From herds of bison to the elusive wolf, steaming geysers to diamond dust, Yellowstone National Park is a year-round destination. In winter, the few visitors get this wildlife wonderland to themselves...
The grey wolf at the end of my viewing scope rose from a pack of dark shapes clustered around their kill. Stark against the pure white snow, she arched her back in a stretching motion, loped towards some rocks and squatted to urinate. I was watching from a ridge at least half a kilometre away across the Lamar Valley, but when she turned to stare in my direction I could make out yellow slit eyes and splashes of red around her muzzle.
“There’s nine of them feeding, so I’m wondering where the rest of the pack have got to...” came an authoritative voice from the scope next to mine. “Seems like they’ve taken an elk... don’t reckon it’s a fresh carcass... there may be coyotes hoping for a share of the spoils, so listen out for their song.”
Emil McCain was our guide through the winter wildlife and geological marvels of Yellowstone National Park. A biologist, environmentalist and specialist on the wolves of the park, he had proved expert not only in locating them, but also in finding the remote ridge for our group to observe them from far enough away to remain unobserved ourselves.
Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 after an absence of 70 years. Sightings are rare as there are only about 100 wolves in the park; these are made up of about eight packs, including the Junction Butte pack, the family that Emil had found for us.
Yellowstone gives visitors the slim chance to watch wolves roaming free, but in the dead of winter, there are no other humans for miles around: most of the park’s four million visitors arrive between spring and autumn. But during the cold season, while the bears are hibernating, a profusion of other fauna takes to the snowy stage of an almost deserted theatre.
For the wolves, February is breeding season so they move around like at no other time, making them easier to spot against the snow. I had arrived in Yellowstone hoping that winter would be the opportunity to see them leave trails in the wild and explore where those fragile footprints may lead in the future.
My trip had begun in Bozeman, Montana, a small town with an Old West feel, where I met up with our nine-strong group – Europeans, Australians and a couple of Americans. Yellowstone’s North Entrance was a couple of hours drive by minibus across rolling white hills with our genial and informative tour leader, California-based Ben Collier, at the wheel.
We would be joined at various points by locally-based specialist experts on the wildlife and geology of the 8,983 square- kilometre territory, established in 1872 as America’s (and the world’s) first national park. Most of it is in Wyoming though the northern and western fringes spill into Montana and Idaho.
The first stop in Yellowstone was Mammoth Hot Springs, just south of the North Entrance. Here we wandered around the travertine terraces, a natural staircase of geothermal pools simmering and bubbling down a mountainside. The interaction of scalding water and freezing air breathed swirling clouds into the atmosphere while we descended the three-kilometre trail.
Lingering in the park’s north, the next day we entered the Lamar Valley in search of a different kind of spectacle. The broad, glacier-sculpted valley teems with wildlife; a sort of Serengeti in the snow. Wild animals roamed everywhere. We watched strings of elk traipsing in single file through wind blown white expanses, and huge herds of frozen-bearded bison.
There are said to be upwards of 5,000 bison in the park. That’s nothing on the tens of millions that abounded in the American west before Europeans arrived. All the same, in Yellowstone they at least roam free in something approaching a natural habitat, with wolves their nemesis these days rather than humans.
“Bison? they are big, badass beasts,” chuckled Emil. In our minibus we were able to drive within a few metres of these hump-shouldered giants that can weigh up to 1,000kg. We got close enough to enjoy the almost comical way they shook their massive heads to bluster aside the snow and expose any brown tussock they could find.
By contrast, we watched white trumpeter swans landing like gliders on a river warmed by thermal activity deep underground. Most of Yellowstone’s birds migrate south for the winter but these beauties stay, as do flocks of black ravens and the occasional bald eagle that we spied atop silver- branched aspen trees.
The herd of skittish pronghorn antelope, whose white-furred rumps we watched disappear as they ran across the Lamar River, was a surprise. Despite their name, they are not antelopes – they just resemble them. Indigenous to north America, where you don’t get antelopes, their nearest relatives are actually giraffes. “Yup, a zoological quirk,” confirmed Emil as my eyebrows raised.
We spotted only one moose, a horse-sized male which had shed its horns and was making unhurried tracks across the valley; it paused here and there to browse on willows, then waded into a stream to continue feeding. The grey-coated coyotes were more plentiful. We watched one ‘mousing’ – jumping up and pouncing into the snow in pursuit of rodents.
Bighorn sheep were harder to find, camouflaged against the surrounding crags where they balanced on impossible ledges. Emil picked them out on a scope as we stood in the steely cold sunshine warming our hands on cups of hot soup. And then, of course, there was the Junction Butte pack. Emil sensed where they might be, but wolf sightings requires persistence, patience and a fair bit of luck. So a frisson of excitement spread through our group when, perched on our ridge, he suddenly motioned us to silence.
While we hunched over our scopes, Emil explained the important role wolves play in the park’s ecosystem. “Here in the Lamar Valley, the wolves preyed on the abundant elk, forcing them to leave the area. This meant that the plants and trees that the elk fed on began to regenerate and fortify the river banks, which became habitat for other wildlife... otters, beavers, weasels. So, introducing a top predator has not depleted the eco-system as some anti-wolfers warned. Exactly the opposite, as a matter of fact.”
