Yellowstone: Winter Wonderland

We’re all longing for Spring right now, but hold that thought and come along with me for 5 days to the winter wonderland of Yellowstone. Beautiful in summer, Yellowstone is positively magical in winter. This is a long post, but I promise, it’s almost all photos.

First, I feel the need to apologize to the fine people of Wyoming. You see, a couple months ago I made our Yellowstone reservations for the last week of February, and then began praying fervently for deep snow. I mean DEEP snow. Well, judging by his answer, God must really like me. So, I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you Wyoming residents who have to live with this snow all winter instead of flying in for 5 days and then back to warmer climes! But truly, it was AWESOME.

Day 1 – Jackson Hole, Wyoming

We flew into Jackson Hole, arriving early afternoon. My brother and sister-in-law, Andy and Pam, had driven from Casper and picked us up at the airport. They had planned to come over on Thursday, but came on Monday instead to get ahead of a whopper of a blizzard. Good call! Jackson and the rest of the state got dumped on, and roads were closed all over the state. Luckily, the weather broke just before our flight on Friday.

We spent the afternoon driving the back roads in Grand Teton National Park, our favorite place on earth. Our hotel was right across the highway from the elk refuge, where about 5,000 elk shelter during the winter. And so, you might expect I’d have at least one photo of an elk, right? How embarrassing. No. But they were fabulous!

Big horn sheep often hang out on the back side of the elk refuge, so that was our first stop. We watched this herd until our shutter fingers froze.

Herd of big horn sheep along a ridge

A few miles down the road, we came across a beaver family on the Gros Ventre River. Five of them! We watched them from the road for awhile, but photographers don’t do photos from the road. Did we notice that the fence posts were barely visible above the snow? Maybe not. Okay, no. Andy and I had photo brain and left the warm truck; Roger and Pam had better sense. With my first step, I plunged down until the snow hit mid thigh. No turning back. Between giggling and trying to keep our cameras out of the snow, somehow we made it close enough to get a few good shots.

Two beavers

Further down the Gros Ventre, we came across a shy moose, hiding in the pines. Hard to tell whether it was a bull or a cow, because the bulls have shed their antlers by this time and we didn’t get close enough to inquire. But male or female, definitely cute. Those lashes!

We saw a juvenile bison hanging out by Warm Spring all by his lonesome. Odd to see a young one alone, especially with no herds in that area. Otherwise, we wrapped the day with a coyote sighting and headed back to town for dinner.

Day 2 – Into Yellowstone

We left our hotel at 6:00 a.m., headed for Flagg Ranch, just south of the Yellowstone National Park entrance. It’s only 55 miles, but it took almost an hour and half due to road conditions and a low speed limit through Grand Teton National Park. We were thankful for a 4-wheel-drive.

The drive gave us a perfect preview of just how gloriously God had answered my prayer for snow. This road had been closed for three days earlier in the week, after getting about 2 feet of fresh snow. The reflector poles on the side of the roads are 8 feet high, and sometimes only a foot was visible. Pine trees bowed under giant mounds of snow, and road signs appeared to be at ground level. We turned the corner into Flagg Ranch to this beautiful sight!

Snow covered log building at Flagg Ranch

There are two modes of transportation into Yellowstone in the winter: snowmobile or snow coach. We chose the latter. We boarded our coach at Flagg Ranch, along with two other couples from Colorado. Our driver introduced himself as Eric, although the name on his jacket was Wes. Very suspicious, but he seemed nice enough.

Off we went, trusting our lives to Eric/Wes. Snow coach drivers fit a certain mold: young bucks with long shaggy hair, scruffy facial stubble, cheerful disposition and a fondness for the word “dude.” Many are whitewater raft guides in the summer, and they live by the motto, “Work hard, play hard.” We had great confidence in the amiable Eric/Wes, but also a nagging memory of being stuck on this same road three years earlier when our snow coach driver had veered only slightly off the beaten path.

