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Out of Ditch - A Winter Trip to Yellowstone NP


ice
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I know quite few folks around are also (active) members at TripAdvisor. Of those who are, I am not sure if you actively monitor the Wyoming Subforum. If so, you may have seen my trip report there.

 

Anyway, I seriously started planning this winter trip in August last year. Some of the folks over at TA were a tremendous help; without them this trip would not have been what it finally became. In return they asked me to write a trip report, since there are not that many from the winter months. I decided to try and do it "live", meaning on a near day to day basis. 

 

One of the disadvantages of TA is they it is difficult (if not impossible) to include photos in your posts, something that Matt made very easy around here. What I'll do now is copy my posts from TA and (hopefully) enhance them by adding pictures.Pretty much all of these photos were taken with my iPhone and none of them were / are / will be edited.

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PLANNING

 

The last time I visited the US (albeit a 5 nights stay with my best buddies for my 50th birthday in the Big Apple) was in October 2015 - my daughter and I started off in L.A., then drove to Arizona via Las Vegas, hiked down the grandest of all canyons and finally flew east to New York, too.

 

That 2015 trip and this 2019 journey are the exceptions from the rule, though - we spend most of our vacation time (which is, I admit) a lot, especially when compared to US standards, on safari in Africa. Planning those safaris does neither take a lot of contemplating nor a lot of time. What a difference to this holiday. I had to arrange and book

 

- 4 different flights (FRG-LAX, LAX-JAC, BZN-LAX and then LAX back home)

 

- 6 different road and train transfers (to and from Frankfurt airport, Jackson to Flagg Ranch, Flagg Ranch to Old Faithuful Snow Lodge (OFSL), OFSL to Mammoth Hot Springs and then Mammoth to BZN)

 

- 4 different lodgings (Los Angeles, Jackson, Old Faithful and Gardiner)

 

- 3 different rental cars (Los Angeles, Jackson, and Gardiner)

 

Plus lots of activities (and even the dinners at OFSL) in Jackson and Yellowstone.

 

Needless to say, I needed more time to make all these reservations than I usually need for three trips to Africa. About half of them could be done online, but the most important ones (activities, transfers and cabins at OFSL) were booked over the phone (with an eight hour difference)

 

Nevertheless, about three months ago the final bookings were completed and I was quite happy with my itinerary..

Edited by ice
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fot those who don't know: most of the roads to and in Yellowstone are closed for public traffic  in winter time (usually from November to May); only the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to the North Easter Entrance stays open all year and is also plowed for snow regularly.

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Looking forward to more. We were there the first week of November last year and had intended to stay until the official closing date but ended up leaving a little earlier as we were worried about having to drive up to Gardiner to get to Jackson with the stormy weather.

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I look forward to the report, as visiting Yellowstone in winter is something we've contemplated. It would probably be a bit easier for us to plan :)

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DAY 1

 

Got up 5:30 am German time, had a colleague drop me off at the train station, took the express train to Frankfurt Airport (less than an hour for more than 100 miles, not bad) and then boarded an overbooked Airbus 380-800 to LAX.

 

My flight left half an hour late but touched down in CA early afternoon right on time. Getting through immigration was a pain in the prolonged back (as to be expected since 9-11) but another hour later I sat in the shuttle bus to the Dollar RC Station - where I had a not so pleasant surprise:

 

From back home I had only brought my international drivers license but not my German license and that was unfortunately not good enough for the folks at Dollar (although the int'l license does carry a picture). Okay, my bad, you will say. However, two miles down the road I found another (much smaller) agency which was quite happy to rent me a car - of course for US citizen rates. 245 dollars for two nights - not a good start. But at least I did get a vehicle at all - stuck in L.A. without a car...what a nightmare.

 

Later that night I called the rental stations at JAC and BZN where two other rental cars were paid for. Both agents (National and Alamo) ensured me that with them my international license would be quite sufficient. Keeping fingers crossed they would honor this promise once I'd show up in person.

 

In Los Angeles we had some rain and it was also quite chilly in the morning. 

