Great Yellowstone in winter!! UPDATED 2/16

We arrived home a few hours ago. See my next post below for a trip report with observations, recommendations, and, of course, a few more photos. Here are some teasers:

"Snow Coach"

Bighorn sheep:

Elk:

4° F below zero seems quite cold but one morning it was - 14° F!!!!

This bison shows the effects of the near blizzard conditions that had been going on for some time during one excursion. Often you will see bison with snow just on their heads- left over from using their heads to "dig" in the snow to expose grass to graze on.

Our driver said this was the first time in several weeks that the mountain range (Tetons?) in the distance was visible from where we stopped!

It was not rutting season, so these two bull elks were just practicing.

Some of the snow-covered vistas were surreal with either low clouds, fog, or steam from geysers and fumaroles floating through the air or freezing on and coating nearby trees with "frosting."

The majestic Grand Tetons!

We often had to share the road with small herds of bison. We would just sit and watch as they casually lumbered by. Sometimes we had to wait them out awhile.

They were often just a few feet away when they passed by.

Except for the farewell dinner that evening, Day 7 was a completely free day. There are a number of activities you can do in Jackson- free ones on your own and paid ones, booked directly or through the concierge at the Wort - shopping, skating, skiing, snow tubing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, etc. We booked a full day dogsled trek several months ago. It was great! Book popular activities (snowmobiling, dogsledding, etc.) early, don't wait until you get on tour.

This is Maverick. At barely two, he was the youngest of the 12 dogs on our sled line, and like his namesake from the movie "Top Gun," he kinda danced to his own tune. Annie, our driver (not "musher", a term she explained, that is used primarily in popular culture, Wiki, the movies, and by tourists), would regularly give him more encouragement than the other dogs (all of whom had names she knew well), by saying, "Maverick, stay focused, Good job," etc.). But the effect usually didn't last long. He was easily distracted and found it necessary to repeatedly mark the snow berm along the edge of the trail, yet, all the while, pulling his share of the load. He also had an incredible talent to run briefly on just his front legs, while scrunching up his hind legs, so he could do his "business" without breaking pace!- no "bathroom breaks" for these guys! Annie used a number of brief word and non-verbal sound commands, issued in a calm, steady voice, to control the team, but "mush" wasn't one of them! e.g. "Gee" = turn right, "Haw" = turn left and to get the team to go she just said, "all right." No shouting, yelling, or (Oh my gosh) absolutely no whip!!! The Grinch could learn a thing or two! :D

We had beautiful weather for our dogsled trek.

We chose Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours and this trek because at the turnaround we were provided a hot lunch and had the opportunity to swim in a Forest Service operated thermal pool! The air temperature was probably a fridgid 15° F but the water temp was over 100° F and thankfully there were heated changing rooms.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Comments

  • Thought maybe your fingers were frozen, Alan :-) Looking forward to the rest of your report.

    Wonder if the big snow that hit the Colorado mountains hit you guys the end of last week? My daughter flew in last Friday for some skiing. We intended to drive up to the mountains on Friday, but I-70 was closed from the Denver foot hills to Vail for 9 hours due to 3 ft of snow! We drove up Saturday afternoon and had some epic snow.

  • edited February 2020

    OK, time for some observations, remarks and recommendations to include in your planning.

