Although Yellowstone National Park is a photographer’s paradise any time of year, it is truly magical in the winter months. But a visit to the Park in the cold season requires a certain amount of research and planning. Many of the roads close down completely in late October and re-open to supervised over-snow travel in mid-December, remaining open until the end of February before closing once again for spring plowing. One exception is the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City, Montana, through the well-known Lamar Valley. The road is Cooke City’s only automobile access to the outside world in winter and so it is kept open year round.
Options for winter visits are plentiful, depending on where you wish to stay and what you want to do. Shoulder towns such as Gardiner and West Yellowstone offer a variety of housing options or you can stay in the park itself at Mammoth or Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. Another option is to take a class through the Yellowstone Association and stay right in Lamar Valley at the Buffalo Ranch.
For years my husband and I have been making at least one trip each winter into Old Faithful Snow Lodge (so many years, in fact, that we stayed at the old lodge before it was torn down in 1998!) Six months ahead of time we make reservations, arranging for three to four nights at Old Faithful as part of the “Frosty Fun” package, which we have found to be the best deal for a winter stay. The package includes our snow coach ride in and out from Mammoth, a room for two and breakfast each morning, among other things. We also make sure to arrange for a snow coach “drop” each day we are there which allows us to get a jump start each morning by being delivered, with our skis, to a location several miles either north or south of the hotel, depending on our plans for the day.
In both 2014 and 2015 our visit to Old Faithful took place in the second week of February. The difference in temperatures between the two years was truly unprecedented, proving that you cannot rely on a specific weather pattern for any given winter visit. In 2014 the cold was severe with daily highs well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The snow was deep and traveling, even on skis, was a challenge. It was critical to have as little skin exposed as possible and keeping camera gear, especially batteries, warm, was a constant struggle. Shots of the thermal features were challenging because of the amount of steam present and many animals were selective about leaving shelter only when absolutely necessary. The images that were made featured trees covered in snow and ice and frosty faced bison desperately plowing through deep snow in search of buried blades of grass. In contrast, this year found us experiencing record high temperatures with middays in the 40 degree range! The challenges were different but still present. With daily thaws followed by nightly freezing, boardwalks and ski trails were icy and incredibly slick. Bear spray was an unexpected but necessary accessory and bison were present in large numbers as they enjoyed the ease of munching on uncovered grasses. The images to be made contained far less snow and frost but steam was less of a problem in the warmer air.
Whatever the temperature, a winter visit to Old Faithful is well worth a photographer’s time and money. Solitude, an impossible concept in summertime Yellowstone, is easily achieved in the colder months. Just the opportunity to enjoy a private viewing of the famous geyser in early morning or late evening is a special treat that few people in the world have the chance to experience, let alone photograph.
Kathy Lichtendahl, owner of Light in the Valley, LLC., is a nature photographer based in northwest Wyoming where she often leads photo tours and workshops in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Kathy is also a partner in Open Range Images Gallery in Cody, Wyoming. See more of her work at: http://www.kathylichtendahl.com