Is it the last post of the year or the first one of the new year? Both? Neither? Either way, it is yet another installment of my award ignored series: This Week in Yellowstone. Thanks for being on this journey with me so far!
This week, I take a look at the struggles of driving in the park during the winter, share a story about arsenic levels in the waters of Yellowstone, celebrate a near-healthy snowpack and tell you where to see wildlife on your upcoming trip. I also strongly encourage you to drink a ton of water and to take a trek up to Calcite Springs.
Like this series? Please give it a share with someone who you think would love a trip to the park. If you are heading to the park this week, I sincerely hope this helps your trip be incredible. If you enjoy this and want to help support this weekly park series, please pick up a guidebook!
BIGGEST NEWS OF THE WEEK
Increased Visitation in Winter Causes Headaches for Park Road Crews
The increase in visitation is continuing into the winter months, causing inexperienced winter drivers to turn the roads into a mess. Each winter, it is common to see at least one car a day off the road, stuck in the deep snow, mere feet from the icy and snowy pavement. This year, that number has jumped exponentially. In one ten mile stretch in the park, I witnessed three cars off the road and signs of at least four others who had driven off and gotten back on the road.
Why is this happening? The road between Gardiner and Cooke City is plowed, but only a few times a day, from what I have seen. Blowing snow can drift over the roads all day, quickly turning a good stretch of road into an area where many may struggle to drive. Inexperienced drivers are driving too fast for the conditions, getting distracted, and literally sliding off the road. The snowmobilers driving to and from Cooke City through the park are also helping to create some issues. It is extremely common to see them driving at extremely fast speeds for the conditions in huge rigs that stick into the oncoming passengers lanes. This induces panic on the inexperienced drives and often forces them off the road. I witnessed this firsthand earlier this week.
So what can you do? Drive slow. If a car is barreling down at you and you feel unsafe, take a pullout or just stop and let them pass you. Never slam on your breaks, instead, slowly pump them to slow down. Also, do not feel the need to drive anywhere close to the speed limit. Definitely pullout if a car is behind you, but do not feel any pressure to go beyond your level of comfort.
Our parks are short staffed, underfunded and not able to deal with an influx of issues right now. We all need to do our best to not only keep ourselves safe, but to also make sure we are doing our best to keep everyone else safe as well. Definitely come visit the park in the winter if you can, but know your car and your driving abilities. If you don’t think you can handle driving 56 miles in blowing snow, icy roads and sharp turns with narrow roads, consider booking a tour and leaving the driving to someone else.
Arsenic is in Yellowstone’s Waters
In a recently released article in the Caldera Chronicles, a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory, the researches at the super volcano took a look at the arsenic levels in the park. Not written to stoke fear or panic, the article dives into the science of why arsenic is in the thermal features of the park, looks at how high the levels are and even gives tips to stay safe when dipping the the open to the public hot springs of the park.
The article starts by stating that “Arsenic is a geogenic, or naturally occurring, chemical element in surface- and groundwaters that is of great public-health concern. Thermal waters around the world are known to contain elevated concentrations of geogenic arsenic, and the thermal water in Yellowstone is no exception!”
The USGS store continues by explaining the levels a bit more: “Most of the water discharged from Yellowstone’s thermal features ultimately ends up in a nearby river. As result, the arsenic concentrations in the main rivers draining Yellowstone are also elevated because very little arsenic is lost over long distances. By employing the same methods that are used to monitor Yellowstone’s rivers for thermal input, the arsenic concentration and flux can also be quantified. Downstream from thermal areas, the summertime river arsenic concentrations are elevated in the Firehole River (~380 µg/L), Gibbon River (~140 µg/L), Madison River (~250 µg/L), Yellowstone River (20-30 µg/L), and Gardner River (~110 µg/L). The total arsenic flux from Yellowstone is also large (~180,000 kilograms/year), and arsenic is transported several hundred kilometers downstream from Yellowstone. As a result, arsenic impacts downstream water resources, requiring additional treatment at some drinking water treatment plants. There are popular swim areas in Yellowstone, including the Firehole and Boiling River Swim Areas. To minimize the risk of illness from swimming and soaking in Yellowstone rivers, the National Park Service recommends that you avoid swallowing river water and any activities that cause water to enter your nose. If you submerge your head, wear nose plugs or hold your nose shut.”
The levels of arsenic are nothing new to Yellowstone. The main reason I wanted to share this article was not to start any panic or worry. Instead, I feel it is important to get a little deeper into the park’s unique science.
Good news. Finally! The snowpack is continuing to recover after an extremely slow start. The snowpack ranges from 90-108% of normal, as of December 31st, 2021. Snow depth in Lamar is between 4-12 inches at the moment, while it is 10 inches deep or more between Mammoth and the Roosevelt Junction. These totals are for the lower sections of the park. The mountains in the Northern Range have an average snow depth of 45 inches. With snow expected during the coming week, those numbers will remain the same or increase slightly. As always, here is the map of the snowpack at the time of posting this piece.
