We love to winter camp. Our first experience was many moons ago at the Grand Canyon. We were young and very inexperienced. Which is a nice way of saying we were dumb when it came to winter camping. We had a tent, sleeping bags and a stove. We didn’t know we needed mats to put under the sleeping bags or warmer clothing other than cotton sweatshirts and blue jeans. I am not exaggerating when I tell you we did not sleep more than an hour that night. The snow was deep and the temperature dropped to 27F. By the time I crawled out of the tent in the morning, the sleeping bags were frosted, the inside of the tent was frosted and our blue jeans which were on our bodies were stiff and frozen. There must have been an angel watching over us that night. Jim asked if I got up to make coffee- I replied hell no, we are packing up and heading to the Best Western down the road ! And we did. It was beautiful in the park and we learned our lesson.
These days winter camping takes place in Ruby our Roadtrek-Glacier National Park was our last experience. We are getting some work done on Ruby so on this trip we are staying at The Park Hotel Yellowstone. We were fortunate when we left Whidbey Island; blue skies and sunshine. Snoqualmie Pass was an easy ascent, but we were surprised at how little snow we saw along the way.
Our first day we drove about 6 hours-the half way mark. We ended up staying in Kellogg, Idaho. The two passes we had to cross in Idaho, 4th of July and Look Out Pass were clear and dry-thank goodness. We couldn’t wait to get off of Interstate 90-busy highways are not are usual mode of travel-we tend to look for the road less traveled ! But in the middle of winter, plowed roads and dry highways are the best. We finally came to our escape from I90, Highway 89. As we headed south on Highway 89 towards Gardiner, I spotted the horses out of the corner of my eye. They were coming over the hill with the sun behind them. Their outline against the sky with steam coming from their nostrils and snow being kicked up by them was just breathtaking. I thought they looked like ghost horses. We immediately pulled over and I got to snap a few shots. What a welcome to Montana !
Our Airbnb turned out to be a sweet find. Right in downtown Gardiner and about 1/4 mile from the Roosevelt Arch entrance to Yellowstone. It was the ultimate in coziness and a true Yellowstone experience. From the bear mosaic and river rock in the shower, to the fully stocked kitchen, to the leather like comforters on the bed-we felt like we had fallen into a wonderful Yellowstone Rabbit Hole. If you want to feel like you are staying in Yellowstone and not at a chain, I highly recommend this spot. We found it on Airbnb but Tami, the owner, runs a web site in addition to the Airbnb (hint you can save $$ by going to her page and booking). I did not receive any $$ for recommending this spot nor did we receive any discount on our stay-I’m speaking from my heart ! A little history on the hotel, established 1883 (but not by Tami, lol), this is directly from the hotel web page:
“1902 Rock house built by cavalry captain for many members of his family.Tami bought rock home October 2015; she immediately started restorations from foundation up. The hotel went from being the “dirt road diva,” to a newly paved Main Street USA, and the “new alley cat” with parking. Tami has worked hard to make it a special place to share with you. Opened Summer of 2017″
My purpose for this trip was to look for wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. So we planned on waking just prior to sunrise, heading out and cruising the Lamar Valley in search of the wolves. The same plan for sunset. In between we planned on exploring on snowshoes or cross country skis, then back to the Airbnb to warm up, clean up and out to dinner.
We arrived in Gardiner about 5pm, unpacked and searched for a spot to grab a burger and brew. Fortunately for us (since we were tired from the drive), we didn’t have far to go. At the end of our block was the Two Bit Saloon. I checked Yelp and the reviews were mixed. I’m glad we took a chance-the burger that Jim had and the Philly Cheese Steak that I had were delicious. Plus they have a great selection of microbrews. It’s a local bar, at least in the winter, and everyone was very friendly. We met two women who live in Gardiner and volunteer for the Wolf Watch program in Yellowstone. They were so helpful in directing us to locations where we might be able to spot wolves. Please be aware, folks do not share wolf sightings freely. Believe it or not there are folks out there who don’t want the wolves alive and well in Yellowstone. And while it’s not common, it has happened that someone shot a wolf inside the park.
And while I’m talking about the wolves please take the time to read the Yellowstone Pledge. It’s important to recognize that you are in the house of the wild and it belongs to the wild-keep it that way and respect the wildlife that live there and the beauty you see.