 

Edited by ice
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Looking forward to this. We've visited Yellowstone in the summer and would love to go back in the winter. Any details regarding logistics would be appreciated. If roads are closed, how did you move around? How easy/difficult was to see wildlife? Do the YS lodges organize the activities, or did you have to book them separately on your own? I have more questions, but I hope your TR will answer them. Keep it coming :)

 

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1 hour ago, xyz99 said:

Looking forward to this. We've visited Yellowstone in the summer and would love to go back in the winter. Any details regarding logistics would be appreciated. If roads are closed, how did you move around? How easy/difficult was to see wildlife? Do the YS lodges organize the activities, or did you have to book them separately on your own? I have more questions, but I hope your TR will answer them. Keep it coming :)

 

 

Please have a closer look at my earlier posts: There are companies that offer road transfers to, from and inside the park, from gateways like Jackson, West Yellowstone and Gardiner / Bozeman. I will soon post some pictures of the vehicles they use.

 

Regarding the activities, same thing: various companies offer them, both out- and inside the park. Obviously you have to book them yourself. Some of them are extremely popular and need to / should be booked long in advance, others might probably be bookable on shorter notice. Xanterra, which basically "runs" the park for the goverment, offer package deals which include accomodation, transfers and activities.I guess it will also depend on when exactly you plan to travel. End of December / Early January I assume are super busy times.

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Regarding the widlife, it is (obviously) much much sparser than in Africa. Viewing might also be impeded by the weather - if snow fall is really heavy, you can barely see the roads in front your car. But I'll get to that later, too

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2 hours ago, xyz99 said:

If roads are closed, how did you move around?

 

We did a combination of self driving the only open road between Gardiner and Cooke City as well as taking snowcoaches on our winter trip.

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DAY 2

 

My second day in the States was spent with shopping and a trip to the beach: I visited an outlet center south of downtown to stock up on some new clothes. The afternoon then saw me return to Venice Beach, a place I have spent a lot of time at when I was still going to university (obviously not right at the beach but a few miles off, in a youth hostel).

 

The weather in Los Angeles was still overcast and chilly and yet the boardwalk was buzzing. I managed to take some nice pictures and shoot some cool video footage.

 

The following day was transfer day: my plane to Jackson / WY was scheduled to leave at 2:20 pm and due to arrive at 6:00 pm. The weather forecast predicted some snow fall, especially later in the week. The true winter experience of this trip was about to start...

 

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DAY 3

Day 3 started with lots of rain which means L.A. Traffic becomes even worse than usual. But I didn't really care, it was departure time for me. Dropping off the rental car and straight to Terminal 7 at LAX, which apparently was recently renovated and now boosts some modern technology: self check in yourself, self check in your luggage, drop it off and off you go.

 

Unfortunately "off you go" was delayed by an hour - the incoming flight was late. But since I did not have anything planned for my first winter night in WY, I was not bothered too much. And the captain made up for some of the lost time in a plane that was barely half full. Touchdown in Jackson was 6:30 pm local time.

 

The airport was a pleasant surprise, so open, I really liked it. My luggage arrived in no time and I strolled over to the rental car counters, still being a bit worried about not bringing my national drivers license. But I got the car just fine. In fact, behind the counter was the same guy I had talked to over the phone 48 hours earlier.

 

The airport roads were covered in snow and ice but once I hit the highway the asphalt was clear. I arrived at the Flat Creek Inn safely. The room was nice and adequate, though a bit rustic (but I guess that was to be expected).

 

Some people complain about the proximity of the motel and the highway. Well, for starters to me it seems like the area falls asleep once the sun has set, so traffic is extremely light (especially when compared to Los Angeles, where I just came from). And then you keep the heater running most of the time, anyway, and that will muffle any remaining traffic sounds.

 

 

 

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On 1/27/2019 at 3:10 PM, Patty said:

We did a combination of self driving the only open road between Gardiner and Cooke City as well as taking snowcoaches on our winter trip.

 

Thanks - I had no idea they had "snowcoaches", can't wait to read more about your trip.

