A Travellerspoint blog

January 2015

Winter in Yellowstone National Park, Day 1

Old Faithful Tour, bison, elk, coyote, geysers.

semi-overcast 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.

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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.
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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.

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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).

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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.
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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.
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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.

Posted by vegasmike6 23:50 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Winter in Yellowstone National Park, Day 2.

Day 2. Tour of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin. Home

sunny 20 °F

Day 2.
I had a little better night's sleep, but was still awake at 6am. I quickly dressed for the cold walk to the breakfast room, waking Chris in the process. I went over and had the same as yesterday: omelet, toast, peaches, hot chocolate. Good Morning America was on and I watched until Chris came over. 4 guys on a photography tour came in, we recognized them from the day before. They basically go to the same places that we do, but stay longer. They leave at 7am, our tour starts picking up passengers at 8am. Photo tours charge a set price per van load. If you can get at least 8 to go, the price is about the same as a regular tour. After BF, back to the room to clean up and get ready for the tour. Over to the lobby at 7:30, I check my e-mails. At shortly after 8am, our snow coach pulls up. A smaller van than yesterday, this one seats 14 and Anthony is our guide. They use the smaller vans for the Canyon tour because the Park Service has not approved the larger buses for this tour. The Old Faithful tour is more popular and they need more seats everyday. The Buffalo Bus Company alone has over a 100 seats a day for the Old Faithful tour and there are several other tour companies.

We are the first to load and pick the seats right behind Anthony. That way we can be first off the van at each stop. 6 of us were at the Branding Iron Inn (BII), the rest over at the Hilton. A quick stop at the tour office for paperwork and we were off by 8:30am. Same routine as yesterday when we hit the Park entrance. The ranger checks that all have paid to enter the park. First stop is by the Madison River for the frost covered tress. Anthony tells us that the water vapor from the river is why these trees have much more frost than those away from the river. The Madison River never freezes due to the high volume of heated water that the thermal features pumps into it each day. Yellowstone recorded a low temp of -66f (-54c) a few winters ago and the Madison River never froze. This is why many waterfowl use Yellowstone to spend the winter. They don't have to fly any further South to find open water and a plenty of food. The same bison as yesterday were across the river, grazing on what grass they could find. A few of our tour that had not been in the park yesterday jumped out for a few photos. The rest of us had enough shots of these bison. We stop at Madison for a bathroom break and a chance to warm up or buy a snack. Every tour bus and snowmobile tour stops at Madison, part of the routine.
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After Madison, we head for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Anthony drives straight to Canyon Village, our lunch stop. Chris and I brought our own snacks. Many bought the box lunch offered by the tour company. I had my granola bars and an apple and chatted with others on our tour. Chris was outside getting some shots of the bison laying in the road. I looked for a trash bin after finishing my snack, but could not find one. None to be found inside Canyon Village, not in winter. Not in the bathroom either. You are expected to take your trash back to your van. They just cannot deal with the volume of trash tour groups and snowmobiles generate. Anthony found everyone and we headed out for the next leg of our tour. There is not much to see as he heads for a meadow where animals are usually spotted. I almost fell asleep as did others. Full tummy, warm snowcoach and the rocking of a moving vehicle makes many sleepy. All of us are encouraged to shout out when we spot anything worth stopping for. First up is some swans and ducks on the Yellowstone River. The river is partially frozen as it does not receive the hot water that the Madison & Firehole Rivers do. We get some great shots of the swans and off we go.

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A few miles later another shout out. A coyote is hunting for mice & voles not far from the road. We all pile out and try to get a decent shot of the coyote looking for food. He pounces several times as we were watching, no luck that we saw. After the coyote sighting, we arrive at the large meadow were a herd of bison are grazing. One of the photo groups is there before us and we see some serious cameras clicking away. They have tripods and long lenses, real pros wanting National Geography quality photos. I get some I am happy with and we drive to a turn around area and get some scenic shots.
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Now we head for the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone. Short walk to the overlook and a great view of the falls and canyon. After everyone has their turn snapping away, we get back on the van and head for the Lower Falls overlook. Same routine. Chris and I are first off, quick walk to the overlook and we get our shots before the others. We all agree that we got very lucky with the weather. It has been sunny most of the day, blue sky, light wind and not that cold. I checked when we left West Yellowstone, 0 (-18c). It was 5f (-15c) at Madison, high for the day was around 30f (-1c). Really perfect weather for mid January.
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We loaded up and headed back to Canyon Village for a bathroom break. Now it was my turn to get some photos of the bison laying in the road by Canyon. I get about 70ft from the bull bison and try to keep a road sign between us. On full zoom, I get my shots. Back on the van, we head back. First up is the Norris Geyser Basin (NGB). My knee is starting to hurt but I hike some of the NGB trail. Just perfect conditions, I take plenty of shots of the scenic vistas of the NGB until I see that my batteries are low. I carefully select a few more shots and then my camera goes dead. My fault of course, I did not carry extra AA batteries. I shot over 300 photos in 2 days and that was all the juice 4 AA batteries had. Back to the van, I wait for the rest of the group. I told Chris I was done taking photos and would have to get copies from him for the rest of the tour.

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Monument Geyser Basin & Beryl Springs are close to the road. I look at them and Chris takes a few shots. Next up is Gibbons Falls, OK but not very impressive after the falls of the Yellowstone River. After we all get back on the van, we head back to Madison. Bathroom break, snack stop. 4th time at Madison, I just chat with our tour group until time to leave. On the way back to West Yellowstone, we see a bunch of snowmobiles and tour buses stopped. A sure sign something is worth stopping for. We see a few bison, but nobody needs anymore bison photos. Sure enough, we see some bald eagles in a tree. I get out to stretch my knee and will rely on Chris to get good shots of the eagles. After everyone has their shots, off we go to WY.

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First stop is the BII and 6 of us troop off. We both thought Anthony did a decent job as tour guide and I give him a $20 tip for both of us.
We hit the bathroom and then head for the lobby. We ask the front desk clerks their advice on where to have dinner. One mentions the all you can eat spaghetti dinner at The Gusher and that gets Chris's attention. We decide to drive over just to fire up the van. It sat all day yesterday and I wanted to to start it up and get it ready for the drive home tomorrow. The Gusher is over by the Buffalo Bus Company office and has a reader board advertising its spaghetti night. In we go and ask about price and what is in the sauce. Bad news for me, meat sauce is the only option. The price was $12, OK by WY standards and Chris decides to go for it. I choose soup & salad for $10. The Stage Coach Inn is right across the street and I walk over to look it over. When we were looking at a winter tour of Yellowstone NP in Dec. I picked the Stage Coach because of price, $59/night. After talking to a tour guide on the phone in early Jan. I switched to the BII. Newer rooms and better BF. The front desk clerk at the Stage Coach told me a room with 2 queen beds was $69/night, same as we were paying at BII. Back to the Gusher, I dig into my soup and salad. An OK meal, there are not that many low cost dinner choices in WY during the winter. Back to the hotel, Chris starts working on his photos, I hit the hot tub again. After a 15 minute soak, I walk back to the room for my shower. One small quibble with the BII is the lack of a shower in the hot tub area. I think most would rather shower right there after soaking in the hot water. Shower, change into fresh clothes, then walk to your room. I shower, watch some TV, read a bit, then take my Tylenol PM and try to sleep. I again castigate myself for not bringing my own pillows. With the Odyssey, I had heaps of room and should have thrown them in the back. Another poor nights sleep, we are up at 6am. Over to the BF room, we load up on omelets, toast, peaches, hot chocolate. We like to steal some fresh fruit for our lunch, but don't have that choice. WY is too far from a real market to have bananas, apples available each day. After BF, clean up, pack and warm up the Odyssey. We are both grateful for the heated seats as it is 2f (-16c) this morning.

I stop at the lobby for the final bill, $243 for 3 nights. $69/night plus the taxes. Add in $260 for 2 tours plus tip, about $70 each in petrol, $30 for 3 dinners and we spent approx. $500 each for our Yellowstone winter adventure. We both felt like it was worth the time/money to visit Yellowstone NP in the winter. I doubt I will ever go again in the winter, but glad it did it while I can still walk to the thermal features. It took 11 hours to get back to Vegas, getting in at 5pm. Our winter adventure was over.

Posted by vegasmike6 12:07 Archived in USA Tagged animals winter Comments (1)

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