“The Yellowstone Pledge is a personal promise you can make to yourself and the park. It can be taken anywhere: it doesn’t need to be taken out loud or in front of anyone. Tag #YellowstonePledge and encourage others to do the same.”-From the Yellowstone National Park Service Site
To be a steward and help protect myself and the park, I pledge to:
- Practice safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture.
- Stay on boardwalks in thermal areas.
- Protect hot springs by not throwing anything into them.
- Park in designated areas and avoid blocking traffic.
- Stay with my car if I’m stuck in a wildlife jam.
- Follow speed limits and pull over to let cars pass.
- Travel safely in bear country by carrying bear spray, making noise, and hiking in groups.
- Keep my food away from animals.
- Recycle what I can and put my garbage in bear-proof containers.
- Tell a ranger, or call 911, if I see someone whose behavior might hurt them or the park.
There are regulations for photographers and visitors when viewing wildlife. For the safety and comfort of the animals please read them and follow them:
Wild animals are unpredictable and dangerous. Every year people are injured when they approach animals too closely. Animals that attack people may need to be relocated or killed. To protect yourself and the animals you come to watch, always remain at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) from all other wildlife.
The following tips will keep you and park animals safe:
- Never approach or pursue an animal to take its picture: use binoculars or telephoto lenses to get a better view.
- If an animal moves closer to you, back away to maintain a safe distance.
- If you cause an animal to move, you’re too close. It’s illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within any distance that disturbs or displaces the animal.
- Park in roadside pullouts when watching/photographing animals: do not block traffic.
- Stay in or next to your car when watching bears
We were so excited to be exploring the Lamar Valley. It’s a wildlife paradise all year long-you just need a little more patience in the winter. But you certainly have a lot less people to share the turnouts with in the winter. We were told that in July, typically 1 million people pass through the park-ONE MILLION ! In the winter the average is 100,000 over the winter months. Much more solitude to enjoy.
More shots of our first day in Yellowstone
We spent our first day in Yellowstone driving the Grand Loop Road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City. The road is closed at Cooke City for the winter. Even though we didn’t spot any wolves we had an amazing day. From elk, moose, coyote and bison to jaw dropping incredible scenery-we had fallen in love with Yellowstone in the Winter. We went to sleep with visions of wolves dancing in our heads. Our first day we left our hotel at 630am, sunrise wasn’t until 755am. Needless to say we slept in a little our second day. Driving in the dark in Yellowstone is stressful-you are on alert for darting animals and unsafe pullouts. So the 2nd day we left about 9am. When we arrived at the entrance gate we were told the Grand Loop to Cooke City was closed. It had snowed heavily the night before and apparently a snow plow had gone off the road. They didn’t know how long the road would be closed. So instead of being disappointed we decided to head up to Mammoth Hot Springs to explore the area.
Before we got to Mammoth Hot Springs we pulled off the side of the road to take some photos. There was a photographer already set up taking some still shots and video. We walked over to him, introduced ourselves and started talking. He told us the story of his expedition the day before in Yellowstone. He went 100 miles on a snowmobile in the park to get some shots he wanted. Turns out he worked for PBS out of Salt Lake City. He talked about some of the films he had been involved with and all I could think was, wow what a fabulous job ! We exchanged stories about our love for Yellowstone, camping and photography. We also exchanged emails. When I had a good cell phone signal I googled him-John Howe, Oh my gosh, I was shocked. This sweet, quiet unassuming man was an incredible executive producer for some of the most beautiful PBS projects. I felt a little sense of magic in being able to chat with him on the side of the road and hoped and prayed that maybe a tiny bit of his talent would make the leap from his soul into mine. Crazy I know, but that’s how I think ! Some of his projects : National Parks, Troubled Edens; Red Rock Serenade; Return of the Wolves, The Next Chapter; Five Rivers, Five Voices; Horses of the West, America’s Love Story; Grand Canyon Serenade; Wilderness, The Great Debate; and the list goes on and on. Films of incredible beauty and magic. When Jim and I left him at the roadside we both agreed that he was a sweet special man, we just didn’t know how special.
Mammoth is pretty stark in the winter on an overcast day. I felt like I was in a Game of Thrones episode, trying to survive the North ! But the starkness adds to the beauty. We wandered on the boardwalks for about 3 miles then headed back to the car. As we were heading down the hill from Mammoth we discovered the Grand Loop Road out to the Lamar Valley had been opened and even better the sun was starting to peek through. The road was plowed with cinders sprinkled over the packed snow and ice. We just took our time and used the pull outs when it looked like someone wanted to pass us.
