There’s no sensation like being rocked to sleep in a berth on AMTRAK as the miles fly by to put a relaxing end to a vacation. The fact that the trip featured snow, rain, icicles, and puddles made it all the more rewarding for moisture starved Californians. We may be stuck in a drought but there is no shortage of water at Yellowstone in winter.
My family has taken rail adventures all over the US and Canada with a tour provider called Mountain Outin’ out of Irvine, California. They provide informative insightful tours for educated “independent travelers” (think senior citizens) that take you to places of great beauty. Mountain Outin’ does such a good job with this they don’t have to advertise. There were 30 people on our tour and every single person was a repeat customer, including the folks from Britain and Belgium. Some tour members had literally been on dozens of Mountain Outin’ expeditions. Their customer service will exceed anyone’s expectations.
In Sacramento the night before leaving our hotel had a dining establishment next door with something I hadn’t seen in years when we ate there. There was a whole cook range with a griddle on top for one purpose only. A woman stood there rolling out dough and cooking tortillas for the entire time we dined. Talk about fresh — they were delicious.
Gathering at Bozeman Montana to begin our tour a person’s form of arrival was dependent of how much time you could allot to travel. Many folks took AMTRAK’s “Coast Starlight” to Oregon, then the “Empire Builder” to Shelby for a bus connection down the east side of the Rockies to Bozeman. Time dictated my husband and I fly from Sacramento via Seattle to Montana. Will someone please explain to me why it was $100 cheaper to fly on a Wednesday as opposed to a Thursday?
Looking out of an airplane window the landscapes present themselves with different perspectives. The patterns on the land from irrigated fields produce geometric grids and lots of big circles. Cattle tracks in the snow focusing on feeding stations produce random squiggly lines. Observers can see a modern ranch house with a very simple plain two-story box house behind it. Further back is the old log cabin that started the ranch. We saw livestock sitting on hay and brush to get even a little bit up out of the snow. Tipi poles rose up behind some homes.
When we landed in Bozeman’s airport (actually in Belgrade) there was a huge two story stone fireplace with a fire blazing to welcome visitors. Both towns are very geared towards tourists arriving for vacations at nearby ski resorts and Yellowstone.
We spent a day wandering around Bozeman and making use of the free local transit bus system. Sure beats taxi fare everyplace. I can highly recommend Montana Ale Works for great food and excellent beer. Being at higher elevations the snow stays frozen and snow plowed off the streets forms berms between the sidewalk and the roadway. I walk with crutches and climbing over these mini landforms made interesting access to public transit. We also learned to walk on the sidewalks that got sunshine that melted the slush. Walking a shady sidewalk in Montana can turn into an inadvertent slip and slide event.
The tour group gathering was a reunion as many of us had shared previous adventures on Mountian Outin’ trips. We piled on a bus to drive down to Yellowstone National Park. Tour bus drivers are never ending sources of tidbits of trivia to entertain tourists. How do you tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear in Montana? If it climbs the tree after you it’s a black bear. If it pushes the tree over it’s a grizzly. Why do bears eat moths? Per ounce cutworm moths have more calories than anything else a bear can eat. How fast will a buffalo run when motivated? About 45 mph, faster than a tourist can run, and they can leap a 6’ tall fence too. Lodgepole Pines will grow 30’ tall and be one inch in diameter.
Seen from the window of a bus in rural Montana there were signs that made us laugh, like “Watch for Wildlife on Road Next 51 Miles” and lonely off ramps from the highway that just said “Ranch Access.” We passed Persnickity Cleaners and an old railroad building that was now a “Gourmet Center.” A chicken hatchery had turned into a winery. There were lots of custom butchering and taxidermy shops for the big game hunters. Brick buildings still have painted advertisements on them from a century ago. The best sign we passed was in a Western Auto window and said “If It Can’t Be Fixed With Duct Tape or a 6 Pack-Forget It!”
We traveled through Livingston down to Gardiner to enter the park. The Northern Pacific Railroad once had a branch line to bring visitors by train to the gateway of “America’s Wonderland.” Busses and private cars are allowed as far in as Mammoth Hot Springs. The Lodge we stayed in was over 70 years old and was surrounded by the sandstone buildings of the US Army’s Fort Yellowstone founded in 1891. The wooden boardwalks surrounding the hot springs terraces would have made access easy if they were dry, but Mother Nature had turned them into ice encrusted paths of treachery and even the able bodied were having trouble trying to walk uphill on an ice sheet. The park service can try to make viewpoints accessible but Mother Nature has the upper hand.
