Yellowstone National Park, Montana -- 1/98

 

  A Discovery Channel Special on Wintertime in Yellowstone National Park, Montana spawned what was to be a trip of a lifetime for Fred, my photography buddy and me. We had missed our opportunity last winter and were determined not to allow procrastination to get in our way again.

Research for the trip was conducted entirely on the Internet and a plan quickly developed. We would fly to Bozeman, take a transport 90 miles to West Yellowstone and base ourselves in West Yellowstone a small town of several thousand people, snowmobiling into Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding wildness each of five days. Car rental not only was unnecessary but not advised. The winter roads are better suited for snowmobiles than automobiles and our machines would be the only mode of transportation not only for our treks into the surrounding wilderness but around town as well as we tended to our meal and supply needs for the week.

 

We departed for Bozeman, Montana on Sunday, January 11 from San Jose, California and arrived in the mist of a snowstorm that would last the entire week except for a few precious minutes on Wednesday and about four hours on Thursday.

This was a photography expedition and the lack of light made conditions extremely difficult for our efforts. Creative use of the available light and shooting through snow storms that at times approached whiteout visibility was most challenging. The temperatures ranged from minus 20 degrees to barely over zero. Shooting images that screamed "COLD" and illustrated the animals of Yellowstone going about the business of survival became the theme for my photographic efforts.

The days we spent in Yellowstone Park were remarkable by the extremes in landscape and the plentiful wildlife. Buffalo were a common sight and often travel the snowmobile trails to take advantage of the packed snow. Moving through snow 10 feet deep drains precious energy from the buffalo, elk and coyotes that is better spent foraging for food and keeping warm.

Yellowstone National Park is immense in size and accessible from entrances at the North, South, East and West. West Yellowstone is at an altitude of 6666 feet and the peaks of the Yellowstone rise to 10,500. We covered over 600 miles during our stay and managed to thoroughly crisscross Yellowstone as well as explore much of the 800 miles of trails in the surrounding mountains outside the Park.

Click Here to see a Map of Yellowstone, Courtesy of The Total Yellowstone Page

 

During the scarce few moments of sunlight, winter wonderland views of snow-covered trees and valleys made my heart race. Our week was awe inspiring with adventure and beauty around the turn of every bend.
  In other areas we would travel miles across vast plains where unhindered winds dropped the chill factored temperature to minus 60 degrees! Herds of buffalo hunkered down in the snow, conserving every bit of precious energy to survive. Occasionally, a wolf or red fox could be observed in the distance, weaving through the deep snow in search of a rabbit or other small animal for a meal.

Often, rounding a curve on our sleds we would most unexpectedly happen upon elk, waterfalls or a hot spring.

 
 

Most days we left before dawn and returned well after sunset. On this schedule, we would find ourselves deep in the park without sighting another person for hours. We felt truly isolated and blessed to be able to enjoy this national treasure as so few see it. The hundreds of thousands of people who visit Yellowstone each summer endure traffic jams caused by motorists slamming on the brakes upon sighting an elk or roads blocked by stubborn buffalo.

We felt as though we had the entire park to ourselves. The occasional traveler we saw on cross-country skis, a snowmobile or in a snow cat gave us some comfort that in the event of an accident or equipment failure, we might be found before the spring thaw. Avalanches claimed several lives and an errant buffalo destroyed a snowmobile the week we were at Yellowstone National Park. Caution and planning served to keep us from trouble though we had several close calls.

 

The accommodations of West Yellowstone are quite comfortable and barely hours in town we had established ourselves with some of the friendly locals who seemed to be enjoying the slower pace of the winter months. We stayed at the West Yellowstone Conference Hotel, a Holiday Inn property and thankfully took rooms with Jacuzzi tubs. I believe without a daily hot soak after returning well after dark and frozen stiff, I would have never thawed out! The bar in the hotel was hosted by several very pleasant people who regaled us with stories of travels to Cuba and shared our cigars and wine.

On our second day they steered us to Bullwinkle's Saloon & Eatery, characterized as the best food in town where we were introduced to the owner and proprietor, Jackie LaFever. Jackie appreciated the fine wines we brought to enjoy almost as much as we enjoyed the hearty and delicious meals she served. Huge bowls of thick soups and stews, outstanding cuts of beef and fresh vegetables kept us fueled up for our adventures as we repeatedly visited Bullwinkle's for our evening meals.

Would I visit Yellowstone National Park in the middle of winter again? In a heartbeat! Would I go in the summer? I rather doubt it. This was my first visit to Yellowstone and I don't believe summertime crowds and hustle & bustle is the way I want to know or remember this spectacular wilderness.

Click here to visit a portfolio of images shot during this excursion.

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1997 John Petrak