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Trip Report Yellowstone and Big Sky - a winter trip report and photos

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This was our first trip to Montana and Yellowstone. We wanted to visit in the winter season when it’s quiet and everything is covered in snow (we live in SoCal so it’s a novelty for us ;) ) and the wildlife is easily visible. Plus we love skiing and winter sports.

We flew into Bozeman, picked up an SUV rental and drove 1.5 hours to Gardiner near the north entrance of Yellowstone. In Gardiner, we stayed at Yellowstone Suites B&B and drove the northern road inside the park between Gardiner and Cooke City which is open to vehicles year round. Access to this road and being able to drive ourselves was the reason for staying at the north entrance. Otherwise to enter the park from the west or south entrances, you’re restricted to riding snowcoaches or traveling on guided snowmobile tours.

Our room at the B&B was the Yellowstone Suite, not as large as the name would suggest but comfortable and cozy. Books and videos on Yellowstone are available for guest use and there’s a friendly black lab for those who miss their dogs back home.

It was very mild when we arrived in Gardiner about 45 degrees F with little snow. Gardiner’s elevation is around 5000 ft and the road climbs to about 6000 ft at Mammoth Hot Springs and over 7000 ft at Cooke City, so temps did get colder and colder as we traveled east. Aside from some photographers and wolf watchers with very serious looking equipment, there were few tourists along this road in the park. Within minutes, we were able to see bison, elk, pronghorn, and mule deer.

We spent the following day driving to Cooke City and back, taking pictures, looking for wildlife and hiking along the way. From Tower Junction, we walked to the Calcite Springs viewpoint and frozen Tower Falls. The trail was packed enough so that we didn’t need snowshoes and we passed only 5 other skiers along the way.

It was snowing quite heavily in Cooke City when we stopped for lunch. In the Lamar Valley area, we saw bighorn sheep and 5-6 members of the Slough Creek wolf pack stalking a herd of elk. Our wolf spotting strategy was to look for a row of spotting scopes and pull over. The wolf watchers were very friendly, inviting us to look through their 60X Swarovskis and identifying the pack for us. Unfortunately, the wolves were too far for us to get any photographs.

During our stay at Yellowstone we also arranged to spend one night in the Old Faithful area at the Snow Lodge and took the Xanterra (park concessionaire) snowcoach from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. The ride took approx 4 hours getting to Old Faithful around noon. About one hour of that time consisted of stops along the way. On the way we saw coyote, a pair of bald eagle, trumpeter swan, Canada geese and a pair of bufflehead.

I’m glad we spent the night instead of taking a day trip which was our original plan. At mid day, the area gets a lot of visitors but any other time, you have it practically to yourselves. We walked up to Observation Point and had a great view of the Old Faithful area and passed only a big bull bison on the trail (kind of scary but he looked like he wasn’t about to go anywhere and we carefully skirted around him). Again the snow was packed enough so that we didn’t need snowshoes. Our Sorrels worked fine.

Our cabin at the Snow Lodge was circa 1970’s but the rooms in the main lodge looked fairly new. It was very cold in the Old Faithful area which is around 7000 ft elevation with nights dipping into the negative teens. Those not wanting to brave the walk to/from dinner can stay in the main lodge. My expectations for in park dining are generally rather low, but we had a surprisingly good dinner at the Snow Lodge restaurant. Make your reservations early. We booked about a month in advance and could only get a 5:00pm seating. There’s no other option for dinner.

There’s now a skating rink behind the Snow Lodge as well. I think it’s new because they mentioned that lighting hadn’t been installed yet. Skates are complimentary and located right at the back entrance and you help yourself. Evening programs by park rangers are available Thursday through Sunday (same at Mammoth Hot Springs) and we attended one on tracks and signs.

The snowcoach ride back to Mammoth Springs left at 2:00pm and we liked our guide, Darla, for the ride back much better than the one the previous day. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to request a specific guide so it’s the luck of the draw who you get. My only other complaint about the snowcoach ride is that it was rather hot in the vehicle on the ride in. Next time I think we’d opt for a snowmobile (though I’m not sure if you can spend the night this way). Given the choice between freezing or cooking, I prefer freezing ;)

We took one last drive in the park and the early evening light coupled with a full moon was incredibly beautiful. During our stay in Gardiner, we had a couple of very good dinners at the Park Street Café. Sadly we learned that they’re closing for good this weekend as their landlord raised the rent significantly. Rumor is that a restaurateur from Livingston will open up a place in its location.

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