SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

Where Quiet Is King: Snowshoeing in Yellowstone National Park

It’s March, and I’m roughly four snowshoeing miles from Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful area. Five feet of snow separate me from firm Earth. I wear my thickest down jacket and a balaclava, even though I’m on the move. A squall ducked through overnight and dropped four inches of fluffy snow that glitters when the sun shines. I zigzag through the ghosts of trees burned in 1988’s fires, now black posts rising from a white quilt.

Winter in Yellowstone National Park is silent (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

I won’t lie: I’m kind of creeped out.

It takes some time, but I realize that it’s not the cold, or the remoteness, or the fact that the trees look like tall people out of the corner of my eye. The quiet scares me.

My ears capture only two noises, both my own. My snowshoes shoosh through the new powder, a squeakier version of a mother hushing her baby. The other is that of my own breath, measured, metronomic, and, at times, a little wheezy because of the cold.

I say to no one, “At least I’ll hear something coming.”

*

In Yellowstone National Park, quiet is winter’s king. It is nothing like the jungle, where the screeches, tweets, and zeeps of life create a cacophony. It’s unlike some wild places where, just when you think you’ve left humanity behind, an airplane propelled by Darth Vader engines streaks overhead. And, it is very different from the Yellowstone of summer, with its huffing traffic jams and its one thousand people ooh-ing Old Faithful.

*

When I walked away from the Old Faithful area this morning, I left a whisper-y world. Hotel heaters from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge sighed steamy air. A hot spring burped water like a boiling pot on the stove. Snowmobiles a couple miles off sounded like wee weed whackers.

The historic Old Faithful Inn’s hatches are battened tight for winter (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

A short climb up and over the hump of a hill is all it takes to find complete silence and, apparently, my own fear. I seek signs that something, anything is out here with me. I follow for a while an old set of cross-country ski tracks lying under the fresh snow. The person who made them is at least a day gone. Old bison prints—easily identified because the animals move through snow, plow-like, rather than on top of it—cross my direction of travel, too.

After an hour, I encounter the only other sign of today’s life: a squirrel has hopped atop the new snow between two conifers, leaving its prints every three or four inches. The track maker is nowhere to be seen, but I heave with relief that the little guy is nearby.

*

The Firehole River wends through winter near the Old Faithful area (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Almost everything in Yellowstone’s winter is asleep, gone, or quiet. The silence slips among fir branches and seeps through one’s own skin and bones. The human body, I think, is accustomed to life’s background noises in the same way we’re used to gravity. The absence of either makes a person feel out of sorts. Mostly I think it makes us test our mind against our mettle.

*

It’s after I’ve seen a frozen lake, after I’ve tramped backwards along my snowshoes’ outbound tracks, and after I’ve started to smell the day’s barn and I’m still pondering the nonsensical series of thoughts that led me to feeling better for a rodent’s presence. I laugh; I can’t help it. My laughter is the loudest noise I have heard today.

I realize that a day like this one is good for more than just a snowshoe through a national park. It’s good to know that quiet is king somewhere. It’s even better to be a part of that silence, if only for a while. It’s good to let those ears rest. And, it’s good to find camaraderie among the wild kingdom, including the squirrels.

Old Faithful erupts into a frigid March morning (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Beta

Here’s the beta you need to do winter right in Yellowstone National Park:

• In winter, the majority of Yellowstone’s roads are closed to cars, covered with snow, and open only to pedestrians and organized snowmobile or snowcoach groups. Check out the park website’s Winter Activities page to help you start planning.

• The winter climate can be extreme, with low temperatures that will endanger the unprepared. Do your meteorological homework, then wear and carry the right clothes and gear to get you safely and comfortably through your outing. This forecast page by the National Weather Service provides a baseline for what’s happening, weather-wise, at Yellowstone.

• The entire park is located more than a mile above sea level, and you’ll find yourself hanging out mostly above 8,000 feet. Altitude sickness is a real possibility for sea-level visitors. Stay hydrated, well-fed, and ready to ease off on vigorous activity if you’re feeling poorly.