    Weather can impact you and the tour itinerary

    Weather and clothing- Yellowstone is cold in winter during Tauck tours. During our tour, 5-13 Feb 2020, I don't believe we ever saw temps near or above freezing. The thermometer above was in West Thumb- a "mild" - 4° F at mid-morning. Typical midday temps ranged from low-teens to mid 20's. Overnight and early morning temps ranged from - 15° F to + 5° F. Wind makes it seem much colder. We had only 3 days of sunshine and blue skies, but they were perfectly timed. At other times it was overcast with light snow or near blizzard conditions. Snow skiers, etc. will know, all others should be prepared. You must layer- wicking base layer (the best but most expensive are silk, but we just wore long johns); a warm, insulating middle layer that traps air (jeans provide little insulation and are often too tight, so not a good choice); and a wind and water-resistant outer layer- ski/snow-boarding pants and good winter coat with hood. Good gloves (or gloves with liners) and waterproof insulated boots (not unlined leather boots) are essential. If your boots do not have gripping soles, consider slip-on Yaktraks or similar that grip on snow and ice. A wool cap, scarf/buff, neck gaiter, face mask, etc. are also suggested, especially if you plan to snowmobile or dog sled. Think about how you will do certain tasks- like take photos while wearing all this gear. Finally, allow enough time in the morning to put everything on and think about how you will handle restroom breaks!! ;)

    Getting about-

    Arrival and Departure- airline connections serving Bozeman and Jackson Hole Airports are limited and delays not uncommon. Departing, our plane, which had arrived at Jackson Hole Airport the night before, was initially delayed by nearly 1.5 hr due to maintenance- one engine wouldn't start due to a frozen valve. Then, we spent 30+ min. getting thoroughly de-iced prior to takeoff. Needless to say, it was a miracle we made our connection in Salt Lake City.

    You fly into and are picked up by Tauck's transfer agent at Bozeman Yellowstone Airport (BZN) which is actually in Belgrade, MT about 20 min. nw of Bozeman, MT. It takes approximately 1 hr to get to Chico Hot Springs tdepending on weather and road conditions. The road, initially I-90 then two lane Rte 89, may be snow packed. We encountered a snow-packed roadway and heavy blowing snow negotiating Bozeman Pass at 10:00 pm in the dark. Jackson Hole airport is just 15-20 min. from the Wort Hotel in Jackson. We had a 7:00 am departure so our bags were pulled and we had to get up very early.

    It snowed heavily (12" - 18") the evening of Day 1 (Welcome Dinner) but, luckily it did not affect our activities on Day 2.

    Getting Around the Park. On Day 3 we traveled south by motor coach on Rte 89 from Chico to the Yellowstone Park entrance at Gardiner, MT then continued further south to Mammoth Hot Springs. After a brief stop to unload luggage, we headed east to the Lamar Valley. Though the road was snow packed and we encountered a few bison in the roadway en route, travel was easy- Gardiner and Cooke City which is further east, are in the same school district so school buses must travel this route. It is the only Park road open to regular vehicular traffic in the Winter. After Mammoth we only traveled via "snow coach" a small (13 passenger), but relatively new, mini-bus sporting huge 48" knobby tires (see photo above.) The interior and seats were small but comfortable, and the windows were large, unlike the smelly, noisy, and cramped old Bombardier half-track-like vehicles used a few years prior and still used by private tour operators. The snow coaches are not "off-road" vehicles and only travel on "groomed" (lightly plowed and leveled) roads. During one day trip in the park, in a significant snow storm with near blizzard conditions we saw one and heard on the radio about two other snow coaches that had slid off the road. All had to be pulled out of the drifts. Traffic was usually light, limited to other snow coaches, groups of snowmobiles, and small herds of bison that found traveling via road easier than trudging through the deep snow.

    While the snow coaches were relatively nice, our speed was limited to a blistering pace of just 20 mph!!! It took awhile to get everywhere!

    Altitude- Chico Hot Springs, your first stop about 30 mi. north of Yellowstone Park, is a mile high while the average elevation of Yellowstone itself is 8,000 ft. The elevation of the town of Jackson where the tour ends is over 6,200 ft.

    Health and safety. It is essential to always watch your footing. There are snow drifts and other uneven snow accumulations everywhere. The cold temps rarely allowed snow to melt and refreeze, so almost everywhere you walk you'll find hard-packed snow which was almost as slippery. Altitude and cold, dry, air can easily result in dehydration which can quickly sneak up on you. Our TD continuously reminded us to stay hydrated. The altitude isn't excessive, but is enough, when combined with dehydration, to cause headaches and a mild case of altitude sickness. One member of our group ended up in the hospital on the evening of the farewell dinner. It is also easy to get fatigued- early morning starts, cold weather, altitude, struggling to get into snow gear, climbing in and out of the high snow coaches, walking on snowy and slippery surfaces, etc., etc. can quickly sap your energy.

