Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow, Ozarks Northwest of Deer, Arkansas

2/15/2017 - Stepp Creek Valley and Coon Hollow Waterfalls

GPS Coordinates: (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking for Stepp Creek:  35.85506,  -93.30045,  2080 feet
  Leave Logging Trail:  35.85071,  -93.30704,  2047 feet
  Upper Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85771,  -93.30904,  1820 feet
  Lower Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85773,  -93.30963,  1805 feet
  Stepp Creek Junction Falls:  35.85846,  -93.31128,  1750 feet
  Coon Hollow Falls #1:  35.86068   -93.32029
  Coon Hollow Falls #2:  35.86246   -93.31872
  Coon Hollow Falls #3:  35.86287   -93.31800
  Coon Hollow Falls #4:  35.86287   -93.31785
  Coon Hollow Cascade:  35.86368   -93.31663
  Stepp Creek Falls #1:  35.86417   -93.31391
  Stepp Creek Spring #1:  35.86429   -93.31242
  Stepp Creek Spring #2:  35.86780   -93.31243
  Stepp Creek Falls #2:  35.86678   -93.31054
  Stepp Creek Falls #3:  35.86673   -93.31046
  Stepp Creek Falls #4:  35.86625   -93.31018
  Stepp Creek Spring #3:  35.87057   -93.31110,  1534 ft.

Pet Friendly: Yes.  Dogs on or off leash should be okay.

Motorcycle Friendly: Marginally acceptable.  It is a little over a mile down a gravel road, but the road seems to be well maintained.  If you ride slowly and watch out for potholes, it should be fine.  If you ride, watch out for the first house right off Highway 16, as they seem to have about a thousand dogs.

Hiking Statistics: The Stepp Creek watershed is just over 1000 feet elevation change from top to bottom, but today we stayed in the upper reaches of the system, just north of Highway 16.  If all you do is go to the more popular Stepp Creek Falls, it is only 1.2 miles each way and a highest-to-lowest elevation change of 331 feet, a fairly easy hike with about half of it being bushwhack.  Today's hike also hit neighboring Coon Hollow and much more of the Stepp Creek valley.  We went 6.81 miles in about five hours.  The highest-to-lowest elevation change was 600 feet, but we did several ascents and descents in rugged territory, which will flat out wear you out.  I would rate today's hike as a difficult bushwhack. 

GPS files:
  GPS track file for hike to Stepp Creek Falls (.gpx format)
  GPS track file for today's hike in Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow
  Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow area waypoints

Upper Stepp Creek Falls
Finally! We finally got a little rain.  Here at the Henry homestead a little north of Dover, we only got about an inch of rain.  Further to the north and west, the rain totals were a bit higher, so when my friend Dan Frew asked if I wanted to get out in the woods for a little hiking, I jumped at the chance.  It has been a long, long, dry spell here in the Ozarks, and it will take a good deal more rain to get the water tables replenished and all the creeks and streams back to normal winter and spring levels.  I was trying to keep my expectations down but was hoping we would have some decent waterfalls.  In any case, I had been working on cleaning up some acreage at home, cutting and burning brush and undergrowth.  I was about ready for a day out in the woods anyway.  I met Dan and David Dedman,  another frequent hiking companion, early today and we set out for Stepp Creek.

Coon Hollow Falls #4
On today's hike, we planned on checking out the upper and lower waterfalls at Stepp Creek, then kind of figure out what we wanted to explore from there.  A lot of folks have visited Stepp Creek Falls since it is in Tim Ernst's excellent guidebook.  I see that my blog post from the last time I visited the area, almost three years ago, has also seen a lot of viewer traffic.  If you only want to go to these more popular waterfalls, you can follow the link to that blog post for more information.  Today, after visiting the two Stepp Creek Falls, we decided to do a little more exploring in the same area, as long as we were here.  

Coon Hollow Cascade
To get to the trailhead, go to Highway 16 west of the Highway 7 junction.  Drive 9.0 miles west of Highway 7 (or 4.1 miles east of Edwards Junction), then turn north on NC-8908 (aka FR-1227).  Go 0.9 miles on NC-8908, then bear left onto NC-8910 (aka FR-1227 or Union Grove Road), go another 0.25 miles, and pull into an old logging road on the left to park.  There is a cattle corral on each side of the road just before the parking location.  The old logging road you parked on will be your trail for over half of the hike to Upper Stepp Creek Falls.

Coon Hollow Falls #3
If you have a GPS, reset it here at the trailhead where you parked.  instead of bushwhacking down to the creek early, just stay on the old logging trail that starts at the parking location.  In this area, there are a lot of hickory and beech seedlings higher in the hollows, making for not-so-easy bushwhacking.  Whenever you can find a nice trail like an old trace road that will get you closer to your destination, take it.  In this case, it is easy hiking on the old logging road and you can get to within 0.17 miles of Upper Stepp Creek Falls.  At 0.6 miles from the parking spot, the old road gets about as close as it will get to the waterfalls, and if you turn left (southwest) off the trail here, the slope is not too bad and the undergrowth is minimal as you go through a section of tall pine trees.    

