Fresh snow cover the branches of the dense lodgepole pines lining the road as we approach the South entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our snowmobiles were just warming up as we pull into the welcome to Yellowstone sign, our first stop to take in the scenery and make sure our group is feeling good and ready for the 120 mile ride ahead of us. They had signed up for a day tour to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with Jackson Hole Snowmobile Tours where I have worked as a guide for 11 winter seasons. Due to my responsibilities as the owner and operator of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, I can only commit to a part-time schedule and usually only guide tours when one of my past clients come back into town. Lucky for me, not only did some of my favorite returning clients request me, they chose a fantastic day to do it.
Fresh snow blanketed the park making everything look fresh and crisp while providing us with fresh tracks from the wildlife we were in search of on the trip. I’m not sure who was more excited to be up in the park, me or my guests. The funny part is that when you are a full time guide, this is not the trip most people want for several reasons. The two biggest – it’s a 14 hour day and 120 miles on a snowmobile! This is a huge day and can become a grind when you are at it all season. Guides frequently work 7 days a week through the busy season because as we say in Wyoming, “You gotta make hay while the sun shines!” What’s more this is close to a long season and most of my co-workers, tough as they may be, are starting to look forward to some well deserved sleep.
I, on the other hand, have been spending way too much time in the office, traveling to promote Jackson Hole and running Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. I am glad to be in the park and actually linger at most of the stops we make longer than the most interested guest on my trip. Yellowstone is awesome in the winter and is the main reason I continue to be a snowmobile guide. The frozen winter landscape of Yellowstone in winter combined with the lack of traffic make being there in winter really special. Over three million people visit Yellowstone each year, yet only about 200,000 make the journey in winter. The park, especially the interior where we explore on snowmobile, is remarkably quiet. Parking lots that are spilling over with people in the summer are completely empty. Overlooks, attractions and wildlife sightings that would be jammed full of people in the summer can be enjoyed virtually alone in winter.
Things have come full circle for me like they have for a lot of other experienced guides – instead of wanting to do shorter, more fun trips in the forest, I prefer coming to Yellowstone. What’s more I always request to be sent to the canyon – the longest day, coldest country and most riding of any of our day tours. But as a professional wildlife photographer and lover of all things Yellowstone, this is the trip for me.
At the park gate I give the group a run down on our route and we make a plan for the first half of the day. From the South gate we will travel north for 20 miles passing the Lewis River Canyon, Lewis Falls, Lewis Lake and then over the continental divide to West Thumb Junction. From there we will travel another 18 miles around the north end of Yellowstone Lake to where the Yellowstone River flows out of the lake towards the upper and lower falls of the canyon. Though the scenery the entire way is outstanding, I explain to my group that we probably won’t see much in the way of wildlife until we get to the Yellowstone River. It is usually here that wildlife sightings are most common and where I give a quick safety talk about how to travel through, past or around a herd of bison. One of the first things I learned as a snowmobile guide was that, contrary to popular belief, wildlife in Yellowstone are not scared of snowmobiles. As a matter of fact, they will usually not even move off the road!
It doesn’t take long before I see a coyote trotting right down the middle of the road towards us. I give the hand signal letting the group know we are stopping and we form a single file line on the right hand side of the road. The coyote doesn’t even slow down as he continues right past us, clearly on a mission. Though coyotes live in most parts of the United States, all of my guests are excited by the experience of having a completely wild animal walk by so close and not even look up at them. Unlike most of the country where coyotes are considered a pest and aggressively hunted (up to 80,000 are killed every year!), here in Yellowstone they know they are safe and that we don’t pose much of a risk to them. Even the elk, who migrate annually through hunting zones outside the park, have learned over generations where and when they are safe. It is amazing to see a trophy bull elk in the summer grazing right along the road with 50 people standing nearby and then stealthily migrate to the National Elk Refuge for winter. One thing I’ve learned as a wildlife guide and photographer for the last decade, animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
A little further up the road we find herds of bison grazing in the middle of Hayden Valley before spotting a fox right along the road hunting. Again, like the coyote, he didn’t even look up. He was focused on hunting and was listening intently to the mice and voles that tunnel through the snow. If you watch them long enough you might see fox, coyote and even some wolves ‘mouse’, or jump into the air and dive head first into the snow hoping to grab a quick meal. I could tell my clients were ready to go (I could stay and watch fox hunt all day and knew we had a lot more to see) so we headed another mile down the trail only to find another completely ambivalent fox hunting – this one even closer to the road! After a few photos we moved on and this time – only about 200 yards down the trail – I see one of my favorite animals playing in the river, otters. Three river otters were climbing up onto a small island and then siding down onto the ice playfully. They are so perfectly adapted to their environment that even a harsh, sub-zero Yellowstone winter doesn’t phase them. They don’t just survive these extreme conditions, they demonstrate their mastery by playing.
Hayden Valley never fails to deliver and today was definitely no exception. The new snow and clear sky made for an outstanding photography day for both scenery and wildlife. A few swans and ducks later we were staring into Yellowstone’s famous canyon and the 308 foot lower falls. The stair step feature created by the Yellowstone River flowing over both the upper and lower falls mark the beginning of the 20 mile long ‘Grand Canyon’ of Yellowstone. Often confused with the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, this canyon sees the Yellowstone River on it’s way through the park to the confluence with the Missouri River in Nebraska.
The canyon is our turn around point for the day and after lunch we will retrace our route back through Hayden Valley, past the fox, bison and otters towards the south gate and Jackson Hole. We stop at places like Mud Volcano, a recent forest fire, the Lewis River Canyon and Moose Falls. The fading light on the way out is magical and leaving the park knowing this is probably my last winter trip this season leaves a slight twinge of regret. I wish I had made it up there a few more times this season, I thought to myself as we pulled back into Flagg Ranch. The warm light of a setting sun reflected off the mountain ridge to the east casting a gentle warm light on the snow covered forest. The silence will soon abdicate to the chaos and commotion of summer with the return of countless migrating birds, animals and people. I too will join the cacophony of summer and love every minute of it!
All photos and text are by the Founder/CEO of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, Jason Williams. He has been guiding snowmobile tours for Jackson Hole Snowmobile Tours for 11 seasons. To arrange a winter tour into Yellowstone with Jason give us a call for pricing and availability.