YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK IN WINTERTIME
Several months ago Ann found an article in Country magazine about snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. It sounded like a great experience and something we would like to do someday, but the idea somehow got pigeon holed and forgotten until our friends Larry and Sharon Lamb one day asked if we would like to go with them on a snowmobiling trip. Ann dug out the old article, and the more we read, the more exciting it sounded, and we agreed to go. Larry found a super sounding travel package that included airfare to and from Bozeman, Montana, shuttle service from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, motel rooms, snowmobile and snow suit rental for three days, even a prime rib dinner on an evening of our choice. After looking at monthly snowfall figures we decided that the last week in January would be the best time. That was in August of 1994.
A call to West Yellowstone established that we had to make a decision quickly because they were almost booked up. We decided to go for it and put down a deposit, but it still seemed far away and a little unreal.
But the time came, and nothing had come up to interfere with the trip, so off we went. And what a trip it was! Probably the most incredible thing we have ever done.
Saturday, January 21, 1995 - To avoid a long drive to Atlanta in the wee hours of Sunday morning, we decided on a motel stay near the airport on Saturday night. Larry and Sharon came by for us at 2:30pm, we loaded our gear in his trunk and headed for town. The plan was to stop for dinner at an Outback Steakhouse near Town Center in Marietta. When we arrived there, the place was packed, and there was an hour wait, so we went on to another Outback near Exit 111 and closer in to town.
After a great meal, we drove on to the Hampton Inn where we spent the night and left our car for the duration of the trip. The motel provided a shuttle service to the airport, just five minutes away.
Sunday, January 22, 1995 - The air was cool and clear as we boarded a Northwest flight to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis it was snowing and cold as we boarded a second Northwest flight to Billings and Bozeman, Montana. Before takeoff, the plane had to be de-iced with chemical to free up the working parts on the wings. In Billings there was no snow on the ground, and we began to wonder about the prospects for the trip. In Bozeman there was a little snow, but hardly more than we had left on the ground back home. We were assured though that there was plenty of snow in Yellowstone, and that soon proved to be true. The temperature in Bozeman as we pulled away in a "4x4 Stagecoach" van was 16 degrees, and we were told that it had gotten down to -18 degrees in West Yellowstone the night before.
The road from Bozeman to West Yellowstone passes through some beautiful mountainous countryside and follows the Gallatin River for much of the way. We left Bozeman about 2:30pm for the 90 mile, two hour drive, and the closer we got to Yellowstone, it became quite evident that there was snow aplenty. We learned that there had been some 96" of snowfall with some 4' to 5' still on the ground, about 50% more than at the same time in 1994. The road had been cleared of the most recent snowfall, but there were still patches of ice. We pulled up to our hotel in West Yellowstone with just enough time before dark to walk the two blocks down the street to check out the snowmobile station. Then, after finding out that we could pick up our sleds at 8:00am, we walked back to the Three Bears Restaurant for supper.
West Yellowstone is five blocks wide and seven blocks long, so getting around on foot was no problem (except for the ice). After supper we started a Canasta tournament that ended after the three days with Sharon and Walter the clear winners.
Monday, January 23, 1995 - After a continental breakfast in the hotel lobby, we donned our cold weather gear and walked back up the street to get our sleds. And that's what a snowmobile is - a motorized sled. The two skis on the front provide steering, while the powered track on the back propels it. Our four 440 Polaris Arctic Cats (one for each of us) were gassed up and ready. We checked out helmets and a suit for Ann, then, after five minutes of instruction on operation, were on our way. It didn't take long to get the feel of operating the sled. It is much like riding a motorcycle without the balance factor. The accelerator is on the right handlebar, operated by the thumb. The brake is on the left handlebar, operated by the forefinger. There was a choke, a pull starter, a "kill" button, a light dimmer switch, and a key. There was a speedometer, an odometer, a trip odometer, and that's about it. After the first crank in the morning they were easy to start, despite the cold.
And it was cold! Much colder than anticipated. The temperature had fallen during the night to -20 degrees. It was still well below zero as we headed into the park about 9:00am.
I had an immediate problem of my breath condensing on my helmet visor and freezing. Then to see, I had to lift the visor, which let all the cold wind hit me in the face. It was also foggy as we entered the park, so visibility the first hour was limited. But then the fog lifted and the sky was a brilliant deep blue for the rest of the day. The white of the snow contrasted sharply with that blue sky, creating an "out of this world" beauty.
