Winter in Yellowstone is steam and silence and dances of fire and ice. From the edge of Old Faithful, the centrepiece of the largest active geyser locale on earth, explosions echo like war drums beneath my feet.
The ground hisses. A jet of scalding water erupts 90 feet in the air and crystallises instantly in the cold. This is the boiling ground; a wilderness of more than 10,000 hot springs and bubbling pools – a tapestry of magma-heated water. Temperatures here can plummet to 50 below. Bison, elk and wolves roam free. Winter in Yellowstone is violence and solitude, life and death.
Yet almost no one sees it. More than three million visitors come per year to these 3,472 square miles of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and more than half of them are crammed in between June and August. Some visit solo, others come with travel companies like Tours4Fun for guided tours. The summer is the outdoors equivalent of the front row of a rock concert: nice views, but noisy and crowded. Winter is a private gig: the season runs from mid-December to early March and sees, on average, only 100,000 people – less than 4 per cent of the total annual visitation. It’s hushed and empty and blanketed by fallen clouds of snow.
That’s why I’m here. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service – the more than 20,000 rangers, biologists, ecologists and educators charged with protecting America’s natural treasures. To mark the centennial I wanted to see America’s first national park, established in 1872, as it was at its founding: devoid of crowds, cars and selfie-sticks.
Winter is special for other reasons too: elk and bison come down from higher ground to feed, there’s cross-country skiing and snowmobiling and it offers the best chance to see Yellowstone’s newest, and most popular, resident – the wolf, reintroduced 21 years ago after having been hunted to near extinction. I wrapped up warm and set out into the freeze.
There are two winter bases. The first, and most accessible is Mammoth Hot Springs, five miles from the park’s northern gate – a bizarre menagerie of art-deco buildings, an old army fort, wandering elk and a creaking 100-year-old hotel. Yet the location is superb. Dripping down the hillside, thermal terraces are like an enormous abstract art installation – and they’re alive. Water heated deep underground rises through cracks in the earth and deposits minerals, which solidify into ever-changing travertine sculptures. Where the water flows, bacteria and algae feed, creating bright oil-slick patterns that swirl in indigo, orange and lime, like droplets falling on a Matisse.
I explored the terraces, and then hiked down to one of the region’s winter treats: the boiling river. Super-heated thermal springs pipe up from the ground here directly into the Yellowstone River, creating eddies of steaming hot mineral-rich water surrounded on all sides by freezing rapids. It’s like an extreme spa: one wrong move and you’re scalded or frozen, often at the same time. But get it right and its magical. A group of college kids, bathing near me, had mastered the art: soaking in a warm channel while, an arm’s reach away, a six-pack of beer cooled in the icy flow. That’s outdoor living.
Some 51-miles south is Old Faithful’s Snow Lodge, the second of Yellowstone’s winter hideaways, with the highest concentration of geysers on earth at its doorstep – including Old Faithful herself. In sub-zero temperatures the searing water vaporises on impact with the air. Giant columns of steam rose from the valley around me like bonfires in a battlefield. I discovered boiling mud pots, geysers shaped like castles and a sapphire pool of the brightest blue I’ve ever seen. I watched cinnamon ponds bubble like a witch’s cauldron and scorching spouts roar like an ocean storm. I skied frozen forests, picnicked in a snowdrift and, alone with the sun already setting, was stared out by a 2,000lb bison bull – docile but deadly – that refused to unblock my path.
Then something special: as dusk fell on my last night at Old Faithful I took a tour to a remote geyser on the edge of Black Sand Basin, and lay down on the thermal heated ground. The geyser hissed and splashed in the starlight, little thunders like waves, crashing up from the ground and engulfing us in steam. Then, without warning, she kicked; a low sonic boom that shot up from the depths of the earth and punched me in the back like a shock wave from an atomic bomb. I jumped to my feet, genuinely unnerved. Suddenly I could picture the ground beneath me as it was, not solid and safe, but a precarious hollow loaded with fire and barely contained force. My guide Alex laughed: “It’s like there’s a giant monster trapped underneath us trying to get out.”
That’s the thing: there really is a monster. Firing all these thermal features, just a few miles beneath the surface, is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. The last time it erupted, 640,000 years ago, it was 1,000 times more powerful than the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980. When – not if – it goes off again, half the world will be covered in darkness and ash. For all its beauty, Yellowstone is a loaded gun.
That’s also why it’s special. The American painter Anne Coe called it – “the place where the centre of the earth finds an exit and gives us a glimpse of its soul. “This is creation in its most primal form. I could sense the magma beneath me, the shifting of enormous tectonic weight, steam rising and falling like breath. The earth felt alive and evolving and I a trace on its skin.
