This Week in Yellowstone National Park, we look at how the low snowpack is impacting activities in and out of the park, celebrate the return of a once rare-to-see species in the park, and find out where I like to stop to use the bathroom in the winter. I even share a hike idea that is perfect for the warmer than normal weather in the area. This is a good one! Give it a read, a share and get ready to visit America’s first National Park.
I hope you enjoy reading this week’s post as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Low Snowpack Impacting Activities In and Out of the Park
It doesn’t take an expert’s vision to spot the lack of snow on the mountains in and around Yellowstone. After a decent snowpack in 2020-21 melted out quickly, the rivers have slowly dropped lower and lower. Fall rains were minimal and the early snowstorms that blanket the mountains in September, October and November were few and far between. The snow that did fall, as glorious as it was to finally see, melted quick, with only the highest elevation seeing snow last longer than a few days.
The low snowpack is worrisome for an area already much drier than it should be. As of Thanksgiving Day, the snowpack in most of Yellowstone was just 70% of normal. The snow is so minimal that for the first time in three decades, the West Yellowstone Ski Festival was canceled. The Yellowstone Ski Festival brings around 4,000 people to the gateway town, providing a bit of an economic boom to an otherwise slow and quiet time in town.
Inside the park, the snow is minimal, especially from Mammoth Hot Springs to Soda Butte. Along this wildlife heavy region, the snow is sparse in many areas. While the added few months of hiking season have been fun, the need for snow is evident on bare peaks and dry prairies.
Long term forecasts are currently modeling a cold and snowy winter for December, January and February, but residents of the towns around the park are growing concerned. Another subpar snowpack, combined with a hot and dry summer could prove to be disastrous for many areas. Only time will tell if that forecast will be correct.
The current snowpack in Montana and around Yellowstone looks like this:
Another Species is Recovering in Yellowstone
It had been 55 years since the swans successfully fledged at Swan Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Located south of Mammoth on Swan Lake Flat, near Bunsen Peak, Swan Lake has always been a great spot for birding. In 2021, it got a little better. On November 17th, the park announced that trumpeter swan cygnets have fledged from Swan Lake.
The swans are a big deal. According to the Yellowstone NPS website on swans, “trumpeter swans were nearly extirpated in the lower 48 states by 1930 due to habitat loss and hunting. A small population survived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of approximately 70 birds. With intensive management, this population provided the basis for widespread swan recovery later in the century.”
The park continues by saying “as a result of conservation measures, populations across the continental United States began increasing. As of 2015, there are approximately 63,000 trumpeter swans in North America belonging to three distinct subpopulations: the Pacific, the Rocky Mountain, and the Interior. Swan numbers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, belonging to the Rocky Mountain subpopulation, grew steadily through the early 1960s, after which cygnet production in Yellowstone and subsequent recruitment of adults into the breeding population began declining.”
The park wraps up stating that “The park’s resident trumpeter swan population increased after counts began in 1931 and peaked at 72 in 1961. The number began declining shortly after and dropped further after the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge feeding program ended and winter ponds were drained in the early 1990s. Other factors contributing to the decline may include predation, climate change, and human disturbance. In 2019, park biologists observed 27 trumpeter swans in Yellowstone, including 21 adults and 6 cygnets. Two pairs attempted to nest in the park, on Swan Lake and an unnamed pond west of Lilypad Lake in the Bechler region, and a third pair on Grebe Lake did not nest in 2019. A fourth pair attempted to nest on Junco Lake, outside the park’s southern boundary. Both nest attempts in the park were successful, hatching at least seven cygnets and fledging four. Four young trumpeter swans were released in Yellowstone in 2019 in Hayden Valley on the Yellowstone River, near the confluence with Alum Creek. Staff hope that these released swans will become bonded to their release location and return the following spring. In total, the park has released 35 cygnets over a seven-year period. Although several individuals are frequently seen within the park boundaries during the breeding season, none of the released cygnets have nested within the park yet.”
Jackson Hole Radio reported the swan story as follows:
Of the four cygnets that were born on Swan Lake, one took a little longer to develop the ability to fly. It could not sustain flight with the rest of the cygnets and was left behind when the lake started to freeze over.
Sometimes when a cygnet is not able to fly before freeze-up in autumn, it will die. In this case, the weather warmed up and the lone cygnet was able to forage on its own in the lake; and in about a week and a half, the family returned and reunited with the fourth cygnet. The fourth cygnet was finally able to fly and earlier this month they all left together to find open water.
