Yellowstone National Park turns 150

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As a surfer-snowboarder based in San Diego, the idea of ​​traveling to the American West in the winter never crossed my mind. In fact, with the first flutter of a snowflake, I usually head for the hills for ski season. Cutting new trails with hiking boots instead of a snowboard seemed like a waste of precious powder.

Until, of course, I had an affair with “Yellowstone.” The Netflix original series visually took me to the outer range of Montana, where cowboys are as scarred as the cattle they drive and the horses they kick in.

In all my years, never had a Hollywood product inspired me to pivot my winter plans to an unknown destination. But somehow, Yellowstone pulled it off. I became one with the Dutton family ranch, turning the fictional drama into a biopic in my mind, longing to visit this agrarian west where the locals fought to keep the wilderness untouched.

And so the planning for the trip began. It started with dropping pins on Google Maps, followed by research into flights, accommodation, availability, and the best time to avoid the crowds (not to be confused with “best time to visit”).

More than 4 million people explore Yellowstone National Park each year, most of whom visit in the summer. I wanted to experience Yellowstone in its purest and most perfect form. So it was winter, with my husband because, frankly, the man helps me see the world in color. In order to make human contacts more fluid, we have chosen to travel in the middle of the week.

Rumor has it that December through early March is the best time to view fire and ice. This is when geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents turn into geothermal thespians during freezing temperatures. Naturally, the Netflix version made me want to see a wolf in a snowy meadow.

Until then, we had to make do with the elk, as well as the deer and hawks that greeted us when we entered the corridor near Paradise Valley. Roosevelt’s Arch from 1903 marked the north gate. Inscribed in the cornerstone was “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

Exactly 150 years after Yellowstone was founded in 1872, those words still rang true. Even before it was named the world’s first national park, Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres served as a refuge for Native Americans who explored its lands and waters. Throughout history, decades of tragedy have plagued the park with overhunting, devastating fires and the introduction of non-native species.

Lessons from the past have helped rebuild the park’s ecosystem through conservation efforts and the preservation of its heritage – making Yellowstone the healthiest it has been in over a century.

The landscape does not lie.

We’ve seen it for ourselves, the awe-inspiring wonderland flanked by rivers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons and more than half of the world’s hydrothermal features. To access these majestic paintings, we had planned to spend the night at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

That’s when the real adventure began. In the winter, only two of Yellowstone’s nine hotels are open, and the roads (other than Highway 212) are only accessible by snowmobile or snowcoach. We chose the latter.

Built in 1936, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel recently underwent a major renovation, while maintaining the historic integrity of the spaces, including the Map Room. Here we sipped blueberry margaritas and dined on local dishes like bison tenderloin and parmesan-crusted trout.

At 8 am we were on our first wildlife tour through Lamar Valley. It wasn’t long before a herd of bison crossed our path, swaying like elephants with thick fur coats curled around the edges like a perm. These mighty beasts blocked the way, poised and confident as if their winter endurance allowed them to dominate mankind.

Of course so. Weighing 2,000 pounds and surrounded by 5,000 other buffalo park friends, these glorious brutes nearly shook the earth they walked on. We watched in silence, jaws on the floor. From their nostrils rose plumes of steam, dissipating as they reached their horns.

By noon, we had spotted a bald eagle, moose, bighorn sheep and a pack of coyotes devouring prey. Unlike the mangy coyotes that roam our San Diego property, these coyotes were wildly magnificent. Their coats were full and their faces fierce, so much so that I asked our guide twice, “Are you sure it’s not a wolf?”

If only that was the case. Spotting a wolf in Yellowstone is a rarity, unless (as our guide explained) you joined the tour the day before. Apparently, an entire pack of wolves had downed a bison, bringing National Geographic to life before the group’s urban eyes.

But I wouldn’t give up. I was determined to dance with the wolves before our trip was over, or better yet, have a “three dog day”. Those who witness a fox, a coyote, and a wolf are considered winners of the Yellowstone Lottery.

Along the way, we ate packed lunches before boarding our boat for the rest of our trip: a snowcoach. We climbed 7,000 feet, leaving behind aspen, lodgepole pine, blue spruce, poplar and juniper. Waking up near Swan Lake Flats was a breathtaking view of Electric Peak, dotted with a flock of Trumpeter Swans in the frame.

Our ultimate destination was Old Faithful, about 80 miles from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. The trip was interrupted by commercial breaks brought by Fountain Paint Pots bubbling in Lower Geyser Basin and Roaring Mountain bubbling with sulphide gas.

Along the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, one can experience all four thermal features including mud pots, geysers, hot pools, and fumaroles. The sound of hissing steam passed through narrow vents in the earth, proving that Yellowstone was alive and well.

We followed Gibbon River to Beryl Spring where the boiling water sparkled like gems. Near our second hotel – Old Faithful Snow Lodge – we spotted its sleepy namesake.

This highly predictable geothermal feature erupts nearly every two hours, making it one of six geysers park rangers can predict. Until show time, we were staying at the Snow Lodge, a cozy log cabin-style hotel with fireplaces, a skating rink, and a ski shop for those who want to cross-country ski right outside the door.

Late in bed, early to rise, we were ready for last night’s dinner of bison ribs and wild game bolognese. And we walked to Geyser Basin where the walks weave about 150 hydrothermal wonders. Reminiscent of sea anemones, Caribbean waters and bubbling pots of rust, the visual diversity was staggering.

It all culminated in the Old Faithful viewing area.

We had the place to ourselves, silently waiting with great anticipation, as if Old Faithful was a celebrity ready to make his Oscar debut. And then, from its mouth – no wider than a wrist – spewed a plume of smoke, followed by a hiss, then finally a burst of steam and water shooting 140 feet into the sky. It was wonderful.

It was a good day.

After a deep sleep, we coordinated our last day to highlight the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”.

Stretching 20 miles long, the cotton candy-colored canyon is 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep. Plunging waterfalls formed ice sheets and frozen cones like stalactites in a mineral-stained cave. Along the banks of the upper falls were paw prints left by river otters, dwarfed only by the marshmallow-like caps along the lower falls.

This natural force of perfection was Yellowstone’s latest alluring nod. Three days before, I had entered the park longing to see a wolf. Instead, I left with a reverence for 150 years of progress – not the type that involves mass development or sky cranes, but rather the type that prioritizes nature over people.

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