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Yellowstone in winter?

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I'm considering making my first trip to Yellowstone this winter (late Dec/early Jan). Would appreciate any winter-specific tips, feedback on my itinerary, and responses to a few questions. I've already gotten a much better sense of the area by looking through the forums, so thanks to past posters. I like to hike, bird, see wildlife; am mediocre at snowshoeing and XC skiing (but very willing). Strongest interest in the park's ecology, but also in history. Like a mix of activity and some kicking back. No snowmobiles for me.

Day 1: bus from Salt Lake City to W. Yellowstone, overnight in W Y.
Day 2: (visit Grizzly & Wolf Ctr in a.m.?) snow coach W Y to Old Faithful
2 nights @ Old Faithful Snow Lodge, explore on foot or maybe a tour 1 day (Steam, Stars, Winter Soundscapes?)
Day 4: snow coach OL to Mammoth
Days 4-7 Yellowstone Assoc's Winter Wildlife Expedition (staying @ Mammoth Hot Springs)
Days 8-9 snow coach Mammoth to OF, 1-2 more nights OFSL
Day 9 or 10: back to W Yellowstone for 1 night before return to SLC and then home

Questions:
1) Any experience w/ the Winter Wildlife Expedition? Reviews they post are glowing but it's their website. I think I would enjoy it very much, but it does seem quite pricey .

2) If I did take the class, given the snowcoach schedule, I would have very little free time to explore the terraces around Mammoth. Has anyone visited them in winter, and how much time would you dedicate to that area? Would it be better to try for a 5th night at Mammoth and reduce OFSL from 4 to 3 nights, so that I could explore more around Mammoth?

3) How easy to explore the area around OF on foot in winter, and again, how much time would you allow?

4) Is about 2 half-days in West Yellowstone enough to see its sights, balanced against what I think would be more exciting sights and activities around OF area?

5) Any recommendations for reasonably priced, comfortable lodging in W Yellowstone?

6) I thought about (but ruled out mostly because of cost) changing the return route to Flagg Ranch and then Jackson instead of returning to W Yellowstone, so as to see more of Yellowstone and also check out Jackson. Is it a mistake to rule that option out?

Thanks for any advice.

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    We took a tour from Seattle to Yellowstone in January. It was wonderful. No worries about exploring the area around Old Faithful...it is an easy walk from the lodge. The approximate time of the next eruption is posted at the counter in the lodge...just allow 20 minutes or so to walk to OF on the off-chance that it might blow earlier than the posted time. Out trip did not go to Mammoth, so I can't help there.

    Be sure to take a guided snowcoach tour; the drivers are very knowledgeable about the park and its history. Warning: the coaches are crowded and the ride can be bumpy.

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    I can't comment on West Yellowstone b/c I've never been there, but you seem to be doing some unnecessary backtracking.

    Why not go directly to OF from West Yellowstone, spend 3-4 days there, then to Mammoth for a few days, then your last night at West Yellowstone?

    The snowcoaches take several hours each way b/c they include a tour and some stops and they are fairly uncomfortable. It can't be helped b/c of the terrain, and the scenery is spectacular, but once in each direction was enough for me! Tip if you are traveling alone: ask to sit up front with the driver.

    I was in Yellowstone last Feb. and we did Mammoth for 3 nts., OF for 3 nts., then the last night at Mammoth. Flew in and out of Bozeman. The trip was supposed to be primarily cross country skiing, but b/c there wasn't a great deal of snow I only went skiing one day. But there were plenty of other things to do.

    There's a great ski shop at Mammoth - I took a lesson (first time on X country) and the instructor was excellent. They take you by bus up to the trails, and you can also hike the trails if you don't want to ski. If I recall correctly, the cost of a lesson at Mammoth was much less than at OF. The beginners trail was beautiful and it happened to snow lightly the whole day I skied and it was so peaceful.

    At Mammoth, you can see the terraces in a few hours. We walked up one late afternoon when it was sunny and the afternoon light was perfect. I got some gorgeous photos and the boardwalks were empty.

    I spent most of my time at OF just hiking the boardwalks in the geyser basin and some of the trails. You can do this for days and never get tired of it! Depending on the weather, it's possible that the boardwalks can be icy, so I'd recommend renting poles at the ski shop for your hikes.

    Does your WWExped. include food and lodging at Mammoth? What else does it include?

    There are many day trips and half day trips given by Xanterra that are excellent and reasonably priced. We did a full day wildlife tour from Mammoth that was wonderful. We saw several wolves, as well as bison, big horn sheep, elk, coyotes, and some beautiful birds. At one point, a wolf crossed the road about 15 feet in front of our van. Pure luck, so paying a lot doesn't necessarily guarantee better viewing.

    From Old Faithful there's an excellent all day trip to the canyon and lower falls. I'd been there before so I didn't take the tour but my friend did and raved about it.

    I don't know what your WWE is costing at Mammoth, or what it entails, but you should look into the day trips and compare.

    If you can handle the extra cost I'd recommend spending a few days in GTNP. It is a gorgeous ride south from OF and it would be a shame to miss it while you're so close.

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    P.S. If you decide to go to GTNP and leave for home from Jackson, then you should reverse my suggestion above and do Mammoth first from West Yellowstone, then south to OF, then south to GTNP.

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    I agree with a great deal of what panecott said. We were also at Yellowstone in February a few years ago.

    Since we had a car while at Mammoth, we didn't do the Xanterra wildlife tour preferring to drive ourselves to the various areas that are accessible by car during the winter, but others we talked with who did the tour loved it.

    It's easy to walk the terraces early morning, or evening. We even walked it at night. Quite a different experience and we could hear the coyotes howling.

    Depending on what time of day you arrive at Mammoth, and what you want to do - panecott's x-country skiing sounded wonderful - 2 full days at Mammoth should be enough. If you arrive early and don't want to try the skiing, just do the wildlife tour, then 1 full day (2 nights) might be adequate.

    If it seems like I'm giving Mammoth the brush off it's because we liked our days at Old Faithful so much. We did the Steam, Stars, Winterscapes tour and enjoyed it. We also did a photo tour which we loved. I know you said no snowmobiles for you, but when we were there they had a snowcoach tour that went basically the same route. Everyone we talked to just raved about it. We chose to try the snowmobiles and never regretted it. But I rode behind my husband on the same machine. Because I have arthritis in my hands, I didn't want to try handling one on my own. According to my husband, I made the right decision. Also, as a passenger, I got to see much more than he did since I didn't have to concentrate on the road. I'd think going via snowcoach would afford better "sightseeing" opportunities, too.

    We also spent a great deal of time just walking the OF geyser basin. Before our trip, we'd bought YakTrax for our boots. One of the best purchases we've ever made. They slip over the toe and behind the heel and have metal coils which cover the bottom of your boot. Made walking on even the slipperiest icy sidewalks easy and stable. My husband even used his when we hiked to Tower Falls while at Mammoth. I chose to use snow shoes and in no time wished I'd stuck with the YakTrax. I was worn out by the time we got back, from the awkwardness and weigh of using the snow shoes.

    I didn't find the snowcoaches all that uncomfortable, but then everyone says I'm really pain tolerant so maybe that's why. :-) They do get really hot though, so wearing layers that are easy to remove in the coach, and quick to put back on at the stops, is important.

    We didn't exit through Jackson, so I can't help you there, but having seen the Tetons twice in other seasons, I can imagine how beautiful that route must be. Had that been an option for us, we'd have done it. We want to return to Yellowstone in the winter one day now that we're retired and have more time to spend in the area.

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    Thanks so much for all this helpful info. If I don't take my skis, I'll at least take the poles, and will look into the YakTrax. I'm excited to hear how easy it is to walk around OF region.

    The Yellowstone Inst class does include 4 nights lodging at Mammoth, most meals, van to wildlife viewing areas (Lamar and Hayden Valleys?), day & evening programs w/ naturalists, and maybe snowshoes. Sounds like the naturalists are really good and because I haven't yet convinced a friend to accompany me, it would be a nice opportunity to have some companionship. But will compare it to getting my own lodging and taking several day trips.

    I'd like to avoid backtracking but haven't figured out how to do so. Looks like the snowcoaches go between Mammoth & OF and between OF and W Yellowstone only, and I haven't seen any bus options between Mammoth & W Yellowstone in the winter. If anyone knows of a way to do that, please let me know. Also, I'm tentatively planning on scheduling around Dec 30 WWE, and wanted to leave Dec 26 so as to have Christmas at home. Thus, the days at OF would be split between before and after Mammoth. Sounds like lots to see and do around OF.

    As for GTNP, I think I have to save that until I can take my vacation in summer, in part because after 2 wks I have to go back to work, but also, I don't see a way to get there in the winter without a car, and I would want to camp there. Again, if anyone knows how to go between YELL and GTNP in winter w/o a car, please tell me.

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    Definitely get the Yak Trax for your boots. I got a pair at the OF ski shop and used them for my hikes on the boardwalks. I'd forgotten about them till FloridaFran mentioned them. But they are definitely very useful, and inexpensive.

    I had planned to try snowshoeing but it didn't look like much fun so I didn't bother. Some people who tried it said it was a bit strenuous over distances.

    There is no bus service between Mammoth and OF. No wheeled vehicles are allowed on the park roads in winter except around Mammoth. So the snowcoaches are the only way to go. Thinking about it, I'm not sure how you'd get to GTNP from OF. I'd assumed there were snowcoaches, but I'm not sure.

    Just one thing, I'm not sure if there are special programs during the times of the WWE, but there are programs in the evenings that are open to everyone - lectures movies, etc. There's a large meeting/sitting room at Mammoth Lodge where they have the programs. They are usually fairly brief, albeit interesting, but anyone can attend so you should consider that when calculating your costs. The restaurant at Mammoth is excellent.

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