Finally, Yellowstone (and GT) in winter

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Finally, Yellowstone (and GT) in winter

Post by Dorothy » Wed Feb 12, 2020 9:49 pm

Well, we finally did it! My sister and I made it to Yellowstone (and Grand Teton) for short winter trips. Not nearly long enough in either place, and we didn't see most of what we hoped to see, but still, a couple of magical, short trips.

I happened to have two weeks in January where I had an early shift at work (shift ends at 2 p.m.) followed by two days off, followed by going back to work in a shift that didn't start until noon. So, we decided to take one of those weeks to head to Grand Teton and the other to head to Yellowstone (providing it wasn't blizzarding through the canyons at the time). Not much time, but at least a chance to see the parks in winter.

Both times proved to be in the "acceptable" weather moment, so we were able to go!

First up was Grand Teton -- had intended to stop in perhaps Afton or Thayne or somewhere outside the canyon on the first day, as I didn't want to try to canyon late at night. But when we got there, the roads were pretty good and we were hearing of snow the next morning, so we decided to press on and get through the canyon while it was still decent roads. A bit of a white-knuckle drive (through that canyon and before), but we made it fine. Whew! One winter "road trip" down, three more to go.

Next morning we headed to the visitor's center to get tickets for the sleigh ride on the elk refuge -- have always wanted to do that. We had heard before we headed out that a mountain lion had been sighted on a butte near Jackson, so we asked about that, too. Were told that it appeared the lion had moved on (rats! rats! rats!) but were told we could find the place if we wanted to try (we'd figured out where it should be near from reports from the local paper). Not enough time before our ride, but we figured we'd try when we got back.

Enjoyed the sleigh ride a LOT. Lots of big bull elk, many of them up and feeding, others laying down. Just a lot of fun. Had come very prepared with "cold weather gear" (and indeed, it had been, like, 0 degrees on our drive up several times), but the weather wasn't THAT cold, mostly in the teens without much wind, so pretty decent. Had a wonderful time.

After that, into Jackson -- first, a quick trip out to the Elk Refuge (someone had said there had been wolves seen out beyond Miller's Butte on a kill). No luck on wolves, but a nice herd to Mountain Sheep on the butte. Then a quick stop at a thrift store my sis really likes, then on the "mountain lion seeking." Found the place easily enough -- a bunch of people with cameras by the Mavrerick with their scopes and cameras pointing at the hillside opposite. Turns out the lion HADN'T moved on, it was up under a big sagebrush bush, having been visible a bit before 8 that morning (Rats!). With help from those with spotting scopes I managed to actually get a look of its face, but tho' we waited a long time, it didn't stir otherwise. We'll be back!

Did wante to get one turn around the park itself, hoping for moose, maybe coyote or fox (or, OK, wolves). Had heard of lots of moose sightings around Kelly. For us, however, there was one moose quite a ways out just past the turnoff to the Teton school -- however, a LOT of snow and some disorientation when the snow on the road blended with the snow on the sides of the road so it was hard to tells where I was on the road. We really enjoyed the views -- went up to the warm springs and out toward the national forest, and saw lots of tracks and that one moose -- and a big SUV stuck in the snow. Offered help (we DO have a shovel with us), but the folks in the SUV and a truck with it seemed to have things in hand, and indeed, on our way back, it was gone. Also saw a nice bull elk across the river on the way back to the highway.

Then up to the top of the park -- just to see what it was like. First off, it was DESERTED. We saw one car at Oxbow with a few people out of the car, but it was headed back to Moran. Other than that, absolutely NO other car or any other person/vehicle while we were up there. Went as far as Colter, then over the Jackson Lake dam and up to where the road was closed, and then back out to Moran. It was completely silent, and completely covered with snow. The roads were white with snow and they blended absolutely with the snow banks on the side. If I took my eye off the road even momentarily, I couldn't tell where I was on the road when I looked back. What a wonderful, but eerie and a bit disconcerting, experience. Just the beautiful trees covered in snow, a white road in front of us, and nobody else around. Worth the entire trip!

