First snow of winter at Soda Butte Creek in the Absaroka Mountains of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone in winter, a place where superlatives fail to to match the grandeur that meet your body and mind. When entering Yellowstone National Park in winter, it is as if you have crossed into another world, one of quiet softness hushed by a thick blanket of snow. Trees accented with hoar frost or blankets of snow loom like wraiths against the winter sky. The crisp, icy air enhances the unearthly effect of Yellowstone’s famous geothermal features. An exotic combination of mist-shrouded hot pools, bubbling paint pots, and steaming fumaroles creates an ever-shifting landscape of undulating clouds and mysterious shadows. It is an ethereal world of crystalline perfection somehow inviting despite its apparent inhospitablity.
Access to Yellowstone in winter is the problem, it has become illegal to take a private snowmobile into Yellowstone and very few of us have snow coaches of our own or are capable of marathon ski expeditions to access Yellowstone’s winter wonders, but it is not as inaccessible as many think.
If you are very fortunate you can get up close and personal with the wolves when they visit the road.
Fortunately the snowmobiling destination resort of Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana needs groceries regularly, so to keep the citizens of these remote mountain communities alive Yellowstone Park allows this road to remain open for winter access. US-212 can be accessed through Yellowstone’s north entrance in Gardner Montana, so Yellowstone visitors can access a smidgen of Yellowstone’s treasures in winter by car.
US-212 enters Yellowstone at Gardiner Montana the towering Gallatin Range on the west and the Absaroka Range on the left In Mammoth the road turns east you leave the Gallatin Range behind. Soon you are climbing Blacktail Plateau and off to the south rises the Washburn Range, a much smaller range which resides completely inside the heart of Yellowstone. A series of hills and buttes are your companions as you take in the vast open terrain watching for the critters of Yellowstone and soon you see the wide-open expanses of the Lamar Valley. Approaching Cooke City and Silvergate you start gaining altitude as you ascend the picturesque, much narrower valley, of Soda Butte Creek into the heart of the Absaroka. This road is well maintained provided a heavy storm doesn’t get ahead of the snowplows. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley seems to provide prodigious amounts of wind so drifting snow can be a problem, but the snow removal team does a stellar job of keeping the drifting snow at bay.
Snowy Bison, I love photographing these snow encrusted bison because to me they are the picture of abject misery.
Yellowstone is as famous for its wildlife viewing as it is for its geothermal wonders and that I why most visit this little window into Yellowstone’s winter wonder. The wolves, everyone’s favorite are often seen all along the route. The Canyon Pack has been wintering regularly around Mammoth and often makes kills along the Gardiner River between Gardiner and Mammoth. The Blacktail Pack can be found roaming the Blacktail Ponds and Blacktail Plateau area east of Mammoth. What are left of the Agate Pack (if still alive) is sometimes seen around Little America/Junction Butte east of Tower Junction. The Lamar Pack can be seen roaming and hunting the Lamar Valley between Little American and Round Prairie near the town of Silvergate just outside of the park at the Northeast entrance. The Molly Pack that summers in the Pelican Creek drainage by Yellowstone Lake come north to the lower elevations to winter around the Lamar Valley and their great numbers (2012) creates much territorial drama not only with the Agate Pack around Little America/Junction Butte but also seem to be wanting to take over the territory of the Lamar Pack as well.
Although Yellowstone’s bears are hibernating for the winter there are abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. The stretch of road between Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs, and the bluffs above the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River are good places to see Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, as is the Junction Butte area around the Yellowstone Picnic area and on the hill above the Junction of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. There are many elk that graze inside the town of Mammoth Hot Springs and the surrounding area. Many elk and bison can be seen anywhere along the route form Gardner to Cooke City. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and moose may be seen but the chances are much smaller than with the abundant elk and bison herds. The ubiquitous Coyote is always a treat to watch as they hunt the snowy landscape for rodents they sniff out under the snow. The coyote are often mistaken for his cousin the wolf.
To get away from wolves elk usually head for the rivers to gain advantage for the fight of their life. An elk shoulder deep in a river has a better chance of fighting off the much shorter wolf in the moving water.
The grandeur of Yellowstone’s Valleys that reside at the south end of the magnificent Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains provide many scenic photo opportunities. The peaks of the of the Gallatin Range and the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains add majestic interest to the skyline; Yellowstone Park has provided ample scenic turnouts along the route enabling abundant opportunities to safely get off the road to capture grand scenics and special moments with Yellowstone Park’s wildlife.
