Feb 12, 2015

‘Isn’t it beautiful’ — Yellowstone in the winter

Yellowstone National Park looks a lot different with a mantle of snow juxtaposing nicely with steaming hot springs and grazing bison.

At the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, Karin Jones, a Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc. snow coach driver/guide, loads her passengers aboard a van with tracks. Today’s trip will traverse the park’s winter wonderland from Mammoth to Canyon Village, and, Hayden Valley, if the weather cooperates, she said.

If they listened closely, those Karin Jones’ Feb. 5 tour could just discern the roar of fumaroles on Roaring Mountain north of Norris Geyser Basin. Photo by Gib Mathers

If there is such a thing as a Yellowstone type, Jones fits the profile. Blond hair tumbles from beneath her cap, complementing a ruddy complexion and ready smile. She’s been in the park for many years, and it’s become such a major part of her life that one of her 3-year-old’s first words was “geyser,” Jones said.

Bouncing along like an old pickup truck on a washboard road, Jones’ van rumbles up the hill until it reaches the snow. Then the van swishes through the powder like a skier descending a bunny slope. Within a few minutes, the van has climbed 1,000 feet above Mammoth, reaching the hoodoos near Terrace Mountain.

“You could easily spend your whole life learning things here,” said Jones.

At Golden Gate, Jones eases the van along the narrow road hacked from the side of a mountain. Originally a tunnel was carved through the rock, but it collapsed, she said. The road is all that remains.

Along Swan Lake Flats, the Gallatin Mountains rise through a low ceiling of clouds.

Buffalo graze in the snow beside the road, their heads swaying back and forth like powerful shovels heaving the deep snow aside to find grass. Bison bulls, weighing 2,000 to 2,500 pounds, are solitary while cow bison, weighing around 1,000 pounds, remain in groups, Jones said. Forage is scarce in the winter. Bison lose 15 to 25 percent of their body weight in winter, Jones said.

The Gardner River cuts a narrow channel through the snow soft as baby powder. Vapor rises from the stream gently, invitingly, like steam from a tea kettle.

“Isn’t it beautiful, how it doesn’t freeze?” Jones said to her passengers.

Two coyotes occupy a meadow, presumably after burrowing prey. One coyote digs in the snow like a dog excavating a soup bone.

Trumpeter swans and a few geese and ducks enhance the waters of the Yellowstone River a few miles southeast of Canyon Village. Photo by Gib Mathers
Near Sheepeater Cliff, stone walls flanking the road are veined with obsidian a glass-like volcanic substance like tiny rivers of black captured in a freeze frame. Native Americans in Yellowstone date back at least 9,000 years and the Sheepeaters, a subgroup of the Shoshone tribe, occupied the park year-round. By using hot water, the natives straightened bighorn sheep horns to make incredibly strong bows, Jones said.

South of Roaring Mountain, trees stripped bare by the fires of 1988 still stand stubbornly like bean poles overlooking newer growth. More than 730,000 acres burned in Yellowstone that summer.

“In the end, what put out the fires was one-half inch of snow,” Jones said.

From Mammoth, it is 21 miles to Norris Junction and another 14 miles from Norris to Canyon Junction/Village.

Wagons carried visitors in the early days before automobiles. Each junction was the distance a wagon and horses could cover in one day, Jones said.

Lodging was, and still is, available at Canyon in the summer.

Winter still had a hold on Yellowstone National Park Feb. 5; Canyon Village had 34 inches of snow. Photo by Gib Mathers
The first Norris Hotel was built in 1886-87 by the Yellowstone Park Association, according to Geyser Bob’s Yellowstone Historical Service. It opened in the spring of 1887, although construction was apparently incomplete. A workman started a fire in an unfinished chimney, setting the hotel on fire July 14 that year. It was reported that there were many guests in the hotel, but all were saved.

“A bit of furniture was rescued, but all else was lost,” according to Geyser Bob. “Afterwards, tents were set up for guest use.”

The U.S. Army originally was assigned to oversee the park. In the early days, a fort was located at Norris so the army could watch for poachers, Jones said.

In 1904, the year the historic Old Faithful Inn was completed, it cost $49.50 for a five-and-one-half day package tour and lodging in Yellowstone, Jones said. (Today, one five-day winter package trip that includes transportation, meals and lodging is $1,149 to $1,449 per person, according to Xanterra’s website.)

Jones is a font of facts, much to the interest of her passengers. She invests considerable time conducting Yellowstone research.

“You could easily spend your whole life learning things here,” Jones said.


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