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Yellowstone winter ... magic, uncrowded; for skiing, wildlife or geyser watching, exploring. It may be the park's best time of year.

Yellowstone winter . . . magic, uncrowded

For skiing, wildlife or geyser watching, exploring. It may be the parks best time of year

It's cold--so cold that freshly fallen powder squeaks underfoot and blows off mittens like dust. Winter has claimed Yellowstone National Park, and summer visitors would hardly recognize the place.

Bouncing along the snow-covered park road in a snowcoach, winter visitors look out on a glittering view. Snow-rimmed trees open to broad, ice-crusted meadows dotted with frozen ponds and stitched with the tracks of wildlife.

Along the Firehole River, pale curtains of steam rise above hot springs and fumaroles. Bison nose drifts of snow to get at grass underneath; freezing steam dusts their brown backs like powdered sugar.

Inside the snowcoach, passengers are almost too warm as they stop to watch bison cross the river. A few moments of stillness and the driver slams the "Bombardier' into gear; it skittles forward like a giant yellow beetle on treads.

"How many of you have been to the park in summer?' shouts the driver. Most hands go up. "Last year nearly 2 1/2 million people visited Yellowstone, but only 3 percent--barely 75,000 people--came during the winter season. Yet this has got to be the best time of year in the park.'

Indeed, for skiers--and for nonskiers-- Yellowstone is at its wild best in winter. The cold air enhances the drama of steaming geothermal features, and deep high-country snow forces rare wildlife to forage within close viewing range. It also makes for some of the West's finest nordic skiing (the Park Service is setting about 45 miles of tracked trails this year).

The winter season is short, with lodging and snowcoach transportation available from December 14 through March 10. At our deadline, there were still open dates for lodging, but weekends (especially at Old Faithful Snow Lodge) were filling fast. For trip planning help, see page 54.

Unexpected adventures around Mammoth Hot Springs

Overlooked by many visitors because it isn't near the geyser basins in the Old Faithful area, Mammoth Hot Springs is still a good winter base. An hour's drive south of Interstate 90, it offers good skiing and dependable wildlife viewing.

At the visitor center, exhibits chronicle the early days of the park and explain its geothermal features. You'll also find detailed maps of marked ski areas.

Near the center is a long, steaming slope tiered with delicate terraces. Boardwalks and paths meander among hot springs with names like Minerva and Jupiter. Edged with fragile scallops of travertine, the pools are tinted with oranges, yellows, greens, and blues--colorful signatures of some 65 different thermal algae that thrive in various temperature zones in the springs. Carry your skis along and you can loosen up on the 1 1/2-mile roadbed of the Upper Terrace Loop.

From Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, take the free shuttle (or drive) 18 miles east to some of the area's finest nordic skiing, near the Tower-Roosevelt junction. This season, the 2 1/2-mile road to ice-encrused Tower Falls may be plowed; skiers can continue on the 5 1/2-mile Chittenden

Loop. Novices can ski one way on the 6 1/2-mile Blacktail Plateau Drive (the eash end is a little steep), then ski to the Petrified Tree, but only experienced skiers should continue on the steep Lost Lake Trail the extra 3 miles to the junction.

About 8 miles past the Tower-Roosevelt Junction is the lower end of Lamar Valley, a good area to spot bison. We also saw bighorn sheep grazing just off the road. Another good place to study wildlife is a mile inside the park's North Entrance gate at Gardiner. From the turnout for the winter range exhibit, look for pronghorn antelope and mule deer.

Continuing on to Mammoth, just beyond the 45th parallel sign (halfway between the Equator and North Pole), you can park for a 1/4-mile stroll along the Gardner River to a hot spring. The hearty cansoak ski-weary muscles in the mingling waters between 9 and 5. Watch for grazing elk.

If the idea of a dip leaves you cold, go iceskating on the hotel's parking lot rink (50 cents per hour for skates); or take a 20-minute horse-drawn sleigh ride ($2.75 for adults, $1.50 for ages 10 and under).

Snowmobiling: noisy, bumpy fun

Mammoth is a good location to give snowmobiling a try. It's closer to both Norris Geyser Basin and Canyon than either West Yellowstone or Old Faithful (two other areas where you can conveniently rent snowmobiles for park touring), and 75 to 100 bumpy miles of their lawn-mower-like whine is introduction enough. Restricted to park roads, snowmobiles are so numerous--32,560 of them toured the park last winter--they can cause weekend traffic jams. Rangers watch for speeders (45 mph limit) and will help in a pinch.

