YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The lobby of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was full of people bundling into their best winter apparel, excited to explore the unparalleled interior of Yellowstone National Park in the rugged luxury of a snowcoach.
“Welcome to the most magical time of year,” said Rebecca King, one of the snowcoach guides for the hotel concessionaire Xanterra, before the Dec. 16 tour. “Your visit today is so important.”
King was leading “today’s MOM,” what guides called the same-day round-trip tour from Mammoth to Old Faithful and back to Mammoth again. Her coach was the first in a loose convoy of five, all headed into the park for the first weekend of the new winter season.
“The ice crystals are forming on everything that it can possibly touch,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Your hair, your jacket, your scarf, the boardwalk, the trees, the sagebrush, the bison. With the right light and the right conditions, it just glows. It's like glitter surrounding you. It's magical.”
Brendan and Josephine Carr from Buffalo were in the group with Brendan’s parents for a pre-Christmas family adventure.
“My parents saw this as a great opportunity to meet up just before Christmas and do a little exploration,” Brendan said. “They've never been to Yellowstone before. We've never been to Yellowstone in winter. So, let's go to Yellowstone and do it.”
“Now we’re off like a herd of turtles,” King said as the coach departed Mammoth and headed into Yellowstone.
A Yellowstone snowcoach is impressively large and small. The massive 3-foot by 4-foot tires are inflated to exactly 12 psi, ensuring they smoothly roll along and grip the snow-covered roads of the park’s interior.
There are 13 passenger seats inside the coach. Even with a smaller trip of 11 people each in four groups, a tour quickly becomes “up close and personal” inside.
There was an immediate sense of camaraderie in the crowded coach. Any awkward feelings of closeness at the beginning of the tour dissipated within the first few minutes as everyone politely maneuvered their way around each other to take in the sights.
The “hot seat” was sitting in the front next to the driver. King encouraged everyone to take a turn riding up front, but the hot seat usually was occupied by the person with the most questions.
From the first minutes of the tour when they started, the questions didn’t stop. King deftly answered each through a headset plugged into the coach’s speakers, which kept her talking for the entire trip.
“That was one of the highlights of this experience. You can just sit and enjoy and take in the whole experience versus other times that I've been here,” Josephine said.
King has been guiding people through Yellowstone for six years, much of that time as the driver of a snowcoach. She takes her job seriously, but never forgets to have fun with it. It’s her way of connecting to the same experience many of her passengers are having for the first time.
“I feel my purpose with my job is to inspire people to care more,” she said. “That’s through education, learning about the place, and realizing how much you care too.”
The trip from Mammoth to Old Faithful takes 3.5 hours at a top speed of 25 mph, with plenty of stops along the way. It was 30 degrees in the park that morning, a balmy day by the standards of a Yellowstone winter.
King recalled one winter tour where it was minus 37 degrees. She suspected it was colder, but that was as low as the coach’s thermometer would go.
Nevertheless, snowcoach tours forge ahead regardless of conditions. There is always something to see in Yellowstone, which continues billowing and bubbling no matter the season.
Everything’s exciting in a Yellowstone winter. The roar of the fumaroles was that much louder and intimidating. The sight of a roaming coyote or stoically sitting bald eagle was cause for joy.
Even the omnipresent bison took on an exceptional grandeur, sweeping their massive heads through the snow to expose the grass beneath. Hundreds of small survival stories were told through the footprints of Yellowstone's wildlife clearly visible in the snow along the roads and throughout the landscape.
The coach stopped at several locations, like Gibbon Falls, so guests could stretch their legs, take in the winter setting, and learn more about what they saw. Even a few minutes outside on a “warmer” winter day was enough to appreciate the heat onboard.
One stop every visitor appreciated was the Madison Warming Hut. The temporarily placed structure offered heat, additional outerwear, and a variety of snacks and warm beverages to take the edge off the chill.
King warmly greeted every guide encountered along the trip. The winter employees of Mammoth and Old Faithful form unique communities, as they all share the particular kind of passion needed to work in such isolated places for months on end.
“I feel like I'm at home,” she said. “I'm surrounded by people who also love hiking and nature and love spending that time together.”
The towering presence of the Old Faithful Inn (closed for the winter) greeted the coach as it pulled into the geyser basin for its longest stop of the day. Everyone unloaded at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only hotel in the park’s interior open year-round.
For many guests, the lodge was their destination that day, as they would spend the night there. For the MOM tour, they had two hours to take in the iconic geyser and spend their time wandering as they wished.
There was still a decently large crowd of people gathered to watch Old Faithful’s next eruption. Snowcoach passengers were joined by dozens of snowmobilers, each wearing coveralls signifying which tour company they were riding with.
“I thought it was going to be louder,” one snowmobiler said when the geyser erupted.
On a typical summer day, the multitude of visitors watching Old Faithful represents a small but significant portion of people inside Yellowstone. That day, there was something special knowing the crowd at a winter eruption represented most of the people in the park that day.
The boardwalks in the geyser basin were mostly empty after an eruption. It was possible to look across the basin that sunny afternoon and not see another person wandering through.
“It's a lot more of an intimate experience than the summertime or other periods of time when you think to come and visit,” Josephine said. “I would highly recommend it if you're looking for more of a quiet, intimate experience with Yellowstone.
King’s favorite stop was a 40-minute walk along the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, where she could showcase and explain the four kinds of thermal features seen in Yellowstone. King’s interpretive presentation was only interrupted by stretches of silence as visitors listened to the splashes of Clepsydra Geyser and the soothing bubbling of the Fountain Paint Pots.
Good, Bad, Emotional
With the sun descending toward the horizon, the drive back to Mammoth turned philosophical. King said it often does since controversy and mistakes of the past will always be part of Yellowstone’s story that should be told.
“The people on our tour and the discussions we had were impactful,” Josephine said. “For me, part of the experience was the people we were with. We were traveling through this place together.”
King doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions and discussions. She was happy to answer questions about the reintroduction of wolves and potential delisting of grizzlies from a Yellowstone perspective.
“We talk about the cool stuff and the exciting stuff,” she said, “but we also get into the uncomfortable stuff and stories that get sad.”
There was one more stop to make. As the sunset grew into a more glorious hue of red, King knew everyone would want to step outside and savor the beautiful sight.
At any other time of the year, stopping a van in the middle of a Yellowstone corridor would be infuriating. That evening, it gave its passengers a final moment where the pristine immensity of Yellowstone was completely theirs.
King said she never wants her guests to cry. But when she sees the tears in the eyes of some passengers, she takes it as a sign that an emotional bond has been created and will endure long after they leave the coach and depart Yellowstone.
“I have driven (people) into animal encounters that have brought them to tears. And we've discussed some of the difficult situations in Yellowstone that, unfortunately, also brought them to tears. It moves people.”
She succeeded with the Carrs. Both Brendan and Josephine were already discussing their next winter excursion in Yellowstone.
“I'd really like to come back here in March or February,” Brendan said, “when the snowpack’s at its maximum and do some excellent skiing and snowshoeing and just check that out because I'm sure it'd be great.”
That’s the greatest reward for King. Her snowcoach passengers came as tourists but left as advocates.
“I truly believe every single visitor adds protection to this park in their own way,” she said. “Sometimes that's by learning about the park, going home, telling their stories, and inspiring other people to come out here. Then you get return visitors and other people coming out because of those people and hearing their stories. Every dollar that's spent in this park adds protection to it.”
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.