From the top of Upper Stepp Creek Falls, there is a break in the bluffline on the right as you face downstream that you can use to get to the base of the falls.  This is a really picturesque 25-foot waterfall that tumbles down the face of the rock bluff.  There is a small shelter type cave to the left of the waterfall.  Today, the rains from yesterday had made this waterfall about as picturesque as I had ever seen it.  In my mind, the day was already a success.  

Lower Stepp Creek Falls
Upper Stepp Creek Falls is in the background
Crossing to the left side of the creek as we went downstream, we followed the bluffline down on that side.  As the bottom of the bluffline goes past the top of the lower falls, there is a moderate slope down to the creek and the base of the waterfall.  Again, this is an easy hike all the way.  Lower Stepp Creek Falls is less than a hundred yards downstream of the upper falls.  You can see both Lower and Upper Stepp Creek Falls at the same time, but finding a spot where you can photograph both is a challenge because of the intervening trees.

Stepp Creek Junction Falls
We went downstream to a small waterfall that I had named Stepp Creek Junction Falls on an earlier visit.  This is at the junction of a good-sized drainage on the left as you go downstream.  If you decide to explore this drainage, stay along the bottom of the bluffline on the left as you go downstream, and it will take you up into this tributary to a small waterfall.  More details on this drainage can be found in my previous blog post for Stepp Creek.  There are a couple of small but nice waterfalls in the 5-6 foot range in this tributary.  Since I had already explored there, we decided to look into some uncharted territory in the area.  Coon Hollow and Watson Hollow drain into Stepp Creek as it flows to the north.  Further (much further) downstream, Horseshoe Branch and Gum Branch flow into Stepp Creek before it, in turn, drains into the Little Buffalo River.  I had seen some photos Patrick Caple had taken along Stepp Creek, but could find nothing in Coon Hollow other than the tracks of some old logging roads at the higher elevations.So after a brief discussion, Dan, David, and I decided to venture over into neighboring Coon Hollow.
Coon Hollow Falls #2
We went due west, heading straight up the mountain between the side drainage and Coon Hollow, and on top of this mountain, we found yet another old logging road.  The old road actually wraps around the top of Coon Hollow, mostly on the level, and goes all the way around the top of the Coon Hollow drainage.  David and I went all the way around the top of Coon Hollow while Dan broke off the trail early to check out the main creek in the drainage, and a smaller side drainage.  See the map for this track below at the bottom of this blog post.  Finding nothing, we came back around the road and dropped down to the creek, where Dan had also found nothing.  Not to be deterred, we headed downstream.  On the topo maps, this hollow actually looked more promising at the lower reaches, and that's just what we found.  

Coon Hollow Falls #1
The first new waterfall we found was less than halfway up Coon Hollow from where it drains into Stepp Creek.  In retrospect, it would have been much easier to just go downstream on Stepp Creek to the mouth of Coon Hollow, then hiked up to the five waterfalls along the way.  That's one of the reasons I write this blog; so you readers can learn from my explorations.  Another reason is because I'm old and need to remind myself what I found when I come back to it years later, but let me sound magnanimous for now.  From Coon Hollow Unnamed Falls #1, it was another fifth of a mile downstream to Falls #2.  I have previously checked out the section of Stepp Creek between Stepp Junction Falls and Coon Hollow.  There are a series of long, fast cascades and water slides where Stepp Creek narrows down quite a bit, falling into a long pool at the end of the water slides.  

Coon Hollow Falls #4
Continuing downstream in Coon Hollow, the last four waterfalls are all within a little over a quarter mile of Stepp Creek.  Falls #2 is small but very picturesque.  Falls #3 is a tumbling waterfall that is actually just above Falls #4 but is hidden behind a large boulder.   It also flows perpendicular to the creek and Falls #4, making it impossible to photo the two waterfalls together, but being there yourself you can experience this truly beautiful work of nature.  Falls #4 is what I would consider the best in this drainage, with a wide, flat, shelf for a long waterfall that today had enough flow for four separate waterfalls, all flowing into a large pool.  There is another small cascading waterfall where the pool drains into the creek. 

Coon Hollow Cascade
For reference, I am 6'3" tall
Photo by Dan Frew
A short 150-yard hike further downstream brought us our fifth waterfall find, one of the prettiest cascading water slides I have ever seen, and one of the longest as well.  Dan called this one Coon Hollow Cascade, which is a fitting name for it.  After looking at my photos at home, I realized none of them really showed just how big this waterfall is.  Fortunately, Dan had a photo of me next to for reference and allowed me to use it.  Even with this perspective, a photo really doesn't do it justice.  Once again, being there is just much more awesome.  Although the rains yesterday really didn't have the creek flowing that well after our long drought, this was one fast, frothy water slide down to its big pool at the bottom.  I can only imagine what it will look like with a normal flow of maybe two or three times this much water.

