As 2021 starts to come to an end, I won’t be looking back. This is a time to look forward. More specifically, to the coming week. That’s right! It is another installment of This Week in Yellowstone. (Insert applause here)
This week, I take a look at the official start of winter tourism in the park, then dive into visitation statistics for November. I share the pathetic snowpack, spots to find absolute bliss, and even give an otter update. Oh, I also included a link to an amazing video of wolves hunting elk in Yellowstone. This is a good one.
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BIGGEST NEWS OF THE WEEK
Yellowstone is Ready for Winter Tourism
As we covered last week, the interior of the park is once again open to oversnow travel. This will see an increase in visitation to the Montana towns neighboring the park. West Yellowstone has been a virtual ghost town the last few weeks, but that will start to change this weekend, as more people will be flocking to the wintery wonderland for snowmobile and snowcoach tours. Most of these tours have been booked six months in advance and picking up a last minute tour into the interior of the park can be extremely difficult. Contact the park or tour operators in and around the park to see if you can snag a last minute adventure into the wilds of winter in Yellowstone.
The opening of oversnow travel for those with permits or on a tour will help to transition the sleepy vibe of Mammoth Hot Springs into more of a buzz, but nowhere near the energy and popularity it saw over the summer months. Expect more services available both at Mammoth and in the towns on either end of the open roads. Gardiner and Cooke City will see more visitors heading their way in the next few months, increasing traffic through that corridor of the park.
It is important to note that now that the snow has increased, the northern range will see more traffic heading to Cooke City, as this is an incredibly popular snowmobile destination. It would be irresponsible of me to not mentioned that the trucks pulling their snowmobiles are often in a hurry and will not be showing wildlife or fellow vehicles the same respect that the average person in the park demonstrates. They will be speeding in the park, honking during bison jams, passing illegally and tend to be very annoyed at anyone and anything that gets in their way. There are very conscientious snowmobile enthusiasts who drive through the park, but based on my decades of winters here, they are outliers.
November Visitation Numbers
Yellowstone’s visitation numbers continued to exceed previous year’s in November. For the 11th month of the year, Yellowstone saw 33,144 recreation visits, up from the previous November record of 24,710 set in 2016. During the month, 17,438 came in from the North Entrance in Gardiner, 3,585 came in from the South Gate and 9,537 came in from West Yellowstone. Full November stats can be read here.
In early November, all park entrances except the North and Northeast Entrances closed for the winter. The closure is why you see, for the first time since Spring of 2021, the North Entrance seeing the most amount of visitors. Of the November visitors, 62 backcountry campers wandered into the backcountry, while 1,194 camped at the NPS campgrounds. There were 301 tent campers and 893 RVs. To round out the unpack night stays, 2,024 slept in the lodges.
Obviously, people are going to do what they will with these numbers. As someone who was in the park every week, I will repeat what I have said all year about the record visitation. The majority of visitation is heading to one or two regions and that is it. The overall majority of the park that I experienced felt ridiculously empty, to the point that one day I had Lamar Valley, the whole valley, to myself.
Last week’s snowfall in and around the park was welcomed and celebrated, as it stopped the snowpack numbers from their free-fall. However, the new snow hasn’t been enough to reverse the amount and the snowpack in and around Yellowstone is still way below average.
Yellowstone Issues Ten Tips to Visit the Park This Winter
The media team at Yellowstone is eager to help make winter adventures to America’s First National Park as smooth and easy as possible. Last week, the park released a list of tips for visitors heading to Yellowstone in the snowy months. They have an entire webpage with their ten tips, as well as a video to watch if one would rather consumer their media that way.
A few of their tips that I haven’t mentioned elsewhere are as follows:
– Drive cautiously and watch out for snow plows. Do not stop, stand, or walk in the road. Use a pullout if you need to stop for any reason.
– Want to See Old Faithful? Park partners and concessioners offer a variety of guided trips throughout the park during the winter months. Authorized businesses also offer guided tours for a variety of activities.
– Prepare for Winter Conditions. Winter temperatures range from zero to 20°F (-20°C to -5°C) throughout the day. Sub-zero temperatures are common, especially at night and at higher elevations. Check the current weather conditions, pack proper clothing and equipment, and review winter safety tips!
– Stay on Boardwalks. People have been severely injured or killed by breaking through the thin ground in thermal basins or falling into hot springs. Snow-packed boardwalks can be slippery, especially near thermal areas. Wear traction aids over your shoes or boots.
