If there is one “best” way to see Yellowstone in winter, this is it! There is nowhere I would rather spend a week than at Yurt Camp in the middle of Yellowstone.
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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – A statement from the 1907 U.S. Army’s “Rules, Regulations and Instructions” for soldiers and scouts on duty in Yellowstone warns, “All persons traveling through the park from October 1 to June 1 should be regarded with suspicion.”
Who besides poachers would brave bitterly cold weather; hidden, yet scalding hot springs; isolation and desolation; almost impossible travel conditions and difficult route finding? Who besides a bison killer or elk shooter would venture into one of the most remote and unknown places in the country … in winter?
In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, winter visitors were primarily poachers, prospectors and Army personnel who were directed to manage the park. But even then there were a few tourists kicking and gliding their way through Wonderland on 10-foot-long skis — basically wooden planks — and steering with a single 7-foot pine pole.
Many years later, people are still visiting Yellowstone in winter, searching for quiet, solitude and a backcountry experience. Yellowstone Expeditions’ yurt camp provides all that, along with expert guides, delicious food, warm sleeping quarters and even a sauna.
“I wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park, but didn’t want to travel with the tour groups and I didn’t want to go in summer,” Xuan Ming from Singapore said. “I wanted to be in the backcountry but didn’t have anyone to go with and didn’t want to go alone either.”
In fact, guests of the yurt camp are the only overnight visitors for 35 miles.
“The nights are so quiet and peaceful,” said Erica Hutchings, office manager and jack-of-all-trades at Yellowstone Expeditions.
The yurt camp sits at 8,000 feet in small meadow surrounded by trees. Just half a mile away, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone cuts through the surface of the park.
“Because we are already in the heart of the park, we can be in the Hayden Valley in 10 minutes to watch the sunrise,” Hutchings said.
Two yurts, connected to function as a kitchen and dining area, glow warmly in the early evening darkness at the yurt camp. The “yurtlets” (small plywood rooms with canvas roofs, modeled after ice fishing huts) appear frigid at first, but propane heaters keep them toasty warm. The eight yurtlets sleep two people each, but Yellowstone Expeditions’ trips max out at 12-14 people.
Ming agreed, “One is almost guaranteed to meet kindred spirits on a trip like this.”
Each morning begins with a deluxe breakfast in the dining yurt. The guides discuss the plan for the day and the group breaks into smaller groups for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or sightseeing. Skiers may tour the North Rim of the Canyon, which in summer is bumper-to-bumper cars and RVs. But winter is different. Guest ski through thick lodgepole pines to Inspiration Point on the edge of the canyon and peer over the edge in quietude. The striated orange walls of the canyon are dusted with snow, while the falls are mostly ice striped with water. Steam escapes from the geothermally altered rhyolite near the river.
Snowshoers may tromp along the South Rim of the Canyon to Artist Point, where they gaze on the waterfall from a perspective made famous by painter Thomas Moran.
After a morning tour, guests ride in the snow van back to the yurt for a large lunch before venturing out on another trail in the afternoon. Some days, lunch is on the trail as a winter picnic. Groups may climb up Dunraven Pass to ski the sides of Mount Washburn, along the flat trail to Cascade Lake, or to mudpots — ooey, gooey liquid rock, thicker than pudding gurgling and plopping all around.
Since there are several guides, small groups experience the technical and endurance level they are most comfortable with.
Yellowstone Expedition guides cater each day to the needs and wants of the group. And like Hutchings, the guides are jacks- and jills-of-all-trades. They drive the tracked vans, cook the food, teach cross-country skiing and snowshoe lessons and, of course, guide the adventures, pointing out interesting points and discussing the history of Yellowstone.
Owner, Arden Bailey began working in Yellowstone in 1979 and started Yellowstone Expeditions in 1983. He is known for his storytelling and enthusiasm for the park.
“He loves to tell stories and wants to share his love of Yellowstone with our guests,” Hutchings said.
“It takes awhile to relax into the wilderness,” Hutchings said. “Four or five days gives you the chance to get away from technology and settle into a human experience.”
Upon returning to camp in the evening, guests can take advantage of the rustic camp shower, head out on a short sightseeing van tour to the Hayden Valley to observe wildlife or to watch the sun set, warm up in the sauna, or hang out and read.
Evening meals are family-style with plenty of food, followed by games and stories. If it’s a clear night, a telescope is pointed at the moon and stars for some of the best stargazing around.
“I enjoyed coming back to a warm yurt each night,” Ming said. “I very much recall the stories shared around the table … that was really fun.”
That too, is part of the magic of winter in Yellowstone. Throughout its history as a national park, people have gathered together in tiny shelters or little hotels to find refuge from blizzards and cold nights. Today winter visitors can enjoy the luxuries of the Old Faithful Snowlodge or the Mammoth Inn — both fun places to while away a few winter days — but the yurt camp is more out there, more smack in the middle of winter — despite the gastronomic delights, the hot shower and the dry sauna.
In the late 1800s, Thomas Elwood Hofer, one of Yellowstone foremost winter travelers commented, “A great many people with a few days practice on snowshoes, can see part or all the Park in winter and be repaid for their trouble … in addition to the game to be seen, certain features of the Park are much more interesting in winter than in summer.”
There may still be reason to be suspicious of winter travelers in Yellowstone, but after four days at Canyon — despite the cold, the endless trail breaking in deep snow and the long dark nights — you will be more suspicious of someone who doesn’t take the opportunity to experience Yellowstone in its most serene, yet stirring season.
Know Before You Go
Yellowstone Expeditions also runs day trips from West Yellowstone for those looking for just a taste of winter in Yellowstone.
This story originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune, December 29, 2015.
Thanks to Yellowstone Expeditions for hosting me. The opinions expressed here at TravelingMel are always my own.