Our destination for the day was Old Faithful, about 30 miles from West Yellowstone. Not three miles from the park entrance, we encountered our first buffalo - a large bull, a cow, and a calf walking down the middle of the road. Their ambling gait never changed. If they were aware of us, it was not apparent. They were obviously used to such noisy beings. A little further we spotted some trumpeter swans swimming in the Madison River, but the fog was still too dense to see them well.
I had my video camera in a case strapped to a carrier on the back of the sled. The rest of our group were patient when I stopped the sled to get the camera out for pictures. I soon got tired of that awkward procedure and hung the camera around my neck. That proved a mistake, however, as most of the pictures I took after that were bad. The extreme cold caused the camera to malfunction. Once I discovered that, I started tucking the camera inside my down jacket, depending on body heat to keep it working. It would then function well for 2 or 3 minutes before "freezing" again. As a result I got a few good pictures, but missed more than I got because of the cold and awkwardness.
We were told that there were 2,000 snowmobiles for rent in West Yellowstone, and that all were rented every day during the season. From the large number of sleds leaving town one would think the trails would be crammed. Not so. Once in the park they fanned out rapidly, and we were virtually alone. The snow absorbed or dampened the sound so that when we stopped and turned off our machines, it was eerily quiet. We saw occasional "half-track" vehicles carrying tourists into the park, but we quickly decided that we had the better way of seeing things. People in those vehicles could only look out through small windows and were cramped up in small quarters all day, although they were probably warmer.
About half way to Old Faithful was the crossroads of Madison Junction. A warming hut was set up with a pot bellied stove and a concession serving coffee and hot chocolate. I got the ice melted off my visor in the warming hut and learned that by keeping the ski mask over my nose, my breath condensed in the knitting and froze there instead of on the visor. The fog had lifted as we left Madison, and it was a relief to be able to see well again. We made it to Old Faithful just in time to see an eruption without a long wait. With no wind the steam from the geyser rose straight up in a towering column, really set off against the blue sky.
The only facility open in the Old Faithful area was the Snow Lodge. We had lunch there before backtracking home. We also bought a different type of ski mask which worked better.
Altogether, we drove 66 miles on Monday and by day's end had become adept at operating the sleds. These powerful machines were well designed. There was no problem pulling steep grades. The speed limit in the park was 45 mph, but we seldom got up to that. Comfortable cruising speed was more like 30 mph, though occasionally on straightaways, we gunned them up to max. The skis on the front tend to follow the grooves cut in the packed snow by the previous sled causing a slight lurching sensation, but otherwise it was a smooth ride. The handlebar grips are heated for added comfort. At the end of each day we stopped by the rental place to gas up, then took the sleds back to the hotel for the night. Gasoline was no problem. Range was probably 100 miles on a tank of gas.
One problem we encountered was that everyone looks alike. The sleds are all similar. The snowmobile suits are similar. You can't see anyone's face with the helmet, visor and ski mask on. I dropped behind our group once to take pictures, then passed them without recognizing them. I was trying to catch them while they were trying to catch me. That caused a big laugh that I won't soon live down.
Larry and Sharon were good travelling companions with a good sense of humor. This was their fourth snowmobiling trip but first to Yellowstone. They had previously been to Crested Butte, Colorado, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
Tuesday, January 24, 1995 - After 16 hours rest we were ready to tackle another trip. After adding a couple more layers of clothing, we headed for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Temperature during the night had fallen to -23 degrees, and the sky had become a little overcast. A group of twenty or more buffalo had the trail blocked at one point as they ambled down the road. I managed to get my camera going, holding it in my left hand while working our way through the bison. Again, the huge beasts seemed oblivious to us. We also saw numerous elk. Some were just solemnly standing or laying in the snow, while others were digging for food. The snow cover was thinner on the warmer ground near the thermal pools, and that, of course, is where we saw the most wildlife. Occasionally the snow was churned up, marking where the buffalo had foraged for food. Otherwise it was smooth and shiny, appearing as a field of shimmering diamonds, marked only by a few tracks of smaller animals.
We stopped again at the warming hut at Madison Junction, then turned northward toward Canyon Village. In the next 28 miles we climbed from 6,600 feet elevation to 8,900 feet. There were fewer animals as we left the thermal area. At Canyon Village the buildings were virtually buried in snow. We found the motel where we stayed in 1976. The pile of snow in front almost reached the pile of snow on the roof, leaving only about a foot or two opening between.