Travel in the interior of Yellowstone National Perk in winter is by snowcoach, snowmobile or skis. The creativity and experimentation on what makes a snowcoach was an education in itself. We traveled in Bombardier vehicles whose bodies were 60 years old, with newer engines. Bright red in color they allowed a driver and passenger in front and a U-shaped bench in back seating eight. The rig had a steering wheel for the skis in the front and tracked rear wheels like a military tank. With new fuel-efficient engine units they poked along at about 35 mph. and had pop-up windows in the roof so visitors could stand up and take photos without leaving the rig. They had heaters too. From Bombardier’s old fashioned units tourist transport got progressively bigger until some snow coaches looked like small city busses on tank treads.
Snow coaches were the main form of transit for park visitors but snowmobilers were allowed in tour groups with guides. You want to ride a snowmobile in Yellowstone? You join a supervised group and drive in a dignified line one behind another at 35 mph. This kind of restriction, in a park that in the past had far fewer rules and regulations, obviously frosts (wintertime pun) the locals. They remember the good old days when you could go rip roaring through the park in your four stroke smoke belching snowmobile dodging the bison on the road. After years of negotiations new rules will go into effect next winter again allowing some private snowmobile access to the park but the speed limit is going down to 25 mph.
As we traveled Yellowstone looking at wildlife the tour guide was dispensing Yellowstone trivia. Did you know the Star Trek movie used Mammoth Hot Springs terraces as the planet Vulcan? Hot springs kill more people than bears do and one third of those who die are children. What rodent can weigh 90 pounds there? A beaver can. Trout have adapted and flourish in 78 degree water in rivers fed by hot springs. Yellowstone National Park is the only place in the U.S. that supports every species of wild animal that was there before the arrival of “civilization.” There are 40 species of mosquitos in the park.
Bison (it’s OK to call the buffalo) had the right-of-way on the roadways along with the elk, big horn sheep, coyote and fox. Animals aren’t dumb and a nice plowed firm level road is easier to traverse than floundering around in snowdrifts. Critters roamed the roadways and vehicles are not supposed to honk at them. All wildlife seemed to totally ignore mechanical vehicles they were so used to sharing the space with them. It’s not every day you find yourself in traffic that slows for a “bison jam.” Did I mention bison like to sleep in the roadways too?
Yellowstone gets 100,000 visitors in the winter and three million in the summertime. Believe me, I was happy to be there in winter. I’m not big on crowds. I am a BIG fan of quiet though, and even in Yellowstone it is scarce. No place we went was free of vehicle noises. But then again we were “average” visitors and “average” visitors see 3 percent of the park along its roads. There’s 97 percent of the park away from the paved roads and that is where the quiet is waiting. Having seen the thermal features this trip I’d like to go back to the Larmar Valley in the north of the park and watch and listen for wolves away from the roads. Wolves and bears were no-shows this trip. Wolves were probably out looking for something to eat and bears were hibernating.
In the eternal predator-prey cycle where the death of one creature means sustenance and life for another we saw two bison that would soon be a carnivore’s food source. One was an old emaciated bull with ribs poking out and a dazed non-focused expression on its face. Our guide explained while bulls often wander alone this one was separated from any herd in the middle of no-place, not trying to feed, just standing there. The really sad interaction was watching a little yearling calf with a broken front leg valiantly trying to keep up with a small herd of bison including its mother. A tour member asked “Can’t you call a ranger and have it rescued and taken to a vet?”
Unfortunately the answer was No. In Yellowstone National Park Mother Nature takes control and that young bison would not be trying to follow the herd much longer. However a variety of smaller carnivores would have enough protein to help them survive winter chills, The week after we were there in 20 degree weather it was 22 degrees below zero. Even with their fur coats and food I find it amazing wildlife survives in that brutal weather.
From Mammoth Hot Springs we traveled by snowcoach to Old Faithful Winter Lodge. On our days of adventuring outside our meals were catered with brown paper sack lunches and hot soup mid day. The park maintains warming huts, buildings small and large scattered along the roads, with restrooms, lunch tables, interpretative displays and rangers. One day we unpacked prepared lunches and watched the look of bemusement, then outrage, on our tour director’s face, as lunch items appeared. There were sandwiches and pudding cups and cookies and fruit and there was supposed to be apple walnut salad in small containers. Instead in each lunch was a bag of salad mix like you’d find in the produce aisle of a market and a tiny container of chopped apple and walnuts. There were no forks, no bowls, nor any salad dressing. Most of us laughed and poured the apple mix into the salad bag and tried to eat it with a spoon. Our leader was not amused. Later communication showed garbled instructions had been left on a holiday weekend to the catering staff on what was expected. Needless to say that caterer will probably never have Mountain Outin’ business again. There was a bright side to the salad lunch fiasco in that a dozen folks choose not to open their salad bags. We asked our tour guide if his home base in West Yellowstone had a Food Bank? It did and he agreed to take the salad bags to the Food Bank that night. We envisioned happy diners there eating salad with dressing in a bowl with a fork.
