What better way to celebrate a milestone birthday than to stay in a yurt in the heart of Yellowstone in the middle of winter! Nothing like a wilderness x-country ski trip in sub-freezing temperatures to distract from the number of decades we’re checking off in life.
Everything slips into perspective after skiing ten miles a day at 8,500 feet: meadows, forest, mountain peaks tantalizingly close, remote hot springs, knowing we are the only human animals to have passed this way all winter.
Yellowstone in the winter is a very different place from the bustle of summer crowds. Long lines of cars, buses and RV’s are replaced by a trickle of snow coaches and small groups of snowmobiles.
In December 2014 new regulations were put in place in order to reduce disturbances to wildlife, reduce noise pollution and to protect the natural resources within the park. The road in the north end of the park is kept open to provide access between Gardiner and Cooke City.
Geothermal activity in the park prevents ice from forming in the Madison, Gibbon and Firehole Rivers so wildlife is often concentrated in these areas which in turn makes for wonderful wildlife viewing.
We went with the wonderful people of Yellowstone Expeditions. www.yellowstoneexpeditions.com The camp is the only accommodation in the heart of the park and is permitted to set up for just three months in the winter.
The camp consists of two adjoining yurts that form the kitchen and communal dining room, and eleven tented sleeping huts, ringed by a pine forest within a half mile x-country ski to the Grand Canyon and Water Falls of the Yellowstone River.
The communal yurts are kept toasty warm with the heat from a wood-burning stove. The sleeping huts are rustic but very cozy and warm, heated efficiently with Minnesota fishing hut style heaters. At an elevation of 8,000 feet in the middle of winter the temperature is well below freezing. Although we stayed super warm in bed anything left on the floor of the hut overnight freezes, as I found out with my water bottle one night. Hooks around the sides of the hut and above the heater ensured that our clothing and boots stayed warm and dry.
I appreciate this might not be a trip for everyone. However, if “luxury winter camping” and backcountry Nordic skiing led by knowledgeable, caring guides who also provide delicious food, sounds appealing then I would highly recommend Yellowstone Expeditions.
To stand in a meadow, with snow and trees glowing silver under a star encrusted sky, while listening to the yipping of coyotes, in the knowledge that we are the only humans to witness such wilderness within a thirty five mile radius, is a privilege.
Bison and wolf tracks in the warm damp mud surrounding the steaming, bubbling pool and stream attest to the importance of these geothermal sites as food sources for wildlife. Snow has melted in the vicinity, exposing vegetation and giving us a warm place to picnic.
The thick cloud of steam clears briefly to expose a brilliant blue surface of the pool. In 1966, scientists discovered microorganisms living in the hot springs in Yellowstone. Since then research has shown that microorganisms, known as thermophiles, exist in hot springs around the world, including hot water vents on the ocean floor.
These thermophilic bacteria are often brightly colored, creating the brilliant blue, green and red color of the water in the different hot springs.
The following day, wind and snow has blown in, so our guides decide a trail through the forest and around the sides of the frozen lakes at the base of Mount Washburn is a safer, more protected choice. The speed with which the forecast can change, reminds us of the unpredictability and harshness of winter weather at this elevation.
Most of the elk and deer move to lower ground in the winter months where it is easier to find food. As a result, the wolves also tend to follow the herds to lower ground. The best place to view wolves in winter is the Lamar Valley, in the northeast area of the park. Up here in Yellowstone Canyon and Hayden Valley, although winter sightings are possible, they are rare.
More frequently seen are Red Foxes, their tracks crisscrossing the snow! We watch as one hunts for voles under the snow, pausing to sniff and listen for movement. The wind gusts across the snow, making it feel so much colder than 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but the fox continues hunting, seemingly unperturbed by temperature or weather.
Later in the day the weather clears a little and we sight a fox curled in a patch of sun, its tail a blanket for his nose, the only exposed patch of skin on his body.
On the last day on our way out of the park, we visit Old Faithful. It is late in the afternoon when we arrive so we are treated to an almost private viewing of Old Faithful, faithfully erupting every 90 minutes.
Yellowstone National Park is a spectacular place to visit any time of the year. However, having also visited during the busy summer months, I prefer the solitude and stark beauty of Yellowstone in the winter. Rumor has it Fall and Spring are pretty amazing! I obviously need to do more research.