Of Bison, Geysers and Snowmachines

February 13-18, 2011

YELLOWSTONE. The first national park. A sprawling, wild landscape conjuring romantic images of burning rivers, of unimaginably big sky, and throngs of tourists feeding bears through car windows while encouraging their toddlers to ride bison like those kiddie quarter slot machine rides at the local mall (I have to thank my friend, Stephanie, for that last image).  

I had never been to Yellowstone. The last time Andy visited the park, he still fit the official band nerd/chess club/geek squad bill (and, if we're being honest, still kind of does fit that bill). Both he and I make every effort to value this world we live in, to challenge ourselves to experience the beauty still left in the wild places of life, and winter in Yellowstone seemed like a perfect and beautiful idea. 

Andy's traditional National Park sign picture

From Portland, it's a loooooong drive to West Yellowstone, our little gateway town to the park. We entertained ourselves reminiscing with 80's hair band music and generally butchering the English language in our coffee-deprived, road-dazed state. We made good time though; in Montana, although no longer just 'reasonable & prudent' (O'Connor!!!), you can still drive fast.

OLD FAITHFUL. Sunday we woke to the loveliest version of a 'mostly cloudy' day we could imagine [insert perfectly crystal blue sky here] and set off to join Yellowstone Alpen Guides' snowcoach tour to Old Faithful.

Now, I'm something of a planning junkie...I love planning trips. Especially when hiking is involved. Turns out, all the rules and regulations associated with the National Park Service threw something of a wrench in my monkey works, making for a very fussy Amanda the Sunday prior to our trip. I had to find some big girl pants fast and make the best of it. 

Reason for my grown woman hissy fit? Our ideal Yellowstone plan always involved a snowcoach and snowmobile tour, but on our other free days we planned to do mostly unguided snowshoe trips. Long story short, turns out, if you aren't staying inside the actual park, there aren't many options to access those famously famous areas of Yellowstone, not unless you want to pay in unborn children every time you do it. The Park Service has placed a quota on the number of oversnow vehicles permitted into Yellowstone each day, and while Xanterra (the concession operating the park's services and hotels) runs moderately priced ski shuttles to various trailheads, those ski shuttles aren't easily accessible if you lodge outside the park. In the end, I got over my hissy fit and decided to enjoy myself no matter the wrench in my monkey works....still, it seems an injustice to me that the locals living in the vicinity of Yellowstone can't even afford to enjoy their winter backyard without paying through the nose to do so.

On to more enjoyable matters. Snowcoaches are FUN. Both snowcoaches and snowmobiles are on my Christmas list now when I have enough money to be completely impractical in my monetary pursuits and purchases (read: never going to happen, Amanda). Especially cute ones like the Griz (aka, small, winterized, snow tank built in the 1950s or 60s, complete with vintage red paint job and an awesome tour guide named Brenda). Entering the park, we traveled up to Madison Junction, then turned on to the Grand Loop Road en route to Old Faithful and spotted a plethora of, and by that I do mean a smorgasbord o' plenty, wildlife along the way: bison, elk, eagles, coyotes, geese, and trumpeter swans. By and far, bison were the most numerous, frequently close enough for us to watch them roll their eyes at us. Stupid tourists in their cute land tank. And, as Andy so quaintly put it, when their collective mass rivals that of the Griz, there really isn't any reason for them to hurry out of our way. 

Andy and the Griz
Make me move

Our plan for the day was a drop at Biscuit Basin, which would allow us to walk through the Upper Geyser Basin, sampling its many geyserly delights en route to Old Faithful. Twas a good decision. We had tons of Vitamin D, plenty of post-holing, brilliant snow, blue sky, steaming rivers, bison and the subsequent bison poo that wouldn't move out of our way, erupting geysers, bubbling springs smelling of sulfur, and tons of other fun little whirly-gig water features that I never could quite figure out what they were going to do next. I've never seen geysers before, and I found myself constantly delighted and mesmerized by how unique and odd they are. It's just delightfully weird to experience a winter landscape, the entire world silent and blanketed in snow, only to have the ground hissing and steaming and dancing not three feet away. The juxtaposition is unusual to say the least. I loved every minute of it.