Day rates for snowmobile rentals are $55, and although two adults can comfortably share a machine, it's more fun to drive your own. Snowmobiling suits with boots and crash helmet rent for $12. Reserve machines when you book lodging.

To the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin

It takes extra effort to get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, but the views are worth it. While day-long snowcoach tours ($49) from Old Faithful and Mammoth stop there, the best way to sample all seven rim overlooks is by snowmobile. You can join a ranger-led, 1 1/2-hour snowmobile tour of the canyon from the warming hut daily at 1 P.M.

Snow cupped on pink ledges and yellow pinnacles highlights the vertical geology of the thousand-foot-deep canyon. Falls roar into fortresses of frozen spray.

From Mammoth it's 33 miles to Canyon, another 9 miles to explore the rim. Allow time at Norris Geyser Basin (no facilities) on the way in. Hottest and most active basin in Yellowstone, Norris has a dozen geysers, yet only snowmobilers explore it in winter. Walking the Back Basin loop takes an hour--during which Echinus Geyser is likely to send scalding plumes soaring some 75 feet (if the pool is full and boiling, it will soon erupt). In Porcelain Basin, the steam-shrouded wasteland could be the very gate of hell.

West Entrance and Old Faithful

Even in winter, Old Faithful is the park's most popular destination. Snowmobilers ride the 30 miles from West Yellowstone to watch the geyser and have lunch, but the area is best explored more leisurely on skis. Lodge rooms and transportation book up fast; make reservations now.

This is also the best part of the park for nonskiers to sample. Snowcoaches stop at Firehole Falls and Biscuit Basin on the way in, at Fountain Paint Pot outbound. Check in at the lodge, slip into your snow boots, then stop at the visitor center to get a map of the Upper Geyser Basin, estimated geyser eruption times, and a schedule of interpretive programs.

Spend the afternoon wandering over boardwalks and paths that make a 3-mile loop to Morning Glory Pool. You'll pass some of the most predictable geysers: Grand, Daisy, Riverside, and Castle-- with its crenelated cone, our favorite.

Since Idaho's Mount Borah earthquake in October 1983, the time between Old Faithful's eruptions has increased about 8 minutes, to an average of 77 minutes, but height and duration are the same. Despite its name, the geyser erupts irregularly at 40- to 100-minute intervals.

Beyond Old Faithful on skinny skis

Nordic skiers can explore more than a dozen trails (both lodges rent skis, boots, poles for $11 a day). The easy 5-mile round trip to Biscuit Basin takes you through Upper Geyser Basin; add another mile each way to Mystic Falls. The 8-mile loop up to Lone Star Geyser (the park's most predictable) is a pleasant ski; if it's not too icy, go up the Firehole River and make a fast downhill return through trees on Lone Star Geyser Trail.

For experienced skiers in good shape, the 17 miles to the icy colonnades of Fairy Falls and the grand pool of Imperial Geyser is a must; you can cut about 5 miles off the trip by taking a snowcoach shuttle (about $3) to a dropoff. Another day trip with a shuttle dropoff is the 12-mile ski to the top of the Continental Divide.

A few cautions

Never approach wildlife. Scarce food supplies leave bison and elk low in energy; you can dangerously weaken animals by forcing them to move. There's also a risk of being injured by a territorial animal.

Stay on marked paths in geothermal areas; ground is unstable around many formations. Protect eyeglasses and camera lenses from geyser spray.

For a winter information kit, write to the National Park Service, Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190.

Photo: Snow-dusted bison and calf search banks of Firehole River for scarce grass, while nordic skier (backed by steaming hot spring) watches from safety of bridge

Photo: Sure-footed pair of sorrels with jingling bells on collars pulls old-fashioned sleigh over Mammoth Hot Springs' snowy roads

Photo: Billowy plume of Old Faithful geyser stops handful of winter skiers; summer crowd would have been a dozen deep

Photo: Knitted nose-warmers keep snowmobilers frostbite-free on 30-mile ride from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful

Photo: Twin-compartment snowcoach scrunches uphill toward Firehole Falls on run to Old Faithful; passengers enjoy views from heated interior

Photo: Calf-deep in hot spring along Gardner River, bather towels briskly in the cold mountain air

Photo: You can drive to all park entrances, and between Mannoth and Cooke City in the park; color tint marks roads open only to snowmobiles and snowcoaches
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 1, 1985
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