Editors Note: this is Part Two of Martino’s travelogue of his recent winter trip to the western U.S. Read his first post here
After spending several days exploring the backcountry trails circumnavigating the corners of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming on our own self-guided snowmobiling adventure the final morning came when we would tour Yellowstone National Park.
Created in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, the park is said to be the first in North America, if not the world. To take it all in from the seat of a snowmobile you must have a guide. To say I was overcome with excitement was an understatement.
Witnessing one of the most beautiful places in North America has always been a bucket list item for me. But time and commitments of life have kept it just out of reach. And the thought of seeing it in a realm that most don’t, provided an even greater appeal.
During the warmer seasons the park hosts about 1.5 million visitors each month. In winter only about 25,000. Sure, that time of year can mean frigid temperatures but it’s also the unique opportunity to see how deep snow can transform the park into a winter wonderland with steaming geyser basins and snow covered mountains. Fewer crowds means seeing the spectacular hydrothermal features, wilderness and wildlife in a more intimate setting, almost like catching Mother Nature at her bath.
Yellowstone encompasses 3,468 square miles, which is roughly a little over 2 million acres. That’s bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There are only five entrances to the great expanse of land, three in Montana and two in Wyoming.
Daylight was young when we left our cabin and rode 10 miles to the Town of West Yellowstone where we met our guide, Devin Cluff. He was a tall young man, 24 years old, with plenty of riding experience. He explained the speed limit in the park was 35 mph. “Please don’t get a ticket,” he cautioned. “If you do it’s the law you must come back for court,” he warned. “Woo Hoo,” I chimed. “A mandatory trip back to Yellowstone,” I mused. “Yeah but I’ll get in trouble too,” Cluff added. He also went over protocol and what to do when we encountered wildlife, especially bison and elk, which our group did on many occasions.
“Do you want to do the lower loop and see Old Faithful or the upper loop where the Grand Canyon is located?” he asked, while we all looked over a large map. “Can we do both?” someone said.
After entering the park’s west entrance we followed the famed Madison River, known for its world-class trout fishing. Because of the unique nature of the park, many of the rivers and streams do not freeze. We began taking in one of the most scenic drives in the United States.
Because of Yellowstone’s super volcanic past, it is home to one of the world’s largest calderas with over 10,000 thermal features. We passed every type which included geysers, hot springs, steam vents and boiling hot mudpits. Because of the temperatures, which hovered around zero degrees, these features were more dramatic as they spewed steam high into the thin mountain air.
We rode several hours past cascading waterfalls and other geographical features on the way to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It would take a writer far better than me to even begin describing the magnificent beauty. The sheer rock cliffs of this massive basin are yellowish in color which is how the park originally got its name. It may seem wrong to have another canyon named “the Grand Canyon,” even though you have to add “Yellowstone” at the end. But once seeing it you can’t help but agree it is worthy of its name, especially with its tinted cliffs, deep gorge and massive waterfalls. When God tried his hand at art he chose Yellowstone as a blank canvas with mountains, cliffs, rivers and streams on his palette.
After snapping a few quick pictures we began the roughly 50 mile trek to Old Faithful. After all, no trip would be complete without taking in this historic natural marvel. Although there are hundreds of other geysers in the Park, some even larger, this one is the most famous because of its predictability. Some take days before erupting. Old Faithful spews boiling water over 100 feet into the air every 92 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.
As far as wildlife, we encountered hundreds of bison throughout the trip. They are the actual descendants of the herds that once roamed the Great Plains before unregulated market hunting nearly drove them to extinction. We also saw elk, moose and coyotes while bald eagles soared high overhead.
As the day neared to a close we ended up logging 120 miles and only took in a small portion of the park. A return is currently in the works for next year.
Those who choose this type of trip can plan with their guide and select the distance to their liking. Snowmobiling season runs from October until May. You never have to worry about conditions as snow is measured in feet instead of inches. Temperatures can run from a balmy 20 degrees to minus 20, but with the provided clothing staying warm isn’t much of an effort.
There is a first time for everything and almost everyone can enjoy this type of adventure. Having a snowmobile between your legs (even for the first time) and a guide who knows what they are doing opens the door to a mind-blowing winter experience.
Viewing some of our nation’s most beautiful landscapes during mid-winter offers a graceful solitude and special reverence all its own. Although the time will come when you have to leave the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, after visiting I’m not sure it will ever leave you.