Given the heavy snow this season, the snow coach travels over 4 feet of packed snow, with fresh powder and drifts on top of that. Long, steep hills, lots of curves, and random snowmobile caravans add to the challenge. I always tease Roger that he’s not having fun until there’s some chance he might be killed, and from the look on his face, he was definitely having fun! He may have been a snow coach driver in a prior life.

Eric/Wes delivered us safely to the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful in just under two hours. After settling into our rooms and grabbing a bite of lunch, we headed out to explore the geyser basin. Some people don skis or snowshoes, but with a little caution, boots will do just fine. We timed it perfectly to start our hike by watching Old Faithful erupt. It never gets old.

ski trail through the pines

The trails look innocent enough, but if you happen to step just an inch right or left of that narrow path, you’ll sink past your knee in a nanosecond. I tested it several times, and yep, every single time.

Snowy Bridge and Pines

One by one, I lost my companions to the warmth of the lodge, but it was a glorious day and I logged over five miles in my exploration. The geyser basin has an otherworldly feel, shrouded in steam. The gurgle, bubble, and spit of the thermal pools provides a soothing soundtrack, punctuated by the occasional hiss of a geyser eruption.

Yellowstone landscape

The pools vary in color, depending largely on the temperature. At this altitude, water boils at 199 degrees, so all those bubbling noises encourage explorers to stay on the walkway. The orange and brown colors around the thermal features are bacteria mats, teeming with a bazillion (literally!) micro organisms.

blue pool in the geyser basin
Lime green pool in the geyser basin

I got lucky and came upon Grand Geyser just as it started erupting. Grand only erupts every 6-7 hours, but it goes for more than 10 minutes and is even more spectacular than Old Faithful! Only a handful of hikers timed it right, and we stood in silence while it put on a dramatic show. Trees in close proximity to a geyser are coated in thick hoarfrost.

Grand Geyser erupting
snowy trees in the geyser basin

On my way back to the lodge, I came upon this bison napping beside the river. We were uncomfortably close, but I banked on him being too content to care if I passed by.

Bison napping beside the river

After dark, a few hearty souls continue to explore, hang around the fire pit, or ice skate on a small rink outside the lodge. We opted for warmth and card games. There is not a single television anywhere in the lodge, and wi-fi is only available in the lobby area. No one seems to mind. The public areas have clusters of comfortable seating, including chairs and footstools in front of a fire, and multiple game tables. Everywhere you look, people are playing games, laughing and chatting. Hat hair and no makeup? No one cares. A musician entertains with cello music, and every sore muscle relaxes. (Notice the depth of the snow outside the lodge window!)

Chilling in front of the fireplace

Day 3 – Exploration and Excursion

We booked a snow coach excursion called Across the Great Divide for the afternoon, which left the morning free for independent wandering. I was anxious to catch morning light, so I headed out with my camera at 7:00, just as morning was breaking. No one knew where I was going, including me, which in hindsight wasn’t a great idea. I was ALL ALONE in the wilds for 2 hours…divine solitude.

lamp post and frosty pines outside the snow lodge
Sunrise over Old Faithful cabins
Sunrise over the river

I hung a right at Old Faithful, crossed the Firehole River, and took a trail I had seen the day before that led to an observation point overlooking the basin. The sign advised it was 1/2 mile with a 200 foot rise in elevation. Turned out to be more arduous than I expected, but I had all the time in the world.

After climbing for what felt like forever, I came to the next trail sign, which someone had thoughtfully unburied. At first I thought it said 1 mile instead of .1 miles — imagine my relief when I saw that little period! I made it to the observation point, then circled back and took the loop to Solitary Geyser and the Upper Geyser Basin.

I found the solitude of this solo hike deeply refreshing. Other than the occasional tweet or caw of a bird, the only sounds in the universe were my own breathing and the crunch of my boots on the snow. I stopped often just to soak in the quiet beauty surrounding me.

