Sunday, February 21, 2016

Birthday in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has very strict rules regarding winter travel on its roads. Basically, the roads are closed to all travel except Yellowstone-permitted snowmobile or snowcoach commercially guided tours. Snowcoaches, or slowcoaches as I like to call them, are vans whose wheels have been replaced with tracks for over-snow driving. They work great, but the tracks prevent them from exceeding speeds of 25 mph. Hence, slowcoaches. One other way to enter the park during the winter season is on XC skis with a National Parks pass. And that's it, unless you win the lottery. Beginning in 2015, YNP began a non-commercially guided snowmobile program that allows a person like you or me to guide a group into the park. A total of five snowmobiles are allowed in each group and only one permit is granted per day to each of the park's five entrance gates months in advance. In other words, only five of these permits are given out on any given day for the entire park, and I got one for February 5th- my birthday! I figured it to be a truly special experience and wanted to share it with my partner Kimi and someone else special to me, but who? Yellowstone's winters, especially in early February, can be finger-freezing, toe-popping, mind-numbing cold, so I knew it had to be someone hearty. Someone tough and not a complainer. Marilyn, I thought, Kimi's 70 year old mom. She would be perfect. And she was.

With temperatures hovering around 5 degrees, we set out for Firehole Falls and Old Faithful from the west gate. Despite the cold temps, the day looked to be a stunner. Being cold is expected, what you're hoping for is blue skies and visibility, and it seemed we just might get it.

Firehole Falls is a popular 40 ft falls, and we had it mostly to ourselves. Often, that's the case with Yellowstone in the winter; the crowds aren't there, but as we made our way to Old Faithful, traffic picked up. Suddenly, the three of us were surrounded by fourteen hundred pound animals in every direction. My heart, like I imagined their hooves would should they decide they no longer cared to share the road, pounded in my chest. One kept turning her head back and throwing us dirty looks. Eventually, Kimi and I recognized the look and started to laugh. It was the same exact look our beagle gives us when we're late with dinner or to go to bed. It was the look of annoyance. I think that's when I knew we'd be okay. Our presence may have been annoying them (or at least one of them!), but it certainly didn't appear to threaten them. 

Some, such as the one below, even took a nap. 

Cute, but also problematic. Old Faithful was due to erupt in an hour and we needed to make that eruption in order to get the snowmobiles back to the rental shop in time. From Old Faithful, we could expect an hour and a half ride to the west gate, and that's without bison jams, elk, wolves, or whatever else might present itself in this most magnificent place. That said, we did not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. With temperatures in the negative 30s the past few nights and daytime highs of 10, these animals were not about to pass up the afternoon sun for us. So, there we sat amidst the snorts and the snores. Just one of the herd.

Because of the bison, we did miss Old Faithful and Marilyn was understandably disappointed. Old Faithful is arguably the most famous feature in the park, and the one we grow up hearing about, but in terms of eruptions, it's not the most impressive. I checked my phone for the time. We'd be cutting it close, but we had to stop. "Sometimes," I told her as we parked our snowmobiles at Fountain Paint Pots, "the most impressive geysers are here." The prettiest too.

And there, past the mud pots and blue pools, were two geysers blowing water 20-30 feet into the air as if trying to outdo each other.

And no one was there to watch them but us. Fountain Geyser, above, according to YNP literature, is one of the most unpredictable and beautiful geysers in the park, and after seeing it blow, I entirely agree. 

The stormtrooper returns to her ship after exploring the other world.

My story ends there, but the pictures don't. Keep scrolling to see a little more of winter in Yellowstone, and what I think is the best season in the park.

Bison napping along the Madison River. 

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

Elk make some of the best subjects in the park. Even a Royal Bull Elk (note the six points) will give you a smile, 

look toward the camera,

and give you his best side. 

What a great birthday! Thank you Yellowstone, Kimi, and Marilyn!


  1. Well I think you may have topped all your other posts and pics with this last one! Truely magnificant, as usual, but so UNUSUAL as it all happened! But then again, the unusual is becomming your usual!! Love it. Thanks again. I get to see all the beauty thru your eyes!! XO

    1. Thanks, Mom! I love what you wrote, especially that the unusual is becoming my usual. Hope so! Ha ha. Love you!