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DAY 4

 

Day 4 started with me driving to town to book my Elk Refuge trip. They had moved the staff from the visitor center (which was obviously closed due to the shut down) to the Home Ranch. My ticket cost me 25 bucks, which in hindsight, is a fair price because, quite honestly I did not find the experience that spectacular. Mind you, here is a guy reporting who has been traveling to Africa regularly for close to 20 years. And compared to its plains and the sizes of the herds of African antelopes the Elk Refuge came up short.

 

Nevertheless it was a nice experience. An experience somewhat spoiled by the freezing temperature and two (human) babies in the back of the sleigh, who intermittently cried (no surprise, in this weather).

 

In the afternoon I drove north into the park. I made it about halfway to Flagg Ranch and saw a nice, big herd of bison, right next to the highway, some of them crossing the road back and forth right in front of my car. A glimpse of what I wouldhopefully see in Yellowstone and Lamar Valley later thatand then also next week.

 

My day ended like in one of those true crime shoes - I got pulled over by a cop, with flashing lights and everything, apparently I had made a left turn where left turns are prohibited (right next to Town Square). But of course this was a cop of a tourist town, so he gave me a light lecture and then let me go - right on time to pick up my dinner pizza

 

 

 

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19 hours ago, xyz99 said:

 

Thanks - I had no idea they had "snowcoaches", can't wait to read more about your trip.

 

Our winter trip was back in pre-safaritalk days. I have a brief report on fodors https://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/yellowstone-and-big-sky-a-winter-trip-report-and-photos-592578/

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DAY 5

 

Day 5 began with me receiving a phone call while taking a shower: "Sorry, but we don't do pick ups outside of town". Well, it did state so in my reservation receipt but why argue? I was on holiday so without any discussion I agreed to meet at the parking lot in front of the visitor center.

 

It took us about an hour and a half to collect all the other tourists and to drive up to the sled dog kennel which I believe is southwest of Jackson. As soon as our vehicle arrived, the dogs started to bark like crazy - they knew their day was about to start, too - at least for some of them: Iditarod is currently home to an impressive 176 different sled dogs. Anyway, I have nevertheless seen any humans being so happy and eager to go to work.

 

After a lecture about the history of the company and the details of our full day tour we were asked if we needed any additional gear. I followed the advice of the owner of the company, Frank, to switch my boots with a pair of his and also picked up some goggles and then it was time to meet the dogs proper.

 

One guide is responsible for a group of 4 tourists. 10 - 14 dogs pull one sled, whereas each sled carries two passengers: one sitting down and the other one standing up and mushing. The guide usually joins the group in the front sled. As a musher your job is to lean when approaching curves and to slow down the sled whenever the guide tells you so.

 

Iditarod's full day tours head out to Granite Hot Springs inside the National Forest. It's about 10 miles one way for which the dogs need between an hour and an hour and a half, depending on the weather conditions and how many stops your group makes on the way

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My day was a great day for dog sledding: it constantly snowed and that fresh snow muffled the sounds somewhat. Sitting in the front sled you could hear the dogs puffing and panting - awesome. Also, it was not that cold at all, maybe 15 F / - 10 C and later in the day it became even "warmer". And a bath in the Hot Springs warms you up even more.

 

Lunch consisted of hot drinks, hot chili and snacks and then it was time to return back. Heading out we even saw two moose - my first of this trip.

 

All in all, it was a great experience. Rather expensive (imho) but certainly worth it. You get to interact with the dogs a lot, get a glimpse of their individual personalities - and like Jules Winfield said: "Personality goes a long way".

 

 

 

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These are the skids you are supposed to balance on and that plastic thing in the middle (full of snow) is what you slow the dogs down with.

 

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Dog sledding...we did that in Iceland and it was a lot of fun. Although on a glacier, the ride was not too smooth. We took turns mushing, and it was not easy, those dogs can be very fast. How was your experience?

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5 hours ago, xyz99 said:

Dog sledding...we did that in Iceland and it was a lot of fun. Although on a glacier, the ride was not too smooth. We took turns mushing, and it was not easy, those dogs can be very fast. How was your experience?

 

Like I said, we had fresh snow, so gliding was pretty smooth. And yes, we took turns in mushing, too. I believe the guides said they tried to keep the dogs at a pace of 6 - 8 mph.