– Protect Yourself and Others. Consistent with CDC guidance, visitors to Yellowstone National Park, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission levels, are required to wear a mask indoors, on snowcoach and road-based tours, and in crowded outdoor spaces.
WEATHER FOR THE COMING WEEK
This is the weather.com forecast for the three closest towns to the park- Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City. While they don’t specifically cover the entire region, these forecasts give a great idea of what to expect all around the region As always, weather can and does change fast in the park, so always be prepared for anything.
I just got back from the park and am still dusting some snow off my boots, so this week’s wildlife watch is going to have some different energy. We will see if I keep this style up next week or return to my standard, structured format.
In the park on the 16th of December, I drove to the viewpoint of 10,354 foot Barronette Peak and back to Livingston. Along the route to the park, eagles lined trees, elk stood near the road and deer darted back and forth across the highway. Once in the park, a dozen bighorn sheep were right along the road between Gardiner and Mammoth. A few elk were also spotted on the hillsides away from the road. The bison activity on and near the roads was minimal, but it typically is the mornin after a snow and cold temperatures. By the afternoon, the bison activity and spotting picked up. Near Roosevelt Junction, a few coyotes and a couple of fat ravens were hanging out. Based on their behavior, the coyotes were on the move and not searching for handouts. However, in Lamar Valley, a coyote with three working legs was approaching cars as it walked down the road. This is disconcerting, but also doesn’t mean it has been fed. It may just be testing the opportunity. On the return trip, I saw more bison and more elk near Blacktail Ponds and Mammoth.
This coming week, the wildlife activity should continue to pick up. In the area known as Little America, somewhat between Lamar Valley and the Yellowstone River Picnic Area, wolf researchers have been watching the Junction Butte Pack go after elk. The wolves are very far away, difficult to find with a spotting scope. This coming week should see them go on the move to another location nearby, but they could hang out there more if the meals are easy. Follow this link to see the pack of wolves chase a herd and take down an elk. It is AMAZING.
Around the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, otters have been spotted eating and hunt, as well as being adorable. I didn’t see them, but I also didn’t stop to search for them either.
Other than that, if you drive to Barronette and back like I did, you will see a fantastic assortment of wildlife right now.
ROADS AND CAMPGROUNDS
While oversnow travel has opened up into the interior of Yellowstone, this will not impact the average visitor. Unless you have a snowcoach or snowmobile tour planned, you won’t be able to drive to spots like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, or even Norris. The only road you can drive on your own between now and April 15th, 2022 is between the town of Gardiner, Montana and Cooke City, Montana. The road will be snowy and icy in spots, so drive slow and safe and keep your eyes on the road. In December, January and February, it is typical to see at least one car off the road because of the conditions each day.
For up-to-date information consult the map above, call (307) 344-2117 for recorded information, or sign up to receive Yellowstone road alerts on your mobile phone by texting “82190” to 888-777 (an automatic text reply will confirm receipt and provide instructions). Anticipate possible road closures due to inclement weather and dangerous driving conditions.
Planning on camping in the park this week?
You’ll mostly be alone. The only campground open right now is the campground at Mammoth. It will not fill up on any day this coming week. If it does and directly impacts you, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer or cup of coffee. You can check the status of campgrounds in the park online here.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
The solitude and silence.
With visitation so low this week in December, this is a great time to walk on some short trails to have an entire area to yourself. This is the time of the year when I find myself drawn to spots like Pebble Creek, the Yellowstone River Picnic Area Trail, Lost Lake near the Petrified Tree and the Lava Creek trail to the top of Undine Falls. All of these are relatively short jaunts, some shorter than others, to places where only a handful of people go a day or week.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Start searching for wildlife tracks in the snow.
This is a great activity for slow periods of wildlife watching in the park, or a fun way to see who else is adventuring the same route as you.
One of my favorite current ways to slow down and “read” the park is to take a walk and follow tracks of animals in the snow. Best done after a fresh snow, the tracks around the park tell a story of a world that we barely know or understand. Spotting and following the tracks gives you insight into the activities of each animal, often rewarding you with a spot where they rolled in the snow, ate something, or just stopped and looked into the distance.
The park gift shop and visitor center are now open, and both should have plenty of information on how to start spotting and unedifying wildlife tracks in the snow. I will definitely talk more about this in the future.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Curious about something not mentioned in the post?
Send me an email or message on social media and let me know how I can help.