My life is noisy.
Until now, I never thought much about it. Sure, I live with a little traffic rumble, the occasional helicopter humming overhead, and ambulance sirens wailing in the distance — but the volume never really registered.
Until I visited Yellowstone National Park in winter.
I’d always resisted a wintertime outing to our nation’s first national park. I’m passionate about outdoor adventure, but truth be told, I am increasingly nature’s fair-weather friend. I don’t like to be cold.
But, on this January day, I quickly learned that it’s better to layer up and lean in to Old Man Winter than miss out on all Yellowstone has to offer in this season less traveled.
The lush silence was enough to make me want to whisper, to stifle random commentary, and to just be in this pristine wonderland. The crunch of boots on packed snow, the gurgle of a stream under broken ice, the sudden burst of a geyser: Each decibel took on a rich quality in the absence of the everyday din.
Wildlife in winter
“Look! A wolf!”
This, from one of my traveling companions, as we lumbered along the snow-covered road inside the cozy snow coach. Our merry band of nature lovers was bound for Old Faithful Snow Lodge, named for the park’s famous geyser. It’s one of two lodging options inside the park boundaries that are available during the winter months; the other is Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
We had spent much of the day in the expansive Lamar Valley, often called the American Serengeti for its wide swath of landscape where elk and buffalo roam, as well as the occasional wolf.
According to our guide, it offers the visitor’s best chance of catching a glimpse of the elusive gray wolf — canis lupus — especially in winter. Aided by spotting scopes and the advantage provided by my long camera lens, I scanned the open space and far hillsides for the most treasured of sightings.
Wolf history - then and now
We had entered the park on the north side, crossing under the iconic Roosevelt Arch. Twenty years ago to that very day, Jan. 12, 2015, a horse trailer reportedly came in under the same arch, transporting the first 8 of 31 gray wolves from Canada.
While this would mark the official reintroduction of wolves into the park after a seven-decade absence, it was both the welcome result of careful planning and preparation — and the continuation of a complex battle between environmentalists, on the one side, and ranchers, farmers, and outfitters on the other. Many within the latter group believe wolves are a threat to their way of life and to livestock.
“It is difficult to be enthusiastic about the increase in the wolf population when their existence is a threat to your livelihood,” explained Tom Swanson, a third-generation Montana rancher whose cattle graze just 35 miles north of the park border.
According to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, proponents of the wolf reintroduction hoped to eventually build the population to 300. Current estimates, which have far exceeded expectations, put 80 wolves in the park, 450 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and as many as 1,700 in the Northern Rockies.
On our expedition, we were thrilled to see one.
Our guide nudged the snow coach onto the side of the road, as our group maneuvered to capture images with our cameras while hoping to stow the memory in our mind’s eye for future reference.
With the icy Firehole River as a buffer, the burly male appeared unfazed by our presence a mere 50 yards away. We watched in awe as he stepped in and out of the river, intermittently feasting on an elk carcass splayed on the far bank, as a handful of ravens hung back, hoping to sneak a few scraps.
No doubt we would have treasured this late afternoon sighting on any given day. But somehow, given the anniversary, it felt like a gift.
A unexpected eruption
The next morning, our group opted to pop on cross-country skis and slide our way to a backcountry gem: the Lone Star Geyser. Yellowstone contains nearly 10,000 geysers, which are approximately one half of the world’s hydrothermal features.
“It only erupts every three hours or so,” explained our guide, as we set off from the trailhead. “So don’t be disappointed if we get there and there’s no action. Either way, you’ll enjoy the scenery.”
We swooshed the two and a half miles along the trail, gliding atop a few inches of fresh snow and aside a different stretch of the Firehole River. Along the way, our naturalist pal, Emily, shared her bounty of knowledge, identifying small tracks leading into and out of the forest.
Then, with the geyser area in sight, I could hear Lone Star sputter before shooting a plume of steam some 40 feet into the air.
“What perfect timing!” hooted one member of our group.
And when I didn’t think the day could get any better, the sun peeked through the clouds and a rainbow appeared, arcing across the mist spewed by the steaming eruption. Seriously.
Oh, and the cold?
When it comes to Yellowstone, Old Man Winter knows how to warm a girl’s heart.
It’s easy to play favorites when it comes to Glacier National Park.
Massive peaks form the backbone of this vast pristine ecosystem, in Northern Montana. Along with her sister park across the border in Waterton Lakes, Canada, the two gems form the first international Peace Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1932.
The glacial carved terrain reveals a many-layered story of ancient seas, geologic faults and continuous uplifting. Today, receding glaciers, rivers, meadows and coniferous forests provide cover and sustenance for the wide variety of wildlife that give life to the park. Shimmering lakes and more than 700 miles of trails beckon visitors from around the world.