Upper Geyser Basin
Bison, bison everywhere

Our trail was like a red carpet of celebrities: Morning Glory Pool, Grand Geyser, Grotto Geyser, Old Faithful. 

Grand Geyser
 Morning Glory Pool
Grotto Geyser

In the end, we got distracted by the geyser watching bug, took a wrong turn (that's typical), and ended up at Observation Point, an uphill slog to a fantastic viewpoint of Old Faithful. At this point we were concerned we were going to miss the show...our detour had us behind schedule, and there was a strong possibility of missing Old Faithful doing its Old Faithful thing. I mean, it's like going to New York without seeing the Statue of Liberty. You traveled this far, you're damn nigh obligated to watch it blow its spout. Originally, we were supposed to jump off trail much earlier, making our walk only about 1.5 miles, but, by my best estimation, ended up doing over 3 miles (whoopsies). Trudging through snow, we ran down the trail, hollering at any hidden bison to get out of our way, and, in the end, made it on time to see Old Faithful do what it does best. The best part? We mostly had the trail all to ourselves, a distinct difference from a summertime Yellowstone. These are the days we remember.

Ye Ole Faithful

MAMMOTH. Up bright and early to peek out the window upon another stellar, 'mostly cloudy' day. At this point, I'm starting to think Montana and Wyoming are spoiled if this is what they deem 'mostly cloudy.' But that just sounds like Pacific Northwest snobbery (or envy). My day started out giggly with the discovery that yes, indeed, it is colder in Montana than Portland- my water bottle, left in the car overnight, had frozen solid (dashboard read 3 degrees), and the snow kicked off my shoes from the day before was still perfectly snow-like on the floorboards of my trusty Subee. Our plan for the day was to drive the three long hours north and east from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, circumnavigating the Gallatin Range, in order to see Yellowstone's famous travertine terraces in Mammoth Hot Springs. Why such a long drive? Because the park's northern entrance is the only one open to regular ol' passenger vehicles during the winter months. It was worth the effort. 

Mammoth Hot Springs is clearly a historic little town from back in the day when places like Yellowstone attracted tourists who liked to soak their toesies in stinky sulfur springs and feed the local wildlife. It's very charming and quaint and an absolutely snore-fest in the winter (and, I imagine, positively overrun in the summer). As it was, Andy and I were there to walk the Lower and Upper Terraces Loops (Upper Terraces is actually a drive in the summer, in the winter it's groomed as a cross-country ski trail), and to play the rest of the day by ear. Plans changed when we were scolded by a ranger for thinking we could walk the Upper Terraces Loop without snowshoes....after a week without new snow, the trail was quite packed down, yet our Kahtoolas were nevertheless illegal since the microspikes would leave the dreaded bootprint along the path. Note to self: always bring the extra gear. Even when you think you won't need it. Oh well. On to the Lower Terraces.

More strange stuff: Palette Spring, Devil's Thumb and Liberty Cap (quite phallic, which of course brought out the middle school kid in both of us). Minerva Terrace, dry and buried in snow. Cleopatra Terrace, steaming in the sunlight and richly colorful with bacteria. 

Palette Spring & Devil's Thumb
Cleopatra Terrace
Palette Spring detail

Canary Spring

Then, the bison encounter.

The park service brochures state that it is illegal to be closer than 25 yards from wildlife. Tell that to the local wildlife. In my defense, I was minding my own business, taking pictures of all the quirky little trailside features. When I finally decided to join Andy further up the trail, I discovered a young bull bison just up the hill from the end of the stairs. Since bull bison (even small ones) outweigh me by a considerable amount, I opted to observe this lone fellow to see what his decision would be. Turns out, his decision making process sent him in a lumbering beeline straight for my position. Fan-tah-stic.