Did spot a couple of swans near the dam, and a nice bald eagle, then headed back down toward Jackson. A quick trip up Moose-Wilson up to where it was closed. ANOTHER "eerily beautiful" experience -- nobody else on the road at the time, huge banks of snow (couldn't see down into Sawmill unless you climbed up some big snowbanks) and soooo quiet. Spotted "our" kingfisher (and seen one up there in our fall trip) and had fun watching him in the snow (yes, it snowed off and on all day) and got back without having to try to pass someone on the already-narrow road made even narrower by the big banks of snow. Just a lovely day.

Next morning headed out for the mountain lion at around 8 a.m. (hey, she was out at that time before), but found out we were about two hours late, as she had been down at the other end of the butte, but had been seen coming back just before sunrise and was now bedded down under her usual tree (she'd moved down the day before to the sagebrush) up above the remains of her kill from several days before. Sigh. Stayed as long as we could, and did get a glimpse of an ear, but that was it. Well, I've got a photo of a mountain lion's EAR (and a bit of her back) now, so that's more of a mountain lion than I've seen before! :) At some point, hope to get a whole lion!

On to church, back out to the elk refuge (more sheep on Miller's Butte, but nothing else, no coyotes, no foxes, no wolves ... oh well, better luck next time). Did go "offroading" for a moment -- looking at some sheep, looked back to the road and found myself off in the brush as bit, as couldn't tell where the road ended and the snowbanks started. No damage done to anything or anyone, but a good lesson in winter driving AND a LOT of snow thrown up over the car.

Headed home the same way we came (we usually go a different route, but this route seemed more likely to have good snow removal and less wind, so headed back toward Afton). On the way up the canyon, spotted what turned out to be FOUR golden eagles (along with a bunch of ravens) on a road-kill deer just off the road. Managed to stop in a pullout and get a few photos. WOW! They were quite close and SO impressive.
Made it home that night, happy and glad that the winter driving over 1-80 and a couple of canyons was over! Loved the trip, just wanted a bit more time there.

Less that two weeks later, headed to Yellowstone under similar circumstances. Again, had thought we might stop in Rexburg or a little further up, but decided just to head on to West Yellowstone, and hope we made it in the dark. We did, but a bit more white-knuckle driving for me (don't really enjoy driving at night). Roads pretty good. Got in about 8:30 p.m. and thankfully settled into bed.

We had one full day and then the day we would be starting home (could stop and overnight somewhere if need be, then finish the trip the next morning, getting me home in time for work). Decided the first day we would drive up to Lamar and go through there, then return to West Yellowstone that night and do a snowcoach tour the following day, heading out of West Yellowstone when we got out of the Park (supposedly around 4:30 or 5 p.m.) and see how far we got home. From Max's reports, we knew there had been some wolves (and otters) seen up in Lamar and hoped for the best.

Started out up the canyon from West Yellowstone while it was still dark, so didn't get to see some of the sights in the canyon we'd hoped to see. Once it got light, we finally made it to Big Sky, then continued on ... and ran into constant traffic coming the other way. We couldn't figure it out -- a constant stream of cars coming the other way -- I concentrated on the road entirely, and my sis tried to look out for any animals. (Finally figured out that BIg Sky is a big resort area -- skiing, snowmobling, cross country, etc., and apparently EVERYONE heads down to it once it gets light in the morning and, as we found out that evening, heads back up toward Bozeman in the evening when it gets dark.) Once we got through Bozeman, traffic wasn't a problem.

Had one really funny moment on the way down from Livingston to Gardiner -- saw a couple of eagles on the way down (LOVE to see eagles), then at one point I said, "Hey, isn't that a bird shape up on that electric pole?" Sis confirmed it was, and said she THOUGHT it might be an owl ("I'm pretty sure I saw the 'horns,' so likely a great horned owl.") That's worth a second look, so we turned around as soon as we safely could and headed back, pulling of the road when we saw the shape. It WAS an owl, and I hurridly got my camera out and snapped a quick photo or two before it might decide it didn't like us being parked then. Sis got her camera out and finally managed to locate it in the viewscreen and took a photo. We both looked at our photos and it WAS an owl, and it WAS looking right at us! ... and it WAS a wooden owl, I guess there to keep bird from nesting on the top of the pole or whatever other reason. We laughed and laughed at ourselves! AND we each kept one shot of our owl, who was looking RIGHT AT US!

