Old Faithful Tour, bison, elk, coyote, geysers.
12.01.2015 - 13.01.2015 20 °F
My friend Chris came back from Thailand Dec. 10th. He commutes, 8 months in Thailand, 4 in Las Vegas. We both saw a National Geographic channel show on winter in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) last winter. He had some health problems last winter and we never could go. I e-mailed him that I would like to go this winter and he agreed. YNP opens for the winter on Dec. 15th, so I picked Dec. 16th-18th. I got online and booked a room at the Stage Coach Inn in West Yellowstone (WY). I used booking.com and I was quoted $59/night for 2 queen beds, BF included. I used booking.com because they allow you to cancel with no penalty up to 4 days before your arrival. If you book with the hotel, you have to cancel within 20 days. I called the Buffalo Bus Company (BBC) and the Stage Coach Inn on Dec. 12th. I had been checking the weather on the Internet, not much snow in WY. Both guys I talked to said to cancel, the snowmobiles were not going out, not enough snow. I cancelled and let Chris pick a date in January. He picked Jan. 12-14th. I called Charlie at BBC and he recommended the Branding Iron Inn (BII). Newer rooms, better BF. I was quoted $69/night for those dates. Stage Coach was quoting $69 as well. I again used booking.com and booked 3 nights at the BII. As the date approached, I called both BBC and BII. Yes, they now had plenty of snow. Plan A was to leave early am on the 12th and drive straight to WY. Chris came over at 6:15am, we loaded up my van and headed out. I drove to Beaver UT, bathroom break and Chris took over. On to Ogden UT, we stopped for petrol. Good news, UT was cheaper than Vegas. We paid $1.92/gallon. I took over and we hit WY at around 6pm MT time. You lose 1 hour time change. Chris went to Oregon and wanted to see the game against Ohio State for the NCAA National Championship. I checked in using my credit card and was assigned room 405. It was upstairs and Chris asked if they had a downstairs room. Since they were only 30% full, they did. The front desk clerk then assigned us room 305. I drove close to 305 and we unloaded the van. We never stopped for food during the 11 hour drive to WY. I had fruit and granola bars, water. Chris brought his snacks for the 11 hr drive. We both can do w/o a real meal on travel day. Chris wanted pizza while watching the game and walked over to a pizza place. They delivered it to the room and we ate pizza and watched Ohio State dominate Oregon. Chris gave up in the 3rd quarter and played on his laptop. I showered, read my book and at 11pm we called it a night.
Both of us are poor sleepers in our own beds, did not get better in a hotel bed. I forgot to bring my own pillows. With the van, I had plenty of room. My bad. Won't make that mistake again. I was up at 6am and headed over to the BF room. It was cold, zero (-15c), but I had my old ski clothes, so I was prepared. Omelets with cheese are in a chafing dish and I picked that plus peaches, toast & hot chocolate. I chat with a snowmobile couple until Chris arrives. I like to shower right before bed, he prefers a morning shower. Chris picks what he wants and by 7:30 we head for the room to get ready. We clean-up, get our cold weather gear on, backpacks with cameras plus snacks and head for the lobby. Chris booked the tour with BBC when we checked in, $120 each with the taxes. There are plenty of seats for the Old Faithful tour which runs everyday. I had booked the Canyon tour for Wed. on the phone when I booked the room. They only go Mon. Wed. Friday to the Canyon, $130 each with the taxes. BBC warned me that the Canyon tour can sell out, so that is why I pre-booked. I get on the computer to check e-mails and wait for the BBC tour guide. Brad shows up around 8:20am. He has a large school bus, seating about 30. We sit as close to the door as possible and he proceeds to the other hotels picking up guests. We head out for YNP around 8:45am. We both had the Senior Pass for our National Parks, but others had to pay $10 entrance fee. You pay BBC when you pay for the tour. Into the park, we are now in Wyoming. Most of YNP is in Wyoming, just a bit in MT & Idaho. First stop is along the Madison River. It never freezes because of all the hot water dumped into it daily by the thermal features in YNP. We get a few frost cover tree shots and then see another BBC bus stopped. A sure sign of something to photograph. Some bison are grazing across the Madison River. Everyone piles off and we try to get our shots. Our first bison encounter. It won't be the last.
