As our snow coach pulled out of Mammoth Hot Springs on the way to Old Faithful, the driver commented that we should plan to use all our senses to experience Yellowstone National Park in the winter, including our senses of adventure and humor. As it turned out, that was good advice as we enjoyed some of the coldest temperatures of the season during our next four days at Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
My husband Ken and I have made a point of visiting Yellowstone Park in the winter for a number of years. This year we were accompanied on a February trip by four friends from Cincinnati who had joined us on one previous winter trip several years ago, when temperatures were much warmer than normal. This year, they had expressed the desire for more winter-like conditions. It turns out they were not disappointed.
Winter travel in the park has changed lots over the past two decades, and the experience now bears little resemblance to the noisy, malodorous days of unlimited snowmobile use of the past. Today’s visitors are primarily interested in seeing wildlife and winter landscapes. They are there for the beauty, the skiing and the serenity, as well as for the adventure of being some of the lucky few to observe the world’s first national park in the coldest months.
From late December to early March, visitors to Yellowstone’s interior stay at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, arriving via commercially operated over-snow vehicles. Snow coaches generally hold up to about a dozen travelers, with luggage traveling on a separate conveyance scheduled to arrive at the hotel at approximately the same time as the guests. Visitors also arrive at Old Faithful by snowmobile.
Because the rooms and cabins of Snow Lodge are the only accommodations available at Old Faithful in the winter, the number of daily visitors is drastically reduced from that of summer. In early morning or late evening, it is not unusual to find oneself completely alone on the boardwalk observing the famous geyser erupt, a scenario most summer visitors would find impossible to envision.
Once at the hotel, guests have a plethora of options available to pass the time, ranging from guided wildlife and photography tours to sitting in front of one of the large fireplaces and reading a book or completing a jigsaw puzzle. The new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily and offers a variety of exhibits.
Traveling from the north entrance, our snow coach left Mammoth Hotel at 8 a.m. Several stops are made along the way, and our first photo opportunity came at Swan Lake Flats. Besides the other scheduled stops at Roaring Mountain, Madison and Gibbon Falls, the driver-guides are always willing to pull over for a closer look at scenery or wildlife if requested. We observed bison, elk, coyotes, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and numerous species of water birds on our ride. Other coaches were lucky enough to sight fox, otters, snowshoe hares, wolves and even a bobcat.
Arriving at Old Faithful around noon means guests have the afternoon to enjoy the area. We hiked up to Observation Point via a snow packed trail, overlooking Old Faithful from 250 feet above. Then, we continued on to Solitary Geyser before making our way back down to the boardwalk for a tour of the Upper Geyser Basin. Although deep snow limits travel in the area, visitors can manage the boardwalks in the basin wearing winter boots, snow-shoes or cross country skis.
As avid cross country skiers, my husband and I had planned two of our favorite routes for two separate days. While it is certainly easy to ski a number of marked trails of various difficulty levels right out of the lodge, we had arranged for drop-offs that would allow us to get in position for some of the more difficult terrain and longer skis. As we climbed into the unusual looking Bombardier coach for our shuttle at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning, our driver informed us that her other fares had canceled due to the temperatures dipping to 22 degrees below zero.
But we were prepared, and within 15 minutes of being dropped at Kepler Cascades, we were stopping to peel off layers to avoid overheating. We arrived at Lone Star Geyser shortly after 10 a.m., just in time to have a private viewing of the geyser erupting, an event that happens approximately every three hours.
From Lone Star we continued on for another hour toward Grant’s Pass and then turned around and made our way back to the geyser to meet our friends for lunch beside the Firehole River. They had taken the 10:30 shuttle and walked in using snowshoes on the flat trail. After lunch they reversed their journey, with the addition of another mile and a half to arrive back at the Snow Lodge, while Ken and I continued on in the other direction to reach Howard Eaton Trail, described in the trail map as a “more difficult” route back to the hotel.
On Thursday we awoke to a thermometer reading of 36 below. Our friends were scheduled to participate in a snowmobile tour of the Park, and we were planning to tackle Mallard Creek Trail, one of the most challenging ski treks in the area.
After much debate, Ken and I decided to stick to the plan and we caught the 9:30 Bombardier shuttle to the drop off point to begin the steep, 1,000-foot climb to the lookout point above Mallard Lake. Once again, we were the only travelers.
Because of deep snow on the unbroken trail, it took us 4 hours to traverse the first half of the ten mile journey, even though we quickly discovered that stopping for a break was not an option in those temperatures. We were later told by employees in the ski shop that we were only the third group to ski Mallard Creek Trail so far this winter.
Arriving back at Old Faithful more than six hours after we started, we ran into our friends fresh from a skiing lesson near the hotel. The snowmobile tours had been cancelled for the day due to the frigid temperatures, and they decided to take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new skill from an experienced instructor, using gear provided by the hotel ski shop.
On day four, we were scheduled to travel back to Mammoth. Because the snow coach doesn’t leave Snow Lodge until 2 pm, we had lots of time to do the easy ski past Daisy Geyser and on to Black Sand Pool, where we entertained ourselves by touching the fence and feeling the famous “whoosh” and “thump” convey themselves through the wood and our thick gloves. At 0 degrees, the air felt positively balmy compared to the previous day.
On the ride out, our snow coach made stops at Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Canyon Drive and Madison before arriving at Mammoth Hotel at 6 p.m., shortly after our luggage.
Kathy Lichtendahl is a freelance photographer dedicated to the West and its natural wonders. She is a graduate of the Photographic Communications program at Northwest College and is a member of the National Press Photographers Association and the Montana Professional Photographers Association.