WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont., January 25, 2015 — Trivia question: How big is 2,200,000 acres? If you guessed “the size of Yellowstone National Park,” you’d be dead on.
America’s oldest official national park, established by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone spreads across three states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. While Wyoming claims 96 percent of the land in Yellowstone, the 3 percent that tiptoes into Montana is unquestionably spectacular.
Here’s a little secret about one of our country’s most popular wilderness regions: One of the best times to visit is during the winter. There are virtually no cars and hardly any people. Wildlife is in abundance and the snow-covered landscapes are pristine. Geothermal fountains gush from the center of the earth. It’s like being at the midpoint of creation.
Montana’s primary gateway to the park is West Yellowstone, which is reminiscent of a frontier town in the mid-1800s. Unlike most cities in the United States that dread the thought of snow-packed streets, West Yellowstone thrives on them, eschewing plowing them so that snowmobiles and Sno-cats have ready access to the seemingly endless miles of Yellowstone’s wilderness.
From the west entrance, located about a mile and a half from West Yellowstone, it is a 30 mile ride to view Old Faithful, the famed geyser that has been erupting roughly every hour for centuries. Along the way visitors pass lakes, canyons, rivers and mountains while traveling through the Yellowstone Caldera, an active volcano where mud pots boil and steam spews from cracks in the earth.
It is impossible to be unaffected by Yellowstone’s air of primeval nature when thermal mists merge with powdery wisps of snow smoke, eerily reminding us that we live on a planet that is still evolving.
Many visitors prefer the independence of tracking through Yellowstone via snowmobile, versus a Sno-cat, which is slower, bulkier, noisier and more confining, and therefore, allows less opportunity to commune with nature. Indeed, many recent incarnations of the Sno-cat are relatively large and cumbersome.
Yellowstone Alpen Guides, a tour company based in West Yellowstone, uses older snowcoach technology that offers smaller, faster, less intrusive, more private exploration of Yellowstone than its more contemporary relatives. The fire engine red, Canadian-built Bombardiers carry just eight passengers, giving them speed and flexibility as well as protection from the elements. Best of all, participants can converse with their guide while adapting the tour to personal preferences.
Madison, roughly the halfway point between the main entrance and Old Faithful has restrooms and a selection of snacks and drinks at a small but comfortable warming hut.
Other than bears, wildlife abounds across wide expanses of grasslands that link Yellowstone’s snowy mountain peaks. Hundreds of species roam peacefully within the nearly intact ecosystem that includes free-ranging bison and elk, moose, and big-horned sheep. Visitors may encounter an occasional bobcat, a lone wolf, or a majestic American bald eagle perched high atop a tree.
The terrain includes thick evergreen forests and rushing rivers that may eventually become scenic waterfalls further downstream. Layers of powdery snow insulate everything under a blanket of white. Stand quietly and savor the silence that seems to have a sound all its own: the hushed echoes of untamed vistas.
According to some sources, Native Americans inhabited the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Bypassed during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the land was ironically regarded as worthless by many because it contained no gold. Until the late 1860s there was no organized exploration, yet within a few years the region became what is believed to be the first national park in the world.
Traveling through the geothermal activity of the caldera is an other-wordly experience, somewhat like witnessing life in its embryonic stages. A short boardwalk stroll past bubbling pots of mud, brightly colored algae and steaming lava is like walking through a millennial past that seems light-years away rather than a few hundred yards from all that is familiar.
The culmination of the tour is Old Faithful with its clockwork performance, which has fascinated visitors for decades. Other geysers, some even more impressive than Old Faithful, erupt in the distance. It is Mother Nature’s showcase in all her primitive glory.
Many visitors prefer to stay in West Yellowstone, but another option is to use Big Sky as a base. Big Sky is an easy 45-minute drive to Yellowstone, and the range of its winter activities includes snow mobiles, sleigh rides, dog sledding, fly fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and, of course, skiing. With 220 named ski runs covering 110 miles on three separate mountains, Big Sky proudly claims to be home to the biggest skiing area in America.
Montana in winter is mountains of fun, and during the winter, Yellowstone National Park is an undiscovered natural treasure.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod.