Winter Wonderland

The president’s prophesy of April 24, 1902, came true, of course. But four decades passed before a significant number of tourists experienced Yellowstone National Park dressed in her pristine winter coat.

Historians do tell us that the first officials stationed to protect the park’s resources recreated in the snow, more than a decade prior to Roosevelt’s prediction. Author Paul Schullery notes in Yellowstone Ski Pioneers that skiing was a popular activity by the time of Fort Yellowstone’s construction at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1891. (The U.S. Army, preceding the National Park Service, patrolled and protected Yellowstone from 1886 to 1918.)

The park’s first non-government skiers—hardy souls who strapped on long, heavy boards—were not there for fun. Rather, they were poachers who took advantage of the park’s winter-weakened wildlife and the animals’ slowed movements, hampered as they were by deep snow.

Although Yellowstone was established in winter—on March 1, 1872—it would be a hundred years before people could travel to Old Faithful confident that full-service winter lodging awaited them once they got there. A big step toward that was made when zippy, fuel-powered transportation began supplanting human power in 1949.

Sketch artist henry Bose, photographed by Frank J. Haynes, in January 1887.

Early Adventures

The first Yellowstone ski adventure unfolded in January 1887. Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, an experienced Arctic explorer, and seven men, including photographer Frank J. Haynes, skied from Mammoth pulling heavily laden toboggans bound for the interior. Encountering minus-thirty-degree temperatures, they witnessed a steam- and frost-enshrouded Norris Geyser Basin. But Schwatka’s lungs began to hemorrhage, and he returned to Mammoth.

Haynes wanted to continue taking photographs—the first winter images of Yellowstone—so he and three others pushed on. The men skied toward Mt. Washburn north of Canyon when an unexpected blizzard hit, forcing them to hunker down for two days with only lunch in their pockets and no axe, blanket, or compass. Finally, the exhausted and hungry men reached John F. Yancey’s Hotel near Tower, where the hospitality of the proprietor, known as “Uncle John,” probably saved their lives.

Better prepared than the Schwatka group, T.E. “Uncle Billy” Hofer and a friend set out on skis from Gardiner the next month. Hofer wore an undershirt, a short-sleeve antelope skin (“Indian dressed”), a California flannel shirt, a wool shirt, vest, and buckskin jumper followed by a pair of mission drawers, pantaloons, and canvas overalls. Fine cotton socks and calf boots were covered by Arctic overshoes with canvas leggings fastened by buckskin strips. He donned a white felt hat and, to further battle the cold, a jersey cloth hood and face mask. Two silk handkerchiefs insured against cheeky insults of wind; smoked spectacles kept snow blindness at bay; and, finally, gloves and leather mittens covered his hands. What a contrast to today’s high-tech, lightweight clothing!

Bull elk repose in the snow during the 1887 Haynes Expedition. NPS photo.

And then there were the boards. Early skiers had to work much harder at having fun than people today. Imagine lacing up heavy leather boots and strapping them on to ten- to fifteen-foot-long wooden “snowshoes” or “Norwegians”—later called skis—that weighed at least twenty pounds per pair.

Old-fashioned skis often had a strip of hair-on elk hide tacked to the bottom to prevent skiers from slipping while skiing upslope, akin to today’s stick-on skins. To slow their descent, they used a single heavy, wooden pole, perhaps with a tin can lid nailed to the bottom, a precursor to today’s pole basket.

Hofer recommended Yellowstone winter travel in a January 1888 Forest and Stream article, with the caveat that individuals hire a guide and a cook, and bring their own bedding. Though park hotels were closed and unheated, skiers could buy provisions from hotel winter keepers and sleep under a roof.

Bison swing their massive heads back and forth through the snow, seeking the previous seasons’ grasses. Photo by Jamye Chrisman

Wrote Hofer: “Take the rough with the smooth and … endure a certain amount of fatigue and cold in exchange for the pleasure of such an excursion.”

Explorer and author Lewis R. Freeman wrote of an April 1902 two-week ski trip in his book Down the Yellowstone. After arriving at Fort Yellowstone, he accompanied Army scouts on game patrol. The Army outfitted Freeman, attaching him to “a party of troopers detailed to pack in bacon to the station at Norris Basin.” What followed were daredevil ski runs and even jumps by Freeman, and getting treacherously close to cliffs and wildlife under the encouragement of his soldier-guides. Winter keepers came along for the fun—one of whom, according to Freeman, cussed up a mean streak because of his own ineptitude on skis.

Motorized winter transportation in Yellowstone National Park grabbed a foothold in 1949 and has only grown since. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

Fuel-powered Transportation

After World War II, local people began looking for easier ways to access the park. Some adventurous souls jumped into snowplanes, an unusual contraption that skidded across snowy, open expanses. A product of the Canadian prairie provinces, the snowplane was a fuel-powered, rear propeller-driven, two-person cockpit on skis. Light aircraft engines produced anywhere from sixty-five horsepower on up; the skis, one in front and one on each side of the vehicle, were ten inches wide and more than seven feet long. (See “Windjammers of the Snowdrifts” in our Winter 2010–11 edition, or online at tetonvalleymagazine.com.)

Thirty-five tourists, in nineteen snowplanes, rode into the park in January 1949.

In 1955, a pair of West Yellowstone hotel managers, Harold Young and Bill Nicholls, began offering snowcoach tours, taking up to five hundred people in each winter. Ten passengers could comfortably ride in their heated, Canadian-manufactured Bombardier oversnow vehicles. Park lodging concessioners began offering “Bomb” transportation to winter recreationists a decade later, in 1965.

Steam rises from thermally fed waters below the Mommoth Hot Springs Terraces

On March 1, 2016, after fifty-one years of service by the Bombardiers, snowcoach drivers bid a fond farewell to the iconic yellow machines, signaling the end of an era. New winter regulations require the use of lower-emission and quieter oversnow vehicles. The new Van Terra vans are more comfortable for passengers, as well, and able to travel on pavement, important because roads in the northern part of the park often lack adequate snow cover. The vans can run on either the rubber, tank-like treads known as Mattracks or oversized, low-pressure tires.

A Family Ski Trip

In late December 1970, Jackson Hole resident Ken Thomasma, his wife, and their fourteen-year-old son rode a Bombardier from Flagg Ranch at the park’s southern boundary to Old Faithful on a three-day camping trip. Rudimentary road grooming at the time consisted of a snowcoach dragging a raft of logs to somewhat smooth out the bumps.

Their trip was one year before the original Old Faithful Snow Lodge opened. Inspecting the Thomasma family’s gear to determine if they were prepared for the predicted twenty-below temperatures, rangers found head-to-toe down clothing. Park employees even packed the snow down in their camping area and dug out a snow-buried outhouse—a four-foot scoop down so the Thomasmas could open the door.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone river in its winter finery. Photo Jamye Chrisman

The family skied around the Upper Geyser Basin, north to Fountain Paint Pots, and east to Lone Star Geyser. Ken remembers one morning when his family watched Old Faithful Geyser erupt with no one else present. That’s a rarity today: On any one night, more than five hundred people might be staying at the new Snow Lodge, built in 2006. A bevy of employees live there, too. And that doesn’t include day trippers coming out of West Yellowstone and elsewhere.

Trending Recreation

Winter visitors can bring their own gear and plan independent adventures or they can rent skis or snowshoes at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs. Xanterra, Yellowstone’s lodging concessioner, offers an array of sightseeing, skiing, and snowshoeing tours. Xanterra also grooms a few ski trails, but most trails are skier-tracked. Skate skiers can glide on groomed roads, while snowshoers are asked to break their own trail.

Crystal Cassidy, parkwide manager of the ski shops for the past fourteen years, notes that more people are snowshoeing than skiing these days. Those staying at the Snow Lodge tend to be older and more cautious, choosing flatter, easier terrain. But even employees, who tend to be younger, ski less than in years past.

Photo by Jamye Chrisman

Some hardy individuals enjoy the solitude of backcountry winter camping in the park, though it appears that substantially fewer are doing it than three decades ago. Statistics for the South, West, and East Entrances show that during the winter of 1982–83, campers spent more than 4,200 nights in the backcountry, compared to just 605 nights in 2014–2015.

Snowmobiles: Convenience and Controversy

The trend in snowmobiling has proven the opposite of the decline in winter camping. The first six personal snowmobiles came into Yellowstone National Park in 1963. Since then, the machines have grown wildly popular, a fact that prompted the Park Service’s 1968 decision to groom rather than plow roads in winter. (The exception is the North Entrance road to Cooke City, Montana, open year-round to automobiles.)

A stalwart of winter transportation in Yellowstone since 1955, the Canadian-manufactured bombardier oversnow vehicles made their final run in the park on March 1, 2016.

During the winter of 1992–93, approximately 90,000 people straddled snow machines and navigated park roads. Some Yellowstone proponents began voicing concerns of wildlife disturbances and of noise and air pollution. Yellowstone managers sought to balance visitor enjoyment with resource protection, as they do with all park issues. As anyone who follows the situation knows, winter use planning has been a long, controversial process.

Finally, in 2013, after years of public comments and multiple lawsuits, managers adopted a Final Winter Use Plan. Winter visitation is now managed flexibly, allowing daily up to 110 “transportation events.” An event is defined as one snowcoach or ten snowmobiles using the cleanest available technology. In addition to commercially guided tours, a few independent snowmobile groups are permitted. (Visit nps.gov/yell/learn/management/currentmgmt.htm to read the plan in detail.)

Some 60 percent of the world’s geysers are found in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

Just Go!

While it does take some planning to orchestrate a winter visit to Yellowstone, most veterans would tell you it’s well worth the effort. The geysers keep gushing. Bison swing their massive heads back and forth through the snow, seeking the previous season’s grasses. Trumpeter swans swim on frigid but open waters. Everywhere, snow softens the landscape. Far fewer people are around. Despite the drone of oversnow vehicles, the quiet is still there, markedly more so than during the busy days of summer.

For me, winter is the park’s sacred season.

By Karen L. Reinhart