So, if you want a little extra quiet time with this favored child, make your way to Glacier country in the Spring or Fall. While you may have to appreciate some of her best attributes from afar, the peaceful nature of your visit will make it worth your while.
Hike and Bike The Going To The Sun Road
Most of Glacier National Park’s two million-plus annual visitors are eager to wind their way along the impressive, 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. An engineering masterpiece, the rugged road, blasted from the steep mountainside in1933, is car-free for a short, but spectacular season. (Check the Glacier National Park site for exact dates)
For several glorious weeks, as the winter snows give way to the spring/summer melt, visitors can appreciate the iconic stretch of roadway on foot or from the seat of a bike.
Roll or stroll along the lower flats near Lake McDonald, appreciating the subalpine forest that rises near the water’s edge. As the season progresses, cyclists can ride the upper stretches, climbing all the way to Logan Pass at 6,683 feet without sharing the narrow roadway, or the views, with oncoming traffic.
Surrounded by snowcapped peaks against a bright blue sky, melting snowfields, and waterfalls tumbling into turquoise pools, you’ll experience Glacier’s wild interior in a way summer visitors cannot even imagine.
Bikers can also pedal a 14-mile (one way) stretch that begins at Apgar Village. Pedal out and back while enjoying views from the southern shore of Lake McDonald. This road is open to cars but traffic is minimal.
Strap on your hiking boots and check out one of many low elevation hikes in the Lake McDonald area as the Park transitions from a winter wonderland to the glories of Spring. Expect trickling streams giving way to flowing creeks and rivers and the slow reappearance of flowers, birds and baby animals.
Stop in to the Apgar Visitor Center to ask about day hikes, current trail conditions, and maps.
Note that the park’s resident wildlife are waking from a long winter’s nap, so it is important to be alert, aware and carry bear spray during your outing.
Bright colors provide a glorious contrast to Montana’s Big Sky as a busy summer gives way to the quieter days of Fall.
Hikers, bikers and road trippers can look for the colors to begin changing in mid-September on the west side of the park. On the east side, expect Mother Nature to begin the show toward the end of September and in to early October.
The grand finale happens as the larch trees, a deciduous conifer, transform the area into a golden paradise in the middle of October.
A road trip up the North Fork Road to the small town of Polebridge, (be sure to stop into the Polebridge Mercantile for baked goods and sandwiches). along the West side of the park, provides stunning views of the winding North Fork of the Flathead River and often snow-dusted peaks in the distance. From Polebridge, head into the Park for jaw-dropping views at Bowman Lake. The experience of standing within this remote area of the Park, surrounded by masses of vibrant color, towering peaks and waves lapping at your feet, will stay with you forever.
Fall is also a great time for wildlife watching. The eastern side of the Park offers some of the best opportunities to glimpse both grizzly and black bear as they prepare for the long winter. Mountain goats and big horn sheep are often present and migrating birds call from overhead.
A shoulder season visit to Glacier Country isn’t for everyone. The weather can turn on a dime. Restaurants are not bustling with vibrant activity and some services may not be available.
But for those eager to experience the spare, wild beauty of this extraordinary place on the planet, well, this is your time.
At the turn of the century, America's wild bison - which at one time numbered 60 million - had dwindled to about two dozen animals. Strong, sturdy and resilient, they’ve made a comeback, thanks to public and private conservation efforts,
On the range, in refuges and national parks, this symbol of our wildlife heritage is magnificent to observe.
Here are five places where you and your family members can snap a shot of this American icon – with a zoom lens:
Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Each year the public is invited to hear the thunder of hooves and photograph the moment as experienced riders roundup a herd of some 1,300 buffalo during the state’s Buffalo Round Up and Arts Festival. Considered a critical management tool in maintaining a healthy herd, the buffalo are corralled and then tested, branded and sorted. The event includes a pancake feed, Western and Native American entertainment and the chance to peruse the fine art and crafts offered by more than 150 vendors.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
America’s first national park is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.
Home to approximately 3,500 bison, many are the descendants of the few who survived near-extinction. Social animals that often form herds often directed by older females, they are most active during the day. Pay attention to ranger warnings and keep your distance as bison are agile, strong swimmers, and can run 35 miles per hour. Despite their burly build and weighing up to 2,000 lbs., hey can jump over objects about 5 feet high and have excellent hearing, vision, and sense of smell. You’ll likely spot them in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Also, be on the look out near Pelican Valley, the Lower Geyser Basin and in Gibbon Meadows. Contact: www.nps.gov/yell.