Most of the foot trails to the canyon overlooks were impassable. Only Grandview Point and Lookout Point were open. We walked both trails to see a frozen canyon. It's still an impressive hole in the ground, but I have to say that it can be better seen in warm weather. Water was still flowing over the falls, but they were mostly frozen over, hardly resembling the surging waterfall of summer.
We were impressed by the cleanliness of the park. There was no trash around and no dirty snow on the trails. Neither the feet of tourists nor the snowmobiles left any discoloring marks. The trails are all pure white.
By noon the sun broke through, making the snow glisten even more. Scattered clouds remained, but the sky that showed was again that deep blue color. Near the thermal pools, the steam condenses on the trees and freezes, creating a giant jewel case of ice.
We drove 86 miles on Tuesday, feeling much more at ease on the sleds.
Wednesday, January 25, 1995 - The girls decided to forego a sled ride in favor of doing the town on Wednesday, so Larry and I chose to explore the national forest outside the park. There are 650 miles of groomed trails around West Yellowstone, most of which are outside the park. Advised that Two Top Mountain was a good destination, that's where we headed.
The sky had become even more overcast, and it was snowing lightly as we left town, headed west. The trail appeared to have been groomed during the night, and it was quite smooth though much narrower than the trails in the park which are the width of the roads they cover. Here the trail was barely wide enough for two sleds to pass. The trail rules were also less strict, and we were able to leave the trail to drive through the woods or across open spaces through virgin snow at several spots. That created new problems though. The snow on the trails is compacted and hard, but off the trail it is soft and powdery - and deep. The sleds power through it fine as long as you can keep moving, but it took getting buried twice before I mastered that. We worked up a good sweat digging out of a snow bank on one occasion.
The trail became steep and windy as we climbed Two Top Mountain, and the higher we climbed the more the snow and ice burdened the trees. At places the forest of lodgepole pines was completely white, and the trail only a thin ribbon winding its way through. The snowmobiles really showed their power as we climbed grades that at times seemed 45 degree angles or better. We broke out of the forest near the top and what a view was waiting! Despite the somewhat inclement conditions, we could see for miles. We could see a few spots down in the valley where the sun was shining through, but only a few. On the top there were only occasional trees, and all were encased in ice. They appeared as lonely ice sculptures in a field of snow.
The top of Two Top Mountain is on the continental divide which forms the boundary between Montana and Idaho, so with one step we were in Idaho. We took the trail down the Idaho side, making numerous switchbacks in the descent. It seemed even steeper going down, and a little more difficult to control the sled. The brakes had a tendency to make my sled want to go sideways, but had to be used to keep from going out of control. We crossed a major highway at Valley View, Idaho, then crossed some snow covered farmland to a deserted subdivision. In the open areas we aired out the sleds, finding that top speed was 50 - 55 mph. That seemed like 100mph with the wind. From Valley View we followed the highway for seven miles, then made an ascent to a trail called the Lionhead Loop. This trail had not been recently groomed and was very bumpy. It was also steep and curvy and wound through some beautiful pine forest. That trip covered 53 miles and took about three hours. We were back in town in time for lunch with the girls.
To my regret, I had chosen to be unencumbered by my camera on the Two Top trip. So, that afternoon, Larry and I went back to Two Top, this time ready to take some pictures. The lighting was different in the afternoon, and the ice sculptures at the top were not quite as photogenic, but I did get a few pictures worthwhile. We did some more playing off the trail, got stuck again, then headed back to town, arriving about 5:00pm. It was then time to turn in the sleds and other equipment, but what an adventure it had been! We had driven the sleds a total of 235 miles through the snow.
Thursday, January 26, 1995 - Time to pack up and head home. We had our bags packed and were waiting in the lobby of the hotel when "4x4 Stagecoach" came to take us to the airport. The driver said that he had seen seven moose on the way down. Most had disappeared when we passed the spot again, but we did get a fleeting glance of two moose, and saw a herd of bighorn sheep on the way back to Bozeman. The flights from Bozeman to Billings to Minneapolis to Atlanta were smooth but long. We arrived in Atlanta after 9:00pm, and it was 10:30pm before we gathered our belongings and caught the shuttle back to Hampton Inn to pick up Larry's car. We opened our front door and fell in at 12:30pm on Friday morning.
Our bones were achy, but it had been a fantastic trip, truly one we will never forget. We hope to do it again in coming years, and recommend it to anyone with an adventuresome spirit.
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