Skip to content

About Yellowstone in Winter

January 10, 2015

January 15 – 22, 2020

Since 2006, the Museum has offered a winter trek to Yellowstone National Park for educators. Snow blankets the landscape, steam fills the air in the geyser basins and wildlife struggles for survival. Yellowstone in the winter is a truly unique experience.

Applications for January, 2020 are available now! To request an application, email Melissa Dowland at melissa.dowland@naturalsciences.org.

Follow our journey through Yellowstone’s winter landscape by reading our blog posts and visiting our photo gallery.

Heading Home

January 20, 2016

Our last day brought mixed emotions; sadness to leave Yellowstone and the excitement and enthusiasm of sharing our experience, inspiration, and all that we had learned.

Over the course of the trip, we learned and discovered so much! We honed our observation skills throughout the trip. Our list of wildlife sightings increased daily to include: bison, elk, gray wolves, coyotes, moose, ermine (weasels in their winter-white pelage), red fox, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, red squirrels, mule deer, pronghorn, the tracks of snowshoe hares, white-tailed jackrabbits, and pine martens, as well as golden eagles, bald eagles, ravens, magpies, American dippers, mallard, ring-necked and goldeneye ducks, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, gray and Stellar’s jays, hairy woodpeckers, and even the rarely seen black-backed woodpecker! We saw, experienced, and learned about, with many of our senses, the four types of thermal features found in Yellowstone: geysers, fumeroles, hot springs, and mudpots, as well as other geological features like the rhyolite Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.  We layered-up our clothing every day and courageously braved the cold and snow. We hiked in snowshoes, traversed icy boardwalks, rode in snow coaches, and drove snow-plowed roads. In our treasured moments of silence, we absorbed Yellowstone, taking it all in — all of its splendor, all of its beauty, and the expansive overwhelming grandeur of this incredible, special place.

Ermine in snow

We were so excited to find an ermine on our snowshoe hike!

Snowy bison

Snowy bison

Prior to our mid-day departure today, we embarked upon our final Yellowstone sunrise walk along the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs. There, Ranger Beth explained the formation of these dynamic, ever-changing travertine terraces.  This travertine rock has a unique and interesting biological component — bacteria — during its formation, resulting in coral-like characteristics.  The bacteria Thermodesulfovibrio yellowstonii  and others like it are responsible for the mixture of rusty, orange, and creamy hues that, coupled with the stair-step terraces, result in the majesty and lure of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Terraces

Mammoth Terrace at daybreak

As we begin our journey home now, we all bring with us a little piece of Yellowstone in our hearts and minds. Perhaps each of us have grown and are changed for the better because of this experience.  And although we cannot return to our daily lives bringing all of our experiences with us, perhaps we can tap into and keep 10% within ourselves always, that we can bring back and share with others, as our snow coach guide and naturalist, Wim, described so eloquently.  Forever will we treasure this experience and share it with those around us — our students, our families, our coworkers and friends — our appreciation for the nature that can be found all around us and its infinite beauty.

sunset

By the Hot Springs team: Linda S, Danny, and Kevin

Keep it with you…

January 19, 2016

Today we headed back down into Lamar valley to meet with Kira from The Wolf Project of Yellowstone. As we watched the wolves from the Junction Butte pack make their way up the hill, we learned that the wolf pack is very much a family, taking care of, playing with and defending each other.

Continuing on through Lamar valley we spotted a bull moose resting in the willows, bighorn sheep on the side of the hill, a coyote making its way trotting across the field, coyotes under a tree barking and yipping, and a lone golden eagle perched in a tree.

Watching wildlife in Lamar Valley

Watching wildlife in Lamar Valley

Strapping on snowshoes at Lower Barronette Peak, we broke trail through deep snow and headed down by the creek. Fresh tracks! We followed and searched. Out of the deep snow came an ermine! We instantly became giddy children running back through our fresh paths just trying to grab one more glimpse of the curious little weasel. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.

image

Our last full day at Yellowstone was packed full of everything we could fit in. It seemed as though each of us was desperate to capture each second, each moment, to hold in our hearts as we come back to our lives in North Carolina. We made one last stop on the way back to the hotel to admire the clear sky and bright moon– so bright that it cast shadows on the snow, and it gave us one more chance to embrace the wildness and the peacefulness we had been experiencing during our time here.