Into Yellowstone at last! Not much traffic, but we were certainly looking for anyone stopped and looking through scopes or cameras. DId pass a group at Undine Falls, but they said they were watching a coyote WAAAAAY out in the valley and had heard some wolves had been in the area and were moving in this direction, so were hoping they might see some eventually. Had to move on if we wanted to get out and back before we had to leave. Passed a few very BIG bull elk bedded down fairly close to the road in the snow, and had a nice time watching/taking pictures. Nothing at Floating Island or Petrified Tree (that we could see), so on out into Lamar.

Mountain Sheep by the confluence, but no otters (some nice ducks AND some American dippers-- yay!). Also a golden eagle way up on the mountainside in a tree. Did spot a BIG bull moose laying down up near one of the big pullouts, with another moose we thought was a female (but after it appeared to be a bull that had lost its antlers) a little ways away. Watched the water and the meadows all the way a long, but nothing else. Went up as far as Baronette, but it was starting to snow pretty hard at the time, so headed back rather than continuing on to Cooke City. Back at Pebble Creek, there was a downy woodpecker high up in one of the trees -- then she came down and went up and down a few smaller trees by the road -- I must have taken at least 100 photos of her, as she was close and pecking away! Lots of fun!

Back down to where we'd seen the moose -- they were now up and eating, so more photos -- really big moose! More mountain sheep on the side of the hill at the confluence, a bald eagle across the river. A quick trip back up to Pebble (a couple more moose out by the river, and one bedded down by the bridge), which was watched through the snow (it was falling pretty hard at this time). Had hoped for a badger or maybe an ermine, as we knew both had been sighted somewhere in the area, but didn't know exactly where and nobody was stopped or pointing and we looked hard but didn't catch anything. Sigh!

Had to be getting out by then -- the big bull elk were up and feeding on our way back out, so a nice moment there. It was beautiful in the park, we really enjoyed our visit to Lamar! We had planned to try to "old" road out of Gardiner on the way back, but we were so late getting out of the park, we didn't dare try anything that we weren't familiar with or might take more time. Next time! Heading back (mostly in the dark, of course), we caught all the Big Sky traffic heading our way (some trouble with headlights, as ours were, we discovered, covered with dirt and weren't helping us much before we pulled over and cleaned them off). Again, no chance to see the canyon (sigh), but made it back safely, which was our goal. (That's the trouble with winter -- very little daylight!)

Next morning headed into the park at West Yellowstone in a snow coach. A really fun day! We chose the trip to Old Faithful, to see some of the geyser basins in the winter, and because we hoped for a chance to see a few animals on the way. A really nice group of people in the coach, and we were all interested in seeing animals, so we were all looking hard. LOTS of tracks -- mostly snowshoe hares (would have loved to see one of those), but some ermine and perhaps fox or coyote. Lots of swans and ducks in the waters, another lovely kingfisher by the river, and many, many bison (so wonderful to see them clearing snow with those big heads, snow on their faces ... just fun!). AND, of course heard that the day before (when we were looking for wolves in Lamar), the Wapiti pack had been down near Whiskey Flat (I think that was what it was called -- anyway, on the way down to Old Faithful), on a kill and clearly visible from the road. SIGH! We always pick the wrong days! The guide hoped they might still be around today, but didn't know. When we stopped at the warming buildings, a group coming back from there said they had seen a couple of wolves in that area a few hours earlier.

Had a big herd of bison coming right at us on the road (fun watching them go past the coach) and then on to Whiskey Flats. There was the kill (we could see it in a small clearing in some trees) with lots of ravens on it, but no wolves. We stayed quite a while, hoping to at least hear them howl (and did hear something that could have been them "barking"), but no wolves. Heavy sigh -- that's how it is with wild animals, you can't count on seeing them. That's one of the things that makes it so special when you DO!). Enjoyed watching Old Faithful go off -- a gray, cloudy day with intermittent snow, so no blue sky behind it, but a really high erruption. And right before it went off, a herd of bison walked right past it and moved over to the side -- and they were not at all concerned about the eruption at all. A very fun moment, and photo!

