Links to all Articles & Photos:
Thomas R. Fletcher
West Yellowstone, Montana is difficult to spot on a map. Only five by eight blocks, the small town's residents number less than one thousand. Many of these residents own businesses related to tourism. It makes sense, West Yellowstone is a major gateway for Yellowstone National Park. Tourists by the hundreds of thousands pour through this small town every summer, on their way to Yellowstone's bumper-to-bumper summer traffic. I don't care to visit Yellowstone in summer. Winter, however, is a different story.
West Yellowstone's winter tourist flow is around five percent of the summer numbers. Most of these are here to enjoy the snow-covered landscape. Between Yellowstone National Park and the national forest lands around West Yellowstone, there's plenty of landscape to go around. The region receives thirteen and a half feet of snow each year, most of which remains until the spring thaw. Winter temperatures that regularly dip to minus 40 degrees, see to that.
Controversial, snowmobiles remain the primary, convenient mode of winter transportation in the area. The vehicles are operated on all streets of West Yellowstone, except Main. Roads through Yellowstone National Park are closed in winter to vehicular traffic, but 200 miles of groomed trails are open to snowmobiles. Snowmobiling is a practical way to see the park in winter.
Yellowstone is a strange, living bit of real estate, which became our first National Park in 1872. Volcanically alive, this land with its hotspots, geysers, and heated flowing water has long been a winter haven for wildlife. Here one finds the world's largest collection of geysers in one location. Molten rock, lying near the earth's surface heats ground water seeping down to it. Under pressure, the water's boiling point is raised to nearly 400 degrees. As the water finally boils, it rises through a vent tube, vaporizing the water in the tube, erupting as a geyser. Patches of geologically-heated ground remain clear of snow, allowing bison and other animals to forage all winter. In an area where most everything is snowed over and frozen solid, ice-free water and bare patches of ground provide welcome refuge. This park covers two and a quarter million acres and part of three states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
The landscape of Yellowstone is primarily a high, volcanic plateau, dotted with sharp, jagged mountains. The elevation ranges primarily between 7,000 and 8,500 feet. The altitude keeps the air dry. Even though the temperature regularly dips far below zero, it doesn't feel as cold. It's a dry cold.
It is a combination of wildlife viewing and the strange geological features such as geysers and boiling mud that attracts visitors. The typical Rocky Mountain wildlife inhabiting the area includes bison, elk, coyotes, deer, moose, bear, and once again, wolves. A herd of bison foraging presents quite a sight. Each massive animal swings its head from side to side, acting as biological snowplow, pushing away the snow until it reaches the ground. The elk use their forelegs to paw away the snow. Trumpeter Swans drift by on the geologically-warmed Madison River.
The Yellowstone landscape, grand any time of year, is especially beautiful in winter. The snow-covered landscape stands in stark contrast to the steam, hot water, and boiling mud sputtering from the earth. The sulfurous steam drifts across the snow-crusted earth creating a prehistoric scene where one expects to see roaming dinosaurs instead of bison, an other-worldly scene of fantasy and imagination.
A trip to Yellowstone would be incomplete without seeing Old Faithful, probably the world's most famous geyser. Watch as steam and water, super-heated and pressurized, spew over two hundred feet into the air. Old Faithful doesn't go off every hour, as I've heard. It does go off faithfully at varying intervals averaging seventy-seven minutes apart. Park rangers observe eruptions, then post a sign informing visitors, with plus or minus ten minute accuracy, when to expect the next eruption.
Wolves, once an essential part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, were reintroduced amid great controversy in 1995. I was hoping to see a few in the wild. I did see evidence that the wolves are once again assuming their rightful place in the ecosystem. I saw a partially-eaten elk carcass and plenty of wolf tracks--leftovers from the previous night's dinner. I knew the wolves would return to the carcass that night to finish it off, but I wasn't able to hang around. I did get to see some live wolves, at the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.
The Grizzly Discovery Center's is primarily an education center. The mission statement says the center exists to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Grizzlies and the Gray Wolf. The center's eight Brown Bears are unable to live in the wild for one reason or another. Here they serve to educate the public on their species. The center's theater shows videos on bears, wolves, and other Montana animal species. The center has its own Gray Wolf pack, consisting of ten captive-born wolves, roaming an acre of ground. Captive-born wolves cannot be returned to the wild. Here they serve as educational tools, where visitors can observe wolf pack behavior firsthand. Hopefully, after visiting the center, one will have developed a greater appreciation of these species, understanding their place in the ecosystem, and realize the importance of maintaining habitat for them in the wild.
Yellowstone National Park is by no means the extent of nature to be explored in the area. There are an additional 600 miles of groomed snowmobile trails within the surrounding National Forests of Beaverhead, Gallatin, and Targhee. Gallatin National Forest alone covers 1.8 million acres. While in the park, riding is limited to the groomed trails, not so on national forest land. West Yellowstone bills itself as "the snowmobile capital of the world." Looking around town on a February morning, I'm inclined to agree. The town's streets have been taken over by snowmobiles.
Two Top Loop Trail, looping through national forest land, is one of my favorite rides. The trail zigzags back and forth across the Continental Divide and across the Idaho/Montana border. The snow-encrusted pines along the trail are beautiful, but nothing compared to the view from Two Top Mountain in Idaho. The bent, twisted snow-crusted pine trees resemble snow sculptures. The expansive view seems to carry on forever.
West Yellowstone has much more to offer the traveler than one would normally expect in a town this size. There are excellent accommodations and several good restaurants. Most accommodations offer some sort of snowmobile package, usually including an area guide. There are over 1400 snowmobile rentals available in town.