By Michael Lanza
The snowcoach rumbles away, leaving us in a wintry silence disturbed only by a slight breeze and the gastrointestinal emissions of a supervolcano that last let out a really big one 640,000 years ago. Back then, it ejected about 240 cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. Today, as seems always the case with these things, it just sounds a little rude and smells badly.
My wife, Penny, and I, with our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have just stepped off the snowcoach with our cross-country skis in Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Watching us disembark with our grade-school kids, the other passengers stared solemnly, as if expecting they would be the last to see us alive. Clearly, none of them are Nordic skiers, otherwise they might have realized that we’re setting out on one of the coolest half-day adventures in the entire national park system: ski touring along the Firehole River through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.
Skiing two-and-a-half miles up an almost flat valley—with one fun, long downhill that’s not very steep—we’ll pass through an area that’s home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them. When we reach Old Faithful after a few leisurely hours and a lot of comments of “that’s awesome!”, we’ll rendezvous with the snowcoach for the ride back to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’re staying.
We set out down the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the tracks of previous skiers, though completely alone for now. Across the open valley, white steam clouds billow into the sky from scores of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, giving the landscape the look of Hell bursting up through the Earth’s surface. Steam freezes to lodgepole pine trees, sugar coating some of them while long icicles hang in bunches from others. Elk graze the patches of ground kept open by the heat from thermal features. Bald eagles soar overhead.
Nate and Alex throw snowballs—mostly at me—and every few minutes point excitedly to another geyser spitting or erupting scalding water. We gaze into one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the 23-foot-deep, sky-blue mouth of Morning Glory Pool. A short while later, as we’re watching steam and hot water spurt from the 12-foot-tall mound of Giant Geyser, Nate shouts and points at a plume shooting skyward just a few hundred feet away: Riverside Geyser, named by the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sends a 75-foot-high arc over the Firehole River for as much as 20 minutes.
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Two winters in a row, we’ve come to ski tour in Yellowstone with the kids. I’ve been here several times previously on my own, including 10 years ago with Penny and Nate when he was a baby, pulling him bundled against the cold in a sled. Besides the Upper Geyser Basin, I’ve skied most of the groomed trails in the park, from the Lone Star Geyser Loop in the park’s southwest corner to the north’s Lamar Valley and Blacktail Plateau Drive, with views of the snowy Gallatin Range. I’ve meandered nervously, alone, through a vast herd of bison, and seen trumpeter swans, coyotes, bald eagles, river otters, wolf packs guarding a kill and howling atop a ridge, and more elk than I could estimate.
Besides having half the world’s thermal features and the most diverse collection of them—more than 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles—Yellowstone offers a window on pre-settlement America’s bountiful wildlife any time of year. But winter has always been my favorite season here, and not only because the crowds of summer have evaporated. Snow cleans up and quiets the landscape. Wildlife congregate in the valleys and thermal areas—the bison, elk, deer, and others seeking open ground for grazing and browsing, and wolves, eagles, and coyotes following the prey. The Lamar Valley is the best place in the country for viewing wolves—people often see them from the roadside.
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Our all-day snowcoach tour from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, run by Buffalo Bus Touring Co./Yellowstone Vacations, features a running naturalist lecture from our driver, Doug Kehl, that’s almost as fascinating as skiing through the geyser basin. A park interpretive ranger in summer, Kehl schools us on Yellowstone’s geology, natural and human history, flora and fauna. He points out a blood stain in the snow along the Madison River where, five days ago, the Canyon wolf pack killed an elk. He informs us that the best time and place to see grizzly bears—from the safety of your car—is between mid-April and the first week of May in Midway Geyser Basin. The bears go there in spring because elk and other animals flock to this thermal area all winter for its warmth, and the bears know they will find the carcasses of animals that did not survive the cold months. (Other outfitters offer similar tours in the park; see Make It Happen section below.)
We also skied with our kids to a frozen Tower Fall, seeing the water plunging behind a window of ice, skied the loop around the multi-colored terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, and skied through lodgepole pine forest hushed by snowfall on the Virginia Cascades ski trail.
Another day, another snowcoach trip, this time to Canyon. Penny, the kids, and I click into our touring skis and follow Sam Bollinger, a guide with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs this all-day snowcoach-and-skiing tour from Mammoth Hotel to Canyon. Twenty minutes down a gentle trail through lodgepole forest, we stop at a very deep and wide hole.
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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River falls away almost a thousand feet below our ski tips. Snow coats much of the yellow walls—this is the spot that gives the park its name. Pine forest clings in places to the steep, crumbling slopes. In the canyon bottom far below, the dark Yellowstone River churns noisily through rapids and small waterfalls—but nothing like what awaits ahead of us.
We glide slowly along the canyon rim, from Inspiration Point to Grandview Point, stopping frequently because it’s hard to ski forward while you’re constantly admiring the view to one side. At Lookout Point, we watch the roaring, wide wave of Lower Yellowstone Falls drop a sheer 308 feet, crashing onto a cone of ice at its base that’s nearly half the height of the waterfall. By the time we reach the end of the trail along the canyon rim, I’m torn over whether it’s the most gorgeous few miles of cross-country skiing I’ve ever done—or the Upper Geyser Basin beats it.
[Author’s note: I write about our Yellowstone ski adventures with the kids in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press, telling about how climate change is helping wipe out the park’s whitebark pine trees and shrinking winter in a place that has historically been one of the nation’s iceboxes.]
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