• Yellowstone may be almost silent in winter, but it’s still filled with wildlife. If you’re engaging in backcountry travel, especially on the shoulders of winter, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray. While the park’s black and grizzly bears den for most of the winter, they make occasional forays into the snow. Also, never approach a wild animal. If it’s modifying its behavior because of you, you’re too close.

7 thoughts on “Where Quiet Is King: Snowshoeing in Yellowstone National Park

  1. We are going at Christmas and staying in Gardiner–our youngest is 8 years old, and we are in average or below physical shape. Where do you suggest we snowshoe? We will not be taking the snowcoach, so would appreciate suggestions accessible by car.

    • Ellen, I’d suggest the road up to Tower Falls. From Gardiner, you can drive south to Mammoth (5 miles) then east (~21 miles) to Tower Junction, park, and snowshoe 2 miles up the Tower Falls along the road, which is closed to vehicles. Another option, check with the front desk at the Mammoth Hotel, about catching the shuttle coach to Indian Creek to snowshoe that loop. Also the NPS rangers at the Albright Visitor Center give snowshoe tours a couple times a week.

      Trail courtesy dictates to snowshoe to the side of ski tracks, and not over the ski tracks!

  2. Ellen, thanks for your note and I hope you enjoy your trip to the northern part of Yellowstone.

    I recommend snowshoeing around the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces area. A couple kilometers of trail are groomed every few days and they wander among the hot springs. This is quite nice and very leisurely, perfect for a child.

    If you plan to drive out to the Lamar Valley, a road that is plowed from the north entrance eastward and worth the drive for some fabulous views, there are a few trails that become packed down by cross country skiers and snowshoers, like the Lamar River Trail. The valley through which the trail travels is wide open; the terrain is moderate; and the views are stupendous!

    Enjoy!

  3. Been to Yellowstone twice in the winter. Once camping and one in the Snow Lodge.

    Working to make it back this (or next) winter. Thanks for your inspiring account of your travels.

  4. Hi Meghan,

    Thanks for your report and thanks to all for the comments. I am going snowshoeing out in Yellowstone for a few days in early January. I have experience hiking and snowshoeing in the park. I am in physical shape and am looking for an experience in the backcountry. Could you or anyone else recommend some appropriate snowshoe trails?

    Here are some I have read about/ been told about:
    Fawn Pass (off of 191)
    Specimen Creek (191)
    Pebble Creek
    Lamar River Trail

    Any suggestions would be of great help.
    Thanks!

    • Steve,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m envious of your upcoming trip.

      I love the Fawn Pass and Specimen Creek Trails and I think they’d both be lovely outings. Many of the first miles of these trails are in tree cover, with peeking far-off views. The views get better the higher you climb. I’d, thus, recommend these two trails if you’re able to walk 10-12+ miles roundtrip on snowshoes so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.

      The Lamar River Trail will provide more immediate views, as the terrain is wide open from the trailhead. That said, the early miles of this trail are quite easy going, flat and likely to be packed down well by folks who’ve come before you. It might feel a little less like a backcountry experience.

      May I also recommend a winter ascent of Bunsen Peak outside of Mammoth Hot Springs. This would be a full day for a very fit snowshoer. Travel from Mammoth Hot Springs to the foot of Bunsen Peak via the Snow Pass Trail, then ascend and descend the mountain via the summer hiking trail, then descend back to Mammoth Hot Springs via the snowcoach/snowmobile road. Take care on the very top of Bunsen Peak as it can be possible avalanche terrain. If danger exists, don’t go all the way to the summit without the proper experience and gear.

      Finally, I might also recommend taking the snowcoach from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Indian Creek Warming Hut. From there, you can snowshoe mostly off-trail westward. The views quickly open up and it’s spectacular. It’s a few miles across relatively flat terrain to some mountains of the Gallatin Range. You’d return to the Indian Creek Ski Hut to take the snowcoach back to Mammoth Hot Springs at the end of your day. This type of trip, since it’s off-trail, is for folks highly experienced with backcountry navigation. And, if you make it into the mountains, this is avalanche terrain so don’t continue into them without the proper experience and gear.

      Happy snowshoeing!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.