A coyote lies on a plain of white, staring intently at a watery hole in the ice. A river otter pops out of the hole, shoots the coyote a long look, then dives back into the river.
I'm watching this standoff from the warmth of a snow coach, which is something like a van mounted on tank treads. It's among the few vehicles capable of tackling the unplowed roads of Yellowstone National Park in the winter.
Julianne, my group's trusty guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute, explains the coyote's strategy: wait for the otter to pop out with a fresh fish, then pounce. If it works, free fish! But this particular otter knows the game and soon pops out of another hole in the ice 100 feet away. The coyote, flummoxed, wanders away.
The Yellowstone on Skis tour, which is offered by the institute and Yellowstone National Park Lodges, includes four days exploring the park on cross-country skis and four nights in the park's toasty lodges at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
On the way to ski the park's trails, we encounter unforgettable scenes, such as the otter and coyote facing off, a herd of frost-clad buffalo using their massive heads as snowplows to expose grass to graze, and Old Faithful erupting from the snow with no crowd in sight.
Winter Activities: Skiing, Snowshoeing & Snowmobiling
If it's winter solitude you're after, Yellowstone offers a wintertime experience that can't be found on the slopes of any ski resort. Only about 100,000 of the park's annual 3 million visitors come during the winter season and only one road is open to vehicular traffic: the route through the Lamar Valley between Mammoth and Cooke City, Montana. This is truly Yellowstone at its wildest.
Besides skiing and snowshoeing on the park's trails, snowmobiling is a popular pursuit. The political machinations that began with a Clinton-era ban that was subsequently overturned by the Bush administration have largely wound down. The ban is off, but all snowmobilers must be accompanied by a licensed guide, and the machines must employ best-available technology. Concessionaire Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers guided trips, as do numerous outfitters in the towns of Cooke City and West Yellowstone, Montana.
Cross-country skis are the best way to experience the peace and quiet of a wintertime wilderness. We ski to Fairy Falls, Lonestar Geyser, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area -- all are remarkably different sights when shrouded in snow and glazed in ice.
That's the beauty of Yellowstone in winter: The familiar becomes unfamiliar. As the park's wildlife toughs out one of the country's most unforgiving climates, the human visitor gets a crystal-clear window into winter in the wild.
If You Go
Yellowstone National Park's 2.3 million acres are primarily within Wyoming's borders, as well as small chunks in Idaho and Montana. About 100 miles north of the park, Gallatin Field Airport (www.gallatinfield.com) in Bozeman, Montana, offers the best air access in the winter.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only two in-park lodgings open during the winter season, which starts on Dec. 18 and ends in mid-March. You can save money by staying in Gardiner and easily enjoy the trails in and around Mammoth Hot Springs, where there is a ski shuttle to nearby trailheads ($15 adults, $7.50 kids 3-11). Snowmobilers and deal-seekers will want to consider Cooke City and West Yellowstone.
The "Frosty Fun at Mammoth" package includes a minimum of two nights at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, breakfast, a hot tub rental, unlimited ice skating, and other perks. Rates for rooms with shared bathrooms start at $109 per person and rooms with private bathrooms start at $129 per person, based on double occupancy.
Yellowstone National Park (tel. 307/344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell), Yellowstone National Park Lodges (tel. 307/744-7311; www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com), and the Yellowstone Association Institute (tel. 406/848-2400; www.yellowstoneassociation.org/institute).
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Winter Sport Forum.