Yellowstone Winter

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Fountain Paint Pots is a cluster of geothermal features on the west side of Yellowstone National Park. As we were approaching a pool of boiling water, our guide shared a story about a dog that jumped in and its owner who jumped in to save it. The water was 202 degrees F. Both died. The incident was detailed in a book called ‘Death in Yellowstone.’ When I heard the story, I made a mental note to track down the book. Yesterday, I found it in Magers and Quinn. Then I got to thinking. I need to write about my winter Yellowstone trip.

This wasn’t my first trip to the park. In 2013, a backcountry ski trip took us into the park’s northwestern corner. We skied over and through aftermath from the fire of 1988. Coyote and fox tracks weaved along with our trail. Snow was falling under a sunny sky like we were in a snow globe. We skied up and over a ridge, then back to the trailhead atop an unusually frozen Gallatin River. I knew I needed to come back.

When the opportunity came for a return visit to that part of the country, an adventure to the center of the park was required. I’d never seen bison or wolves or geysers or–shit–even a supervolcano in person. Unlike summer trips, all roads within the park are closed to automobile traffic. The only ways in are to rent a snowmobile or get a spot in a snowcoach. Or walk, I guess.

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The road in followed the Madison River, then took a hard right along the Firehole River. Bison grazed along the snowy banks. Sun beamed through river steam. Groups of 20 snowmobiles zipped past. Trout were chasing emerging midges. Trumpeter swans honked and honked and honked. The nice family from Georgia in our snowcoach passed around a bag of cheesy biscuits. What could be better than this?

Columns of steam were everywhere, like giant white pins on a map noting a swarm of geothermal features. Red mud boiled at Fountain Paint Pots where we took a quick hiking detour. We could see the pool featured in ‘Death in Yellowstone.’ It was a turquoise by the edge, then faded to a deep blue and finally to a cobalt in the center. The trees that grow next to these geothermals are coated in a hoarfrost thicker than I’ve ever seen.

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We watched an Old Faithful eruption with 400, most of whom were wearing the same black snowsuit rented by the snowmobile tour company. They reminded me of the little brother from ‘A Christmas Story.’ A backcountry ski trip up the Firehole River followed (which I’ll write about in a separate post). While we were skiing back to the Old Faithful visitor center, a curious bison bull decided he wanted to follow us up the trail. They’re much bigger up close than you’d think. I’ll leave it at that.

When you’re planning a Yellowstone trip, look to the winter months and bring your cross country skis. Crowds are nonexistent, trails are clear and grizzlies are sleepy. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Nothing like it exists. And when you pair the view of the park with the cheesy biscuits from the nice southern family in your snowcoach, you’ll think you’re in heaven.

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