Not a walk in the park...
Bombardiers offer inside look at Yellowstone National Park
YELLOWSTONE—There are only two types of motorized transport allowed into Yellowstone National Park in the winter: guided snowmobile trips and snowcoaches. From the time the park closes in October to its spring reopening in April, the majority of those who venture into the park will do so with guides.
Guided trips generally follow one of two routes out of West Yellowstone. Visitors head straight into the park to Madison junction, and from there turn either north and east to Canyon Village and the legendary Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that gave the park its name, or south toward Old Faithful to take in an eruption and the Upper Geyser Basin before returning to West.
But, on Friday, February 8, I had the good fortune to join a small group in a 1952 Bombardier named “Kitty” for a trip that only about 5 percent of winter park visitors ever experience: a 122-mile circumnavigation of Yellowstone’s southern loop.
We loaded into Kitty with guide Ty Wheeler, a new winter park guide taking over for Kitty’s usual driver for the day, who has been driving her for over three decades. Kitty came originally from Medicine Hat, Alberta and is one of eight vehicles maintained by Yellowstone Alpen Guides.
Outfitted with tractor-like treads in the back and a pair of wide skis in the front, snowcoaches offer the smoothest and warmest rides into Yellowstone atop several feet of groomed snow. With two roof hatches for photo ops and 270-degree windows, they make for easy wildlife spotting and scenery viewing.
After entering the park through its west entrance—now finally staffed by rangers after nearly a month of vacancy—we followed the Madison River east to Norris Geyser Basin, encountering our first non-human company in the form of a mating pair of trumpeter swans and several bufflehead ducks.
Unlike further upstream in the Madison, where frigid temperatures have caused gorging and icebergs along the river’s surface, here the Madison flows freely thanks to warm runoff from Yellowstone’s iconic thermal features. As we follow a clockwise path around the park, we merge with the Gibbon River and later the Yellowstone, the longest uninhibited river in the world at 621 dam-free miles.
Our first foray out of the snowcoach came at Norris Geyser Basin, where Steamboat Geyser came tantalizingly close to a massive eruption. We wouldn’t be fortunate enough to catch one, but with a 24-hour steam phase and an hourlong, 300-foot tall eruption, Wheeler could tell we hadn’t missed it by much.
Steamboat, the world’s tallest geyser, dwarfs its much more famous neighbor Old Faithful. Its eruption can be nearly 30 times longer and three times as high—enough to drain Cistern Spring just downhill each time it erupts.
Dormant for fifty years between 1911 and 1961, Steamboat became active once again in 2000 and erupted six times before quieting again in 2005 until 2013. But since March of 2018, Steamboat has erupted 37 times with relative regularity, eruptions spaced between 4 and 21 days apart. She would erupt later that day, hours after our group had moved on.
After a stop at the Grand Canyon to take in the iron-deposited ocher walls of the glacier-carved gorge, we moved on through the park’s Hayden Valley, renowned for its excellent wildlife spotting. Naturally, Yellowstone’s bears are hibernating at the moment, and its larger ungulates such as moose and elk have migrated south for better forage, many toward Jackson, Wyoming. But bison remained a common sight, causing traffic jams and playfully sparring on the sides of the road.
Canines also made an appearance. While most of the park’s wolves often hang around the northern Lamar Valley, our group counted a total of nine coyotes for the day, an all-time high for Wheeler’s guiding career. We were also graced by two red foxes, who largely ignored us in favor of the voles they could hear underneath a quiet blanket of snow, but who offered a majestic photography opportunity nonetheless.
Our last stop of the day included a short fuel-up at Old Faithful, perfectly timed for a winter eruption. Not many people can say they’ve watched Old Faithful go off with only a dozen or so other people: in the summertime, a dozen is about the depth of the crowd surrounding the geyser, smartphones raised for photos.
A trip all the way around the park’s southern loop takes the better part of an entire day. We departed West Yellowstone around 8 a.m. and didn’t return until after 5, but such a long trip meant we caught all the most optimal times for wildlife viewing—morning and evening, when critters are out looking for meals at the start and end of the day.
Everyone in the group went home happy, laden with spectacular photos and memories of a place unlike anything a summer visitor to Yellowstone could ever see. And unlike those who had been on snowmobiles for their trips into the park, we went home considerably warmer.