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DAY 6

 

Another day when the company I had booked a trip with was kind of hesitant when I told them that I stayed a bit out of town. Again I agreed to meet at the visitor center instead.

 

Over night the temperature had risen considerably, when I stepped out of the motel room it was barely below freezing. I didn't mind because I had booked another outdoor activity: a half day tour of snow mobiling inside Bridger Teton NF. That dayd our group was much smaller than the day before, though, just me and two couples from Texas.

 

We drove to the companies headquarter in Jackson to do the paper work and then get outfitted. I found Togwotee somewhat more organized and professional than Iditarod. We all were handed out suits, gloves, boots and helmets and then it was time to leave for the forest. By then it had begun snowing quite a lot.

 

I had never driven a snow mobile or anything like it before but they are super easy to handle. Our guide did not need more than five minutes to explain the half dozen or so throttles, handles a.s.o. and then off we went.

 

The trip lasted a good two hours during which we covered 38 miles, sometimes racing more than 30 mph. We saw moose, elk, long horns, bison, bald eagles and coyotes on a carcass.

 

Around lunch time I was back in town, had lunch and then returned to the motel. For the afternoon I had initially planned another self drive trip to Grand Teton. However, the snow fall was so thick, one could barely see anything, so I decided to stay in for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

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DAY 7

 

Started with an early wake up - 5:00 am, to be precise. Obviously, when my driver picked me up at 5:30 it was still pitch dark and it was also pitch dark when we arrived at Flagg Ranch shortly before 7:00. Heading out from Jackson it had only been me and a lady from Florida. At Flagg Ranch six more people boarded the snow coach with us. I gladly took the seat next to the driver which allowed me to shoot some decent pictures and videos, because...that day was my first day with a clear blue sky!

 

We arrived at OFSL around 9 am and the long waiting started. Official check in time is, I found out, 4:30 pm. In hindsight I should have stayed longer in Jackson and taken a later shuttle. Oh my, at least I got to see Old Faithful erupt in front of that crystal blue sky.

 

My frontier cabin was finally ready at about 2 pm. I really liked that rustic feeling and felt right at home. Unfortunately by that time the sky had turned grayish again. Nevertheless, I have only been in the park for less than 12 hours and not seen anything but Old Faithful but I couldalready say that I prefer winter so much more than my previous two summer trips. Nothing beats the quietness and emptiness, the sound of gnarling snow under your feet.

 

 

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2 hours ago, ice said:

...I got to see Old Faithful erupt in front of that crystal blue sky.

 

My frontier cabin was finally ready at about 2 pm. I really liked that rustic feeling and felt right at home. Unfortunately by that time the sky had turned grayish again. Nevertheless, I have only been in the park for less than 12 hours and not seen anything but Old Faithful but I couldalready say that I prefer winter so much more than my previous two summer trips. Nothing beats the quietness and emptiness, the sound of gnarling snow under your feet.

 

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~ @ice

 

The image of Old Faithful geyser with snow and blue sky is very special.

 

While I never visited Yellowstone National Park, my parents had very happy memories of visiting there before I was born.

 

Your photos of snow and where you stayed are so appealing. Thank you for posting them.

 

Tom K.

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DAY 8

 

Day 8 was reserved for the full day Canyon Tour. Since I was not sure about the taste and the quantity of the lunch pack that came with the booking, I treated myself to a hearty breakfast at OFSL (back home I usually skip breakfast).

 

The tour started a bit late but our guide April made more than up for it. We managed to do the entire lower loop (99 miles, according to her) and still make all the worthy stops: Madison, Norris, the Canyon, Mud Volcano, the Lake Hotel and West Thumb.

 

Wildlife, however, was scarce: two herds of bison and three coyotes but plenty of swans.

 

As much as I enjoyed the quietness and emptiness, I was a bit disappointed about the lack of colors. It was another gray and overcast day in the park (pretty warm, though) so the pictures and the video clips of the canyon look almost as if they were shot in black and white.

 

We were back at the Lodge at 5:30. I then called it a day.

 

 

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