It’s winter solstice and the sun is setting. I’m standing next to my mother on the cross-country ski trail between Castle and Old Faithful geysers watching the skies turn to lavender. Old Faithful has just erupted and the remnant steam still floats high in the air. Rounding the bend, we see a group of bison walking one by one across the open basin in front of us. As they move through a low fog that has settled in, the bison disappear and reappear. I look around—we are the only humans in sight, and the cold sting of the air reminds me why.
With over four million visitors per year, Yellowstone is the fifth most-visited national park in the United States. In the summer, 500,000 to 800,000 people per month pay our first national park a visit. But in winter, when the roads are closed to cars and the temperatures drop well below freezing, monthly visitors number only in the 20,000 to 30,000 range—and only about a third of these are overnight visitors. What this means, of course, is solitude is easier to come by for those who are willing (or happy) to brave the elements.
Our first taste of the elements is at Mammoth Hot Springs, the only park entrance open to cars in winter. The boardwalk trail here remains largely open in winter, its three-plus miles easily navigated with good boots. The air temperature registers -17° F and the terraces are a beautiful mix of snow, steam and vivid colors. Intricate patterns of hoar frost and feathery wisps of rime ice cover the boardwalk posts and the surrounding trees. It’s a wonderful sight to take in before continuing the adventure to Old Faithful, only accessible this time of year by park-operated snowcoaches. It’s a four-hour ride in, and a beautiful one at that. At a stop along the way our driver attempts to make us feel hardier by telling us it’s colder here today than in Antarctica. If I forget that it’s summer down there the trick almost works.
Once we get to Old Faithful the skies are already dark, the stars crisp in the frigid air. We check in at the Snow Lodge and then grab a plastic sled to aid in carrying our bags back to our cabin. My nostrils freeze together as we walk.
Getting dressed in the morning is something of an art. The layering required to be warm outside would have us sweating in an instant in our cabin, so we prep for the day in long underwear and then mutually agree on the moment that we start adding our extra layers. We don our snowshoes and head up the trail behind Old Faithful geyser towards Observation Point, hoping to catch the eruption with a view from above. From up here we see a sweeping panorama of the Upper Geyser Basin, the steam of every geothermal feature, including…