After Friday, expect another dry and unusually warm week of weather. Of Friday, clouds and scattered snowshoers will roll through the northern range of Yellowstone, bringing some accumulation of flurries to the areas around Cooke City. Gardiner should just be cloudy. After Friday, the weekend looks like the rest of the week, with most sunny skies and high temperatures in the 30s and 40s. Lows will drop to freezing or below each night, occasionally dipping to the teens in some spots.
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.
Since the snowpack and temperatures haven’t changed much, neither have the wildlife patterns in and around the park. Therefore, I am copying and pasting last week’s wildlife watch tips, as they are still 100% relevant.
Elk are hanging out in Paradise Valley north of the park, as well as the Gardiner and Mammoth areas. Near the entrance gate in Gardiner, expect to see elk and pronghorn on either side of the road. They may even be right near the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner.
The bison are hanging out near Undine Falls, which is normal for this time of the year. From now until spring or early summer, expect to encounter a bison jam while driving between Lava Creek and the bridge over the Gardner River near Mammoth. You’ll also encounter bison around Roosevelt Junction and Lamar Valley, is keep an eye out for them while driving, as they like to be very close to or on the road.
You’ll have a good chance of continuing to see bighorn sheep near Mammoth, as well as near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. Their rut is still occurring, so you may see the rams battling for supremacy, or even the sheep mating. Who knows!
As far as wolf sightings, keep heading toward Slough Creek and Lamar Valley. They have been seen, through spotting scopes and binoculars, harassing bison and eating elk. Wolf sighting should continue to pick up each and every week, as their movements become more easily seen when the snow sticks around.
If you are hoping to see a bear this week, you should have a decent chance. Not great, but decent. Many of the bears are now hanging out in or right around their dens, which are usually hard to see and far from the road. However, a bear den is visible from the parking area near the turn for the Petrified Tree.
There are currently 52 miles of main park roads open to the public right now. They run from the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana to the Northeast Entrance near Cooke City and Silver Gate. This road will be open unless the weather is absolutely terrible, and even then that will only be temporary. This coming week, I would not expect any serious issues on the road. Friday could be a little messy out near Silver Gate and Cooke City, but it’ll be manageable. Just be cautious of snow and ice, as well as animals on the road.
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?
Mammoth is the only campground open in the park right now. Mammoth has not been filling up to capacity over the last week and this trend should continue until the busy season starts again in 2022. If you are hoping to camp in the cold, or planning far ahead, you can check the current status of campgrounds in the park online.
This week, I highly suggest driving out toward Pebble Creek to hike up to Trout Lake. At 1.2 miles in length and gaining 150 feet right from the start, this is worth the effort. Bring traction devices and trekking poles to make the hike easier, as it can be slick in spots.
Once you have climbed from the parking area, follow the trail to the right and circle the entire lake. Right now, the lake will have ice on it, and the snowy mountains in the distance will be absolutely gorgeous. Keep an eye out for bison and coyotes on and near the trail. I almost always see one or the other when hiking here in late-fall.
Bathrooms in the park are few and far between, so planning ahead is always a good thing. If you see a bathroom at a pullout, use it. You never know if the ones further down will be open, full, or if a bison jam will slow you down too much when the pressure starts to grow. Since open roads are minimal, I’ll share three of my favorite places to go before hitting a trail.
The first bathroom you’ll encounter in the park is the bathroom right near the campground. Offering a huge pullout to park at right next to the building, this is more than likely the best bet in the Mammoth area. I ALWAYS skip the bathrooms at Mammoth, summer or winter. In Winter, they may not be open. In summer, they will be crowded. Stopping by the campground is much more calm. You’ll have stalled toilets and running water in these, all year long. Be aware that this is the only one I recommend with running water.
After Mammoth, the options get less classy. The bathroom at Lava Creek picnic area is fine and usually not too brutal on the nose and mouth. Same with the one near the Blacktail Deer Ponds. Past that, if you want an occasionally busy pit toilet, consider stopping at the ones at Roosevelt Junction. I usually skip this one, instead going across the bridge over the Yellowstone and shining into the Yellowstone River Picnic area.
After the picnic area, the pit toilets at Slough Creek are fine, as are the ones at the hitching post area near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. Past here, your last real chance before Silver Gate and Cooke City is a pit toilet found at Pebble Creek.
One piece of advice I have is to bring a mask with you and wear it in the bathrooms. They work wonders in blocking the smell and occasional tastes one gets from using these rustic toilets. Also, bring hand sanitizer, as the ones in the bathrooms may be empty.
Curious about something not mentioned in the post?
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