YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - When Yellowstone National Park is covered in a blanket of snow, things can get a little weird.
With the 2.2-million acre park's geothermal stew of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots, dizzying array of wildlife and a vast and diverse landscape, visitors are rewarded with an experience like no place else on Earth.
And as the park's two winter-season lodges open for the season, there is still time to book vacation packages offered by Yellowstone National Park Lodges, particularly those based at the park's Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where access is limited to over-the-snow vehicles such as snowcoaches and snowmobiles. Packages combine lodge rooms, transportation, some meals and a discount card. And they offer the best value and convenience for winter travelers to the park.
The park's winter season begins Dec. 18, 2014 with the opening of Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel opens Dec. 20. The lodges provide the only wintertime accommodations within the park. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel will close for the season March 2, 2015, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge will close March 1, 2015.
“Throughout the winter season, the park becomes a visual smorgasbord that is both strange and wonderful, said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts' Yellowstone National Park Lodges. “For example, guests of the Snow Lodge can watch an evening eruption of Old Faithful geyser surrounded by mystical sights and sounds of the park on a winter's night with only the other lodge guests as company.”
Here are just a few of the strange experiences visitors can expect during a winter visit to the park:
Ice Fog. When the conditions are just right, visitors will see light-reflecting ice crystals floating in the air, giving the illusion of a fog. As the crystals drift through the air they become natural – and breathtaking – sun-catchers as they reflect the sun's rays.
Monkey flowers. Only a few inches tall, these strange yellow wildflowers grow exclusively around hot springs. They are able to survive because of their short stature as well as the heat of the springs. There's a summer-season monkey flower too, but it is much taller, and it grows around streams and springs.
Ice sheet. In the winter Yellowstone Lake can have 136 square miles of ice. Ice can be two feet thick on the surface but some spots on the bottom of the lake might still be boiling because of the park's thermal activity. This massive ice sheet can be viewed from several vantage points during snowcoach tours offered by Xanterra.
Ghost trees. During the winter, rime from hydrothermal mist accumulates on the branches of trees. When combined with falling snow, trees take on an eerie appearance and are known as “ghost trees.” These much-photographed trees are stunning to behold, but they can eventually cause tree limbs to break.
Snowball beards. Bison forage for food beneath the snow, and they can sometimes be seen with large clumps of snow and ice dangling from their chin hair. These oddly shaped “snowball beards” dangle precariously from a bison's jaw until the weight forces them to break off, sometimes taking fur with them.
Snow sculptures. The park's powerful winter wind blows snow around like dust, and the resulting drifts, patterns and formations, some strikingly and eerily symmetrical, are breathtaking.
But no Frosty. Even though the park receives an average of 150 inches of snow annually, visitors with a penchant for creating their own snowmen will be disappointed when they find they can't build a snowman using Yellowstone snow. The snow in the park is so dry that it doesn't stick together like wetter snow found in more humid areas. The exception is during the spring and fall when there are very early or late snowfalls and the snow tends to be wetter.
Snow mirrors. Shiny, icy patches of snow form when the snow melts slightly and then refreezes, creating a smooth, reflective surface. When conditions are right, entire fields and mountains can appear shiny and reflective from a distance.
Rivers that never freeze. The Madison River and many other rivers in the park never freeze despite the park's cold temperatures because the rivers' flows combine with geothermal features.
Bison with a thing for the Old Faithful Inn. Most winter nights, visitors will find clusters of bison gathering near the parking lot of the Old Faithful Inn, as if waiting for accommodations in the historic lodge. The region is an especially popular bedding area because the geothermal radiation emanating from nearby geysers creates a cozy hot spot for the animals.
Geyser rain. When the near-boiling-temperature water from a geyser shoots into frigid air the resulting “geyser rain” looks like frozen ice pellets floating back to Earth.
Special packages add value to the winter experience. Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers an array of winter-season multi-day “Lodging & Learning,” “Adventure” and “Getaway” packages with discounts ranging from 15 to 20 percent off what rates would be for a la carte purchases of lodge rooms, tours and meals.
Interpretive tours enhance the experience. There are also a variety of half- and full-day tours, including several new tours for this winter season. Included are snowcoach tours as well as snowcoach transportation within the park, shuttles to cross country ski trailheads and themed tours like the Madison Wildlife Excursion.
Except for the road from Gardiner, Mont. to Cooke City, Mont. via Mammoth Hot Springs, transportation within the park is limited to snowmobiles and enclosed heated snowcoaches during the winter. Snowcoach transportation is available daily to a variety of park locations. Xanterra also offers a wide range of half- and full-day snowcoach, ski and snowshoe tours as well as ski and snowshoe rentals and instruction.
Winter packages can be booked by calling (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free 866-GEYSERLAND (866-439-7375) or by submitting the secure online package reservation request form.