So, even if we only keep 10% of the new things we’ve discovered about ourselves and Yellowstone, I hope we keep a little wildness, a little peace, and wide-open hearts in every moment of our lives.

Kevin snowshoeing

Kevin snowshoeing

Chris, Mark, Megan & Miranda

Loving Life in the Lamar Valley 

January 17, 2016

We began our day in the cold dark early morning hours with a sunrise drive to find the amazing wildlife that is Yellowstone! Our first stop was a moment of silence in the gray morning light overlooking Hellroaring Creek. We spotted some elk grazing through the freshly fallen snow and even had time for Kevin to make a few snow angels.

Kevin making a snow angel

Kevin making a snow angel

We could smell the sulfur in the air as we traveled over the Lamar river and through a thermal area of sulfur springs. We continued through the sunrise on our way to Little America, where we took a moment to scan the mountains for any kind of wildlife we could find. Chris and the weather/wildlife team took their measurements and we were again on our way again after spotting a few herds of bison.

Despite our efforts to be out as early as possible and beat the herds of wolf trackers, we pulled up on Slough Creek where we were greeted by photographers, videographers, and wolf watchers. We were able to spot a gray wolf walking along the valley, and she would occasionally send us a loud howl. There is no better sound in the world than hearing the howl of a wolf who is walking along in the distance, right in your scope. When we began hearing additional howls and the response howls from our wolf, we realized that this lone wolf’s pack must have been closer than we thought. The wolves are beautiful and definitely cute, but these canines are better left to the wild.

Watching wolves

Watching wolves

Off and down the road a few minutes, Danny was able to spot two (6×6 and 6×7 – the number of times on each antler) bull elk resting and grazing in an open field on the side of a mountain. We quickly grabbed the scopes and ran out to see the magic. These animals are spectacular and magical, an animal we consider ourselves lucky to have been able to see so clearly.

Traveling on down the road we came to a surprisingly amazing detour. At the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, we spotted a coyote, familiar to us all as we had seen many coyotes since we have been here. But we have been itching to see a kill. We slowly pulled over, watching as our furry canine friend followed the sound of a small subnivean creature (mouse or other small mammal) beneath the snow. He paused, cocked his tail, and we all went wild as he dug his face down into the snow and pulled out his head chomping on his lunch. We had witnessed the kill!

Coyote

Coyote

While we were out there watching the coyote hunting for more, we didn’t realize that there were 3 bighorn sheep watching us! We quickly adjusted our binoculars to see six lazy eyes peering over the ridge. While out on the road we also saw a raven overlooking the landscape, a dipper diving for larva in the stream, and a beautiful black and white magpie flying from tree to tree, showing off her wing patterns.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

You know you are having a great time when you forget what day of the week it is. After lunch we had a special treat of hiking off the unbeaten path in snowshoes! It’s much easier than you think but in snow deeper than your thighs, if you fall down getting up is extremely difficult. Danny, Brady, and Kevin had no problem breaking trail up the hillside, but I don’t think they would want to do it again. In the words of Danny, “I thought my heart was going to burst.”

Snowshoeing up a steep hill is hard work!

Snowshoeing up a steep hill is hard work!

After a wonderful meeting with Dan Hartman, wildlife photographer and naturalist, we headed back on the road again where we went searching for more wildlife. We found mountain goats, bison, and the find of the day… One cow and one bull moose!! Talk about spectacular!

Bull moose

Bull moose

As the day comes to an end, we can safely say that Yellowstone delivered for us today. We look forward to the next few days and the connection this incredible place is allowing us to make to its vast magical winter landscapes and ecosystems.

We know one thing is certain, we are visitors here exploring this world that belongs to all of these amazing creatures, and we have cherished every second of this insightful day.

“When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.”