    Meals were generally very good, surprisingly so at Chico Hot Springs (award winning?). Service in Mammoth and at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the two Park establishments, can be erratic. Our TD warned us. We had no problems, except for one morning at the Snow Lodge, the breakfast service was so slow that our toast and muffin were cold and we almost had to get up and leave without eating. We should have eaten the buffet. The buffet and breakfasts in general were fine, but meager compared to what we have experienced on European tours. Due to distance, slow speed of travel and lack of open facilities during the winter, we had two boxed lunches during the tour. Likewise, nice restrooms aren't as plentiful as on other tours. The facilities at some locations were pit toilets in a small unheated (really cold!!) building.

    Lodging- Chico had the oldest and plainest rooms. While no Tauck guest stayed in them, some rooms had no bathrooms which were down the hall. You don't spent much time in your room anyway. Both Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Snow Lodge* have been refurbished in recent years and were modern and very nice. The Wort hotel had nice rooms, though a bit more rustic. All had Wifi to some degree, but none except the Wort had a TV! *You stay in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge because the larger, more impressive Old Faithful Inn is closed in winter. It is only a slightly longer walk from the hotel to the geyser.

    All that said, the tour was wonderful. There were a few less animals than expected or hoped- we had seen the recent CBS 60 Minutes episode about the "Wolves of Yellowstone," and despite a Park videocam recording of a wolf pack stalking a small herd of bison only a couple hundred yards from the Old Faithful geyser taken the week before our trip, we did not see any Wolves the entire time. Though we saw their trails and slides, we did not see any otters either.

    I will add to this post as I think of additional topics.

    A few more photos:

    One of the beautiful days:

    Traffic jam in heavy snow storm. Can you can guess who (or what) had the right of way?

  • My kinda weather :)

    Was in Colo ski country from Sat-Wed, just after the interstate reopened after a 3 ft dumping. Epic skiing! Anyway, on a related note, those of you into animal watching, there's an excellent series on BBC America called Seven Worlds, One Planet (each world is a continent), narrated by David Attenborough. Some amazing photography to be seen!.

  • BKMD, yes, an excellent series. We grew up watching David Attenborough nature shows and really credit our love of wildlife adventure travel to him. We have just about watched every nature show he has ever made. I’ve recently read a book about his early travels for the BBC in the 1950’s. I guess you may know he is the brother of the late actor and director Richard Attenborough.

  • Awesome photos (as usual) Alan. Good and detailed review.

  • edited February 2020

    Great observations and amazing photos AlanS! Thank you for sharing!

  • Hi Alan,
    Finally managed access to this forum.
    My only additional, but belated, comment to add to your trip review was about the snow coaches that you spend 2 days on. Tauck booked two 12 seat coaches for the group. It meant everyone is rammed in and some unfortunate gets to sit on the seat on the back row that is very warm. Also bags, coats, etc and the packed lunch is left with little space to spread out a bit for general comfort. One for Tauck maybe to consider is hiring 3 coaches to allow for a little more comfort. More cost on the bottom line but can't imagine that in the overall price it would be too drastic.

  • edited November 2020

    David, Welcome to the forums!

    I will add that all the clothing we had to wear made what would have been adequate but not roomy seating, darn snug, at shoulders, hips, and knees. There were no overhead racks for stashing coats, cameras, etc.. On the positive side and compared to the old Bombardiers, they were warm, had plenty of headroom, better (standard) seat arrangement (not facing inward) and had very large windows.

    What David means about "access" - from the time Tauck launched the new forum in June 2019 until now, our UK (and possibly AUS) fellow Taucktourians could only read but not post due to issues with the software.

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