Stepp Creek Unnamed Falls #1
Proceeding down to where Coon Hollow flows into Stepp Creek, we found three more pretty cool water features right there at the junction of the creeks.  On the Coon Hollow creek, there was a small waterfall and a picturesque slot carved into the rock bluff where it empties into Stepp Creek.  On Stepp Creek itself, we found Stepp Creek Unnamed Falls #1.  With the rising sun, it was becoming almost impossible to get decent photos of the waterfalls unless they were mostly in the shade, so I did the best I could on this one.  One of these days, I'll get some lessons and learn how to use my circular polarizing filter.  

Stepp Creek Spring #1
Running into Stepp Creek directly opposite from the mouth of Coon Hollow we found Unnamed Spring #1.  This spring had a significant amount of flow and came gushing out of a hole in the rock just above creek level.  Later on our hike, we found some waterfalls in a drainage high in the bluff, about 200 feet in elevation above this spring.  That drainage was completely dry where it flows into Stepp Creek, so it stands to reason that after the water in that creek flows over the three waterfalls we found, it goes underground and comes out in this spring.  That's kind of the way the Ozarks work.  If true, it could also mean there is a rather extensive cave system back in the mountain.  That all just depends on how long, geologically, all this hydrology has been going on, and how much of the mountain is soft rock like limestone.  

Stepp Creek Spring #2
We decided to explore a little more of this valley, so went downstream another half mile to see what was there.  Across from the mouth of Watson Hollow, we found another spring coming out of the tall rock bluff on the right (east), about five feet above the creek.  Further downstream another quarter mile, we found yet another spring on the same side of the creek, gushing a good stream of water out a couple feet above stream level.  The number of similar springs draining water out of the innards of the mountain between Stepp Creek and Dismal Hollow makes me think even more there could be a good sized cavern system somewhere in the mountain.  Geologists say there are over 10,000 caves in the Ozarks.  There are some really nice ones we know of, but I often wonder how many are hiding from us because they don't have a person sized opening above ground.

Stepp Creek Falls #2
Falls #3 can be seen just upstream in the background
We decided to call it a day and head back, so we angled back up the east slope toward the old logging road.  We went through that small drainage I mentioned previously, and soon found Stepp Creek Falls #2 about halfway up the slope to the old road.  Falls #3 is a small waterfall just upstream of Falls #2.  We hiked upstream on this drainage and found Stepp Creek Falls #4 a short distance upstream.  It was mid-afternoon by this time, with brilliant full sunlight, so, unfortunately, my photos of these aren't the best.  From Falls #4, we hiked up the slope to the old road, and from there it was pretty easy hiking along the old logging road back to where we parked.

Stepp Creek Falls #4
This was a great day to be out in the wilderness with friends, finally enjoying some waterfall chasing after a very long drought.  With the extent of our drought, the streams will soon dwindle away again.  At this point, it will take quite a bit of rainfall to get the Ozarks back to normal water levels.  In the meantime, we have days like this that we can at least get out and see some nice waterfalls.  These are not the biggest or most spectacular waterfalls, and they certainly are not the easiest to get to.  That being said, there is something a little exhilarating about exploring the hollows that no one has been in for decades and finding waterfalls that no one else has photographed or documented.  More than anything, I just like getting out there in the woods.  
Red - GPS track to Upper Stepp Creek Falls
Blue - GPS track for Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow today

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Yellowstone in Winter, Yellowstone National Park, Montana and Wyoming

1/21 - 1/29/2017 Hikes and excursions from Old Faithful and Mammoth areas inside Yellowstone National Park

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  elevation)
  Old Faithful area:  44.46050   -110.82886,  7348 ft.

Pet-Friendly: No, unfortunately.  Dogs are allowed in the park, but not in the Snow Lodge, which is the only place you can stay.  

Motorcycle Friendly: Nooooo.  While you can technically ride your bike in the park, in winter you can only go as far as the Mammoth area, only 5 miles inside the park from the northwest entrance.  In winter, snow tires are required on that short five mile stretch to the facilities at Mammoth.

Hiking Statistics:  We went on several hikes around the various geyser basins and a few other features at the park, but mostly short hikes after being taken to the area on snow coach.  In addition to hiking some of the packed trails, we also did some snowshoe hiking and cross-country skiing.

Bethany and Rick at Kepler Cascades
At first, I wasn't going to write up a blog post on any of the hikes and excursions we did during our stay at the Old Faithful area Snow Lodge.  After all, this is a hiking blog, and any write-up I would do is likely to sound more like a travel brochure than a hiking resource.  That being said, we did do a fair amount of hiking in the park.  On the trip back home, I was deliberating whether to write this post, and leaning against doing so, when my wife Bethany said, "don't you do your blog as a resource for hikers, and as a way for you to keep track of your discoveries and what you learn each time you go out?"  She continued, "When we were planning this trip, wouldn't you have liked something like that to give us a little guidance?" Well, hmm, yes.  As a matter of fact, I had looked for some reviews, guides, and other resources to let us know what to expect and how we should prepare.  Other than the National Park Service (NPS) web pages, and those maintained by Xanterra, the company with the concession for operating facilities in the park, I found almost nothing of use.  Bethany went on and delivered the clincher, "Whether you write a blog post or not, we need to write down all the tips and tricks we learned this time so we are better prepared next trip."  As you can see, I'm writing a blog post for the trip.  When she's right, she's right. 