Annie Dillard

By The Bighorn Sheep Team

The luckiest of days

January 16, 2016

The morning began with light snowfall and grey skies in Upper Geyer Basin. As we rounded the corner of the visitors center, there it was: Old Faithful. We weren’t certain if we’d timed it right, but Old Faithful geyser did not disappoint. Just as we finished talking about geology, three dull “thumps” could be heard, and then great clouds of steam and water started shooting into the sky. Thus began our lucky day!

Our hike through the Upper Geyser Basin gave us several other exciting and unexpected geyser eruptions in addition to Old Faithful: the little Anemone, Grand and Turban, and finally Riverside Geyser!

Riverside Geyser

Riverside Geyser

Throughout our journey north from the Old Faithful area back to Mammoth, we scored six coyote sightings, witnessed herds of bison “snow ploughing,” and experienced the rumbling of the Earth’s crust while lying around the Black Sand pool (a hot spring). The whole day we felt and witnessed the delicate balance of life in this beautiful, yet harsh environment.

group laying on the ground

We could feel the thumping of small steam explosions while laying on the ground at Black Sand Pool.

coyote

One of the six coyotes was listening for prey – small mammals moving beneath the snow.

Just north of Norris near the Ranger Museum our guide, Wim, made us aware there was a fresh kill of an old bison. Sure enough, surrounding the carcass were 4 wolves! Two gray, one white (the alpha female), and one black one (likely the alpha male, as he had a radio collar). We watched through the spotting scopes, across the snowy field, as the large black wolf tore into the flesh with his powerful teeth. We were witnessing the Canyon Pack in action. The overwhelming sentiment: “What a perfect way to end a perfect day!”

Yellowstone 101: A how-to guide on experiencing Yellowstone National Park in winter

January 15, 2016

First things first, you need a good breakfast and a snowcoach.

What’s a snowcoach you may ask? It’s a bus with treads. The roads are so snow covered that it would be impossible to drive a car. You also must have a guide to take you through the park in the winter. Then, make sure you have two full water bottles because even though it is cold and snowy, the air is very dry. You need layers, layers and more layers to keep you warm as you get on and off the snowcoach as well as the constantly changing weather, snow and wind chill. Make sure you have your binoculars and camera. You never know when you may spot something new and interesting.

Chris Brady with binoculars

Chris Brady looking for wildlife

Just like Yellowstone gets a clean slate of snow in winter, we started our day off with the quiet you can only experience by being in a place so remote and isolated.

people laying in snow

Having a moment of silence in a blanket of snow at Swan Lake Flats

With all of your senses awakened, you can begin your journey observing the many wonders of Yellowstone. You may see trumpeter swans, a coyote on the frozen Yellowstone River, a partially frozen waterfall in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, an American dipper in and out of the river, bison in Hayden Valley and a rarely seen black-backed woodpecker. You can hear the crunch of the snow, the bubbling of mudpots, the call of a raven and the roar of the snowcoach. You may feel the cold of the snow on your thighs when you unexpectedly step into a snow drift, and you’ll feel the difference between a friendly fir and a spiky spruce if you touch their branches.

woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Our guide told us about an interesting phenomenon that he called “atmospheric clarity” when we were visiting the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone has such good atmospheric clarity because there is no air pollution or humidity that interferes with visibility. In Yellowstone you are able to make out the details of a tree miles away because there is nothing clouding your view.

canyon reflected in sunglasses

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone through Sarah’s eyes.

Today was a great first day in Yellowstone. We utilized all of our senses to experience the park and applied all of our “how-to” knowledge to be prepared to enjoy a winter day in Yellowstone. We can’t wait to see what the rest of our time in Yellowstone holds!

Sunset at West Thumb Geyser Basin

By the Coyote team: Miranda, Megan F., Mark and Chris C.

Planes, planes, and more planes…

January 15, 2016

Not all who wander are lost. ~JRR Tolkien

We are not lost, but we have definitely wandered. Due to some unforeseen airline complications, our group has set off on many different paths converging in the same place. Some of us have visited Chicago and Denver. Others stopped by Atlanta and Salt Lake City. Some of the group have had the chance to enjoy comfy seats in front of a stone fireplace in the Bozeman airport while they wait for the rest.