After everyone has their photos, we had for Madison Junction. All tour and snowmobiles stop at Madison for bathroom, snacks, to warm up. I checked the temperature, at 10am it was 5f (10c). Madison is around a 15 minute rest stop. Always a good idea to hit the bathroom, it maybe awhile before your next chance. I chat with some snowmobile riders from Atlanta Georgia in the warming shed. It cost them $300/day for: snowmobile, warm clothes, guide. You must have a guide when you enter YNP in the winter, snowmobile or snow coach. No private driving in the winter. Unless you win a lottery system that YNP has set up for those with their own snowmobile. If you win, you must attend a course on safe riding in YNP. None of the people we chatted with were on their own.
After the rest stop, we head towards Old Faithful (OF). The next stop is Lower Geyser Basin (LGB). We get out and Brad leads up to the geothermal features of LGB. It is still cold and we walk briskly to keep warm. Brad tells us about the different hot pools, mud pots, steamers, etc. We are there about 45 minutes and are ready for the heated snow coach.
We are encouraged to shout out when spotting anything worth stopping for. Someone spots some ducks, but not worth stopping for. My shot is through the window. There are elk and bison grazing around the Midway Geyser basin (MGB), but are so far away it makes for a difficult photo. A few bison finally wander close enough for a decent shot. This is the one photo we all want: a bison with a geyser going off. After some time at MGB, we are off for (OF).
I find out that Brad has been keeping track of the time and is trying to hit OF when it is scheduled to erupt. The Park Rangers time each eruptions and calculate when the next eruption will occur. When we get out of the snow coach, OF is starting to erupt. Our tour group fast walks the trail behind the Visitor Center. I start snapping away as I get closer to OF. After OF has stopped erupting, we chat with the ranger about the next eruption. Brad allows 2 hours at OF and the ranger expects the next eruption to occur in about 90 minutes. Chris starts walking the trail and I choose bathroom and movie inside the VC. I chat with the ranger and suggests walking to Castle Geyser, crossing the Firehole River and walking back behind OF for best view. I meet Chris on the trail and we walk by Beehive Geyser. It is sporadic in its eruptions and we don't wait hoping it will erupt. I find some benches to view the next OF eruptions. While sitting there, Beehive goes off. I get some shots of Beehive and while it is going, OF goes off as scheduled. I get many shots and then head for the snow coach. Brad takes a head count and we head back for home.
We spot a coyote prowling around the Firehole River in the Midway Geyser basin area. We all pile out and get shots of him walking towards a bridge. All the animals at YNP have figured out that we are no threat to them. We take photos and stay away from them and they know it. He ignores us and causally crosses a bridge with hikers not 50ft (15m) away. Brad gets us all back on the bus head for Madison. Short bathroom break and we head back to WY. We spot bison walking across the road and stop for them. Along the Firehole River someone spots a red fox looking for mice under the snow. Brad tells us this is a rare sighting. The red fox usually hunts at night. After the red fox sighting we head back for home. Someone shouts out that there is a bull elk by the river and we pull over. We all pile out and the elk poses long enough for most of us to get a decent photo before he wanders back into the trees.
That was our last stop, we leave the park and start dropping off passengers. When we hit the BII, we get out and I give Brad a $20 tip for both of us. The handout on Yellowstone tours suggests a 10-15% tip for your guide. We both felt Brad did a very good job spotting animals, explaining the geothermal features and making YNP understandable. We hit the room, get rid of our backpacks, bathroom and head for the lobby. We ask the front desk clerk for affordable dinner suggestions. She suggests the Slippery Otter Pub across Firehole Ave. We walk over and check out the menu. I see soup & salad for $10, good enough for me. Chris wants french dipped sandwich & fries. We agreed it was a decent meal at a decent price. Afterward, we walk across Canyon St. to check prices at the Subway shop. Basically double Vegas prices. We are quickly finding out there are few bargains to be had in WY, esp. in the winter. Many places are closed until summer. Just not enough customers to stay open. Those that do stay open need to gouge every dollar out of the few customers that show up. Well, that is a bit harsh, but it does feel that way sometimes.
Back to our room, I spot the hot tub sign. Sounds good and I decide to soak before showering. I had the room to myself and had 2 hot tubs to pick from. One was set at 104f (40c) and the other at 100f (38c). I pick the hotter one and last about 15 minutes. I then see that I will have to shower in my room. There is no shower in the hot tub room. I get dressed, back to the room, shower, clean up and watch some TV. Chris fires up his laptop and edits today's photos. At 10pm we were both ready for bed. Day one of our Yellowstone adventure is over.