A herd of huge bison saunter up the plowed road, steam snorting streaming from their nostrils, their fleecy backs caked with ice. An enormous bull moose emerges into the open meadow stepping high in the deep snow. Only a few minutes inside Yellowstone National Park and already the wildlife show has begun.
Deep winter is not the time most visitors think of coming to America's first national park, where an annual snowfall of 600 inches is not unusual, but it is absolutely the best time to experience the breath-taking amount of wildlife that has come to earn the title, The Serengeti of North America.
Over sixty different animals are represented within the 2.7 million acres including 3,000 bison, 15,000 mule deer, 600 grizz, over 300 grey wolves, 15-22,000 elk that winter over in the park and on and on. Many come down from high elevation and yard up in the meadows, pawing the ground for food or even getting fed by the park service, making it much easier to view them.
The adventure begins by leaving your vehicle behind in the entrance lot and hopping onto a snow coach with your luggage. This Volkswagen bus lookalike with skis up front and bulldozer tracks underneath may not be able to exceed speeds of thirty miles downhill, but it gets us through. The long lines of traffic experienced by many summertime visitors are non-existent. Forty-two miles into the park sits the historic Old Faithful Lodge where not much has changed since 1937. Along the way, we learn all kinds of interesting facts about Yellowstone's wildlife.
Yellowstone is the only place in the Lower 48 to have a continuously free-ranging bison population since prehistoric times. At one time, 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America but population dwindled to 1,000 -- all in captivity except for two dozen Yellowstone bison. Part of the reason this national park was created was to protect and create a safe place for bison to live and breed. We learn that their wool is so thick and insulating, that when an infa-red test gun is held up to them, hardly any heat is emitted. They don't even start to get chilly until temps dip down to minus 40.
Lamar Valley is center stage for wildlife viewing and, on any given winter sunday, biologists and fans have spotting scopes set up along the road, which they'll generously share with visitors. They focus on the crowning glory of the park -- the grey wolves. Winter is the time they are most active and we watch them bask in the sun on rocks and eat snow, the scopes bringing these exciting creatures in so very close. Yellowstone enforces a distance of 75 feet between you and most wildlife but it extends to 300 feet with wolves and bear.
The bison seem to co-exist very happily in this valley alongside the wolves, which don't usually bother the bison. Elk are a much easier kill and so abundant. Our guide says, "If they have something else on the menu, why bother?" In 1995, when the first crates of wolves arrived from Canada and the reintroduction project began, their piercing emotion-stirring cry once again rang out in the Rocky Mountains.
The wolf population has gone down a bit in the last years. The elk are figuring out the wolves hunting strategy, the biologists surmise, and the wolves are having less success hunting. Plus parvovirus killed many of the pups. Still, the population should continue to prosper and new packs are starting with slots open for accepting new members.
We learn that in the winter of 1982, a pink eye epidemic broke out in the bighorn sheep herd, blinding and killing many from automobiles and falling off cliffs. The herd is healthy today with about 200 strong. They come right down to the roadsides and show off their big curled horns only a few feet away.
You can take a wagon ride out at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson some 50 mile south of the park (scheduled before or after your trip into the park) and get up close and personal during the elks' feeding time. The frozen, dried tidbits of grass are not enough to sustain these great herds throughout the tough Wyoming winters. The great massive racks of the bulls roll from side to side as they feed, silhouetted against the white snowy background.
We take a wonderful ski out to Inspiration Point, running right alongside the deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The quarter mile abyss plunges 1200 feet deep, making for some real exciting skiing. The yellow-ochre colored rock sparkles in the winter sunlight. A bald eagle flies overhead. Plumes of steam rise and we expect a celestial symphony to sing out from the heavens for the next act. President Roosevelt himself skied along this very edge, back when "America's Best Idea- Our National Parks" was just a seed of an idea.
Years ago, Yellowstone was called "Colter's Hell," named after John Colter, legendary mountain man. He said that "the canyon was so deep, you could shout into it and be awakened by its echo in the morning."
In the infant days of the park, in the 1880's, about forty attractions/formations were named after things that had to do with hell and the devil. Now, there are only about a dozen and visitors have come to see them as a thing of great beauty, not evil.
No matter where you wander in Yellowstone in winter, there is wonder, magic and incredible beauty. And the best part-magnificent wild animals in ridiculous numbers and in such close proximity. There is no curtain call to this winter wildlife show.