February 7, 2010

Snowy Yellowstone


A recent three-day weekend gave us the opportunity to explore Yellowstone National Park more than ever before.

For some reason, we've never really spent any time in Yellowstone. Previously, we drove through a couple of times and took in the roadside sights, but the park wasn't our destination. And we spent a long winter weekend there several years ago, but without the right gear and the cooperation of the weather we didn't get out very far.

This time, though, we packed both snowshoes and cross-country skis, and even saw some sunshine.

Yellowstone's north entrance at Gardiner is just a four-hour drive from Missoula, and we managed to find a cheap hotel room a few blocks from Roosevelt Arch on short notice. From Gardiner, you can drive up to Mammoth, Wyo., and out the park's north road, the only one open to automobiles in winter.

Marked ski and snowshoe trails can be found around Mammoth and Tower Junction, and in the northeast corner of the park. Maps are available at the ski shop in Mammoth and here.


Our first day in the park, we went on a sunny ski up the Blacktail Plateau, then drove out the north road to watch wildlife in the Lamar Valley as the light faded.

On Day 2, our only full day in the park, we took a snowcoach shuttle from Mammoth south to Indian Creek and returned on skis, the morning snow giving way to another afternoon of sun. After getting back to Mammoth, we took a short walk through the travertine terraces.

The third day, we returned to the Lamar Valley for the morning, where we took in the sights and sounds of the park's wolves before driving home.

Check out photos here, as well as this video (headphones help for hearing the wolves near the end):

Blacktail Plateau

From its west end, the Blacktail Plateau Trail climbs a groomed road for six miles, then drops two miles to its eastern terminus, providing sweeping, snowy views along the way. We set out the afternoon we arrived and skied close to half of it under blue sky and sun. At one point, we found several canine tracks along the trail - they appeared to be too big to be coyotes and pets aren't allowed, so we guessed they were wolves.

Distance: Full trail is 8 miles one way; we skied about 6 1/2 miles round trip.

Trailhead: West-end trailheads are eight and nine miles east of Mammoth; east-end trailhead is just under 1 1/2 miles west of Tower Junction.

Sheepeater-Bunsen Peak


This was the highlight of the trip - for $15 plus tax, we took the snowcoach shuttle from the hotel in Mammoth south to Indian Creek and skied back to town. We were the only passengers in the snowcoach and wouldn't see any other skiers the entire day.

From Indian Creek, we went a short distance along the road and connected with the ungroomed Sheepeater Trail across Swan Lake Flats. Along the way, the snow stopped falling and the sky cleared some, and at one point we paused for a small herd of bison to move off the trail. We then connected with the groomed Bunsen Peak Trail and dropped steeply down a canyon to Mammoth, taking in views of frozen Osprey Falls and the mountains around town. A short walk down the road from the trail's end brought us back to our car at the hotel.

Distance: About 7 3/4 miles one way.

Trailhead: From the hotel in Mammoth, take the snowcoach shuttle about 8 1/2 miles south on the snow vehicle road to Indian Creek.