Old Faithful erupting - note the
lack of people around it
First, let's look at what is open and what you can get to during the winter months in Yellowstone.  Getting there is not that complicated because there is only one way to do it and you won't be the one navigating your way there.  You probably have heard that the park is "open" from late April through early October each year.  That fact is, the park never closes.  What does close is the roads and facilities.  Check this link for exact dates for the year you are traveling there, but most of the facilities at the major areas for lodging, dining and visitor experience will close in early October.  The roads close to normal vehicle traffic at varying dates, but generally late October or early November.  The road between the Tower and Canyon areas goes over Dunraven Pass and gets so much snow that they just have to give up on it.  In winter it is closed even to "over-snow" vehicles.  That particular road usually gets around 80 feet of snow, so it will not generally re-open until Memorial Day weekend.  After dusk every day, the groomers go out and groom all the roads in the park with big machines similar to those used to groom the slopes at ski resorts, leveling out the ruts and making a nice flat, packed surface for the over-snow vehicles.

Bison use their head to move snow out of the way
to find grass to eat
So, if the only traffic allowed in winter is over-snow vehicles, how do you get there?  The NPS concessionaire, Xanterra, only operates within the park itself and runs snow coaches between the Mammoth Lodge and the Old Faithful area Snow Lodge.  This is approximately a four-hour ride in a snow coach, which they run every morning and every afternoon going each way between those facilities.  The snow coaches are driven by extremely knowledgeable guides that point out various park features, answer questions, and make stops along the way for restroom stops and to view various attractions.  Note that the only heated restrooms I know of are at the Madison Junction warming hut and the Canyon area visitor center, which is kept partially open.  At Canyon the restrooms are open, and they have placed a bunch of picnic tables on the floor of the visitor center so you can eat a box lunch inside.  The snow coach shuttles make different stops each way, so if you take the snow coach each way as we did, you get to stop and see virtually everything along the route from Mammoth, through Norris Junction, Madison Junction, then up to the Old Faithful area and the Snow Lodge.

Godbeams shine through the steam and
rime frost near the mud volcano
There are also other commercial snow coach services that operate out of West Yellowstone, MT and Jackson, WY, that will take guests to the Snow Lodge via the west and south entrances, respectively.  These companies also operate various excursions to take guests to other areas within the park as well.  There are also commercial operators that take groups into the park on snowmobiles from West Yellowstone, as well as into the Gallatin National Forest outside Yellowstone Park.  During this time of year, there are generally more snowmobiles on the
Bison along the Firehole River
The majestic Old Faithful inn is completely closed all winter
streets of West Yellowstone than there are cars, but that doesn't mean you can take your own snowmobile into the park.  The current NPS rules require snowmobiles to be led by an NPS certified commercial guide because they have strict rules on the operation of snowmobiles within the park, including when, where, and how they can be operated.  They all have to be back out of the park by dusk.  We have stayed in West Yellowstone during summer visits to the park, and know that a significant amount of time is spent each day just getting from the west entrance to Madison Junction and back, to branch out to see other parts of the park.  The Snow Lodge is much more centrally located and was a much better springboard into the park on various excursions.  For our summer trips, we find the Yellowstone Lake Hotel area the best place to stay.

LPT type snow coach
Now that you have made it to the Snow Lodge, now what?  Well, for one thing, you won't be going too far without getting on a snow coach.  There are plenty of trails in the vicinity of the Snow Lodge that you can get out on.  All of the walkways and boardwalks in the Upper Geyser Basin have the snow packed to the point you can get around the whole area by just hiking.  This includes going out to Black Sand  Basin, another nearby geyser basin, and the loop trail through the forest on the mountain to the Observation Point behind Old Faithful.  You can also hike on the
Tracked type snow coach for deeper snow
snow-packed trail all the way down to the Morning Glory Pool, about halfway toward Biscuit Basin, another large geyser basin downstream along the Firehole River.  A groomer behind a snowmobile grooms this trail every day for park visitors.  Further traffic on these trails and other trails going out to Mystic Falls, Fairy Falls, Issa Lake, and all the other trails in this area require snowshoes or cross-country skis.  Xanterra will do snow coach "ski shuttle" drops where they drop you off at various points miles away, then you ski back to the lodge.  

Firehole River
We actually did a fair amount of hiking without snowshoes or skis.  You do have to be careful, however; what happens is the snow will get packed down so you can hike on it, but snow drifts into the packed down area, and that also gets packed down.  So you end up with the "packed snow trail" being almost as deep as the unpacked snow on each side of it.  Along the boardwalk areas, the packed snow was about as high as the handrails, and it is only halfway through the winter.  There are very few other people out on the trails, but when you do encounter someone going the opposite direction, you have to do a kind of sideways shuffle when you pass them so that neither of you steps out into the unpacked snow.  If you do, you'll immediately sink down to about thigh level and have to climb back up on the packed snow trail.  I'm a little clumsy as well as absent-minded and did this many, many, times.  We eventually got pretty good at the "side-shuffle dance" when passing by other folks.  