Went through some of the other geyser basins and they were beautiful (LOTS of snow -- a bit hard to walk along the deeply snow-packed boardwalks, but worth however far I could go (and Fountain Geyser went off when we were there -- and saw a few frozen spiders that had tried to feed on some of the larvae in the hot pots and gotten frozen. Also some really beautiful frozen trees where the steam from the hot pots had frozen on the trees -- just gorgeous.

REALLY watched hard on the way back (well, on the way out, too) for otters (which had been seen along the Madison) and foxes and coyotes and ermine -- guide found some fresh ermine tracks that lead up to a rock area, but no ermine (tho' ermine and otter, it seems, were being seen in Lamar that day! :) ). LOTS of otter slides, tracks, and and even places they'd gone to the bathroom, along the Firehole river, but no otters. We had SO hoped to see at least one of those options (a red fox in the snow ... an otter ... a coyote hunting ... an ermine ... a wolf ... etc), but it just wasn't to be. Still, the scenery was beautiful, we enjoyed the different look and feel of the Park in the winter. It was magical!

We had SUCH fun on both trips. Now, we just want to go again when we have enough time to really do this right! Now that we've found out it's possible to get there and back in the winter, we're going to try to actually plan a trip (taking a bit of time off work) so we can enjoy the Parks in the winter again. Thanks to all who helped us know where to look for animals, gave us information about the parks in winter and encouraged us. We really appreciate all of you!

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Joined: Fri Aug 04, 2017 8:50 pm

Re: Finally, Yellowstone (and GT) in winter

Post by billandkaren » Fri Feb 14, 2020 7:27 pm

Thanks, Dorothy. Karen and I loved reading the report! Wow, sounds like a couple of great trips. I'm glad you got to at least "see" the mountain lion. May not have been the best look, but at least you got a look. That is #1 on my bucket list for the future. We've seen the tracks, and had a couple near misses but still no cougar. Although you missed some of the animals you wanted to see, you still saw a lot! The golden eagles must have been special along with the bull moose in the snow. Take a good lood at your woodpecker photos and make sure it was not an American Three-toed Woodpecker. They look a lot like the downeys and hairys and they are found in Yellowstone too.

We laughed at the report about the great-horned owl as that happened to me on our first family trip to Yellowstone. I was driving between Dubois and Lander with Karen and our two boys. As I drove past I said, "There's an owl on the post!" None of the others saw it and told me I was crazy as it was the middle of the day. So I had to prove myself right and turned the car around. Sure enough the "owl" was still there. Feeling very vindicated I pulled off and Karen put the binoculars on it. She just started laughing when she realized it was fake. It became a family joke that I never lived down.

Anyway, glad you were safe and got to see the parks in winter. It has its own special appeal. When you went to Yellowtone, you were within 3 miles of our cabin in Idaho by Henry's Lake. Next time your heading that way let us know. If we are around, we would love to show you some neat places outside the park that are beautiful as well.

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Joined: Sat Jul 29, 2017 7:45 pm

Re: Finally, Yellowstone (and GT) in winter

Post by Dorothy » Mon Feb 17, 2020 9:45 pm

Thanks Bill (and Karen)! It was really a wonderful two trips -- we totally enjoyed the experiences and just want to go back again.

The golden eagles were amazing -- the one that was down on the carcass flew back into a tree once we slowed down to park, so we watched it into the tree and said hey, there was another one there. As we got the binocs out and looked closer, and it was THREE. As we glanced around, there was a fourth one in another tree. We took LOTS of photos, and laughed a lot once we looked at them, because one of the eagles was turned in such a way that the golden-brown streaks going down its neck made it look like a "hippy" eagle, with "long streaked hair" going down it's neck. Really -- we both said the same thing when we looked at the photos -- a hippy eagle! It was a wonderful experience as the eagles would fly from one tree to another and then back. Wow!

I'll check out the woodpecker to see which kind it is -- I was just taking the word of someone who was watching with us. Either way, it was really fun to watch!

Glad to know we're not the only ones fooled by a wooden owl. We still laugh when we think about it.

And we'd LOVE to come out to your cabin if it works out next time we go. We've often thought we ought to head out toward Henry's Lake when we pass the turnoff, but we're always in a hurry to get to the park, as our time is always more limited than we'd like. But it would be great to see some new territory. Thanks so much for the invite, and we'll see if it will work out next time we come. Again, many thanks!

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