We have made some new friends along the way. We have certainly gotten to know each other well. And Danny has earned his first-flight wings (and then some).

  

We finally made it to Yellowstone after a long day of travel. We are excited for the real Yellowstone adventure to start!

The packing list

January 13, 2016

 

Megan's sock collection

How many wool socks is too many?

Warm socks and boots – check!
Long underwear – check!
Hats and gloves – check!
Excitement building – check!

Packing our boots and every scrap of cold weather gear we can muster. Reviewing travel plans and itineraries. Checking the weather….rechecking the weather…. Rechecking the weather. Excitement and nerves escalate as we anticipate bison, elk, wolves, geysers, and snow, beautiful snow!

By the look of today’s webcam at Old Faithful and the latest weather report, we should be greeted with all the magic and splendor that nature and Yellowstone have to offer. We have a 40% chance of snow to look forward to upon our arrival tomorrow with highs in the lower 20’s — not too bad, really… Just slightly chillier than our recent North Carolina mornings.

We’ll hit the airport bright and early tomorrow with a big day of travel ahead of us. So, stay tuned, blog readers, there’s much more to come!

The power of curiosity

January 25, 2014

January 21 (evening) and January 22, 2014

YIW2014_0107

Yellowstone in Winter 2014 (view of Lower Falls): Top row from left- Leah, Joyce, Maureen, Sue, Ina, Donna, Karen D., and Brandi. Bottom row from left- Melissa, Megan, Karen H., and Joy.

As the late afternoon sun began to set, we asked Ranger Beth what ONE thing we should be sure to take home and tell our students. Her response? “Tell them that Yellowstone, and ALL of the National Parks, BELONG TO THEM!” Our government long ago (March 1, 1872 in fact) decided to set aside and protect Yellowstone for the benefit of all people, young and old, near and far. This park and all the parks are theirs to visit, enjoy, and protect. They are our heritage. 

“The grizzly bear’s gift to man is the power of the present moment.”
—Leslie Patten, The Wild Excellence

At our final group meeting before departing, we reflected on our experience and what it had meant to each of us personally and as educators. Many agreed with Ranger Beth that Yellowstone embodied a perpetually renewed curiosity for the natural world. Something that never gets old, where there is always more to learn, and the inter-connectedness of everything was constantly surprising. We talked about  living-out and teaching our students the importance of life-long learning. We all revived a passion for getting outside and connecting (ourselves and our students) to nature. We learned to see from different perspectives and sides of politically sensitive topics (e.g. wolf reintroduction). We had come to terms with the complexity and difficulty of balancing park visitation, management, and conservation. We were humbled, and we were inspired, by a beautiful string of present moments. 

So, as we return back to our classrooms, our offices, our unique spheres of influence, we remind ourselves of the power of shared curiosity. This is our challenge that we all chose to accept — will you join us?

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that its gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive that inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, the child needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with the child the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. It is not half so important to know as to feel.”

—Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder

Signing off, the crew of Yellowstone in Winter 2014

The grand finale of Yellowstone…

January 25, 2014

January 21st, 2014

YIW2014_0646

Group members walking along the boardwalk at Grand Prismatic hot spring.

“Should the whole surface of the earth be gleaned, another spot of equal dimensions could not be found that contains on such a magnificent scale one-half the attractions here grouped together.”

—Excerpt from “A National Park” written in the Helena Daily Herald, January 31, 1872.

Eager to take in as much as possible, our last day started the earliest yet- a 6:15am departure from the hotel. As we drove from Mammoth towards Lamar Valley- we watched the temperature outside plummet. Two degrees. Negative ten. Negative 14. Negative 17. Negative 20. Stop. We hear Melissa over the walkie-talkie- “Is everybody ready to get out?! This seems like the perfect place to hike down to the river to watch the sunrise!” Anxious looks are exchanged. People fumble with gloves and mittens and hats and scarves. “Is she serious?!” Indeed she was, and though our early morning excursion was far outside our comfort zones, the experience did not disappoint. The Park must have sensed our reluctance to leave and it began what was to become our grand finale of a day in Yellowstone. 