A group of bison is called an "Obstinacy".
This is why.
While there is a good deal of hiking available in the Old Faithful area where the Snow Lodge is, to see the rest of the park you will have to get on a snow coach.  There are many excursions that Xanterra operates from the Snow Lodge.  We signed up for several of these that sounded interesting but found out that they go on routes that overlap, so we did a little rearranging of our reservations so that we went on snow coach excursions that went to every part of the park that was accessible but didn't overlap any more than necessary.  That left us free to do as much hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing as we could on our own.  Xanterra replaced their fleet of snow coaches this year.  They use the new snow coaches with large, low-pressure tires for most areas, but use ones with triangular pitched treads instead of wheels for areas with deeper snow.

Fox near Fishing Bridge at Yellowstone Lake
There is wildlife everywhere in the park, and they don't seem to mind humans very much.  I have noticed the same thing in the summer, so it isn't just a wintertime thing.  We have elk, coyotes, fox, etc. in Arkansas as well, but there is no way they would let us get as close as the animals in the park do.  It's like they know they have nothing to fear from humans in the park and just don't care.  Bison are everywhere; at one time, there were only 20 bison in the wild, but there are now approximately 5,000 in Yellowstone.  In the early 1900s, the park service recognized these mammals for the magnificent animals they are and decided
Coyotes near the Madison River
Note they are using the path plowed out by a bison
they might want to do something to preserve the species.  They built the famous Buffalo Ranch in the north part of the park, started rebuilding the herd, and eventually released them back into the wild and protected them.  Now they are maintained at an ideal number for the size of the park and pretty much rule the place.  Even the grizzlies and the wolf packs won't take on the trouble of trying to take down a full-grown bison.  This has been such a great success story the NPS uses a bison on their official logo.  The NPS rangers want you to maintain a distance of at least 25 yards from any wildlife, but sometimes that is difficult.  The bison are so ubiquitous you see
Trumpeter Swan taking flight from the Firehole River
them all over the park.  They often walk on the roads because it's a lot easier on the packed snow than plowing through the deep snow.  If a bunch of them hold up your snow coach, well, just hurry up and wait.  Oddly enough, a group of bison is called an "obstinacy".  Believe me, that is a much more fitting collective noun than simply "herd".  They seem as docile as they can be, but these are animals that can easily outrun you and literally weigh more than a ton.  Their heads alone weigh about 200 pounds.  There have been people gored by bison in the park.  Those instances are very rare, and probably well deserved, but we still maintained our distance as well as we could.

The Lion Geyser erupting - Upper Geyser Basin
Thermal features are always a big hit in the park, and in winter they are even more noticeable due to the cold.  As you probably know, Yellowstone sits on top of a giant super volcano that goes off every 640,000 years or so.  The last time was about 640,000 years ago (hmm...).  The heat from all that super hot magma very close to the surface manifests itself in a spectacular way.  The majority of the geysers on the entire planet, about 2/3 of the world's geysers, are right here in Yellowstone.  Of those, 90% are in the major geyser basins along the Firehole River in the Old Faithful area.  Wherever you go in the park, you can see the plumes of steam from various thermal features, made even more visible this time of year by the extreme cold.  All this thermal activity is why the major rivers and creeks in Yellowstone never freeze over.  Here is a map of all the major thermal features in the Old Faithful area:
Thermal Features in the Old Faithful Area

Across the Great Divide!
Rick and Bethany at Lake Issa
The thermal features close to the Snow Lodge made for a few hiking trips of varying lengths while we were there.  Going down to Morning Glory Pool is about a three-mile round trip hike, and the Black Sand Basin is about four miles.  While there, I took the opportunity to do a little cross-country skiing as well, something I had never done before.  After some quick training from a great instructor, I took off for Biscuit Basin.  If you are a skier, there are a lot of trails to take advantage of in the most spectacular scenery to be found on the face of the earth.  If you are a rookie like me, it's still fun, but definitely one of those things that get better with practice.  I really struggled with it at first, but as I found my rhythm and started letting the skis do the work, it became a lot easier and more enjoyable.  By the time I finished a seven mile trip around Biscuit Basin and back to the Snow Lodge, I was really getting the hang of it.  I'll definitely want to do more cross-country on future trips.  

Firehole Falls
Back home in the Arkansas Ozarks, waterfalls are my mainstay and primary hiking focus.  Here in Yellowstone, many of the waterfalls were still flowing thanks to the thermal activity all over the park.  We visited Gibbon Falls, Firehole Falls, Kepler Cascades, and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.  We ran out of time this trip, but next time we'll plan on skiing out on the backcountry trails to Mystic Falls and Fairy Falls.  Some of the smaller waterfalls on small creeks actually freeze up over the winter, but most of them, particularly those on the major rivers, have about the same flow as they do in the summer.  The normally huge Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River has a huge ice dome that builds up over the winter.  I found that photographing waterfalls in the high country winter is more difficult because the snow all around them doesn't provide much contrast to the white, frothy water flowing over the falls.

Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin
The reasons to go to Yellowstone in winter are clearly numerous.  In addition to the wildlife, waterfalls, thermal features, stunningly beautiful scenery, and unique experiences, another major factor for us is the absence of people.  Last summer, Yellowstone set another record with over four million visitors to the park.  It is indeed an incredible place to visit in the summer, but one of the things that set the winter season apart is that all those people are not there.  For example, in the summertime, there are about 30,000 people that witness the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser every day, but this time of year there were never more than a handful of people whenever we strolled out to see Old Faithful erupt.  I much prefer the solitude and serenity of a wilderness location without the people.  Don't get me wrong; even though I previously had visited Yellowstone only in the summer, it was still my favorite place on earth.  However, having visited during the winter, we both agree it is even better this time of year.

I mentioned that we had learned quite a bit on our first trip to Yellowstone in the winter.  There were a few lessons learned, and I'll detail those so that next time we will be even better prepared, and hopefully this will help others get the most out of this winter wonderland.  Here are my tips and tricks:

  • Make reservations early.  Christmas time at the Snow Lodge is special, so if you want to go during the two weeks around Christmas, you need to 
    Rick at Solitary Geyser
    make reservations the previous winter.  If you procrastinate, you may not be able to get any room at all, especially for this highly sought after timeframe.
  • Stay at the Snow Lodge itself.  We booked a premier lodge room, but there are lower priced cabins available and we considered that.  Speaking with other guests who didn't make reservations early enough and had no choice but to book a cabin, they all wished they were in the lodge itself.  Otherwise, every time you need to eat a meal, catch a snow coach, etc., you have to bundle up and make the trek over to the lodge.  If it is -17 degrees, that's kind of a hassle.
  • Dress for the weather.  Do not be deceived by some of the photos of us
    without hats or gloves.  Those were momentary things for photo taking purposes only.  It is cold in Yellowstone in the winter.  Sometimes,
    Timing is everything with photography.
    Sometimes, it's cold enough to make
    your nose run.  Know what I mean?
    extremely cold.  Layering clothing is the key, and we were well prepared in this regard.  Thermal underwear (long johns) is a good start.  The more wind and water resistant your clothing is, the better.  I never wore more than long johns and jeans, and my legs never got cold.  For an all day excursion, I did wear flannel-lined jeans.  Ski pants would be more water and wind resistant, but I just don't like wearing them.  Look for a good parka or snorkel coat with multiple pockets that has plenty of good insulation and extends down to thigh level for overall protection of the trunk of your body.  I generally wore two layers on my upper body plus my snorkel coat.  I have a packable down vest that takes up very little room, but if needed is a really good third layer for my upper body.   I only used it once, but was glad to have it then.
  • Gloves and boots need insulation too.  I had a good pair of gloves with
    Godbeams in the steam at
    Dragon's Mouth Hot Spring
    150g of 'Thinsulate' insulation that worked very well.  Bethany had gloves and boots with Thinsulate and had little problem with the cold, but I had decided to go with my Vasquez hiking boots.  I love the boots, they are waterproof and between the heavy leather and Gortex, I thought they would be plenty well insulated.  Well, I was wrong.  They were OK for a couple of hours of hiking in single-digit temperatures but after that, my toes would start to really feel the cold.  Next time I'll take some well-insulated snow boots.  As part of your foot insulation, take heavy socks.  You can get heavy, extreme-cold rated hiking socks at sporting goods stores.
  • Take hand warmers and toe warmers.  Sometimes, no matter how good your boots and gloves are, they need a little help.  These little packets of warmth activate when you take them out of their sealed package and generate heat by an exothermic reaction for several hours.  I don't advertise or endorse any products in my blog, but HotHands brand were the ones that seemed to have the best results when I did my research, and we got a case of the ones rated for 10-hour life to
    Bison near the Middle Geyser Basin
    Note the rime frost buildup - their insulation is so good,
    this will not melt until sunlight warms it enough.
    Bison don't even feel the cold until -20F to -40F.
    take with us.  We both used the hand warmers, as sometimes you need to take your hands out of the gloves when doing camera work and it helps to have one in your pocket.  
    I also used the toe warmers a few times, but Bethany only needed them once on an all-day excursion. 
  • The cold can zap your battery.  If you do any photography (and who can resist in a place like this?), expect to have shorter battery life.  In addition to keeping your hands warm, those little hand warmers you put in your pockets can help here as well.  Keep your battery and spare battery in a pocket with a hand warmer and it will last much longer.
  • Take sunscreen, lotion, and sunglasses.  Because it is very cold and very high altitude, it is also very dry and very little protection from the sun's UV rays.  It was overcast about 3/4 of the time we were there, but when the sun is out, the reflection off the snow is blinding.  Even without many sunny days, my face got pretty sunburnt.
  • Plan your time in the park before deciding to take snowshoes or ski equipment.  Remember you will be transitioning from your vehicle to snow coaches.  If you catch a flight into Bozeman and take the shuttle to
    Geyser by the Firehole River
    Snowshoe trip
    Mammoth to catch the snow coach, you have even more luggage transitions to mess with.  We took our own snowshoes and only ended up using them a couple of hours.  We would have been better off not hassling with the added bulk and weight and just renting them at the Snow Lodge's gift shop.  I did try a little skiing for the first time, and for only $35 I got one-on-one lessons from Matt, an excellent instructor, and rental of skis, boots, and poles for 24 hours.  Since I only used them one afternoon, that was definitely the way to go.  
  • With subzero temperatures and even a slight breeze, your face and nose
    Bethany with half-face mask
    protection and no fogging
     will freeze without protection.  Scarves and ski masks tend to take the moisture from your breath and freeze solid, but something we found that works great is a neoprene face mask, also called face protectors and face warmers.  Bethany and I used half-face face masks, and they were very effective.  The face mask is also much better if you wear glasses since it seals along your cheek bone.  Scarves and ski masks tend to let your exhaled breath go up into your glasses.  Not only will your glasses fog up, they will quickly freeze in a layer of ice over your lenses.  The face mask allows exhaling more normally through your nose and mouth, away from your face and away from your glasses.