The National Bison Range, Mission Valley, Montana.
Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, this historic Range sprawls across 18,000 acres and is one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the nation. Today, visitors witness a diverse ecosystem of grasslands, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests, riparian areas and ponds. In addition to herds of bison, the Range supports populations of Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep as well as coyotes, mountain lions, bears, bobcat and over 200 species of birds. Stop by the visitors center to learn about hiking, scenic drive, photography and fishing opportunities as well as f Information about current wildlife sightings and flowers in bloom,
Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, Jackson Hole, WY.
This guide-owned and operated organization provides year-round wildlife viewing and natural history interpretation to those interested in a close-up view of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild creatures in their natural habitat. Offering half day to multi-day safaris, as well as photo safaris, the experienced guides use their knowledge, passion and skills to locate bison as well as elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep and bears in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
Terry Bison Ranch, Cheyenne, WY.
This family-friendly ranch offers bison viewing year round on a 27,000-acre spread that stretches into Colorado. A popular reunion spot, families can spread out into eightcabins, 17 bunkhouse rooms, as well as RV and tent sites. Home to nearly 3000 bison, the ranch also features train rides, horseback riding, a restaurant and a Trading Post.
Does your family travel in an RV?
Visitors to Death Valley National Park now have options thanks to the Furnace Creek Ranch.
The Fiddler’s Campground offers 35 RV sites (but no hook-ups). Located at The Ranch, the Furnace Creek RV Park offers 26 full-hookup RV sites and can accommodate RVs up to 50 feet.
Guests enjoy swimming in the nearby spring fed pool, laundry and shower facilities, complimentary wireless internet and easy access to restaurants.
For those who like to spend time on the links, the Furnace Creek Golf Course is directly adjacent to the Campground. As the lowest elevation course in North America, it’s one for your bucket list.
Both sites provide the perfect jumping off place to enjoy Death Valley National Park and the extraordinary night sky.
What's this about a super volcano turning the roads inside our treasured national park into a "soupy mess"?
Park officials once closed a 3.3 mile long stretch of Firehole Lake Drive because the pavement has become too soft for vehicle traffic.
A spokesperson for the park explained that Yellowstone, our first national park, sits on top of the caldera of an ancient super volcano. That's the source of the heat that spews steam from geysers like Old Faithful. That same heat has melted roadways. In fact, geologists recently discovered that the volcano was more than twice as large as previously determined.
Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the wonderous home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk. It is the core of one of the last, nearly intact, natural ecosystems in the Earth’s temperate zone.
Visitors can find travel and other Park updates here.
There is nothing so American as our national parks. The fundamental idea behind the parks is that the country belongs to the people. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
As a resident of both Montana and Arizona, in recent years I was pleased to note that President Obama and his family chose my "backyard" parks" - Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon- to spend precious family time.
In the end don't we all vote with our feet?
They will also followed in historic footsteps.
Park historians from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and the National Park Service shared the following anecdotes about the visits of previous U.S. Presidents:
Instead of staying in one of Yellowstone’s lodges, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose to stay at the private home of Harry Child, the owner of the Yellowstone Park Company, which operated the park lodges and other concessions. His reason: he did not want the general public to see him in his wheelchair. Designed by Robert C. Reamer, the same architect who designed the Old Faithful Inn, the large home is a single-floor prairie-style structure, so it can easily accommodate a wheelchair.
Bill Clinton visited both the Grand Canyon (in 2000) and Yellowstone (in 1995). President Clinton stayed in the Mary Colter Suite of the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar and had lunch at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. President Clinton and the First Lady also took a stroll around Old Faithful Geyser.
President Gerald Ford was already familiar with Yellowstone National Park when he visited in 1976; he had been a 23-year-old National Park Service ranger in 1936. Ford once said his time in Yellowstone was “one of the greatest summers of my life.” One of his duties was to meet and greet VIPs at the Canyon Lodge. He also protected other park rangers who fed bears at the bear-feeding truck, a popular visitor attraction at the time. The park long ago stopped feeding bears and other wildlife.
In 1883, President Chester Arthur rode a horse from the southern to the northern entrance of the park and met supporters at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel before departing the area aboard the newly completed Northern Pacific Railroad. Although it wasn’t quite completed and still lacked a complete roof, President Arthur dined at the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room before his departure.
President Theodore Roosevelt made his final visit to Yellowstone National Park in 1903. Although he was on a two-week vacation, he managed to squeeze in some business too. Roosevelt, Harry Child and Robert C. Reamer reviewed plans for the Old Faithful Inn, which was completed the following year. During that trip he also laid the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance to the park. The arch bears the inscription: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” President Roosevelt also visited the Grand Canyon – in 1903, before it was a national park and again in 1911.
