The back seat of a two-door Toyota stopped on a tight mountain curve is not the best place to be when a hemmed-in buffalo decides to get unhemmed. but that's where I was on an early evening in February in Yellowstone National Park.
The buffalo had ambled around the bend just as we had driven from the other direction. There was no way around him and we couldn't back our way home. So, with a buffalo closing in at a trot, we threw the car in reverse and began to inch through a nine-point turn, trying desperately not to sink into the snow on the side of the narrow road. Getting out and pushing with a one-ton buffalo bearing down was not high on our vacation agenda.
Our cross-country ski trip to Yellowstone had begun as an idea hatched by a group of snow-starved expatriate teachers living on Guam. Meet in Yellowstone our first winter back in the U.S., went the plan.
You couldn't call us outdoorsy. Mike, a New York City transplant to Montana, and his girlfriend, Zan, had actually camped before, making them our experts. As for me and my husband, Rex, our skiing experience consisted of a bout on a NordicTrack,which we both abandoned after falling off.
Yellowstone, in northwestern Wyoming, is the nation's first and, at 43,750 square miles, largest national park. Founded in 1872, it is probably most famous for its more than 200 geysers, including Old Faithful. Unlike the Yellowstone of summer, however, Yellowstone in winter is a world of silence. Gone are the RVs and campers. Paths trampled with footprints are replaced with snowfields mottled with animal tracks.
In Yellowstone, cross-country skis, ice skates, snow shoes and snowmobiles give winter the joy of a no-school snow day. Winter is also the best time to see wildlife. Elk abandon the high country for the food and milder weather of the plateaus around the tourist centers of Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. Coyotes stretch in the sun atop boulders. Buffalo (zoologically, the American buffalo is really a bison) in their shaggy winter coats lumber slowly across snowfields and, as we discovered, onto the roads.
Winter can be brutal here. Temperatures can plunge to 10 below, far lower with wind chill. The air snaps off like an icicle. The cold snatches your breath away. All is white: rabbits, roads, valleys, mountainsides. Shadows stretch long. It was just what we beached islanders needed.
For our rendezvous, we chose Mammoth Hot Springs resort, tucked in a valley of thermal wonders a short jaunt from the park's northwestern gate at Gardiner, Mont. Only lodgings at Mammoth and Old Faithful Snow Lodge 50 miles to the south stay open in the winter. Mammoth is accessible by car; a Sno-Cat--a van with huge snowmobile treads--shuttles guests from Mammoth or Flagg Ranch (a private resort just a few miles south of the southern entrance) to Old Faithful in a three-hour trip.
We had left our home in Chicago the night before for a flight to Bozeman, Mont., where we met Mike and Zan, who had driven in from their home in Missoula, Mont. We got a late start the next morning and arrived at Gardiner in midafternoon. The drive from Bozeman on a clear, sunny February day was stunning, and the beauty only improved once inside the park.
The Gallatin Range, with its great slides of rugged mountain capped in white was to the west. Elk with white-target rumps huddled in thickets of brown brush. Landscape, salt-stained road, brush and valley all were bleached of color and thrown in stark relief against the blue sky.
Mammoth consists of a main hotel and a pair of two-story buildings housing bare-bones rooms. The resort still has a glimmer of the military barracks it once was. Built in the late 1800s on grounds occupied by the U.S. Cavalry, the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel was one of the first accommodations in a national park. Our rooms, in one of the lodge's annexes, were spartan, with no television or phones.
The main hotel is rustic, with ceiling-to-floor windows that flood the main rooms with soft winter sun. Elk mingle or nap on the front lawn. The reception area is abutted by the grand Map Room, which is filled throughout the day with weary skiers sipping hot tea or in the evenings with music from a grand piano. The room's namesake, covering the north wall, looks like an enormous wooden jigsaw puzzle of the United States.
Near the main buildings, wood-paved footpaths climb and weave among terraces of pink, yellow and green limestone and calcium. No longer competing with summer's vibrancy, the soft terrace colors stand out amid the white of winter.
Thermal pools abound. Hot springs and bubbling mud spew steam from the basement of the earth. Globs of calcified rock dot the landscape, their crevices seeping with steaming water.
The best way to reacquaint ourselves with winter, we thought, was to ski some of Mammoth's 55 miles of cross-country trails. The snow in Yellowstone is dry and plentiful, ideal for skiing, we were told. The 15 trails offer a range of scenery and skill level. Many begin near the resort or within a short drive by car or snow coach.
Some trails wind around the perimeter of canyons, others cross flat meadows and stream beds. One trail at 9,700 feet challenges downhill nordic skiers. Trails on the grounds of the lodge take skiers through thermal terraces and wooded hills.
Trails climb from 50 feet to 1,100 feet, 200 feet being typical. They are clearly marked and ranked easy to difficult. Easiest requires basic knowledge and limited experience in the diagonal stride, snowplow and sidestep.
Given that Rex and I were lashing on skis for the first time and still thought snowplowing was something the Department of Streets and Sanitation did, we opted for the "easy" Tower Falls trail the next morning. The trail begins about 20 miles east of the lodge, and climbs through pine trees, topping out at a waterfall.
We had wanted to take a lesson, but because of a fluke warm spell there was little snow on the terraces where the lessons were usually held. So we had only a brief verbal primer from the idle ski instructors before we strapped on our skis and headed out. Still, we thought, how hard could it be? Then we got to the trail, where we promptly fell over.
Tower Falls trail, a summertime road turned winter ski trail, gains roughly 250 feet in 2.5 miles. Skiing uphill--now that's a novel concept, I thought, as we began our ascent. Just like walking they said. I concentrated on moving one foot in front of the other. Directly ahead of me, Rex's skis seemed to be slipping backward a little farther with each stride than they moved forward.
The trail was groomed for cross-country skiers. A pair of 3-inch-wide tracks about 6 inches apart went up one side of the mountain and another pair came back down. Each ski fit snugly in its allotted track. Unfortunately, I had nonconformist skis. I could feel them slide out from under me faster than I could maneuver them forward. To make any progress at all, I had to pick up the pace.
Gulping thin air, I essentially jogged up the side of this mountain with slats of wood lashed to my feet. My legs burned. My throat ached with icy air. I was sweating even as my breath was visible. At the first plateau, I stopped to shed some clothing.
The beauty of the scenery eased some of the exhaustion. Off to the left was a tiny lake, tucked in for the winter and rimmed by prim Ponderosa pines. A solitary trail of tiny footprints in the snow was the only indication of animal life. We were at 6,500 feet. The sky looked icy blue; the sun glinted off the snow. Silence all around.
After what seemed like days, but was actually an hour, the trail topped out at the head of Tower Falls, a waterfall plunging 125 feet. A snow-packed hiking trail led to the base of the falls. Barring entrance to the trail, however, were five buffalo meandering our way. At this point, tired and strapped into skis, we were about as agile as turtles.
"Don't worry," Mike whispered. "We'll make this. They can't see very far."
We dropped our skis next to a closed-for-the-season snack shop and tiptoed to the head of the trail. The buffalo eyed us, bored, absent-mindedly licking their noses with huge purple-black tongues that reached nearly to their eyes.
The path to the falls dropped, switched back, twisted and turned between fir trees and boulders. Not 50 yards down the trail stood an elk with enormous antlers. A half-hour hike brought us to a frozen pond covered in snow. Above, the waterfall looked like a giant icicle stopped in a freeze-frame of ice . Behind the icicle we could still see falling water. Overhead, a bald eagle flapped silently, perching on the bare branches of a tree.
Back at the ski trail, I realized that the duplicate ski tracks I had seen on the way up were not for additional skiers. They were the return tracks down the mountain. This is where a lesson in cross-country skiing downhill might have helped.
