The quiet of a moonlit night was shattered by the geyser's roar as Old Faithful suddenly shot into the sky. Its boiling water met the frigid air and a curtain of steam shrouded the dark woods beyond. A lone coyote stepped out of the shadows to stare at us, half a dozen humans who were watching Mother Nature's best-known spectacle in Yellowstone National Park.
Thousands of people jam the geyser site in summertime, but on that cold January night just six of us constituted the crowd at Old Faithful. Having the place all to yourself is one of the pleasures of a winter visit to the nation's most popular park.
The reason so few of Yellowstone's 2.3 million annual visitors arrive between mid-December and mid-March is that all but one of the park's snow-covered roads are closed.
Two Lodges, Restaurants
And until three years ago, even if you came to tour by snowmobile or cross-country skis, accommodations were limited to dormitory-style facilities at Old Faithful. This is the fourth winter that the park's major concessionaire, TW Services, has opened two lodges and its restaurants for off-season visitors.
Best of all, the concessionaire also operates tours of Yellowstone by snow coach, tractor-tread vehicles pioneered by the snowbound Canadian and Swedish military. The yellow tank-like machines cozily carry 10 to 15 passengers over snow-packed roads to Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and other park attractions.
Wildlife comes out of hiding when the hordes of summer visitors retreat, and hatches pop open in the snow coach roofs so photographers can snap unobstructed shots of bison, elk and deer that wander near the roads.
The winter scenery changes every mile as your snow coach rolls through the park. With snow pilinh up to 12 feet and more during the season, sparkling white vistas appear in every direction.
Steam hisses from vents in the earth, causing a hoary frost that turns trees into ghostly images. Delicate ice crystals ring bubbling mud pots, and gurgling hot springs spill down travertine terraces. Only Yellowstone's hydrothermal displays seem to interrupt the park's wintry silence and pristine appearance, except for occasional encounters with wildlife and fellow visitors.
We left Southern California for a winter week in the frozen northwest corner of Wyoming, first flying to Jackson Hole, 57 miles from the park's southern entrance. Our suitcases were stuffed with wool caps and gloves, sweaters, long underwear, down parkas, insulated boots and other cold-weather clothing to fend off zero-to-freezing temperatures.
Dog Sled Ride
Before boarding a TW Services bus to Flagg Ranch to rendezvous with the snow coaches, we went for a dog sled ride in the snow-covered valley and then reverted to Belgian horse power for a slow trip by sleigh in Jackson's National Elk Refuge. As many as 8,OOO of the elegant animals migrate there to feed in winter. Their diet is supplemented by alfalfa pellets spread on the ground from other sleighs, so the elk were undisturbed as our camera-clicking group glided past the grazing herd.
After our open-air excursions by dog sled and sleigh, we looked forward to traveling through Yellowstone in an enclosed and heated snow coach. Several vintage single-cab and new dual-coach models were waiting at Flagg Ranch, the end of the plowed road from Jackson. Suitcases were stowed on top under a tarp, and then the yellow beetles rumbled north on a groomed snow-road toward Old Faithful.
Our knowledgeable driver interspersed his informal narration of park lore with impromptu stops for trumpeter swans, Canada geese, bison and other wildlife, as well as a planned pause at West Thumb Geyser to see the "ghost trees" at the edge of Yellowstone Lake.
By winter's early twilight our snow coach had completed its 4O-mile crawl across an icy Eden to reach Snow Lodge, our rustic accommodations within sight of world-famed Old Faithful. It erupts an average of every 77 minutes, so we enjoyed drinks and dinner in the lodge dining room before bundling up again to witness the geyser's 120-foot fountain by moonlight.
In the morning we went back for another of its shows during a ranger-led walking tour around Upper Geyser Basin, where dozens of other thermal springs also bring the hushed landscape to life with their steamy displays. In the mist a burly buffalo unexpectedly appeared, searching for grass kept free of snow by the heated earth.
By midday, eager to encounter more animals and scenery in the 2.2-million-acre park, most of the cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and snow coach passengers had dispersed from the lodge on the glittering roads and ski tracks.
Continuing north to Mammoth Hot Springs, we broke the journey to stroll on snow-packed trails around the Fountain Paint Pots and Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone's most active thermal area. At our destination, 51 miles from Old Faithful, cascading hot springs have created terraces of colorful limestone pools, but it was dark by the time we reached Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins.
Built nearly half a century ago, the large and comfortable lodge is headquarters for visitors who arrive at the park's northern entrance. Its 128 rooms often are filled, even in winter, because the road from Gardiner, Mont., is kept open.
The Mammoth area has been a focal point for tourists ever since President Ulysses S. Grant declared Yellowstone a national park--the nation's first--in 1872. Its sheltered valley is a favorite of elk, which we saw outside our window pawing in shallow snow for grass to eat.
Mammoth Hot Springs offers a host of wintertime activities, and we began by following a park ranger on a morning walking tour of the Lower Terraces. Afterward we rented snowshoes and trekked with a trail map to more-remote geothermal creations.
Also fun was a horse-drawn sleigh ride around the park village that includes some of the buildings of century-old Fort Jefferson. Soldiers lived there as guardians of Yellowstone until the National Park Service was established in 1916 and took charge.
Skating and Skiing
To top off the day at Mammoth Hot Springs, we went ice skating on a small rink behind the lodge, had a delicious prime rib dinner with wine in the impressive restaurant, and attended a ranger's slide talk about the park's wildlife for a nightcap. The next morning we were up early for cross-country skiing around the Upper Terraces, followed by a short ride by minibus to photograph bighorn sheep near the Yellowstone and Lamar rivers.
We toasted our fortune in seeing those rare animals close up during a buffet lunch at Roosevelt Lodge, named for Theodore Roosevelt who camped in the park during a presidential visit in 19O3. No doubt he would have enjoyed a soothing soak in the outdoor hot tub we shared later back at the Mammoth hotel.
For reservations or more information about a winter holiday in Yellowstone, contact a travel agent or TW Services, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190-0165. Phone: (307) 344-7311 or call toll-free (800) 421-3401.
Rooms for one or two people at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are $40 with bath, $27 without bath, per night; no charge for children 11 or younger. Suites in the hotel cost $105. Also inquire about the Mammoth hotel two-night ($93) and six-night ($195) packages.
Snow coach excursions cost $48 round trip from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, or one-way through the park from the south entrance via Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs (or vice versa). Children 5 to 11 pay half-fare.
You can rent skis, boots, gaiters and poles for $8 for a half day or $11 for a full day of cross-country skiing. Snowmobiles are rented at $55 a day, plus $12 to rent a suit, boots, helmet and gloves.
Gateways to Yellowstone National Park in winter are Jackson, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont. Western flies there from LAX and Orange County via Salt Lake City, as does Frontier via Denver.