Winter Wonderland

Through the weeks of deep snow, we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

I alluded to this trip in our last post when I whined about missing our “big snow” at home while we were away. Well, we were away in our happy place, Yellowstone. And, even though it is experiencing a relative snow drought this winter, there was still plenty in most places. We were asked by a teacher friend at the NC School of Science and Mathematics last summer to lead a winter Yellowstone trip for high school juniors and seniors. With the ups and downs of Covid, we were unsure about the prospects for making the trip happen, but, eventually, it came to fruition with all participants fully vaccinated and everyone agreeing to adhere to Covid protocols before and during the adventure. Melissa and I went out a few days early to scout things out and make final arrangements for lodging and meals. Melissa managed to find lodging in a hostel so we were isolated as a group and we had all our meals but one catered to minimize being in crowded indoor spaces. I will admit we were both a bit nervous about our first flight since the start of the pandemic, but, we were careful and everything turned out fine.

This is the first of a few posts about the trip. We had a nice mix of snowy days and bright sunny days, so we experienced both the quiet beauty of snow falling from gray skies and the glistening allure of diamond dust. That latter phenomenon occurs when a ground-level “cloud” of tiny ice crystals sparkles in the sunlight. Diamond dust usually occurs only in temperatures well below freezing. It is one of my favorite atmospheric conditions in Yellowstone in winter.

Below are a few of the scenic highlights of the trip…

Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)
There’s always more snow in the northeast portions of the park
Icy morning in the interior (on our snow coach ride to Old Faithful)
An all but frozen Soda Butte Creek
It was a very good year for Snowshoe Hares. Their tracks were everywhere! (pop quiz – which way was this animal going?)
The group on a snowshoe hike on the Thunderer Trail
Rime ice on trees along a waterway impacted by a thermal feature
The steam phase of the eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest geyser. The impressive water phase had happened the day before our trip to the interior. The water phase can be major or minor in length, with the geyser height in a major eruption reaching over 300 feet. The steam phase can last from a few hours to several days. Over the years, Steamboat has been unpredictable in its schedule with intervals between eruption ranging from 4 days to 50 years. The largest number of recorded eruptions in a year occurred twice, with 48 eruptions in both 2019 and 2020. This is the first time we have ever seen Steamboat erupting and it was a thrill!
The nearby Cistern Spring is believed to be connected to Steamboat Geyser. Cistern’s discharge increased in 1965, when Steamboat’s major eruptions were becoming less frequent. This surge in heat and water was so great that all vegetation immediately south of Cistern was killed, The water level in Cistern changes when Steamboat erupts.
The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from Lookout Point. This waterfall is 308 feet high and, in winter, the ice mountain at the base of the falls can be over 100 feet tall.
Old Faithful geyser erupting. The beauty of this winter sunrise sighting was that only four other people besides our group were there to witness it. In summer, there can be several thousand people crowded on the boardwalks viewing an eruption.
Rime ice on trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

One of my favorite thermal hikes is the Fountain Paint Pots Trail where, in a short walk, you can see all four types of Yellowstone’s thermal features – geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. My favorite are the mudpots. They are like a natural double boiler. Water collects in a shallow, impermeable depression (usually due to a lining of clay). Heated water under the depression causes steam to rise through the ground, heating the collected surface water. Hydrogen sulfide gas is usually present, and certain microorganisms use the smelly gas for energy. Microbes help convert the gas to sulfuric acid, which breaks down rock into clay. The result is a goopy mix where the gases gurgle and bubble. Minerals, like iron oxides,color the mudpots leading to the name “paint pots.” I find myself taking a ridiculously large number of photos here on every visit, hoping to capture an unusual shape as the mud erupts.

A spire of mud
Intricate patterns in an erupting mud bubble
A combination of spire and bubble
Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and the third largest in the world.
I love the incredible sunrises and sunsets in Yellowstone, especially in winter. Here is a flame orange sunset toward the end of our trip.
Melissa looking at wolves at sunrise

The next posts will cover some of the amazing wildlife we encountered during our adventure…

18 thoughts on “Winter Wonderland

  1. How wonderful that you & Melissa were able to visit your special place this winter! Covid has stopped so many things, so it’s great to hear how you put together a safe & (relatively!) comfortable travel experience. Your photos capture the spectacular winter beauty of Yellowstone!

    • Yes, I agree. Melissa did a great job in planning and the folks out there were extremely helpful with the lodging and meals. And the students and teachers were wonderful and followed all the protocols for a safe trip.

  2. I have been to Yellowstone many times but never in Winter. This makes me want to go.

    I love all the photographs, especially the one of the Lower Falls.

    • Thanks, John. Winter is our favorite time as the crowds are way down (unless you are at wolves!) and the wildlife is abundant and easier to spot. But, it is definitely more expensive. But the trip to the interior is worth it if you can combine with others to split costs of the snow coach.

  3. Hi,
    Do you still sponsor any “adult “trips anytime of the year from Raleigh or Chapel Hill ?
    Thanks,
    Judy Newton Scurry
    Winston -Salem

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Those are spectacular photos of winter’s “spell” in Yellowstone!! I’m sure more than a few of the students will remember this trip for a lifetime!

Leave a Reply to mary sonis Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s