We’re having one of those I-can’t-believe-what-we’re seeing moments, as we snowshoe on nearly deserted trails around Old Faithful on a cold but sunny winter afternoon. Old Faithful spews thousands of gallons of steaming water right on schedule. Miguel, on the other hand, isn’t the least bit interested.
He just lumbers by us searching for lunch. That’s probably because Miguel, so named by my two daughters, is an 1,800-pound bison who sees Old Faithful every day. Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser has rarely missed an eruption—roughly every 92 minutes—in the past 120 years. Bison, for their part, were nearly extinct at the turn of the 20th century. Today, there are some 3,500 in the park, which straddles Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Yellowstone has more thermal features than anywhere else: to the tune of half of the world’s total, or 10,000 geysers, bubbling mud pots, hot springs and the like. Winter is the best time to see them, and wildlife, at Yellowstone, just a short drive from Wyoming’s Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. At this time of year, family-friendly winter activities are kicking into high gear and you won’t be fighting crowds. (That’s what we told Gertrude, another bison we encountered snowshoeing around the Geyser Basin. She ignored us, too.)
And here’s another fun thing: Four Seasons offers exclusive Wildlife Safari Tours with the resort’s on-site wildlife biologist. The tours have just expanded into Yellowstone, granting guests unprecedented access to prime wildlife viewing—already a favorite with families visiting the resort.
Consider that more than 15,000 people visit the park each day in summer, while all winter, you’ll see only 150,000 visitors. True, in winter all park roads are restricted to over-snow vehicles, such as snowmobiles and snow coaches (except for the North Entrance and portion of US 191 that pass through the west side of the park). But that adds to the adventure, and that’s why we feel as if we’ve got the vast, 2.2-million-acre park to ourselves.
The last time we were here in the summer, there were so many people around, the kids could barely see Old Faithful. Now we’ve got our pick of viewing spots. We take a trail up to an observation point where we can see the geyser and catch a view of the environs. A small herd of bison roams in the distance. Snowshoeing is surprisingly easy, especially on the groomed trails. We know we’re supposed to stay 25 feet from the wildlife, but tell that to Gertrude and Miguel.
Many think Yellowstone is closed in winter—or just for snowmobilers; not the case. That changed with federal regulations that restrict the number of snowmobiles permitted in the park. For info, check visitmt.com and wyomingtourism.org.
Besides the bison, we spotted elk, moose, coyote and trumpeter swans. Another plus: a winter getaway is budget-friendly and kids won’t get bored because there’s just so much to do. There’s ice skating, guided cross-country ski and snowshoe tours, and ranger programs. Here’s your chance to find out everything you always wanted to know about grizzlies and geysers, even learn how to track animals. There are 130 miles of groomed trails, plus massages afterwards to help with aching muscles. Try a burger and onion rings at The Corral 10 miles south of Big Sky; you’ll have earned it.
Instead of a snowmobile, we opted for a historic yellow snow coach, a kind of small, boxy, heated bus on tracks, first used 50 years ago. Our friendly driver obligingly stopped to point out a bald eagle perched on a tree and other wildlife along the way. In the park, we snowshoed past bubbling, steamy waters, and watched Old Faithful go off a second time. It was so quiet—and beautiful. Even my ski slope-loving daughters wished we had more time than our scheduled day to explore the backcountry trails. Heading out of the park down the road, we got our final delightful surprise of the trip: a wolf trotted right by our snow coach. That only happens once or twice a season, our driver told us.
A version of this post originally appeared on Eileen’s blog Takingthekids.com.
Read more about Jackson Hole in Four Seasons Magazine.
Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated travel columnist and a leading family travel expert. She offers tips and advice at TakingtheKids. A journalist and the author of seven books, Eileen’s TakingtheKids family travel guides have just been reissued for the NOOK and Kindle. Eileen is the mother of three grown children and lives in Connecticut with her husband.
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