Yellowstone in Winter 2012 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Feb 17, 2012

Out of all the places I have traveled, Yellowstone National Park in the wintertime is one of my all-time favorites. The snows of winter combined with freezing temperatures transform the park into a wonderland of “fire and ice.” Traveling by private snow coach and hiking the numerous geyser basins during the winter, the park’s varied landscapes and the different seasonal light offer an experience not easily forgotten. Visitors are fewer—only 87,000 of the annual 3.3 million visit during this season. Wildlife is easily viewable against a white landscape of snow and the contrast makes the animals easy to spot. The park has over 10,000 thermal features—Yellowstone sits atop the largest active volcano on the globe and in some areas the magma is as close as a mile below the surface. During the cold weather of winter, unique frost and snow formations that cannot be seen anywhere else on the planet are formed—and most days are cold. That’s what makes Yellowstone in the winter so special.

 This year I led two back-to-back trips to Yellowstone. We started each in Bozeman, Montana, and immediately headed south to West Yellowstone, our base of operations for the early portion of each trip. Our first day was spent looking for wildlife along the Madison and Firehole rivers and visiting some of the geyser areas, such as Firehole Flats and Midway Geyser Basin. Along the rivers we found buffalo, bald eagles, elk, coyotes and, on one special occasion, a bobcat was seen hunting along the Madison river. To see a bobcat in the wild is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it was a treat for everyone. At Midway Geyser Basin we discovered unique ice formations on some of the nearby trees—and photographed in earnest. The next day we headed up to Gibbon Falls, Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone where we photographed the majestic canyon along with the Upper and Lower Falls, frosted and partially frozen from the sub-zero temperatures of winter.

Traveling en route to Old Faithful we worked some of the other geyser basins, such as Biscuit and Black Sand Basin. Each basin has its own unique features, geology and microclimate making each different and distinct from one another. We arrived later in the day at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful where we spent the next 1.5 days exploring the Upper Geyser Basin. Here, many of the thermal features were named by the 1870 Washburn Expedition. “We gave such names to those geysers…as we think will best illustrate their peculiarities,” stated N.P. Langford, a member of the expedition. The names included Old Faithful, named for its regular eruptions; Riverside Geyser, for its location on the Firehole River; and Beehive Geyser, for the shape of its cone that resembles a beehive. Combined with spouting geysers, colorful hot springs, steaming fumaroles and boiling springs, the Upper Geyser Basin contains 25% of the world’s geysers—all in an area that’s roughly two square miles. In my opinion, this is the highlight of the trip—the daily visual explorations of the local thermal features and the wildlife that concentrates in these warmer and more open areas of the park in winter.

Later in the week we left the Upper Geyser Basin and traveled north by snow coach to Mammoth, Wyoming, photographing wildlife and thermal features along the park’s snow-packed roads. The next morning we explored Lamar Valley where our main emphasis was wolves, otters and coyotes. Wolves are tough to spot and it is the luck of the draw to find them among the vast 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park. Our first group was fortunate enough to see a pack of wolves near Lamar Valley. Those who were quick on the shutter button managed a few images. After a short time, we were treated to a cacophony of howls as about 20 wolves sang their chorus from both the north and south sides of Lamar Canyon. Later in the afternoon we spent our time photographing the travertine limestone of the Mammoth Terraces.

During the two weeks our groups were in Yellowstone, we encountered very different weather—blizzard conditions, 50-90 mph winds, heavy snow, sunny clear skies, calm days and subzero temperatures. As I said during the trip—“be careful what you wish for.” Overall the wide variety of weather conditions offered about every photographic opportunity one could ask for in a winter adventure to Yellowstone! In 2013, I will be leading two winter trips to Yellowstone National Park and look forward to taking other groups into this magical winter landscape. Hope to see you there!

In 2013, I will be leading two winter trips to Yellowstone National Park and look forward to taking other groups into this magical winter landscape. If you would like to receive trip details—prices, dates, leaders, etc.— as soon as they are available for our 2013 Yellowstone in Winter tour, please email Tour Manager Shelly Whitlock at and ask her to add your name and contact information to our “interest list” for this tour.

Hope to see you there!