Visiting Yellowstone in the winter is much like seeing an area frozen in time. You are afforded the opportunity to experience Yellowstone much like the Native Americans, long before the areas earliest eastern explorers did in the beginning of the 19th century. All prior to the region being established as the country’s, and the world’s first national park in 1872.
A typical day in the summer is full of traffic jams, waiting for an entire herd of bison to go by. Contrast that with winter. See the dawn of a new day and you may think that you’re there the morning of creation. You have this sense of human privilege.
It’s not just the absence of park visitors in January and February that makes a trip to Yellowstone in winter so special. It’s also how the snow and ice dramatically transform the park’s vast and various landscapes from the familiar to the strange. The perfectly white snow can stand five feet deep, burying the main road’s “Reduce Speed” signs. Snowdrifts can climb even higher.
Every branch, every twig, every individual needle of the park’s towering, lodge pole pines is completely dressed in ice, turning them into sparkling, almost figurative statues of crystal as the low winter sun shines through their snow-heavy limbs.
It’s easy to mistake the snow-blanketed quietness for tranquility. And, indeed, a frozen peacefulness does pervade much of the park. But this stillness is deceitful to the geological turbulence boiling underground. Yellowstone is a huge and still active volcano, one of the largest on the planet actually. Although its last major eruption was 640,000 years ago, it formed the 45-mile-wide caldera, or volcanic crater, that is at the heart of the park. Today a huge magma chamber, whose volume dwarfs that of Mount St. Helens, still lies just beneath the serene surface.
Venturing through the park on snowshoes, cross-country skis, snowmobiles or even by snow coach, there is an adventure that awaits you. Encountering sights that range from the sublime to the downright scary tracts of road where the billowing steam creates whiteout conditions and destinations like the mud pots, where thick, dun-colored liquid boils up from the ground at extreme temperatures, and the Sulfur Caldron. Spotting ponds with bubbling liquid as dangerous as battery acid and others that you could almost bathe in (but probably shouldn’t) is what makes you fall in love with nature all over.
Throughout the park, there are spots of deep pools of a turquoise color that wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean, but pops against the crisp white snow. These thermal sites attract not just people but also animals, that come to warm themselves by the hot springs and search for food in the relatively clear ground nearby.
Although, the grizzly’s in the park may be hibernating, the red foxes, which are easily spotted across a field of white, stand tall, ears perked, listening for rodents burrowing below. Groups of now free bison— hunted nearly to the point of extinction, slowly maneuver across the snowscape. River otters play amid the ice floes in semi frozen streams, catching fish below and eating their meals above the rushing water. And gray wolves hunt and howl across the park.
If you’re enjoying this trip back in time, look out for part two of the “Yellowstone in Winter” series. It’s sure to fascinate!