  • Staying at the Snow Lodge is a little pricey.  In my opinion, it is well worth
    Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
    Note the huge ice mound at the base
    the cost, but you have limited options for lodging and dining, so be aware and prepared.  Just getting to the snow lodge and back is a $117 seat for each person, each way.  For a four hour ride, that's actually a lot cheaper than a taxi would be, but some people are surprised at the cost.  You have to make reservations at the Snow Lodge, so the room cost shouldn't be a surprise.  The options for dining are very limited.  The Snow Lodge has only one dining room; you have to make reservations for dinner, but not for breakfast or lunch.  The Obsidian Dining room menus are available online.  The only other option is the Geyser Grill in the Snow Lodge, but it is primarily fast food fare and has limited hours of operation.  The menu for the Grill can also be viewed online.  Unless you take a suitcase full of bread, peanut butter, and jelly, these two are your only options for dining.  It's not like you can jump in the car and make a run to Chik-fil-a or Denny's.  I will add that the food in the Snow Lodge Obsidian Dining Room is superb.  I never met the chef, but he/she did a great job on every dish (and I tried almost all of them), so it is worth the sticker price for sure.  Interestingly enough, any dish with bison (especially bison chili) seemed particularly delicious.  Go figure.
  • The Snow Lodge was never designed to be the technologically connected
    Bethany and Rick near Fountain Paint Pots
    Note the buildup of rime frost in Bethany's hair
    from steam freezing on the hair
    lodging that most modern hotels are.  Hopefully, that will never change.  There are no televisions nor air conditioners in any room at any location in the park, summer or winter.  Air conditioning is not needed at this altitude, and neither are TVs.  If you aren't there to experience nature in it's most primal, raw, and beautiful state, do yourself a favor and go elsewhere.  There are landlines in each room, and there are mini-cells at Old Faithful, Grant Village, Canyon, and Lake that give cell coverage for about a mile radius.  Wifi is available at the lodge for a per-day fee.  We spent eight days with no TV, no phone calls, no computers or tablets, and it was marvelous.  There is something about sitting by the big fireplace in the Snow Lodge lobby actually talking to another human face-to-face that is oddly energizing and invigorating.
  • Yaktrax will help with traction.  We did not take Yaktrax, a traction device 
  • Bison near Nez Pearce Creek
    that slips over the bottom of your shoes or boots, and for the most part did not have much trouble on the packed snow and ice.  That being said, one of our guides supplied us with a pair when we went out for a "Steam, Stars, and Winter Soundscapes" excursion as a safety measure since we would be hiking on packed snow and ice at night.  They certainly did help with traction and were easy to stretch over the soles of our boots and easy to remove.  During the day, just watching where we walked and being careful on icier surfaces was sufficient and neither of us slipped and fell.  They are fairly inexpensive so, you might consider them especially for boots that don't have the deep treads that ours did.
  • Take your passport.  No, you won't have to have it to enter the park.  It seems like another planet, let alone another country, but it's actually on Earth right here still in the good old USA.  But at a couple of areas, such as the Canyon visitor center, they leave the passport stamp and inkpad out so the ranger there can stamp your passport.  
  • Take your Senior Pass (aka Golden Passport, Parks Pass, America the Beautiful Pass, and many other names).  It is still a national park, and
    the government does like to take your money.  If you don't have a pass of some sort, it will cost you $30 every time you go in from Gardiner to Mammoth.  We stayed in Gardiner a couple days before catching the snow coach at Mammoth.  We entered the park a few times to explore the Mammoth and Lamar Valley areas, and fortunately, I had my Senior Pass with me.  If you are over 62 years old and don't have one, get one.  They cost only $10 (and extra $10 for special handling) and can be obtained at a multitude of offices.  They are lifetime passes to get into not only national parks but a bazillion other campgrounds and other recreation sites controlled by virtually every federal government agency.  I got mine from the USGS online store but could have gotten it at National Forest offices in my area.  It will get you and your car full of people into the national parks for free the rest of your life, so that's what you call a pretty good deal.
Blacktail Deer near Mammoth
The staff that permanently resides in the Old Faithful area over the winter season deserves mention as well since they contributed greatly to our enjoyment on this trip.  Typically, there are about 250 employees that reside in the Old Faithful area over the winter season.  There were slightly more employees than guests, and we got to know quite a few of them.  They have dormitories and apartments at the Old Faithful area and eat only in an employee cafeteria.  Unless they drive one of the snow shuttles to Mammoth or can hitch a ride in an open seat on their day off, they aren't going anywhere.  You might think that being stuck in a place with few entertainment outlets, and an inability to go anywhere, might get a little depressing.  On the contrary, I don't think I have ever seen a happier,
Big Horn Sheep
more pleasant group of people all trying their best to make sure we had a good time.  Their attitudes were so positive, I asked some of them about it.  Ben, a guide from Arkansas that we had for a full day in the Canyon and Lake areas, wintered over with his wife, who was also an employee.  In his words, "I get to drive a huge 4x4 with a captive audience that thinks I know everything and tell stories all day while I see the most awesome scenery in the world.  They even pay me for it instead of the other way around."   April, another of our guides, said "I wake up every day in an actual winter wonderland, I ski from my apartment to work and pass bison on the way.  I teach people about the park and get to see
Pronghorn Antelope
the look of amazement on their face.  That's my job, believe it or not."  Most employees had been at Yellowstone for more than one winter.  I'm sure there are some rookie employees that just can't handle not being able to go to Macy's or watch the newest episode of their favorite TV show, but the ones that stick with it are the ones that love being there, and it shows.  They love their jobs, and they love living there.  On their days off, most of them get out and ski, hike, or ride along if they find an empty seat on a snow coach excursion.  In other words, they do what we do, only they are better at it and do it for free.  They contributed greatly to our enjoyment of this trip.

