YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — It wasn't easy to tear myself away from the incredible skiing terrain at the Big Sky Resort in southwestern Montana. But when the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park by snow coach and view bubbling geysers, elk, eagles, bison and other critters dusted with snow popped up, I couldn't pass it up. Even my son, Matthew the snowboarder, said we should go for it.
Our adventure began with a 50-mile drive from Big Sky to West Yellowstone's Three Bear Lodge, where we hopped into an odd-looking rig that had skis on the front instead of tires and tracks instead of rear wheels.
Wayne Fleming, who grew up in Yosemite National Park, was our guide and driver for the day, and we were soon zooming over the snow on our way to Old Faithful. Actually, we were going about 25 mph; it just seemed fast on the snow.
FOR THE RECORD:
Yellowstone: In the Dec. 9 Travel section, a map with an article about Yellowstone National Park incorrectly placed West Yellowstone and Madison Junction. Here are the correct locations: —
We entered the park through the big west gate, turned right and traveled along the Madison River. We saw several bison in the distance and then came to a pair of trees on either side of the road where two majestic eagles were perched.
Apparently bored, one of the eagles appeared to yawn for a moment or two.
Down the road a bit, a pair of elk lounged in the snow, eating dry grass. Not far away were two big white trumpeter swans overwintering in the park.
About 3.4 million people visited Yellowstone in 2011, with the vast majority coming during the summer. (President Obama and his family made the trip the year before.)
On a winter's day, the crowds are gone and visitors can be numbered in the hundreds, nearly all of them in snow coaches, on snowmobiles or cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
After about an hour into our trip, we stopped at Madison Junction for hot chocolate and muffins. I felt sorry for what appeared to be a 5-year-old boy who had been riding on the back of his father's snowmobile. Even though he was bundled up, the temperature was near zero, and he was in tears, more than a little uncomfortable. Other kids in their group seemed to be doing fine.
We left Madison Junction, crossed the Gibbon River and headed up the Firehole River, a cascading stream named by famed mountain man Jim Bridger. It offered one waterfall after another. Soon we were out of the narrow lava canyon and into gentle terrain where numerous geysers were blowing off steam.
Fleming let us off to walk among the Fountain Paint Pots, named by explorers who thought the colorful mud pots looked like vats of paint. Bison grazed not far from here, seemingly oblivious to the human visitors on the boardwalks.
Along the Firehole River, hot water from thermal pools tumbled into the stream, sending up huge clouds of steam and obscuring river and geysers.
By noon, we had made it to Old Faithful, where we cruised around the beautiful visitors center and learned about the geology, flora, fauna and human history of the park.
Then, shivering in the cold (I did not have on enough layers), we listened to a lecture by park ranger Carolyn Loren, who explained how Old Faithful got its name and why it goes off nearly every hour — give or take 20 minutes — shooting 200-degree water in the air nearly 185 feet for as long as five minutes.
I froze my face off waiting for Old Faithful, but it was worth the shivering.
After lunch, we hopped back in the snow coach and Fleming drove us to the Kepler Cascades, another beautiful waterfall, on the Firehole River south of Old Faithful.
Soon we were at the Midway Geyser Basin, hiking across the Firehole up to the big Excelsior Geyser. In the 1880s, it shot steam up to 300 feet in the air, but huge eruptions then damaged the geyser's lining, allowing the loss of thermal energy. Today, it's a thermal spring that pumps 4,000 gallons per minute into the Firehole.
We trekked over the sometimes slippery boardwalk by the big thermal pool as steam billowed around us, obscuring our vision. My sunglasses frosted over and for a moment, I was stranded, pretty much blinded, afraid to move forward or backward, wondering when the fog would lift.
Then I took off my glasses, and I could see again. Whew.
Onward we hiked to my two favorite thermal pools, the aquamarine Opal and Turquoise. They looked like big hot tubs, and I was reminded of hot springs along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in neighboring Idaho. After a hard day of whitewater kayaking, it was sublime to hop in a thermal pool.
In the snow coach once again, we soon were cruising along the Madison River, where we saw more bison, more elk and a pair of eagles hanging out on perches above the river. Neither of them yawned this time.
Soon we were back in West Yellowstone, getting ready to return to Big Sky. But I'm already planning another winter return to the park. Only next time, I plan to ski to the yurts near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for a few days of backcountry touring.