Photography at Yellowstone can be a challenge at wintertime. A white snowy sky is the backdrop for white snow covered forest and white snow banks along ice covered rivers. Not much contrast. But at the same time most snow views are pristine because with the exception of bison nothing is walking over the landscape. One startling vision from the snowcoach was the head of an elk with a full rack of antlers sticking up out of the snow along a river. Nothing had disturbed it yet. It wasn’t moving. The questions became “How” and “When” and “Why”? The guide said big heavy hoofed animals can step from a solid surface under the snow into a snow bank along a river’s edge and sink straight down. With nothing to push against it freezes to death and presents the vision we saw. As the snow melts it will become a carnivore’s meal.
A ride in the snowcoach to the southern edge of the park at Flagg Ranch put us back on the bus for a ride through Jackson Hole to the city of Jackson. Mother Nature provided a picture postcard perfect day for viewing the Grand Teton range, which is indeed grand. The entire mountain range is only a short 40 miles. The whole story of the area becoming national park was another battle between conservationists and ranchers. Basically this area of Wyoming realized with it’s spectacular scenery it was easier and more profitable to cater to tourists than it was to feed cows. The area felt ostentatious and overpriced and land values made the Mendocino Coast look like a low rent district. Every kind if cowboy chic shop and T-shirt store flourished with expensive organic restaurants thrown in. I have to say though that this area is a meat eaters delight, especially bison meat. Jackson had a good microbrewery too, Snake River Brewing, where the food and beer were great but the noise was horrendous due to all the excited skiers in off the slopes.
We went on a horse drawn sleigh ride out on to the National Elk Refuge. The US government feeds thousands of elk here, but only when the nutritive value of grasses available gets so low starvation would otherwise set in. Again, the locals figured out tourists would pay cash to go watch the elk being fed and objected to Mother Nature dictating what feed was available and who survives and who perishes. We did watch fat coyotes and bald eagles and ravens feeding on a dead elk and the refuge has a wolf pack in the hills that feeds on the weak and sickly elk. The sleigh ride takes about 45 minutes. Stay out any longer and between the low temperatures and wind chill factors the tourists might freeze their wallets into their pockets.
The trip ended with a bus ride through Wyoming, Idaho and Utah to Salt Lake City. Have you ever eaten at a Golden Corral restaurant? We stopped at a huge one in Logan Utah and I’ve been in buffet before but this was a whole new world. I wouldn’t venture to guess how many offerings there were but it must have numbered in the hundreds. I can’t remember the last time I saw liver and onions and okra on a steam table. Of course there were tons of stuff in the dessert line that could contribute to cardiac arrest but I tried to be healthy. I choose one strawberry and one apple chunk to dunk in the chocolate fountain while I watched other diners dipping marshmallows and brownies in the hot caramel fountain and piling it up on their plates. We were all slightly stupefied by the place as we waddled back to the bus for the trip to Salt Lake City.
After dropping some folks at the airport we went to the Little America Hotel downtown to wait for AMTRAK’S “California Zephyr.” Mountain Outin’s tour brochure spoke of a late departure in the evening. Right…real late…even when the train is on time…which it wasn’t. Experienced rail travelers know that train goes through at 11pm. If it is on time, which it wasn’t. When we did board that “Zephyr” it was close to 1am, though to it’s credit it was only a half hour late arriving in Sacramento.
The hotel was kind enough to let us hang out in their public areas after we dined in their restaurant. It was lovely with a fireplace and big plush couches and chairs. A hotel worker told us they liked to let tour groups wait for connections there since it made the place look busy to other visitors. A midnight cab ride to the station found us boarding the train and watching moonlight on the Great Salt Lake as we fell asleep. We awoke to dry Nevada deserts and snowless Sierra that looked barren. Soon it was back to Sacramento and the real world of responsibilities. Yes, Mendocino County has had some rain now, but for a brief week it was fun to be surrounded by snowdrifts, ice and frozen moisture of all sorts falling out of the sky. Yellowstone in winter is a place I’d recommend to anyone.