BILLINGS – Gliding across fresh powder with only the sound of a swish of skis on snow, it’s easy to be inspired by the quiet beauty of Yellowstone National Park in the winter.
Yellowstone boasts more blue-sky days than cloudy, even in the middle of winter. The crowds are gone and the animals are out. The bison snort and billow steam as they swing their massive heads, clearing the snow to nibble a patch of grass. Bull elk charge across a ridge, and an occasional wolf can be spotted slinking through the trees in the snow-covered Lamar Valley. On Soda Butte Creek, moose wade through three-foot drifts of snow, surprisingly limber for their size and the depth of the snow.
This is Yellowstone like you may never have seen it, and it is surprisingly accessible. The road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City runs year-round and there are several good ski trails near Mammoth and along the road to Cooke City, including the Upper Terrace Loop, Blacktail Plateau Trail, and the Tower Falls Trail along the road to Tower, which is closed to vehicles and groomed for skiing in the winter.
“There are a million beautiful places to ski in Montana in the winter, but Yellowstone stands out because of the thermal features,” said Zachary Park, program manager for Yellowstone Forever Institute. “There is this beautiful interplay with the steam and the cold and the trees. Seeing Grand Prismatic Spring in the summer is impressive, but in the winter because of the cold temperature, the steam is thicker and it just billows.”
If you want to get deeper into Yellowstone Park, snow coaches take visitors twice a day from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, a four-hour guided trip with photo opportunities and rest stops. The coaches, which operate from Dec. 16 through Feb. 27, 2017, leave Mammoth at 7:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. daily.
You can take the snow coach in the morning and return to Mammoth that afternoon or spend the night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Reservations are advised at yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
The snow coaches are outfitted with either low-pressure tires or snow tracks so they can run even when there is not much snow.
Yellowstone Forever, formerly known as the Yellowstone Association, provides educational winter courses, including "Yellowstone on Skis" and "Learning to Ski in Wonderland." For information about Yellowstone Forever courses, go to yellowstone.org.
Soaking in the Boiling River
Don’t forget to take a soak in the Boiling River just inside Yellowstone Park’s north entrance at Gardiner. It’s pleasant to enjoy the natural hot springs without the summer crowds. Plan to pack a pair of water shoes to wade into the river for stability on the slippery rocks, and a towel. On occasion, a deer or elk will cross the Gardner River in the steam, or a bald eagle may fly overhead, giving the scene a surreal touch.
“The Boiling River is massively cool in the winter. It’s the best time ever to go there. You would think it would be cold, but the water is perfect and warms you up for the walk back to your vehicle,” Park said.
A ski shop is located in the fast food grill in Mammoth Hot Springs as the Mammoth Hotel is under construction this year and 2017. Experts there can tune your skis, give you ski lessons, provide information about ski trails or rent you skis, boots and poles. There is also a ski shop at Old Faithful with lessons and rental ski equipment.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Yellowstone Park Lodges, said of all the things you need to bring for a weekend trip to Yellowstone National Park in the winter, don’t forget your camera. Expect to see wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, bald eagles, bison, coyotes, fox and occasionally, you might glimpse a mountain lion like he did one year. After a challenging summer with tourists getting too close to wildlife, Hoeninghausen emphasized that it is even more important to keep your distance from wildlife during the winter months.
“You don’t want to stress them out or chase them. We definitely want to remind folks not to get too close because they are using all their energy just to stay warm and find food,” he said.
Park said one of Yellowstone Forever’s classes helps visitors learn how to track animals in the snow. They have tracked weasels, snowshoe hares and once found the tracks of a flying squirrel.
“There are a lot of elusive creatures that, in the winter time, you get a better sense of their presence,” Park said.
Most ski trails are groomed every day or two with a snowmobile and a tracking sled. If you’re not sure of the level of difficulty, check with the ski shop or look at the trails online.
One popular ski trip is the Blacktail Plateau Trail about eight miles west of Tower Junction. Skiers can drive there on their own, and if possible, leave a vehicle at each end so they can take the full eight-mile trail without having to double back.
Another good trail, especially for novice skiers, is the Mammoth Terrace Loop, about two miles southwest of Mammoth Hot Springs.
“You get a gorgeous view looking back into the mountains of Montana and can ski by the Big Orange Mound. It’s a nice place to see some thermal features,” Hoeninghausen said.
The snow coach will drop skiers off at Indian Creek Campground, where there is a warming hut and trails. In the Old Faithful area, there are numerous trails for all skill levels, and skiers can also take a shuttle to the Canyon area for skiing and dramatic views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
“No matter what you are doing, it’s all about the park. It’s a Yellowstone experience on skis. You’re going to see the park and learn about what’s special at Yellowstone. There are a lot of places to ski, but there is only one Yellowstone Park,” Hoeninghausen said.
Temperatures in the winter range from the teens and 20s all the way down to 20 degrees below zero. Old Faithful is 7,349 feet in elevation and receives more snow and cold temperatures than the more moderate Mammoth area, which sits at 6,700 feet and usually has less snow.
"There is generally more snow in January and February and the extended forecast for winter 2016-17 is for more moisture than usual," Hoeninghausen said.
Dress in layers and think about wearing wool, silk or synthetics to stay warm and dry. Pack a snack to eat along the trail, and always bring plenty of water or a filter to make water from the streams drinkable.
“The rule is, you want to be a little cool when you should feel chilly when you get to the trailhead because you’re going to get warm when you start skiing,” Hoeninghausen said.
Find your trail, prepare for changing weather conditions, and get ready for some soul-stirring beauty in Yellowstone Park in the winter.