Christmas In Wonderland: Trip Report – A Magical Winter Week in Yellowstone
I heard excited voices calling from the front of the snow coach. It was a beautiful December morning on the road between
Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone, and I was in the back seat of a snowcoach—a tricked-out van with massive low-pressure tires for
navigating the snowed-over roads of Yellowstone’s interior. I couldn’t hear that well over the roar of the coach’s fans that were
doing their best to keep the windows fog free, but I clearly heard one word from up front: owl.
I snapped my head forward and barely caught a glimpse of a large bird flying across the road and into the dense lodgepole pine
forest on our left. Despite the split-second sighting, I knew exactly what it was based on size and habitat: a great gray owl, among the
world’s largest owls (based on length) and one of my all-time favorite birds. The snowcoach came abruptly to a halt and we all
craned our necks to see if we would get another view. For another split second, my eyes picked up the movement of huge
wing beats as the owl flew deeper into the forest, away from the road. It hadn’t gone far.
We silently piled out of the vehicle. “Let’s go slow and keep it quiet,” I said as we collected ourselves and delicately crept into the
woods. “We’ll see if we can spot it one more time, but if it spooks again then we’re going to leave it alone.”
I felt the soft crunch of snow beneath my feet, silently thankful (at least in this moment) for the unusually mild winter we’d been
having so far; in a normal winter, there would have been way too much snow to even bother trying to venture into the woods on
foot. I hopped across a small creek and was investigating some pine marten tracks in the snow when I looked behind me and saw the
rest of the group huddled together and excitedly pointing up into the trees beyond where I stood. I backtracked and followed the
line of their gaze up a large conifer tree, where our beautiful gray friend was nestled close to the trunk.
|Left, a coyote pounces on a rodent during golden hour at Madison Junction.
|Above, Steamboat Geyser, the world’s largest, produces an impressive plume of steam on a crystal-clear day.
Deep in Yellowstone’s interior, we experienced the breathtaking beauty of the geyser basins in winter, coyotes hunting for rodents,
and eagles majestically surveying their domain. From chandeliers of hoar frost to plumes of hot spring steam towering into the air,
every bend in the road brought a new moment to relish.
On the final day of a six-day wolf-watching package we experienced a great way to kick off the grand finale! Despite a mild winter, we
were experiencing unusually good wildlife action in the park. Over the previous two and a half days on the Northern Range, the northern portion of Yellowstone near the North Entrance community of Gardiner, Montana, where Yellowstone Wild headquarters are located, we had excellent sightings (and haunting group howls) from three different wolf packs—Rescue Creek, Junction Butte, and Shrimp Lake.
If you are interested in immersing yourself in the magic of winter in Yellowstone, there are still a few opportunities this season!
Check out our 6-day winter wolf packages in early February and early March, as well as a 7-day photography workshop led by yours
truly in mid February.
Trip report provided by Yellowstone Wild Guide Rob Harwood. Photos and video courtesy of and taken by Rob Harwood during this tour.