Fire and Ice: Yellowstone in the Winter

Yellowstone is frequently referred to as a land of fire and ice, but to the casual summer observer this may seem only half true. Visiting in the winter, however, is like setting foot onto another planet. According to the National Park Service’s website, only about 4% of Yellowstone’s over four million visits occur in the winter, which means these brave and adventurous travelers have the park to themselves. Many of these winter visitors spend time watching wolves on the Northern Range, the only road that is plowed throughout the winter, further cutting down on the number of people in the interior of the park. For the intrepid, the extra effort of getting to the central region of the park is well worth it.

Parts of Yellowstone receive over 300 inches – that’s 25 feet – of snow each winter. The fresh blanket of white turns even the most mundane, ordinary parts of the park into a winter wonderland. That seemingly endless stretch of lodgepole pines from the South Entrance to Grant, while still endless, is magically turned into an enchanted forest, dotted with the footprints of red fox, snowshoe hare, and pine marten. The vast waters of Yellowstone Lake are suddenly covered in ice, save for a few spots of thermally heated open water where river otters playfully look for their next meal. And those omnipresent bison, while fewer in number, appear more majestic than ever, sporting thick winter coats and icy beards. A bison using its monstrous head as a snow plow, searching for whatever grass lingers underneath the deep snows, is a sight very few get to witness. Watching bison forage in the winter, undaunted by temperatures below negative thirty, as flying snow and freezing steam sticks to their fur, inspires a greater awe and respect than any visitor might feel watching bison in the warmer months.

While the wildlife that toughs it out in Yellowstone in the winter is a highlight for many, the spotlight should rightfully be shared with the hydrothermal features for which the park is famous. If you thought geyser basins were impressive in the summer, the show put on by Old Faithful and company in the winter is unrivaled. On a cold, clear, bluebird day, the steam rising from these thermal areas paints a sharply contrasted image against the bleak, arctic surroundings. The dichotomy between the frigid, frozen landscape and the steaming, bubbling evidence of an active supervolcano forces you to admire both of the forces at play in this incredible place. As an added bonus, that Disneylandesque boardwalk around Old Faithful that you share with 5,000 other people in July is now your private viewing platform. Pull down your hat, zip up your coat, and admire one of nature’s greatest spectacles in this land of fire and ice.

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