WEATHER FOR THE COMING WEEK
Love cold and snow? You are in luck. While the deep cold weather will be slowly going away, winter is in full force in the park. Snow will be falling during next week, while the below zero temperatures increase ever so slightly. Bundle up and be prepared for less than ideal conditions for most of the week. And now, the forecast:
This is the weather.com forecast for the three closest spots with forecasts for the park- Gardiner, Mammoth 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. I am not including West Yellowstone or the Interior, as those areas can only be reached by tour group. As always, weather can and does change fast in the park, so always be prepared for anything.
Now that winter officially started in the park, the wildlife is taking a little bit of time to adjust. This past week, wildlife sightings were down, largely due to extreme cold, strong winds, and snow. Wolves were spotted out near Slough Creek, the otters have been sighted on the Lamar River nearly every day. A moose has been hanging around the Petrified Tree area and bison are scattered about. The bighorn sheep are still hanging out near Yellowstone Hot Springs, North of the Park, while pronghorn have been slowly moving up toward Devil’s Slide, where the snow is not as deep. Eagles are plentiful right now. Thanks, Nature Tech Family for the otter luck when you came to the park and hung out with me this last week!
We are also starting the mating season for coyotes and wolves. During this time, sexually mature wolves who rank low in the pack will leave to go and try to mate. If you see a lone wolf roaming the wilds, they are probably looking to mate. For coyotes, they will start to be seen more often as they will be roaming around looking for mates. Keep an eye open for them walking on or near the roads, as they are the easiest way to travel.
ROADS AND CAMPGROUNDS
Winter is finally here and with it comes snow, cold and ice. While the road between Gardiner and Cooke City is open and rarely closes for storms, driving this section does not mean it will be without hazards. On December 30th, 2021, I witnessed multiple cars off the road, and spotted dozens of more sites where cars went off the shoulder into the deep snow. After chatting with a few of those who drove off the road, they told me that they assumed the snow markers on the side of the road also marked the edge of the road, using them to hit the soft shoulder and go off the road. The snow markers lining the roads DO NOT MARK THE ROAD.
When driving in the park, expect snowy and icy conditions, even if the roads are good in Gardiner, Montana. The 56 miles of road between Gardiner and Cooke City can change each mile. Drive slow, use the pullouts and do not be in a hurry. Above all else, if you are not confident in driving on snow and ice on narrow roads, reconsider your trip. The winter in Yellowstone is not a time to mess around. Know that you may not have service to call for help, and if you do need to get towed out, it will take hours to get someone out and most instances will not accept it. From secondhand knowledge, not even AAA will pay for towing in the park.
For up-to-date information on road conditions, 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?
I chatted with a woman who was camping in Mammoth this past week. In a tent. She was the only tent camper in the entire campground. She told me that the temperature is much colder than the forecast says it is overnight and to be extremely prepared. A few RVs were also camping, and they didn’t seem to have any complaints about cold. Generally, the park’s only open campground is pretty empty in the winter months and this coming week, it will also be empty. You can check the status of campgrounds in the park online here.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
Consider Calcite Springs
I could and probably will recommend going to Calcite Spring and Tower Falls a few times this winter, but always for a different reason. Not only is it one of the most accessible snowshoe and cross country skiing destinations, but is also a five mile out and back trek that has seriously beauty to it. While fun to drive in the summer months, being able to walk up and down this road in the winter gives a greater appreciation for the ever-changing landscape of Yellowstone. Starting out by the prairie at Roosevelt, the road climbs a hill and meanders next to Rainy Lake. Mostly frozen in the winter, the lake bubbles from the small thermal features in the lake. The smell of sulfur fills the air. Past that, the road climbs a bit again, this time reaching the side path to Calcite Springs. Even if you have to posthole in deep deep snow to reach the view points, go there. You’ll see steam rising below Bumpus Butte, while the cliffs are covered in snow above the majestic Yellowstone River, directly below your feet. Across the river on the cliffs, see if you can spot a bighorn sheep or two, as they frequent that region quite often.
Past Calcite Springs, the road continues on, giving unrivaled vies of the river yet again. You’ll also pass directly next to a huge rock wall towering to the sky. Be aware of falling rocks here! Past this spot, you’ll drop down a small hill and arrive at the Tower Fall parking area and viewpoint. Take it all in and return back to the car at Roosevelt for a five mile day with around 500 feet of elevation gain. Keep an eye out for bison and coyotes, as I often see then on or near the road.
TIP OF THE WEEK
If you know anyone active, they have probably told you to drink more water. I know. It is annoying, but we say it for a reason. Staying hydrated can make the difference between a great day and a bad day.
What many visitors forget when visiting the park is to drink plenty of fluids. The lowest elevation you’ll be experiencing in the park is around 6,000 feet above sea level and it will extremely dry, even if it is snowing. If you are not from a dry climate, or not used to being a mile above sea level, dehydration can and probably will kick in within hours, even if you are just in your car all day. Signs of slight dehydration are headaches, infrequent then dark yellow urination, muscle cramps, fatigue, itchy skin, and even dizziness. I strongly suggest brining at least 32 ounces of water per person to drive around the park. Double that if you plan on being active outdoors.
I know it can be hard to drink water on cold days, which is why I also suggest bringing sparkling water or something like that. Avoid caffeine as much as you can, as it accelerates dehydration.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Curious about something not mentioned in the post?
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