Wildlife is more active in the morning and evening so it is good to start early and stay late for the best candid photos of the Park’s mega fauna. The first and last light of day will provide the best scenic photos but the magnificent terrain can provide good photos all day long. If your hope is to view or photograph the wolves, you greatly increase your chances by being in the Lamar Valley a half hour before sunrise. By working the roadsides in the park winter wildlife photography can be done with relative ease and comfort but if you are fortunate enough to encounter wolves at close proximity, be prepared with every warm thing you own because rangers don’t allow parking within a mile of where wolves have a kill close to the road so some hiking may be in order followed by extended periods of stationary observation or photography in conditions usually colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces in Yellowstone National Park.
For the cross-country skier, there are plenty of opportunities to see some of the territory off the beaten path. Yellowstone Park grooms and maintains some trails for skiers and other trails are skier packed. Bushwhacking your own ski trail seems to be popular I have deduced due to the many empty vehicles parked in turnouts, but you better know what you are doing before attempting such a ski adventure. I have footnoted some of the park’s ski trail opportunities.
Although Yellowstone’s north road lacks the spectacular geysers of the interior of the park, it does have one of Yellowstone most awesome geothermal features, Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth Hot Springs is a large hill of travertine that has been created over thousands of years as hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate. Although these springs lie outside the Yellowstone Caldera boundary, their energy has been attributed to the same magmatic system that fuels other Yellowstone geothermal areas. Geothermal activity here is extensive both over time and distance. Terrace Mountain at Mammoth Hot Springs is the largest known carbonate-depositing spring in the world. The most famous feature at the springs is the Minerva Terrace, a series of travertine terraces. The terraces have been deposited by the spring over many years, but due to recent minor earthquake activity, the spring vent has shifted, rendering the terraces dry
Around the first of December you can sometimes find bighorn sheep fighting for the girls.
There is a boardwalk so you can experience this geothermal wonder and near the center is the long, steaming slope tiered with delicate terraces. Edged with fragile scallops of travertine, the pools are tinted with oranges, yellows, greens, and blues–colorful signatures of some 65 different thermal algae that thrive in various temperature zones in the springs. Carry your skis along and you can loosen up on the 1 1/2-mile roadbed of the Upper Terrace Loop.
A geothermal feature you can swim in is at Boiling River Hot Spring, A short hike to this magical spot doesn’t appear on the maps or in the pamphlet of day hikes but you can find the parking area at the 45th parallel sign marking the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole between Mammoth and Gardner. This spring is believed to be part of the underground outflow of Mammoth Hot Springs. The stream emerges from beneath a travertine ledge and rushes for only 145 yards before emptying over a small water fall into the a pool at the Gardiner River. It is illegal to swim in the Boiling River which really is just a stream, but you can swim in the “pool” where the Boiling River falls into the much colder Gardiner River.
Snowmobilers enjoy the winter landscape of Yellowstone National Park
To see Yellowstone’s signature thermal features like Old Faithful in winter you will have to go on by snowmobile or slow coach outfitters. I do recommend it. The winter access plan for the winter of 2013/2014 is supposed to liberalize snowmobile access so people can access Yellowstone’s interior by snowmobile without the expensive guide or tour. This will provide access to those of us of modest means and to photographers that can’t operate within the confines of a guided tour.
The North Yellowstone winter road is truly a treat for those who experience it. This special 56-mile section of road provides the last vestiges for Yellowstone’s independent motorized winter travel and is a treasured microcosm of what world travelers, American families, photographers, and other outdoorsmen used to be able to experience throughout Yellowstone’s developed road system, in winter, by snowmobile.
The best time during the winter to go depends on what you want to photography. In February is breeding season for the wolves and they are active for an additional reason other food so action increases, oddly enough Valentines day is a good window of time for wolf breeding season. The bighorn sheep are in the rut from thanksgiving sometimes as late a Christmas and seeing them butting heads is a really cool piece of action to witness. Earlier in the winter the elk and deer still have their antlers. Figure out what is most important for your portfolio and plan your trip around that.
Winter in Yellowstone is truly a wonderful thing to experience, its deep snows, bitter cold, abundant wildlife and stark beauty can imprint indelible memories that will last a lifetime.