Calvin Coolidge visited Yellowstone in 1927. Although Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright tried to engage President Coolidge in park-related politics, Coolidge was more interested in fishing than talking.Howard Taft visited the Grand Canyon in 1911.I
n 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that designated Yellowstone the world’s first national park. It was a move that has been called America’s best idea. Sadly, President Grant never visited Yellowstone.
During his visit, President Jimmy Carter traveled to one of the islands on Yellowstone Lake to fish with National Park Service officials. After his presidency, Carter returned to the park and had pizza in the employee pub at Lake Hotel. He even signed the wall of the pub, and his signature is still visible today.President Warren Harding visited the park in 1923, shortly before he died. Staff in the park named a geyser after him and observed a moment of silence in his honor. President George Herbert Walker Bush visited both the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. His visit to Yellowstone in 1989 was the summer after the historic Yellowstone fires. He was briefed by park officials about Yellowstone fire science.
A Yellowstone Grizz ambles near Lake Yellowstone. ( Photo (C) Lynn O'Rourke Hayes )
Unspoiled natural places, authentic cultural experiences and distinctive communities draw travelers from around the world to America’s “last best place”; Montana.
Jump start your plan to visit Big Sky country here:
Visit your National Parks.
With Yellowstone to the south and Glacier National Park on the northern border, this Big Sky state offers the perfect launching point to explore two of our national treasures. Visit stops along the Lewis and Clark trail while you’re at it.
Take a stroll back in time as you observe remarkable living history demonstrations, dine in century-old structures, enjoy ice cream in an old-fashioned parlor, and ponder tales of ghosts said to drift along the boarded sidewalks in Virginia City and Nevada City. City tours via fire engine trolley, carriage rides and a follies stage show make for a vintage flavored getaway.
Helena, the state’s capital city with a rich mining history, is designated one of the country’s best small arts towns. The Montana Historical Society, founded in 1865, houses one of the country's most important collections of Charles M. Russell art as well as the work of noted frontier photographer F. Jay Haynes. Don’t miss the Archie Bray Foundation, established in 1951 on the site of a brick factory. Tour the studios and grounds of this unique endeavor in the ceramic arts that attracts artists from around the world. Ask about summer programs for adults and children.
Big Sky bonanza.
Nestled in meadows and surrounded by forestland, Big Sky is an outdoor lover’s paradise. A year round playground, this mountain town is home to Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski resorts as well as fishing, mountain biking, golf, and rafting just to get the list started. Hiking is popular in the nearby Lee Metcalf Spanish Peaks Wilderness.
Attend a rodeo, stay at a guest ranch, participate in a round up. Ride horses into the hills, visit a stock yards. Throughout Montana, you’ll enjoy the chance to see real cowboys at work and learn about the rich culture that provides a time tested and colorful strand in our national tapestry.
Find out more: www.VisitMT.com.
Every day should be an Earth Day celebration. Here are some special ways we can honor our beautiful planet. Take part!
Enjoy a Farm Stay.
Get close to the land by planning a farm stay. You’ll wake to a rooster call or the sounds of other barnyard animals welcoming in the day. Share in the chores or simply observe a lifestyle that is likely quite different from your own. Enjoy farm fresh eggs for breakfast before pitching in to help with the day’s chores. Depending on the farm you choose, you can relax on a hammock, go for a horseback ride, pick berries, fish the local stream or read a book under a shade tree. Animals and activities vary by farm.
National Kids to Parks Day.
Join your children in a grassroots movement to celebrate our country’s local, state and national parks. Grown-ups are encouraged to take their children and grandchildren to one of thousands of treasured parks across the country. Kids can tweet about their participation or send photos that will be posted on a national map. Check the site for park activities and other family-friendly suggestions. Contact: www.BuddyBison.org.; www.ParkTrust.org.
Be an Eco-traveler.
Costa Rica was an early leader in the ecotourism movement. Visit Lapa Rios Ecolodge on the country’s Osa Peninsula, for an intense wildlife and biologically diverse experience. Choose to embark on this Tropical Adventure and you’ll find your family on the “Twigs, Pigs and Garbage Sustainability Tour”, joining wild cat researchers in their efforts to conserve jaguar and pumas and exploring nearby tide pools.
Contact: 800- 345-4453; www.Wildland.com; www.laparios.com.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Monona, Wisconsin.
Visit the nature center inspired by Wisconsin naturalist and author Aldo Leopold for outdoor activities designed with the busy family in mind. Explore walking trails supported by season specific backpacks, offering exploration guides and an activity kit. Visit the Leopold Interpretive Trail and the special “touch table” that encourages young children to get a feel for nature items like feathers, bones, fur and rocks. Ask about spring break and summer camp programs just for kids.
