Issac Walton Inn on edge of Glacier NP.

Visit our national parks in dead of winter; Yellowstone and Glacier NPs make for a once-in-a-lifetime must-do!

Winter is a special and spectacular time in our national parks. Summer and early fall crowds that can choke these national treasures dwindle to a few. In Yellowstone, wildlife comes down to the thermal features where hot steam melts snow, allowing easier grazing. On our first trip to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser our view at dusk of the geyser thundering into the skies was shared by one other tourist and a lone coyote.

However, temperatures drop precipitously and snow closes many of the interior roads of these parks; preplanning is of the essence. Here are suggestions for enjoying two of our iconic Montana and Wyoming parks.

Yellowstone National Park offers several modes of winter access. From California, we have entered from two sides of the US’s oldest national park, at West Yellowstone and the north entrance of the park, Mammoth Hot Springs.

West Yellowstone is 900 miles from San Joaquin County; be prepared for cold, snowy days (on a visit three years ago, overnight temperatures descended to 40 below zero; AAA had a hard time helping us get our car started). The town, at 6200 feet, usually has quantities of snow on the ground, welcomed by a passel of snow-shoers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers who fan out from the town both into the park and surrounding National Forest land.

The city’s eastern edge offers the lovely Riverside Trail through a snowy forest and to the banks of the park’s lovely Madison River. Another trail, the Boundary Trail, also begins on the town’s east side and follows the park boundary northward. From West Yellowstone, one can arrange snowmobile trips or snowcoach trips into the park’s inner-sanctum, such as the Old Faithful area.

From West Yellowstone, head north, past the huge Big Sky Ski Resort to Bozeman, east 30 miles to Livingston, then 60 miles south to the town of Gardiner on the northern edge of Yellowstone. Enter the park through the historic Roosevelt Arch, its cornerstone laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and reach Mammoth Hot Springs in four miles, dodging bison and elk, sharing the road.

Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs, at lower elevations, are wintering grounds for much of the park’s wildlife. You’ll usually find scores of elk and bison, bighorn sheep on rocky escarpments and occasional sightings of coyotes.

Tour the boardwalks around the massive Mammoth Hot Springs, with fumaroles and steam vents spitting scalding clouds into the sky and huge hot springs cascading from the hillsides above the historic town. Those with cross country skis or snowshoes can also take a ski trail around the area.

Head east along the park’s Montana Hwy. 212 (open in winter) through the Lamar Canyon and Valley for sightings of wolves which prosper here. Take serious binoculars or spotting scopes or telescopes and telephoto lens for cameras, for often wolves are only seen from miles away.

From Mammoth, the park concessionaire runs modern snowcoaches into the park, to destinations of Canyon Village and Old Faithful. We took the snowcoach tour into Old Faithful five years earlier, a magical place made more stunning in the depths of winter.

Glacier National Park, located on the Montana/Canada border, encompasses over one million acres and more than 130 lakes.  It contains portions of two rugged mountain ranges and some of the US’s remaining glaciers.  The park has limited winter access – but you still will enjoy views of its icy splendor. Reach Apgar Village area on the park’s west side by car, and, hike, snow-shoe or cross-country ski on trails along the edge of Lake McDonald. Longer trails will take one high above the lake on its north side, allowing a view deep into the park’s interior.

From Apgar, you can drive 11 miles east on Going to the Sun Highway, barricaded in winter at Lake McDonald Lodge. While the lodge is closed for the winter and sits eerily abandoned, the views along the vast lake and into the park, shared with only a handful of other winter tourists, make them all the more memorable.

Montana Hwy. 2 skirts the southern border of the park – here you’ll discover the small town of Essex and the Izaac Walton Lodge. Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1939 to house railway workers, the lodge offers rooms, several cabooses, railway club cars and a locomotive, all converted for cozy lodging. Surrounded by cross country and snow-shoe trails to take one above the park, or into the park for remarkable winter splendor, it’s a special place.

Closer to home for winter visits are parks like Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic parks, more in a future installment.

Where to stay: Yellowstone Park: In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn (http://yellowstoneinn.com/; in Gardiner, the Park Hotel is a classy, nicely appointed 120 year-old hotel with nine cozy suites (parkhotelyellowstone.com). Inside the Park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter choices, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/. Glacier Park, find plenty of hotels, B&Bs in Whitefish, the lively resort town just west of the park (explorewhitefish.com).

For more information: Yellowstone Park, nps.gov/yell/, (307) 344-7381.  For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701.  For Yellowstone’s North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park) snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. For Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac, (406) 888-7800.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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