Winter in Yellowstone National Park (part II)

At this point, you might be wondering why this blog is called Handstands Around the World when there’s such a blatant lack of handstand pictures. Well as it turns out, I didn’t really start doing handstands everywhere I went until college and was no longer actively doing gymnastics. Most of my handstand pictures are taken on the edge of a cliff or somewhere equally precarious. But when you go to Yellowstone in the middle of winter, it turns out that you can do a handstand in the middle of the road if you want to, because your car is the only one around!

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Anyway, continuing on from Mammoth Hot Springs, where I left off with my last post, we followed Grand Loop Road east toward Tower Junction. About 4 miles from Mammoth, is a pullout on the left with a 100-yard walk to Undine Falls. Just up the road on the right is Lava Creek picnic area – one of our favorites – and then the trailhead for Wraith Falls. It’s only about 0.5 miles each way to this 100-foot cascade – since the trail was covered in snow, we put our skis back on and skied there!

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Bull elk near Blacktail Deer Plateau -Yellowstone National Park, WY

The rest of the drive to Tower Junction, while beautiful, isn’t the most exciting area of the park. Probably just as well since the road is narrow and usually pretty slippery. The turnoff for Blacktail Deer Plateau is unfortunately closed to cars in the winter, as is the road to Petrified Tree (though both are accessible on skis). And once we got to Tower Junction, we found the road to Tower Falls closed as well…it was time to strap on our skis again!

Tower Falls is 2.3 miles up the road from the junction. The road is groomed, making for a fairly easy ski route. Along the way, there are ample views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River below – my favorite is Calcite Springs Overlook, which encompasses a little bit of everything Yellowstone has to offer – river, canyon, hot springs, and we even saw some bighorn sheep on the opposite rim of the canyon!

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Calcite Springs Overlook – Yellowstone National Park, WY

Tower Falls is, in my opinion, cooler in the winter than it is in the summer. It’s decently tall but there’s not a ton of water. However, when we were there in the winter, there was a thin layer of ice covering the falls and we could see the water falling down behind it. I’d never seen anything like it!

Back at Tower Junction, a right turn out of the parking area put us on US Highway 212, leading through the northeastern section of the park to Cooke City, MT. The road meanders through the expansive Lamar Valley. This is the prime place to see wildlife – mainly elk, bison, coyotes, and wolves – and also offers beautiful views. Definitely plan to take advantage of the many pullouts to stop and take it all in.

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Lamar River winding through the Lamar Valley – Yellowstone National Park, WY
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Sunshine and snow in the Lamar Valley – Yellowstone National Park, WY
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Bison! He wandered into the parking lot and walked between us and our car so I had no choice but to climb on top of a dumpster. Stupid? Definitely. It’s illegal to approach wildlife in Yellowstone, and bison can run 35 mph, so please don’t try to reproduce this photo!

As we approached the eastern entrance, the mountains were getting larger and the views getting better. On the eastern edge of the Lamar Valley is Icebox Canyon, a deep gorge lined with colorful ice. It was well worth walking through the snow and ending up with cold, wet feet to get a better view.

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Icebox Canyon – Yellowstone National Park, WY

A few miles outside the east entrance is Cooke City, and as soon as we arrived at the last building in this tiny mountain town, the road abruptly stopped being plowed. From there, we had no choice but to head back in the direction from which we came.

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Mountains just outside of Cooke City, MT

Yellowstone is one of those places that everyone should see in their lifetime. In fact, if someone asked me if there was only one place they absolutely should go, Yellowstone would be my answer. It’s got an incredible amount of cool stuff in a fairly compact area. There’s nowhere else in the world like it. If you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Yellowstone, definitely go in the summer. But if you’re lucky enough to return for a second (or third) time, I highly recommend visiting in the winter instead for a very different experience!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: in the winter, the only way in is via US Highway 89 south out of Livingston, MT
  • Fees & passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
  • Camping: in the winter, the only open campground is Mammoth, located 5 miles inside the park from the north entrance – $20 per night
  • Hiking: a few trails can be accessed in winter – probably best to ski or snowshoe rather than walk, as Yellowstone receives quite a bit of snow
  • Other: the only road open in the winter is the northern section of Grand Loop Road and Highway 212 from Gardiner, MT to Cooke City, MT
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