Winter is unique, but there are other options to beat the crowds too. May brings better weather, a fraction of summer’s visitors, and the calving season: red-furred baby bison, wobbly-legged calves and grizzly cubs emerging from their dens. Visitors thin through September and October too; the days chill, elk rut and animals scurry wildly for stores of winter food. For me, the cold season was best and I had one treat left.
At sunrise on my last morning I drove out to the Lamar Valley, a vast plain in the northeast of the park known as the American Serengeti. Coyotes circled a bloodied elk, moose shied into the forest and dozens of snow-dusted bison – part of the last fragment of a herd that once stretched 30-million strong across the Great Plains – plodded through the arctic wind.
Then, on a distant ridge I saw them: a pack of wolves like black shadows, running free against the pure white snow. Brought in to reduce elk overgrazing (a problem that seemingly couldn’t be cured by human means), they have subsequently transformed the landscape itself. The elk stopped grazing in places they would be vulnerable – forests flourished there, riverbanks strengthened, songbirds and beavers returned. It was like medicine for the entire eco-system.
There was something else about their presence too. Wolves are part of our ancestry: we have been enemies and brothers for 10,000 years. Seeing them in the wild reminds us, perhaps, of the wildness in us too. “When you look into a wolf’s eyes,” Doug Smith, project leader for wolf restoration in the park, told me. “It starts a fire in you.”
That, I thought, is what Yellowstone’s all about. Steam billowed from frost-dipped trees, dark shadows looked down from the ridge. Yellowstone in winter is whispers and screams, cycles of violence and creation, inseparable, unending, alive – like fire and ice.
Need to know
Aaron Millar was a guest of The Real America (realamerica.co.uk), Brand USA (visittheusa.com) and Yellowstone National Park Lodges (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). America As You Like It (020 8742 8299, americaasyoulikeit.com) has eight-night holidays to Wyoming and Montana, visiting Yellowstone National Park, including flights, transfers and room only accommodation inside the park from 1,369pp
Steam Stars and Winter Soundscapes nighttime tour at Old Faithful costs from 36pp
Wake up to Winter Wildlife Tour in the Lamar Valley costs from 46pp
Guided cross-country ski trip to Lone Star Geyser at Old Faithful costs from 40pp
Snowcoach transportation between Mammoth and Old Faithful costs from 81pp each way
Winter in America: the best places to go
California and seven national parks
America’s western canyons and rock formations are arguably even more beautiful in the winter, when they’re often sprinkled with snow – and the big plus is, of course, the lack of crowds. Why not hit the (emptier) highways and head off to take in seven national parks, with a pitstop in Vegas along the way, on a fortnight’s fly-drive holiday with motels and hotels organised along the way? It’s the road trip of a lifetime, taking in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park; the latter is especially lovely when its unusual pointed hoodoo rock formations are snow covered. You will fly into Los Angeles and out of San Francisco.
Details A 13-night fly-drive costs from 2,115pp with flights and accommodation (bon-voyage.co.uk)
East coast by rail
Taking the Amtrak train between the nation’s capital and New York is a great way to see the east coast at whatever time of year. Going in the winter means the air fare is lower, which adds to the appeal, but the big draw is the open countryside along the way. This tour includes time to see the sights in Washington DC before a two-hour train journey to Philadelphia (where a stop-off is scheduled), and then a 90-minute journey on to the Big Apple.
Details A seven-night “East Coast Cities by Rail” break with flights, train tickets and motels costs from 965pp (americaasyoulikeit.com)
Boston to Washington DC by train
Alternatively, go in the opposite direction by Amtrak train, starting in Boston, where two nights of a week-long break are spent, offering the opportunity to walk the Freedom Trail (thefreedomtrail.org) and see the excellent Museum of Fine Arts (mfa.org), before stopping in New York for two nights and for a further two nights in Washington DC.
Details A week-long holiday costs from 1,450pp including flights, train tickets and three and four-star hotels (01766 772030, ffestiniogtravel.com)
Fly-drive in New England
Follow in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by going to New Hampshire – where’s this week’s presidential primary was held – on a ten-night fly-drive holiday with flights to Boston. There will be stop-offs in Portland (Maine), Stowe (Vermont), Williamstown (Massachusetts) and the White Mountains (New Hampshire). There’s a bleak beauty to New England at this time of year and you can talk politics along the way as election year heats up.
Details A ten-night fly-drive break including BA flights, car hire and hotels is from 1,249pp; you must book by February 15 for travel from February 20 to March 15 with Trailfinders (020 7368 1200).