If the snow was an indispensable part of what made the wildlife so utterly captivating, so winter was to prove an unbeatable time to see the concentration of geysers in the middle of the park. Roads to this part of Yellowstone close from autumn until spring.
For decades, skis were the only way to get around and even now access is limited to snowmobiles or giant yellow ‘snowcoaches’ with wheels as big as a Boeing jumbo jet’s. So, after two days on the park’s northern fringes, we climbed into one of these monsters. The two-hour drive to Old Faithful lodge took us all day as we stopped to take in the surroundings. Right at the snowbound heart of the park, the lodge is one of only two places to stay in Yellowstone at this time of year.
“Wintertime and the livin’ ain’t easy,” sang year-round Yellowstone resident Nic Sinotte, our driver and guide for the day. “But it’s when you get to truly hear the call of the wild, yessiree. Even people who have been here many a winter trip is like finding a whole new park,” she continued, brimming with brio. “We are in an immense caldera resulting from one mega eruption 640,000 years ago.
You’ve gotta remember that under us right now is a violent super-volcano that will – not might – blow again one day. Hey ho, welcome to the mother of all loaded guns,” she told us.
Nic explained how Yellowstone’s snowmelt and groundwaters seep through the earth and vaporise in subterranean chambers of magma. As it superheats, pressure builds up to cause the violent, periodic explosions of steam and boiling water that we call geysers (pronounced guy-zers, stateside). Each eruption continues until the chamber is empty. It then slowly refills and the procedure repeats. Some geysers are regular, whether eruptions are frequent or not; others are less predictable.
We stopped to climb a giant snowdrift and wait for a ‘fountain geyser’ – the type that erupts out of a pool. After a rumble of warning, it suddenly flung out spirals of scalding water creating clouds of fog, frost and ice as they froze. By the end of the day we had met some of their eccentric geothermal relatives too: smoking fumaroles; burping and bubbling mudpots; and permanent hot springs wafting sulphurous gases into the air.
After crossing the invisible rim of the Yellowstone caldera, we reached the Upper Geyser Basin. Our Scandi-style, log fire-warmed lodge was bang next to Old Faithful, the most celebrated old geyser of them all. It erupts predictably (hence the name) every 90 minutes or so. At first I found myself rushing outside for every blast of 40,000 steaming litres shooting 60m skywards and lasting a few minutes each time, but I reminded myself that the basin is home to more than half of all the major geysers in the world (yes, including Iceland).
The next day I rented cross-country skis and set off on a groomed trail connecting a cluster of them along the aptly-named Firehole River. Some were boiling cauldrons surrounded by dangling icicles, others created pools which between eruptions stood ghostly still. I gazed into the aquamarine depths of the rust-coloured sinter rim of Morning Glory Pool. At Castle Geyser I exalted in the roars and explosions like an ocean storm. Everywhere, the earth seemed to be exhaling and hissing reminders of its violent power.
Snow shoeing was another way to get out and taste the flavour of the wild back country beyond the basin. With some others of our group, I strapped on the racket-like contraptions and shuffled into forest-blanketed hillsides. Winds had swirled and rippled the snow to create extraordinary artworks: giant windblown cornices; sensuous curves; and cottonwood trees with frost crystal growing on the bare branches like tiny feathers.
Woodpeckers drummed on the trunks of Douglas firs as we surveyed the forest for small mammals. We hoped to come across a sneak of weasels, or a romp of otters under the wooden bridge that our trail traversed. I thought I spied an ermie once, but these creatures are so elusive and well-disguised in the snow that it can be hard to be sure.
But there was no doubt about the lone bull bison nosing at sagebrush at the edge of a scalding geyser as we returned to the lodge. Seeing these two iconic images of Yellowstone side by side felt almost artificial in its perfection – as if this dramatic scene was placed there just for me.
On my last day, nature pulled off a much more subtle stunt. Following a ferocious night-time blizzard, calm descended and the dawn greeted me with myriad crystals of ice dancing in columns of sparkling gems while golden rays fanned and dissipated.
The phenomenon is known as ‘diamond dust’, a strange interplay of cold, still air and rarefied sunlight that more commonly occurs in Arctic regions.
I wanted to stay and continue watching the spectacle, but with my journey coming to an end I heaped on my parka and set off alone for a final snowshoe to trudge into the forest.
The mournful music that I thought for a while I might be imagining, was eerily emphasised. A lone wolf howl, I have no idea from how far off, rose through the scales to a crescendo then faded to silence. Then came an answer in a slightly lower-pitched, broken howl – more of a humming chant. A potential mate? A territorial rival?
To share an environment for a few days with these rationally familiar, yet weirdly ethereal animals, left me hopeful for their future.
Yellowstone’s winter offers so many primal rushes – violent explosions of boiling water and rivers breathing clouds of steam – but nothing had come close to that howl reverberating through Yellowstone in the midst of a beautiful, breathless winter.
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