Things that make you go hmmmmm....
Apparently, in the winter, bison prefer to walk on our human-crafted trails and roads. It conserves their energy expenditure since these modes of transportation are typically already packed down, which translates to less plowing through deep snow for them. I think this one was debating whether the staircase with me on it was worth it. Me? I was doing my best to give Mr. Bison my intimidatingly pathetic, yet evil eyeball stare (both stern and don't-you-dare-make-me-backtrack-this-entire-trail [please] because-I-really-don't-have-any-other-options look). I was getting his best poker face complete with drool coming out of his mouth.

Yup, bison drool. Enough to rival my boxer dog, Rocky, back at home. Learn something new every day.

The beeline straight for me

Staring contest
Andy doing his National Geographic thing

I won the staring contest, eventually (or at least I like to think so, though it was more likely the stairs), and Mr. Bison trudged into the snow staircase-right. I now itty-bitty-scared-mouse scrambled up the trail past him. In turn, my clever husband decided to do his Mr. National Geographic impression and snap pictures of our friendly neighborhood bison. Sigh. So our positions were now reversed when Mr. Bison decided he didn't like the staircase-right path he had chosen, reversed course and came back up to the top of the stairs. Irony takes many forms.

All was eventually well when our friend took yet another trajectory, allowing Andy to scramble up the trail to join me. We left him in peace to find whatever it was he was looking for.

Yup, totally legal

CANYON AND NORRIS GEYSER BASIN. Vacations always have a way of doing something unexpected. In this case, it was the stomach flu. Grrrr. I won't bore you with the gory details, but I wasn't vertical for two days. True to stubborn family form, however, I was determined to go snowmobiling on Thursday. May have had something to do with that hefty, non-refundable deposit we put down in advance. What I did to tough-out snowmobiling definitely is NOT doctor-recommended, and since we have doctors in the family, that little remedy will remain a personal secret. Suffice it to say that I paid for it later, which we also won't go into here. Snowmobiling was...interesting.

Serious helmet head

We checked in with Two Top Snowmobile at 8 am and geared up. Andy drove the sled, if you can call it driving. I hung on for dear life. This has nothing to do with Andy's driving skills, which are superb, and more to do with the logistics of snowmobiling at 45 mph over 90 miles on a foot of freshly-fallen, Montana powder while battling a combination of nausea and no food for three days. The temperature read 10 degrees in West Yellowstone. By the time we got to Canyon at nearly 8000 feet, between the elevation gain and the wind chill, I'm sure we had dipped into the negative side of the number line. I had on a full ensemble of winter ski clothing underneath Two Top's head-to-toe snowsuit, leaving me looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man burnt to a crisp in a boy scout campfire. I wasn't exactly cold, but I wasn't overly warm either. Thank god for heated seats and handlebars.  
Gibbon Falls

Even for all that I wasn't feeling great, the day did not disappoint. We saw plenty of wildlife, and "putt-putting" through a herd of bison who ain't moving for nobody is quite the adrenaline rush, especially when those bison are two arm lengths away (nice bison, nice bison). The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has a much different personality in the winter and a unique talent for spitting very cold ice-crystals in one's face while you're trying to snap pretty pictures of frozen waterfalls.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Minute Geyser

Purty tre
For both Andy and I, Norris Geyser Basin was definitely the highlight of this tour. It's a spectacularly hot, geyser-filled, sulfur-spewing depression where the ground temperature can reach up to 400 degrees in the summer months. Lucky us, that was not a problem on this particular day. I did, however, find myself frequently wanting to hurl while exploring the Norris Basin- the sulfur was simply overwhelming. That, combined with the fact that my body was now quite determined to make me pay for my decision to go snowmobiling, and I wasn't the happiest camper who had ever lived.

But, the pictures are really, really purty: 

Steamboat Geyser
Norris Geyser Basin

We also got more buffalo butts.

 And, finally, on a parting note: