Winter in wonderland: adventures in Yellowstone’s sublime season

A bison in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley (photo by Beth Pratt)Last week, avid wolf watchers gathered in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley despite the negative 38F temperature, gazing through binoculars at a wintry landscape that crackled with life. Elk danced over the snow to escape predators, and bison displayed their white masks from foraging for food. As the sun rose and the light penetrated the cold air, it created an endless display of sparkling white diamonds on the snowy ground.

This week temperatures soared to above freezing and visitors walked through a fairy-tale terrain in the Upper Geyser Basin. Steam from the thermal features floated through the air, covering the basin in a lazy mist. As Old Faithful erupted into the clear blue sky, its plume gave birth to clouds that hovered over the ground.

Yellowstone in winter is full of wonder. Whether snowshoeing at the Mammoth Terraces, cross-country skiing in the Upper Geyser Basin, or taking a snowcoach tour to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, exploring the park in winter is a memorable experience that provides spectacular scenery and excellent wildlife watching.

Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers a variety of packages for winter adventures, such as the Winter Wildlife Expedition, and is currently featuring a $49 per night room special at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. The non-profit Yellowstone Association teaches an array of excellent field seminars and private tours as well, including the upcoming Wolves in the 21st Century and Winter Ecology.

View a slideshow of Yellowstone’s winter wonderland below:

Frogs 0, Grizzlies 5, Osprey 2, Bighorn 21, Bison & Elk >100

My quest in Yellowstone today--a search for the boreal chorus and columbia spotted frogs. I ventured out to Lamar Valley and wandered around dozens of wetlands and ponds. Those little guys remained elusive--at least by sight--as I listened to the distinctive call of the chorus frog at several ponds.

Despite the lack of frog sightings, my travels in the park were not in vain as my photo diary below demonstrates. I encountered five grizzly bears, observed bighorn and bison mingling, watched a red-winged blackbird bathing, and an osprey fly over the Lamar River. I also spent a delightful hour watching the most adorable bison calves play together--you can view the video below, but beware as you may overdose on cuteness!

Bison Fun

Video: Bison Friends Playing in Yellowstone

Spring in Lamar Valley

Grizzly Near Slough Creek

Bee on Wyoming Kitten-Tails

Bison Skull and Horn

Beartooth Range

American Coot

Osprey in Flight

Red-winged Blackbird Bathing

Wildlife of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Wildlife%20Watchers%202.JPG.jpgWhat do mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, bison and bison calves, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, wolves and wolf pups, elk and mule deer all have in common? We observed all of these animals today in Yellowstone.

For my family’s visit to Yellowstone, I scheduled a custom wildlife tour of the northern part of the park through the wonderful non-profit the Yellowstone Association. Barbara and Ariana, our excellent and fun guides, greeted us at 6:00 am this morning with coffee and hot cocoa, and we boarded our own bus to head to Lamar Valley. Some highlights of our trip:

Redtailed%20Hawk.JPG%20copy.jpg6:15 am: Grizzly bear traffic jam just fifteen minutes into our trip as we passed over the bridge spanning the Yellowstone river. We observed from the relative safety of our bus as the bear rambled along the road.

6:45 am: It’s never too early for a dose of cuteness. A large herd of bison with about five drowsy baby calves rested in a meadow near Roosevelt.

6:50 am: At Floating Island Lake, our guide shows us a nesting sandhill crane, which on my own I might have taken for a small rock. After a short time the feathered mass stands and through our binoculars we are able to see her eggs. Just for affect a red-tailed hawk soars overhead.

Sandhill%20Crane%20on%20Nest%202.JPG.jpg7:15 am: We arrive in Lamar Valley and quickly find the yellow X-terra of Rick McIntyre, the wolf guru of Yellowstone. Where his SUV is parked is a sure sign of wolf activity. We settle at Slough Creek Campground and focus our spotting scopes on a den site of the Slough Creek pack. We are rewarded with an appearance of a female and a pup—the cuteness quotient of our morning suddenly increases exponentially

9:00 am-11:00 am: Barbara, our guide, spots a lone collared black wolf sitting by the river, which is later identified as female 526. Coyote%20Glance.JPG.jpgRick, via the radio wolf network, credits the Yellowstone Association with the sighting, which is akin to being thanked by Audubon for a spotting a bird. Suddenly 526 dashes down the bank of the river, meets up with five other wolves, and after chasing a pregnant cow elk in the river, they take her down. After the hunt, one wolf trots off with her unborn fetus—a grisly reminder of the indifference of Mother Nature. While we watch the wolves, a coyote trots among us searching for food.

1:00 pm: Barbara scouts the snow-covered ridges of Barronette Peak, searching for mountain goats and within a few minutes has found some scurrying on the perilous cliffs. On an opposite facing ridge, we find four bighorn sheep.

wolf and two coyotes 2.jpg.jpg1:30 pm: On our return drive through Lamar Valley, Ariana notices four red-tailed hawks soaring low over a meadow, and a herd of pronghorn dashing down from a ridge. We stop and spot a lone dark wolf and three coyotes giving chase to each other, a truly mesmerizing sight. Although the game could have deadly consequences, the two species appear at play, teasing each other with feints and charges. At one point they call a truce and rest, and one coyote gives a loud howl.
wolf coyote chase 2.jpg.jpgwolf and howling coyote.jpg.jpgwolf in lamar.jpg.jpg

Winter Ecology

dr. james halfpenny.jpg.jpgToday I played hooky from work--with the approval of my boss--and attended a Yellowstone Association class, Skis Across Yellowstone. Dr. James Halfpenny (Jim) taught the class and literally wrote the book on our subject matter--his Winter: An Ecological Handbook is one of the definitive works on winter ecology.

An amazing naturalist and educator with over a thirty-year history in Yellowstone and a global travel log to be envied, he also runs an ecology education center and museum in Gardiner that offers field courses in Yellowstone and around the world. I'm saving my pennies so I can attend his Polar Bears of the Arctic trip.

lamar buffalo ranch.jpg.jpgThe class returned me to my second favorite place on earth (Tuolumne Meadows being my first)--Lamar Valley. After a cozy night in my cabin, I arose early and joined the faithful wolf watching crew (with Rick and his yellow Xterra) at Slough Creek campground. I gazed at members of the Druid pack while they frolicked on Specimen Ridge. One wolf played with what appeared to be a discarded radio collar; another bantered with ravens. Before they trotted off into the forest the pack provided us with a farewell group howl. (Sorry-still no wolf photos--my scope adaptor for my camera is still on order).

After breakfast, Jim led the class on a delightful ski along the base of Barronette peak. We dug snowpits, took temperature and density measurements, and learned terms like depth hoar. I also enthusiastically volunteered to help with counting animal tracks using a really cool GPS device. We observed the tracks of multiple snowshoe hares, grouse, martens, coyotes, moose, and one snowshoer.

big horn sheep near roosevelt.jpg.jpgOn my return trip home I navigated several bison jams and stopped once more at Slough Creek to watch wolves. Near Roosevelt, I turned a corner and suddenly beheld a bighorn sheep not five feet from the road. My failed quest over the weekend had been suddenly realized. I parked the car and got my camera ready. He munched away, and considered me for only a moment before resuming his meal. With my naked eye I could count the ridges on his horns. I was mesmerized and sat on a rock for a half an hour simply watching him nibble forage.

Coyote Beautiful

Shad%20in%20Yellowstone.jpgShad came for a visit to help me get settled, although he almost didn't make his flight due to the downed trees in the Midpines driveway that required some chainsaw action.

It's hard to believe that California is experiencing worse weather (at least for the moment) than Montana. Shad definitely lucked out as the temperatures rose from sub-zero to the 30-40s during his stay, but he still did not want to go outside.

Coyote%20on%20Ledge%20Close.jpgHe assembled all my furniture in record time, so we had a day to go sightseeing. We drove to Lamar Valley to do some wolf watching. Wildlife sure are easy to spot in blinding snow!

The wolves remained elusive, yet we watched several coyotes venture across Lamar Valley, along with many herds of elk and bison. I was struck by the dizzying whiteness--a stark contrast to the fall browns and reds and yellows of my visit in November. (Note to Jack--you would not recognize the place!)

Coyotes%20Running.jpgCoyotes and wolves do not get along, and they hastily depart when in the vicinity of a wolf pack. Although they lack the size and mystique of the wolf, I find the coyote incredibly beautiful. "God's Dog" was the name given to the coyote by southwestern Native Americans. At my home in California, coyotes were a common sight. Here the landscape lends them an enhanced wildness. As we drove to Lamar Valley, a lone coyote stood on the top of a ridge, gazing at a small elk herd, and then considered us for a few moments.

Wolf%20Watching.jpgAfter a cold day of coyote-watching, we hit the town--Gardiner, population 761. I'm happy to report I finally visited the famous K-Bar! Great place for a winter drink. Shad was just excited that he could walk to Subway.

Women Who Run With Wolves

What is it about the presence of wildness that stops us in our tracks? I have been utterly amazed and captivated by the sheer beauty of seeing wolves frolic in the wild. The sight of a wolf loping through a herd of bison nearly drove me to tears today.

img_0244.jpgMy fellow intrepid explorer buddy, Jack Laws joined me for a two-day wolf study course in Yellowstone with Doug Smith, the project manager for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. He’s been overseeing the wolf reintroduction since nearly the beginning and he literally wrote the book on the project. A humble, intelligent man of incredible achievements, he has managed one of the most significant and controversial projects of our time and I learned much from him over just two days.

On our last day in Yellowstone, Jack and I took a hike down the Lamar River. In the middle of our hike we came across fresh grizzly tracks roughly the size of my head. Jack’s first reaction, “Do you mind if I take some time and sketch these?” Truly, dedication. I stood watch with my bear spray in hand, not wanting to interfere with the artistic process.