A bison with thick woolly fur stands tall along the snowy banks of the Madison River in Yellowstone Park. He keeps watch over a small herd resting nearby. None seem interested in the group of snowmobilers who pause to take pictures.
Yellowstone Park is a treat any time of the year, but in winter, our first National Park takes on special qualities. Riders, at least for now, have a chance to see a variety of icy scenes, along with the local wildlife. That may change in the coming years, as snowmobilers could be banned by 2003, although nothing yet has been decided.
The wildlife viewing in Yellowstone is unparalleled. We had a close encounter with a coyote traveling along the Madison River. Sometimes we would make a turn and see elk, moose and the ever-present bison. Snowshoe rabbits also scurried across the trails, and trumpeter swans and other waterfowl glided on liquid breaks in the rivers.
One of the attractions of snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park is the abundance of wildlife including bison.
From November until sometime in spring when the snow clears, the roads into Yellowstone Park are closed to auto traffic. Other ways to view the park is from the enclosed snow coaches, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
There is a $15 park entrance fee and it is good for a week. If you bring your own machine, no other state registration is needed as long as you stay within the park’s boundaries.
Speed Limit Enforced
A 45-mph speed limit is strictly enforced and no freewheeling on the plains is permitted as it could hurt the animals and the terrain. Riders must follow designated snowmobile routes, but that shouldn’t deter anyone, as there are at least 200 miles of trails around the park.
You can go it alone or with a guide. Since Yellowstone has many miles of groomed trails, it might be wise to use a guide your first time out. You wouldn’t want to miss anything.
Viewing Yellowstone in winter should be a leisurely trip. You could travel the loop around the park in a day’s ride, but if you wish to visit the side routes, staying the night at either the Old Faithful Snowlodge or Mammoth Hot Spring Hotel is recommended. Or stay in any of the towns outside the park and make a few day trips.
Take note of the signs that warn, “The Wildlife Has the Right of Way.” The animals usually stay clear of the snowmobiles, but be prepared to stop for a slow-crossing buffalo and other animals — particularly the ones with young. Yellowstone is their home, so respect it.
We started from West Yellowstone, Mont., and traveled along the Madison River. Although the nights usually are below zero, the rivers have little ice. The thermals keep the water temps at about 50 degrees. A bald eagle surveyed the area from a distant pine tree and ducks cruised effortlessly in the steaming waters. A few miles later along the Madison we noted a family of trumpeter swans. Their numbers have increased in recent years and added a touch of grace to the stark surroundings.
The Firehole Trail passes by the Firehole Waterfalls, a crashing of water over ice and snow covered rocks. It was near the Firehole River that we “bumped into” some buffalo. We were headed one way, and the buffalo the other. There were cliffs to left and a guardrail to the right, making any alternate route impossible.
Our guide motioned us to stop, and then incredibly, told us to crouch down behind the snowmobiles. We knelt, trying hard not to make a sound. The bison sauntered by, never giving us a second glance. Our guide later explained if we remained motionless, the buffalo didn’t consider us a threat. They usually just pass by.
Old Faithful Is
We eventually made it the Old Faithful area, where we lunched at the new Snow Lodge. The interior of the lodge represents the forest with its beamed ceiling and huge wooded columns. The Old Faithful geyser spewed just about on time as a few elk stood by unimpressed.
Though it is winter, Old Faithful sticks to its schedule much to the delight of visitors.
A warming station at West Thumb Geyser Basin is a pleasant respite with its little huts. (There are other warming huts around the park.) The rising steam and the frost-covered trees give West Thumb an eerie winter glow. Local birds attempt to keep warm here. The heated pools had rainbows of color. Just beyond the basin, you also can spot otters in ice holes in Yellowstone Lake.
Buffalo rested among the trees near Yellowstone Lake. One trail led to the back of Lake Yellowstone Hotel. The hotel is not open in winter, but the brightly painted yellow lodge is the oldest in the park, built in 1891. We stopped for lunch here and admired the view.
Hayden Valley is complete with rolling plains and valleys that offer an expanded view of the park. The Yellowstone River runs through here, and as the trail narrows, the river flows through a ravine along steep, yellowish-colored cliffs. Legend says this area is where Yellowstone got its name.
At Norris Junction, where the Gibbon River flows, we spied a huge antlered (bull) elk drinking from its waters.
Though winter weather conditions in the park are changeable, that shouldn’t deter would-be snowmobilers. A leisurely snowmobile adventure is iced perfection in American’s first and perhaps most interesting national park.
So see it now, before it’s too late.
Making The Trip
Among the places to rent snowmobiles and equipment include the Stage Coach Inn, 209 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone, MT 59758, 406-646-7381 or 800-842-2882, Fax 406-646-9575, e-mail: email@example.com. The Stage Coach Inn is one of the oldest hotels in West Yellowstone.
West Yellowstone Conference Hotel/Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, 315 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, MT 59758, 406-646-7365 or 800-646-7365, Fax 406-646-4433, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lazy G Motel and High Mark Snowmobile Rental, 123 Hayden St., West Yellowstone, MT 59758, 406-646-7586.
Yellowstone National Park, www.travelyellowstone.com.
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