Just a few seconds after we stepped outside, we were rewarded with a symphony of wolf howls … first by the group across the valley in front of us, and then answered by at least two members of a pack across another hillside/valley behind us. The cold, crisp air vibrated with their deep resonant notes. They got closer and louder for a few minutes before we finally spotted them near the rocks and trees at the top of the ridge in front of us. First one, then three, and finally six wolves trotted and ran, and played, and sat regally in the gorgeous morning light. Once the wolves disappeared from view over the horizon, we fumbled back into cars (our toes and fingers were freezing at that point) to continue on down the road, but it was unanimously agreed to have been the most excellent decision, and in fact Maureen exclaimed, “We should always skip breakfast!”

YIW2014_1177

Bighorn sheep on a hillside in Lamar Valley.

A little farther down the road, Joyce’s eagle eyes discerned that two dark brown shapes on the horizon were not in fact bison, but bull moose! What luck! (The previous day we had seen 3 females). As we continued driving, the rocky cliffs near the confluence of the Lamar river and Soda Butte Creek yielded eight bighorn sheep grazing up above us, beautifully silhouetted with their white rumps against the blue sky. We also heard and saw American dipper (lovingly called the Water Ouzel by John Muir), goldeneye (a type of duck), and probably an otter (only Karen H. was able to see it before it dove beneath the surface). Only two hours had passed before we saw two more wolves curled up sleeping on the hillside at the eastern edge of the Lamar Valley. What a day! And it was only 10:00am!

Our return trip to Mammoth yielded more figurative fireworks as we discovered a fresh elk kill near the road (most likely the elk was killed by wolves, but we couldn’t rule out a mountain lion) with two coyotes, about a dozen magpies, a few ravens, and a bald eagle feeding on it! Karen was enthralled — “This is just like National Geographic, but in REAL LIFE!!!” Indeed. Only a few minutes later as we all gazed through binoculars and scopes, we heard the distinct clicking of nails/claws on pavement and one of the coyotes (his snout still red with blood from his fresh meat meal) trotted past us on the road behind. Incredible! Was this day really happening?! Passing a bull elk (with 7×7 points- Brandi taught us that elk antlers are counted separately, unlike deer, which we would have called a 14-point buck), and another moose just a few minutes later confirmed the fact that the day just kept getting better!

YIW2014_1277

Ranger Beth Taylor explains the “Predator Picnic” game that everyone was excited to take home to their students.

After lunch we met with Ranger Beth Taylor (a NC native), who has worked at the park since 1996. As we explored the Mammoth hot springs and terraces we learned that unlike many of the geysers and hot springs in the geothermal areas near Old Faithful, the travertine can be deposited rapidly — sometimes up to three feet per year! We also learned a little about the fascinating research of Dr. Bruce Fouke who has been investigating a potential symbiotic relationship with thermophilic bacteria. What a dynamic ecosystem!

bacterialmats_deposits

Various bacterial mats and mineral deposits from Yellowstone. Images from Daisy Geyser, Celestine Pool, Main Terrace/Canary Spring, Beehive and Scissor Geysers, and a Sulfur Spring at the base of Mammoth Terraces.

We couldn’t help but compare the travertine deposits and bacterial mats at Mammoth to some of the others we’d seen throughout the rest of the park earlier in the week. The diversity of colors and shapes was amazing. To paraphrase a sign from the park, bacterial mats are like miniature forests with vertical structure and stratified functions. Microbe species living at the surface of the mat (similar to the canopy) use sunlight to perform photosynthesis, providing energy sources to the mat community. Different species of microbes living deeper in the mat (similar to the understory) derive their energy from the chemicals produced by the surface microbes, and they function to decompose and recycle nutrients, making them available to others. The interdependent microbial community functions as an entire ecosystem spanning just a few inches! The mega- AND micro- flora and fauna of Yellowstone never cease to amaze.