Always on the lookout for wildlife, I got excited when I saw these tracks. Can you tell what critter made them? A snowshoe hare! They are ridiculously cute with their giant feet, and I was more than a little disappointed not to spot one.

snow shoe hare tracks

At last I found myself out of the woods and onto the boardwalk around the geyser basin. Morning steam being thick, I didn’t realize how close this bison was to the boardwalk until I came upon him. He was warming his rump next to a thermal feature, and at only about 25 feet from the boardwalk, I gave him his space and took the long way around!

Bison warming his rump beside a thermal feature

I got back to the lodge just in time to watch a ranger raise Old Glory. I love the sight of our proud, beautiful flag.

Ranger raising Old Glory at Old Faithful Lodge

Morning coffee never tasted so good!

When it was time for our afternoon excursion, we stepped out of the lodge to find two snow coaches waiting for their passengers. The vintage Bombardier on the left is the type of coach that took us into our first Yellowstone winter adventure, on our honeymoon in December, 1978! A few Bombardiers are still in use, but we were not disappointed to learn that our ride was the big yellow monster.

Led by a bubbly guide named Katie, we headed east from Old Faithful to the West Thumb geyser area around Yellowstone Lake. We crossed the Continental Divide twice, and Katie posed for a photo op with the sign. The elevation information on the sign was buried, but according to Google, it’s 8,391 feet.

Continental Divide Sign

We passed Isa Lake, which has an unusual distinction. Situated on the Continental Divide, it has two outlets, one that eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean and one that empties into the Atlantic (by way of the Gulf of Mexico). Fun fact!

Kepler Cascades had a stunning view of the falls and canyon, perfect for a photo op.

Once at West Thumb, we hiked the boardwalk loop around the geyser area. Sounds easy, but it was snowing hard by this time, and we were breaking a trail through many inches of fresh powder from the last few days. The boardwalk has handrails on both sides, but the depth of the snow put the top of the rails dead level with our walking path! The unfortunate soul who stepped an inch off the narrow path in either direction required a hoist to get out of a thigh-deep hole.

Katie explained the history behind these two adjacent pools, the one on the left named Black Pool and the one on the right named Abyss Pool. Seems backward, right? Several years ago, a “thermal event” caused an underground shift that changed the water temperatures of these two pools. Black Pool suddenly became much hotter, resulting in the brilliant blue color, while Abyss Pool, which had been a deep, clear blue, cooled and darkened. I guess it was too much trouble to rename the pools, so we just accept that Black Pool is actually brilliant turquoise.

Abyss Pool made the national news last summer, but not in a good way. A visitor happened to notice a shoe in the water, and when the rangers retrieved it, the shoe contained part of a human foot. An investigation concluded that it belonged to a visitor who likely committed suicide. They believe he came to the pool after dark, and with a weight around his waist, jumped in. I can think of many less awful ways to leave this world. Tragic.

Side note: the gift store sells a very popular book, Death in Yellowstone, which recounts more than 300 ghoulish deaths in the Park, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed a prime rib dinner and settled into an evening of fierce card competition. That is, until 8:30 when our tired bodies begged for bed.

Day 4: Photo Safari

Andy, Pam and I boarded a snow coach at 8:00 am for a full day adventure, chasing wildlife with a photographer guide, Lisa Culpepper. Roger was nursing a cold and enjoyed a quiet day to himself.

I had done Lisa’s photo safari excursion three years ago, and I knew it would be the highlight of our trip. Normally these excursions have about 8 guests, but we got lucky and had Lisa all to ourselves, with the exception of another employee who joined us.

With 20 years of experience in the Park, Lisa is a wealth of information. She loves helping people learn their cameras and improve their photography skills — just what we needed. Follow her Facebook page, Lisa Culpepper Photography, for a visual feast.

Before boarding our big yellow coach, Lisa asked what we most wanted to see on our adventure. Frosty bison, trumpeter swans, coyotes and bald eagles are a given. We had our hearts set on two more elusive sightings: a red fox mousing for his dinner, and river otters. Feeling giddy, we threw in a wolf sighting just for good measure! Wolves are plentiful, but very elusive, so we knew not to get our hopes up. As it turns out, we got everything but the wolf!

