Growing up in the Intermountain West, I've been to Yellowstone several times but always in the summer. So this year, a serendipitous turn of events saw me with a three-day weekend right before Christmas and a friend with an empty cabin in Island Park.
So we packed up way more food than four people could reasonably eat and headed North through a snow storm to get some R&R.
Our first day was spent cruising around the park in a Snow Coach, a.k.a a four-wheel-drive van with caterpillar tracks in place of wheels. We had the coach to ourselves, along with our stalwart tour guide Scott, who regaled us with fascinating bits of trivia about the park and even more fascinating anecdotes from his life as a nomadic naturalist. He's encountered yetti at least twice, has been picked up by a bear, lost some of his eyesight to a scorpion sting and was quick with a story about unwise tourists perishing to the natural dangers of Yellowstone.
The park is an interesting place in the winter, first because there's almost no one there and second because the cold weather makes the steam and water vapor pouring out of the hot pots thicker and more visible. In the summertime, the geothermal features seem like quaint additions to a heavily forested park filled with wildlife. But in the wintertime, with the horizon dotted with plumes of boiling gasses, it's much more apparent that your meandering on top of a deadly volcano.
That shot is my favorite one. Scott explained to us that the caldera stays in place while the ground above it shifts along tectonic fault lines, resulting in a consistently evolving landscape. This tree is one of many "Bobby Sock" trees, which became partially petrified after shifts in hot spring run-off.
The hot pots themselves were less visible in the winter since most of the time they were obscured by thick fog. This is one of the few spots where we were able to see some of the deep blues that you find in the center of these death traps. At the Old Faithful gift shop my buddy Adam picked up a copy of Death in Yellowstone, which starts with a story of a man swan diving head first into a hot spring to retrieve a dog. That particular spring is now called "Hot Dog Spring" and according to Scott some of the dogs fatty tissue is still in the spring, causing it to behave erratically.
Most of the trees surrounding a spring were covered on one side (the side facing the water vapor) with a wall of ice and snow. The vapor itself is deceptively warm, so you don't realize until you get back into the freezing air that you're covered in water. Water-proof clothing is a must if you plan to visit Yellowstone in the winter.
On our way out of the park we mostly followed the Firehole river, which runs through the park intermittently picking up hot spring run off and washing out into a swimming hole (for the summer months). I remember swimming in the river when I was a kid, there's a portion that runs through a narrow canyon where you can ride the rapids for about 100 yards before being dumped out into a widened pool. Every so often people will cliff jump off the canyon walls and get slammed against the rocks by the current, it's covered in Death in Yellowstone.
Below is Kepler Cascade, which I had never seen before. If you're coming in from the West Entrance it's a couple of miles beyond Old Faithful. Apparently it's named after the son of the man who found a route into Old Faithful from Jackson Hole. Also, I learned that in order to be a "Falls," water has to free fall for at least 10 feet. As such, this, is a cascade.
I didn't take too many pictures of our second day. We cooked a big breakfast, did a little snowshoeing/cross country skiing and then mostly sacked out in the cabin for the rest of the day, which in my opinion is exactly what winter cabins are made for.