By Axle Ethington
As a photographer, I have had the great privilege to get out and explore
some of the world’s most beautiful cities; Rome, Venice, Paris, Panama,
Chicago, New York and many others. As much as I love the convenience of the
city, I always find myself longing for something more. Nature. Not just gardens,
parks and well maintained backyards, I’m talking about the kind of nature that
speaks to the deep, primal part of me.
I’ve also been fortunate to visit many of America’s national parks. While
each park is spectacular and mesmerizing in its own way, it is Yellowstone
National Park in Northeast Idaho that is one of my all-time favorite parks to
explore. No matter what time of year I visit, I never leave the park disappointed,
which is why I was elated to tag along with an employee of the Yellowstone
Foundation on a winter excursion through the park over Thanksgiving.
During the winter months in Yellowstone (which it can seem like in August,
with a foot of snow), you will likely arrive through the historic Roosevelt Arch at
the North Entrance of the park. It’s here that I always and immediately realize
that this place is different. Crossing the threshold of the arch, you can’t help but
to feel that you are on hallowed ground. If you are lucky (or unlucky, depending
on who you are), you might encounter your first of many “bison jams” or a herd of
Roosevelt Elk. This will only add to this already picturesque spot, and your
camera will reflexively start shooting, like it has a mind of its own.
Driving slowly down the long and winding roads towards Mammoth Hot
Springs, you will be surrounded by canyon walls, with the occasional big horned
sheep scaling the icy cliffs above you. I highly recommend taking advantage of
the many pullout spots on the road to stop and watch these awesome beasts,
and to just take in the beautiful panoramas.
Each time I enter the small town of Mammoth Hot Springs, I’m reminded of
the military’s role in preserving this great park. Throughout the town, you will be
submerged in what was once Fort Yellowstone. It is a carefully ordered district
that clearly indicates the military origins, most dating back to 1886, and are now
National Historic Landmarks. The district is directly adjacent to the Mammoth Hot
Springs thermal area, which is definitely worth the trek across the frozen walkway
to see the ice covered trees next to steaming streams and ponds. A true battle of
fire and ice happening right before my eyes. I could spend hours writing in great
detail about the fascinating and beautiful hot springs, but just take my word for it,
and make sure you check it out when you find yourself in the park.
After some time exploring the the hot springs, we continued our journey to
one of my favorite spots in the park; the Lamar Valley. From Mammoth Hot
Springs, you take the Grand Loop Road to highway 212 towards Cooke City,
which are the only roads that are open in the park during the winter months.
Along the way, keep a good look out for some Prong Horned Sheep, Elk, and
Bison. They stand out like a sore thumb against the snow covered ground. If
you’re really lucky, you just might get a glimpse of a Fox, like I did!
Now, I have driven through this park more times than I can count, and in
every season. I know the roads of Yellowstone better than the town I live in, but
everytime I enter the Lamar Valley, I’m always taken aback by the impressive
landscape, and this time was no exception. The snow covered every part of
valley with what looked like the icing of a cake, speckled with herds of bison and
elk, and the towering Beartooth Mountains at the end of the valley that always
leave me in awe. The Lamar Valley is known for its wildlife. Of course you will
see the usual lineup of critters, bison, elk and Prong Horned Sheep, Bald Eagles,
and some Coyotes, but what you might not know is this valley is home to
hundreds of wolves. And these wolves are stealthy and elusive.
I have been coming to this park for years and I have even been able to tag
along with Yellowstone’s wolf trackers, and yet, I have only seen a wolf one time.
Don’t be too discouraged. If you want to see them, you need a lot of patience and
to pay attention to a few things while cruising the valley:
1. If you see a group of people standing in the freezing weather with
telephoto lenses, find a safe place to park, and don’t be afraid to ask them
what they are seeing.
2. If you see a SUV that has a giant photo of a wolf with “Yellowstone
Foundation” written on it, congratulations. You’ve just found Rick. He has
been tracking the all the different wolf packs in the park for over 20 years.
Talk with him, and ask him questions, but just try to remember that his
main job is to listen to wolves and will sometimes cut you off mid
sentence. That’s normal and to be expected. Just smile, nod, and do what
he asks, and you just might get to see a pack of wolves.
Throughout the park, you will find a number of places that you can get out
and stretch your legs, or take a seat at one of the many picnic tables they have
scattered about. Make sure you are dressed for the cold weather, and remember
to use caution around any wildlife. And always, always, always remember to
never litter, and never feed the animals!
If you plan on doing some winter camping, I think you will pleasantly
surprised just how comfortable you will be in one of the many Grand Trunk
Hammocks. Be sure to have a sleeping bag rated for some subzero weather,
pack a sleeping pad to put under you, and definitely use Grand Trunk’s rain fly
(or in this case, snowfly!) to keep any moisture away from your bed. If you aren’t
up for some ridiculous cold weather camping, Yellowstone has several warm,
cozy hotels open all year round. For an experience of a lifetime, though, you
should definitely make camp this winter in this amazing, awe-inspiring National
Park. It is an experience you will not forget.