We enjoyed the drive through the Lamar Valley and we ended up spending a good amount of time just west of the Buffalo Ranch in one of the pull outs. Why? Because there was a volunteer from the Wolf Watch parked there using his scope to look for wolves. The gentleman was Doug McLaughlin, who happens to be the owner of Optics Yellowstone.
What a nice man-he spent a good hour with us educating us about the wolves; sharing his story; sharing his gorgeous long haired german shepherd-Jackson, and letting us peek through his Swarovski scope. What a treat. Now I have a new piece of equipment at the top of my wish list. The scope had an adaptor for his smart phone and the videos and photos he took with it were unbelievable-I was hooked. So if you are heading to Yellowstone and don’t have a scope-you’re going to want one-contact Optics Yellowstone, Doug rents his scopes for a very reasonable price ! Check out his Facebook page for amazing photos and videos.
After we left Doug, we drove a little further east. We passed by the Buffalo Ranch. The Ranch houses the Yellow Forever Institute
The Yellowstone Forever Institute is the official educational partner and fundraiser for Yellowstone National Park. When we return to Yellowstone (next winter is the plan), we will definitely be signing up for either field trips and/or classes from this organization. They have a great reputation and the locals tell us they are the best at what they do. Check out their catalog here.
We stopped at a few pull outs and spent the next 2 hours looking for wildlife-specifically wolves. No luck. We didn’t feel so bad, Doug had told us no one was spotting wolves out in the Lamar Valley. The sun had disappeared and the skies were starting to darken. We knew a winter storm was on the way and we figured now was the time to head back to Gardiner.
The bison also decided to head to lower ground and we encountered several groups of them on the road. We just stopped and let them do their thing. Once an opening was created on one side of the road we proceeded behind other drivers very slowly. We watched in our rear view mirror , and as soon as we took advantage of the opening and cleared the area of the bison, the bison filled the road again.
Scenes of our drive back to Gardiner
Another wonderful day in the park. Hot showers, dinner and off to bed. Saturday is supposed to bring sunshine and we will be headed off to explore the Lamar Valley again early in the morning.
The day brought beautiful skies, sunshine and wildlife. The heavy snow the night before had brought the animals down to lower levels for food. What a magical incredible day.
Saturday was such an excellent day for us in Yellowstone. We returned to the hotel feeling wonderment and gratefulness. It’s amazing how the wildlife adapts and makes it through such challenging winter conditions. And those who don’t enable others to succeed. Yellowstone is a place of beauty and solitude. We found ourselves whispering to each other as though we were in church, and realized we were. Yellowstone is such a spiritual place, it overwhelms. I caught myself each day thanking God, the Universe and Buddha for what we were able to experience and enjoy. And each day I said a little prayer for the animals-that they would survive. And then I would say a huge prayer for mankind-that we don’t ever let this park or others like it slip through our fingers. It can’t be replaced. Someday the giant volcano that sits below Yellowstone will destroy every thing we have witnessed during our short time here. That’s the way of Nature-will it come back-of course, just look at Mount Saint Helens. But we should let Nature take her course, we don’t need to interfere by mining, fracking, hunting and whatever else. Okay enough, I’m off my soapbox. Back to the hotel for some hot soup and more dreams of the park. Sunday will be our last day in Yellowstone and we will be spending it on a snow-coach going from Gardiner to Old Faithful and back. Can’t wait !
On our check out day we took a snow-coach tour with Yellowstone Year Round Safaris to Old Faithful. Staying at the National Park Inn required spending a small fortune, which we didn’t have in our wallets ! The tour company out of Gardiner was the most reasonably priced way to get to Old Faithful. Someday when we win the lottery we will return and stay at the National Park Inn. Mark, our guide , and driver that day was perfect. He was always on alert for when we wanted to stop for a photo and he kept us informed of the history of the park and areas we were driving through. If you take this tour and end up with Mark as your guide you can’t go wrong-excellent !!
Good bye Yellowstone, for now-we will return. Even if you aren’t a winter camper you really should put Yellowstone in the Winter on your bucket list-it’s an experience you will never forget.
Happy Trails my friends, safe travels. I leave you with a quote from John Muir:
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul”