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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yellowstone: Days One and Two

Unless you're snowmobiling or winter camping, either of which seems stupidly cold when the temps bottom out at -26F as they did last Saturday, your ride to the Old Faithful area in Yellowstone is a Snow Coach. These vintage vehicles look like stretch Super Beetles on treads, with a top speed of around 40 mph. The long journey in drives home Old Faithful's isolation in winter: It's an hour and a half from Jackson to Flagg Ranch, at the south entrance of the park, and then another 42 miles by Snow Coach, or about 3 hours at frequent-stop interpretive-tour speed. In the end, you're more than 80 miles from the nearest big town, surrounded by deep woods with more than five feet of snow on the ground. No wonder wolves and grizzlies thrive here. It's wild wilderness and yet ... the Old Faithful area seems disappointingly busy at first, with a slew of lodges, cabins, employee housing and offices filling the valley and snow machines buzzing everywhere. (The housekeeping staff gets around by snowmobile, for example, with mops and brooms poking off the back.) Still, it was cool to be staying at a hotel (in a cabin, actually) at the center of one of the world's busiest national parks and see no cars. It's far less crowded and the vibe is distinctly different in winter, when people actually ski to breakfast, than it is in summer, when fat tourons are hard-pressed to stagger from the parking lot to the boardwalk to gape at Old Faithful.

We caught the obligatory first sighting of the big geyser going off that evening, but it wasn't till we got away from the road (unplowed, but still a busy road) the following morning that Yellowstone's grandeur sunk in. We hitched a ride on a Snow Coach back up the road to the Continental Divide, and then enjoyed a long, beautiful ski down Spring Creek. It was totally silent once we were in the canyon, and enormous, puffy snow pillows clung to every snag and rock face. Halfway down, we hung a left for Lone Star Geyser on a groomed track (new this year on certain trails in the Old Faithful area) and lunched in a meadow by the geyser. It was a little after 1 p.m., some folks were getting ready to leave, and they told us the last eruption had been at 10:20 that morning, according to the register.The geyser erupts every 3 hours, so it was just about to go off, in other words. These guys had skied all the way out here and were leaving just before the geyser they had come to see was going to erupt. What was their hurry? Were they hankering to get back to the Parcheesi board at the Snow Lodge? Whatever. Lone Star erupted 5 minutes after they left, and we were all alone to see it.

My wife, Chris, and I had come to Yellowstone hoping mostly to see wildlife, but the snow apparently was too deep along this ski tour for the big beasts to get around. As we skied back to Old Faithful along the Firehole River, we saw tracks of small animals everywhere but no critters. Later we'd realize there were bison and other animals all around Old Faithful, but we didn't see a single mammal that day. It was starting to feel like a bust, but that night we signed up for a "Stars and Steam" tour and rode a Snow Coach several miles away to Fountain Paint Pot, and through the frosted windows we saw bison by the bajillion. At Fountain Paint Pot, we walked up the boardwalk under a bedazzling sky. Chris and I were in front when our guide said, "Whoa there, c'mon back." Just ahead, a bison was standing stock-still in a fuming spring or steam jet, trying to stay warm on a subzero night. The huge, silent animal, wreathed in steam, was an otherworldly, almost hallucinatory apparation, like the elephant I once saw walking across mudflats in Thailand. A superb cap to the day. Next up: Wolves!

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