Yellowstone in Winter - A Magical Experience
Some moments are perfection, and as such, hard to capture in words. Here goes. In early December Llew, an Australian I met while on a Euro trip a year and a half ago, flew into Seattle to go on a road trip with me from Seattle to Florida and back. We had 16 days to drive 100+ hours while trying to stop and see as much of the country as we could. Challenge accepted. We loaded the car with gear, clothes, and "Rice Bubbles," aka Rice Krispy cereal. Since we were trying to go as low-budget as possible and most of our trip promised to be in snowy weather, we made the decision to sleep in the back of my Jeep Liberty. Using two mattress toppers ($10 each at Wal-Mart), we made a flat surface out of the back and topped it with fleece blankets and a down comforter. This is the perfect recipe, fyi. I have a tray rack for the hitch of my car which we loaded with an eske (ice chest), sleds, and a box filled with camping gear.
With the car laden with our necessities, we set off heading east. Leavenworth, a Bavarian-themed town in Washington, was our first stop. Strolling down the snow-covered streets of this Christmas wonderland in search of hot chocolate and dinner was a cold, but magical experience. The sound of carolling and children's laughter drifted through the air and ignited in us, a growing excitement for the adventure ahead.
Back in our cozy car, we continued down the road toward our first major stop, Yellowstone National Park. We drove through the night as it snowed all around us, stopping for a brief nap at a rest area. At 2 PM on Saturday, we arrived at the northern entrance to the park. After a stop to rent snowshoes and listen to advice from the park employees, we began driving along the northern road toward Cooke City.
In the winter the sun sets at around 4-5 PM, so we did not have much daylight left as we wound our way down the snow-blanketed roads. As we drove, we talked about all the animals we hoped we'd get to see the next day. I said, "I really want to see a fox." Two minutes later, a not-shy fox scurries across the road in front of the car and entertains us as he nonchalantly hunts on the adjacent bank. Wishes do come true!
Feeling pretty lucky, we finished the drive to Cooke in excellent moods, eyeing the shadows of bison wandering near the road's edge. Sleeping in your car isn't something that is allowed in Yellowstone, but since it was our only option for the night, we picked a parking spot right in the middle of town across from the lodge, hiding in plain sight. Hungry and in need of hot cocoa, we went into the warmly welcoming lodge for a bite to eat.
A cup of cocoa lifted our spirits and as we sat and chatted about things big and small until the restaurant got ready to close for the night. Sneaking back into our car, we made our bed in the back and decided to read our books until sleep came upon us. Perfection.
The next morning we awoke to a good 8 inches of snow covering the car. There is something truly magical about waking up and not being able to look out of your windows because you were buried by snow in the night. The street outside was already starting to bustle with the activity of snowmobilers gearing up for their day of exploration. We scraped off the windows and followed their lead, heading back into Yellowstone the way we'd come the night before.
Having been to the national park in summer, I can honestly say that going in winter is a one hundred percent different experience. There are very few people on the road (we passed probably 10 cars all day) and the wildlife seemed much less shy. Within an hour, we'd seen two moose, countless bison, a gang of turkeys, and an elk. Breakfast by the road consisted of Rice Bubbles eaten with the Frozen themed spoons we'd dug out of the boxes as our prize for having the breakfast of children.
Doing a winter hike is a must, so we strapped snowshoes to our feet and began traipsing through the deep snow to Tower Falls. Two and a half miles later, we arrived at the frozen waterfall where an unexpected visitor greeted us. Llew, busy trying to take a picture of the sign, didn't notice as a coyote padded softly down the trail less than 10 feet away. Nudging him in the ribs, since my whisper is essentially inaudible, I got his attention and together we watch as the thickly furred animal trotted down the trail. Spoiler alert, coyotes are adorable, especially in their winter coats.
After a bit more exploring at the falls, complete with a twenty-minute snowball fight that resulted in us having frozen faces and ice down our shirts, we headed back to the trailhead. Here, we gathered snow to bring to a boil in my JetBoil stove. Hot chocolate made with snow is even more wonderful than hot chocolate is by default. Warmed back up and with the light of the day rapidly beginning to fade, we made our way to a hot spring located near the Mammoth visitor's center.
Grabbing towels and a change of clothes we hurried on foot down a river-side trail to where a boiling river merges with a regular stream. As the snow drifted through the air and the sun began to set, we stripped down to base layers and tentatively stuck a toe in the water. Brrrr! We quickly splashed through the frigid water to a pool created by stacked rocks that had the boiling river flowing directly into it. Lowering ourselves into the churning, hot-tub-like pool, we immediately were warmed by the perfect mix of hot and cold water.
Here, we sat huddled together as the snow flecked our hair until the steam rising from the surface caused it to melt away. Darkness came in fullness but the bright white of the snowy banks created an illusion of daylight. Fearing the cold that awaited us as we climbed out of the water, we sat for an hour and just enjoyed this surreal moment as bison grazed on the shelf above us and an elk stood stoically down the stream with its mate.
Sometimes real life is better than the movies and it just takes being willing to do something a bit crazy to achieve moments that you'll never forget.