We started at Black Sand Basin for some frosty bison shots. Lisa taught us some cool iPhone tricks for landscape shots, too. Dead trees provided a perfect opportunity to play with shadow and light.

Bison close-up
Bison in the mist
Prismatic pool in Black Sand Basin
Dead trees on snow, shadow and light

After taking in vast landscapes, it’s fun to focus in close on the details. As you may have noticed from my logo, I have a deep affection for pinecones. This iPhone shot turned out to be one of my favorites.

Macro shot of pine branch with icicles

Back in the coach, Lisa kept a steady stream of instruction while constantly scanning for wildlife. We noticed tracks along the road, and surmised it might be a fox or coyote. Then I saw him! A red fox, trotting through the snow! At first, he seemed to be out for a stroll, just wandering.

Red fox and pine tree
Red fox on the prowl
Red fox listening

Soon his wandering turned to hunting. He would pause, cock his head and listen. His ears would shift forward, his back haunches tense, and then in one sudden graceful leap, he dove into the snow and pulled up a vole! What drama! In my excitement, I missed the leaping shot, but Andy got a great one. Between the two of us, we captured the sequence. Next time we’ll have the presence of mind to have our cameras set to continuous shooting!

Leaping red fox
Red fox diving for vole

Apparently, the vole was just an appetizer, and our fox friend continued to hunt. At one point he stopped, sat down and just watched us for awhile. What a gorgeous creature. He was the highlight of a thrilling day, even for Lisa. She gives these tours four days a week for three months, and this was the only mousing fox experience she had this season! Lucky us!

Close-up of red fox watching us

Perhaps Lisa gets tired of seeing the ubiquitous bison in the Park, but she didn’t let on. Same for eagles and trumpeter swans. They are plentiful, but no less majestic. Something about just watching them in the wild never fails to thrill.

Bison on the march
Bison cow and calf

Bison frequently have snow-packed faces, because they use their enormous heads like snow plows, shaking back and forth to clear a path to the nutrients beneath. Know how to tell the difference between a cow and bull bison? They both have horns, but the female’s horns are smaller and more curved. Females also tend to be a little smaller, but sometimes you have to look close to tell the difference.

Snowy bison close-up

Trumpeter swans migrate south from Canada to winter in the warmer waters of Yellowstone. Given their thermal springs, the Firehole, Gibbon and Madison Rivers never freeze over. Eagles find plenty to eat along these rivers.

Trumpeter swan

Our next big jackpot was the river otter. Somehow Lisa managed to spot them in the middle of the river. Remarkable! We watched them play, sliding into the water like little kids, for the longest time. Joy is an otter.

River otters at play

Near the otters, we spotted a blue heron on the banks of the river. After watching it hunt for several minutes, I moved and startled it. Oof. I was sorry to have disturbed it, but also grateful that we got to watch it take flight. What grace.

One of the biggest surprises of the day was our encounter with coyotes. As we were driving down the road, I spotted a coyote running along the mountainside. Lisa knew immediately where it was headed, so we drove to the site, turned around for a perfect view and waited. Sure enough, the coyote was headed to a bison carcass on the bank of the river. Lisa suspects the bison expired of natural causes, not predators, and its bones had been well picked over by this time. But apparently there were still some goodies on the part submerged, and the coyote was letting nothing go to waste. Notice the big dorsal spine bones of the bison!

Snarling coyote feeding on carcass

Before long, a second coyote came moseying down the road, and we wondered if we were about to witness an epic coyote rumble. But no. The first coyote left the carcass, came up to the road with his back hair standing straight up, but then said, “Hey, bro” and the two traded places! The second coyote fed for awhile and then they switched again. Who knew?? Were they mates, old pals, fraternity bros? We will never know, but coyote cooperation was something to behold.

We would see three more coyotes before the day ended, and I must say, I found some love in my heart for these wily canines. They’re kinda cute, don’t you think? We watched this pair walk along the river bank and noticed the second one looked a little the worse for the wear. His lip was ragged, and he didn’t look as spry as the one in the lead.

Coyote pair

Our last stop of the day was in Firehole Canyon to see the falls. We were shooting the falls when Lisa noticed a sleeping swan in the snow. Can you spot it?

Firehole Canyon Falls
Sleeping Swan
Swan at base of Firehole Canyon Falls

At first, I wondered if the swan was dead instead of sleeping but then it stood up. Unfortunately, Lisa believes the swan had somehow gotten into the canyon and could not fly out. This is one of those nature stories that likely did not have a happy ending, at least for the swan.

Our photo safari exceeded all expectations, and we finished the day with hearts full of gratitude for God’s magnificent creation. Whether our cameras captured it or not, the beauty of the day is forever written in our memories.

Day 5 – Back to Jackson

What we thought would be an uneventful trip out of the park turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Our coach was 2 hours late due to bad roads, and our driver white-knuckled the steering wheel all the way back to Flagg Ranch. With many inches of fresh snow and drifts, it was more difficult than usual. When he had safely delivered us, he admitted that it was the worst trip he’d ever driven! Whew.

We spent the last few hours of daylight looking for wildlife again around Jackson. We watched three coyotes stalk our big horn sheep herd, and that was interesting! Would a coyote attempt to take down a sheep? We didn’t think so, but it remained an open question. What do you think the coyote’s intentions are in these shots?

Coyote Stalking Big Horn Sheep
Coyote and Big Horn Sheep

Yellowstone winters will always hold a special place in our lives. If you’d like to experience it yourself, we’d be delighted to pass along any tips to help you plan an unforgettable escape to this winter wonderland! Thanks for reading!

Want more? Check out my post from three years ago!

ComeOnAileen

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12 Comments

  1. Oh, girl. The white-knuckled driving makes me nauseous!!! But, I love the pictures and your story telling kind of makes it feel like I was there ❤️

    1. Oh, Mel, this makes me laugh! We literally commented at the time, “Melinda would HATE this!” You are always with us, Girl! 🙂 There’s one stretch of road that is on a steep hill, with a deep canyon on one side. When the coach is blasting through drifts and swaying side to side, it even scared me! And now that I’ve told you that, you’ll never go with me. 🙂 What a contrast our winter experience was with your New Zealand summer temps. I love it all. The photos Rick posted made me so want to visit there. Maybe someday.

  2. An excellent retelling of our unforgettable adventure! You’ve become quite the photographer, Aileen!

    1. Thank you, Pam! I’m so grateful you and Andy were game to join us on this adventure. It was so fun to share it with you!

  3. Such beautiful photography!! Jim loved browsing through- me too. Thank you so much for sharing. Now, that does make me miss it. I might enjoy a winter trip with Jim now that I’m back in me feet!

    1. Dawn, you have too much Wyoming in your soul not to love Yellowstone in winter! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, and glad you’re back on your feet. Give Jim our love, and please let us know if you ever find yourself in our neck of the woods. We’d love to reconnect!

    1. Thanks, Gina! I thought I’d enter a couple of them in the Wyoming Wildlife photo contest. They get thousands of entries, but it would be fun to enter.
      Aileen

  4. Aileen, love that you’re an extraordinary virtual tour guide and master storyteller. It was pure joy to read each entry and soak in the pictures that were nuanced with so many details. Thank you for sharing your talents.

  5. I’m not sure if I believe the writing or the photographs impressed me more, but I enjoyed every detail in both! How adventurous, and talented, and passionate, and inspirational you are. Thank you for sharing your gifts to make us all smile and appreciate our beautiful world. Georgiana

    1. Thank you so much, Georgiana! I love the creative combination of words and images. You made my day!

      Aileen

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