Contact: (608) 221-0404; www.naturenet.com/alnc/dropinprogs.htm
Visit America’s historic lodges and find rustic log exteriors, well-worn pine floors, or riverside ambience. Join your family in a walk back through time when you book lodging with a story of its own.
Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, OR.
Located in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest, this magnificent lodge was built at the height of the Great Depression by unemployed craftspeople hired by the Federal Works Progress Administration. Completed on September 28, 1937, the lodge has long served as the centerpiece of a mountain playground where families ski, hike, dine, mountain bike, learn about the local flora and fauna and simply enjoy the high altitude natural beauty.
Kalaloch Lodge, Forks, WA.
Visit the complex landscape that is protected within the Olympic National Park & Forest. For bird watching, including the most significant habitat for bald eagles in the lower 48, beach combing, hiking and fishing, there are few destinations where families will find more beauty and opportunity to bond with nature. Consider the Kalaloch Lodge as a cozy home base. Serving up rustic yet charming accommodations, the Lodge offers tremendous views of the Pacific as well as the opportunity to spot puffins, sea otters, seals and a long list of other sea birds. Tap into rich history by asking about the dozens of shipwrecks that have occurred in the area.
Contact: 888-896-3818; www.OlympicNationalParks.com.
Rapids Lodge and Restaurant, Grand Lake, CO.
Located on the banks of the scenic Tonahutu River, this charming lodge has been offering Rocky Mountain hospitality since 1915. Nearly a century ago the doors opened offering running water and electricity generated by a nearby water wheel. Today, guests enjoy the outdoor wonderland that is Rocky Mountain National Park and then return to cozy lodge or cabin rooms and scenic dining overlooking the river.
Contact: 970-627-3707; www.rapidslodge.com.
Clay Hill Lodge. Lyons, OR.
Located on Oregon’s Rogue River, this “off the grid” lodge offers families the chance to enjoy pristine wilderness, hiking, bird watching, rafting and fishing in the country that provided Zane Grey inspiration for many novels. Steeped in history, the lodge has served as base camp for scores of enthusiastic fishermen including Clark Gable, Herbert Hoover, Victor Moore and Ginger Rogers.
Contact: (503) 859-3772: www.ClayHillLodge.com
Garland Lodge and Resort. Lewiston, MI.
Known as the largest log resort east of the Mississippi, this expansive playground is a family favorite for award winning golf, color tours, fishing, and hiking. A blend of old and new, sophistication and rustic charm, the AAA Four Diamond resort complex includes four championship golf courses. Ask about their family-friendly golf and spa packages.
Contact: (800) 968 0042; www.GarlandUSA.com
Tarpon Lodge. Pinelands, FLA.
Open since 1926, this charming waterfront lodge is located 30 minutes north of Fort Myers on Pine Island off Florida's Gulf Coast. Enjoy the local art community, live music, bird watching and picturesque sunsets. Visit pre- Columbian mounds of the ancient Calusa people and paddle through the local waterways. The sport of tarpon fishing originated in Pine Island Sound in the late 1880s so you’ll want to grab a rod and try your luck with one of the local outfitters.
Contact: (239) 283-3999; www.tarponlodge.com.
For some, venturing off the road most traveled doesn’t come easy. Here are several programs designed to help you get where you and your family really want to go: beyond the beaten path.
Lodging and Learning Programs
This is your chance to journey into the wild. But you won’t have to go it alone!
The Yellowstone Association, the official educational partner of the National Park Service founded in 1933 to foster the public’s understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding ecosystem, provides programs almost year-round that enable parents and children to delve deeper into this amazing natural environment.
During the winter, small groups head out with guides, on foot, skis, snowcat or snowmobiles. They’ll learn more about the first national park in the United States and the wildlife that lives within the park's boundaries.
You can choose to head out at sunrise to catch the wolves in action or observe the bison warming themselves near the spouting geysers. Another program takes visitors on cross country skis deep into the interior of the park for a glimpse of reclusive wildlife and vistas seen by few. Yet another group sets off into the Northern Range, where the bears are most plentiful.
Each evening, adventurers return to the hotel or lodge and can participate in spirited educational sessions led by the Park Service before a welcoming soak in the hot tub.
During the spring, summer and fall, additional four- to six-day programs highlight the best each season brings forth.
Choose the Trails Through Yellowstone program and hike throughout the park with an expert guide who will provide insight into the habitat and teach explorers how to travel safely in grizzly country.