Park Guides: Yellowstone

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.