Bull Elk between Mammoth and Tower areas
We took the morning snow coach back to Mammoth, so we got back to our vehicle around noon.  Since we planned to spend the night in nearby Gardiner, Montana, that left us all afternoon to do a little more exploring in the Lamar Valley.   The top section of the "Grand Loop Road", the paved road in the park between Mammoth and Tower, is kept plowed and open all year.  The road from the Tower area to the northeast entrance is likewise kept open all year.   Since the Beartooth Highway is closed all winter, this is the only route out for the small communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City, just outside the northeast park entrance.  This road runs down the Lamar Valley, which typically has a lot of wildlife, as well as some park sights such as Undine Falls, Wraith Falls, and Blacktail Mesa.  We spent the afternoon going through this section of the park before heading out of the park to our lodging for the night.

Diamond Dusting with Bethany
on the trail up to the Observation Point
We really learned a lot this trip and had many new experiences.  The altitude, extreme cold, low humidity, and unique features of the park combine to form phenomena we were not familiar with.  We had seen hoar frost before, where fog freezes onto surfaces like tree branches and pine needles.  There was plenty of that here, and also rime frost, where steam from the thermal activity condenses and freezes on tiny ice crystals, forming ever larger frost "gems".  We also got to experience a phenomenon that I didn't even know existed.  I had never heard of a form of frost called diamond dust.  It occurs when the temperature drops quickly and what little moisture is in the air flash freezes to very tiny particles of ice that form right in the air and float slowly down, glittering in the air like diamonds. There I was, on the mountain above Old Faithful, in a pristine winter wonderland, alone with the woman I love, with this stuff like pixie dust all around us.  I am incredibly blessed to have a magical moment like this even once in a lifetime.

Morning Glory Pool
As you can see, the park is always open, and you can actually get to quite a bit of it even in the winter months.  One of the things I like about Yellowstone is getting away from the crowds on the backcountry trails.  Many of those are inaccessible during winter, but you might be surprised at how many you can actually go on with skis.  They have a saying at the park that "98% of the visitors see only 2% of the park".  That is very, very true.  The vast majority of visitors traverse the Grand Loop Road with their vehicles and see only those sights that are within walking distance of a parking area at the features along the road.  As spectacular as
Bridge over Firehole River
Note the snow is as high as the handrails
those sights and features are, you can only see 2% of the park from the Grand Loop Road.  No one goes away from this, the first national park, disappointed.  That being said, try to wrap your head around the fact that the other 98% of the park is equally awesome.  If you go in the summer, be part of that 2% and see the grandeur of this jewel of the NPS without all those other 98%.  That's what we try to do.  In the winter, you are more limited to the Grand Loop Road unless you are a much more experienced skier, but only a fraction of 1% of the summertime crowds are there with you, so it all works out.

Roosevelt Arch at northwest entrance
It's our park, people.  Please take care of it.
We were at the Snow Lodge for eight days.  That was about right for seeing and doing just about all we could, but I would have liked to stay longer just to do more of everything.  We were enjoying the winter visit to the park so much, it was a little hard to leave and head home.  All in all, our experiences in Yellowstone were fantastic.  We had a great time and thinking back on it, I really can't remember a vacation or road trip that I enjoyed more.  On the drive home from Mammoth, we discussed the adventures we experienced, talked about what we would do different, and planned our next winter trip to Yellowstone.