Almost immediately, I found myself picking up speed at an alarming rate. None of this sashaying from side to side to slow one's descent; just a straight shot down. Even worse, changing temperatures over the last few days had created a sheen of ice atop the snow. I felt like the Japanese ski daredevil, Yuichiro Miura,who careened down a 4,000-foot drop on Mt. Everest. He, at least, had a parachute to slow him down.
I rocketed toward a bend in the trail. Just past a "Reduce Speed" road sign for summertime drivers, I bailed out in a cloud of snow. Behind I could hear Rex's terror-stricken yell. I tried to roll out of the way, which only served to entangle my skis further. I rolled back and attempted to get onto my knees. The skis weren't having it.Rex had by now rounded a bend and was on the straightaway. I fumbled for the release latch, but my bulky winter clothes, frozen thumbs and ice-packed ski bindings were working against me. I lurched forward, dug a pole into the ground and righted myself--just in time to be plowed over by Rex. At that point, a child--she couldn't have been more than 10 years old--skied nimbly past, snowplowed to a graceful stop and politely asked if she could help. I bit my tongue.
When we finally unlatched our skis at the bottom of the trail, tired, wet, but exhilarated, the sun had cast the snow the lavender of twilight. A forlorn cry cut through our excited chatter. In the distance, making his way across a lonely stretch atop a hill was a lone gray wolf, one of those recently reintroduced to Yellowstone. His mate could be heard calling him home with her heart-sick howl. (Doubters tell us it was a coyote, but that's our story and we're sticking to it.)
We took the long way home, heading east to Cooke City. Our snow tires had been checked at the entrance gate at Gardiner and we were approved to travel on this stretch of mountain road, icy and snow-packed in the shadows of peaks--and dotted with buffalo.
Which brings me back to our buffalo encounter. As Mike cranked the steering wheel hard right, then hard left, inching us around, I contemplated the possibilities of escaping the two-door car from the back seat.
"I thought these buffalo were supposed to be sleepy this time of year," I muttered.
"They normally are," said Mike, a bead of sweat forming on his brow. "But they have been known to butt at things that annoy them."
And we were more than likely annoying him. Luckily for us, our car was a little quicker than the buffalo. Mike made the final turn and we sped away.
We skied for two more days, gaining expertise and sore muscles and seeing a slower, sleepier Yellowstone, stripped down to its essential beauty. With most of the summer conveniences closed, we had a sense of untouched nature. A place where the elements--and the animals--presided.
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Geyser of Yellowstone Info
Getting there: Delta offers connecting service from LAX to Bozeman, Mont., through Salt Lake City; Alaska offers connecting service through Seattle. Restricted advance-purchase fares begin at $305 round trip. From Bozeman to Mammoth Hot Springs is a 1 1/2-hour drive (80 miles). From Mammoth to Old Faithful Lodge is a three- to four-hour ride by snow coach ($38 per person, one-way). Where to stay: Mammoth Springs' winter season goes from Dec. 22 through March 3. Old Faithful Lodge operates Dec. 15 through March 8. Prices for rooms are based on one to twopeople, except for two-room units, which are based on one to four people. Each additional person, $8. Room with bath, $74; without bath, $50 (Old Faithful rooms do not have private baths); two-room unit with bath, $100. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 9, package deals are available at Mammoth. High end: four people, six days, $981. Low end: four people, two days, $375. Cross-country skiing: Mammoth area has 15 trails covering 55 miles. Old Faithful has numerous trails around the lodge and geyser basins, and two in the area. Ski packages for both areas, including equipment: $12.50 full day. Shuttle to trails, $9. Where to eat: The only options are the lodge restaurants that offer routine, but pricey, fare. Entrees about $16. Each has a bar and lounge. The city of Gardiner offers casual dining spots and grocery stores.
For more information: TW Recreational Services, P.O. Box 165, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0165; tel. (307) 344-7311.