Out-Doors: Yellowstone in winter

A boiling pool at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Bassett.

What makes America great? Our national parks! More than 400 properties, or “units,” dot every state, Washington, D.C. and several territories. My candidate for most spectacular is Yellowstone National Park—in deep winter.

To set the stage, roads in Yellowstone are not plowed. Deep snow is smoothed—like old-fashioned snow rolling. Overnight visitors arrive at the only winter hotel via snow coach, funny-looking yellow vehicles that sport either huge snow tires or tracks. A few have rear tracks and skis on the front. So, the adventure begins when the snow coach loads its dozen passengers.

From Mammoth Springs, near the park’s northern entrance, to Old Faithful is 51 miles, between four and five hours. Snow coaches slither and bounce past forests and wide-open expanses that are punctuated by steaming stretches of barren earth. The driver weaves through herds of bison. As many as 40 or 50 adult females, juveniles and a dominant bull mosey over the snow-packed roads. Adolescent males, pumped with testosterone and not too much sense, cavort and tangle horns. The driver may spot a wolf, an elusive denizen of the park, and stop the coach. Passengers may either stay inside, steaming up the windows and compromising visibility, or stand in the cold waiting for a turn at the big binoculars. Eagles soar overhead, ravens swarm the carcass of a bison that ventured too close to a hot spring, and trumpeter swans dip their long necks into the river to dine on aquatic weeds.

It was dark when we arrived at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, but I could not wait until morning to explore. I grabbed my headlamp and ventured toward the king of geysers, Old Faithful. The sky was white with stars, and coyotes howled. Then the earth grumbled and vibrated before a gushing noise, like a hose nozzle under pressure, filled the quiet night, and clouds of vapor exploded overhead.

Yellowstone National Park encompasses more hydrothermal features than the rest of the world combined. (Others cluster in Russia, Chile, New Zealand and Iceland.) The Upper Geyser Basin, home to Old Faithful and hundreds of other gushing, bubbling and steaming features, hosts the majority of the world’s active geysers. Hydrothermal features require three ingredients: water from rain and snow; heat, that comes from molten rock or magma close to the earth’s surface; and natural “plumbing,” cracks and fissures that allow water to percolate toward the source of heat. Geysers require an additional element, a constriction in the plumbing. When pressure builds and the blockage can no longer contain the super-heated water and steam, a geyser erupts. Old Faithful performs reliably about every hour to 90 minutes. Geysers may erupt every few hours, days, weeks, months or years.

Boardwalks, walking paths and ski trails connect hundreds of steamy sites in and around the Upper Geyser Basin. Humans, bison and the occasional coyote appear and then vanish as vapor swirls around four types of hydrothermal features: geysers, hot springs or pools, mud pots and fumaroles. Fumaroles are the hottest, as their liquid has turned to steam. Fun fact: at the elevation of Old Faithful, about 6,600 feet, water boils at 199[Symbol] Fahrenheit.

The Old Faithful Visitor Center predicts the eruption of six geysers, five within walking, snowshoeing or skiing distance. One afternoon four were scheduled to erupt within a few hours. After a hearty lunch and a quick stop to watch Old Faithful erupt, I skied toward Grand, the tallest predictable geyser in the world. Its eruptions sometimes reach 200 feet, considerably higher than the 130-foot average of Old Faithful. Some in the small crowd had been waiting for more than an hour. They sipped tea from Thermoses. Soon the ground rumbled and the sputtering and spurting began, huge jets of water soaring skyward. Clouds of vapor shrouded the columns of water. “Run into the wind,” someone yelled, “so we can see around the steam.” A dozen people slithered over the icy boardwalk—all of this boiling water falls to earth, making walkways near geysers treacherous. Twenty minutes later, as Giant sputtered its last, I realized the eruption window for Castle Geyser was opening. I skied across the Firehole River toward Castle.

A small group had gathered. We chatted, looked at our watches, and jumped up and down to stay warm. When they learned I was from Vermont a Montana couple gushed about the beauty of Burlington’s Flynn Center. Last summer they had visited a former colleague, the Flynn’s former Artistic Director Arnie Malina! Ah, the fun of waiting for geysers!

Soon Castle, which looks like its namesake, shot heavenward to about 75 feet, the first of two phases of its eruption. After its water was spent Castle hissed steam for another half hour. Well worth the detour!

I clicked into my skis and sped toward Riverside. Telltale clouds of vapor billowed in the distance. But the steam was too close to be Riverside. I had the astounding good luck to find Grotto burping and belching in an eruption that cannot be predicted (its interval ranges from 1.5 to 24 hours). Skiing five more minutes toward Riverside, I found water shooting up and then cascading back over the geyser’s cone and into the Firehole River.

There was, believe it or not, more to see and do. We spent a full day skiing in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, visiting both the upper and lower falls and watching river otters frolic on the snow. Yet another day our snow coach crossed the Continental Divide three times enroute to Big Thumb Geyser Basin at the edge of Lake Yellowstone.

Trust me on this one: Yellowstone in winter is a treasure!