Part 3: Snowmobiling in Yellowstone during the shutdown with a N-CGSAP
We had picked up the trailer with two BAT certified snowmobiles and were trailing them to the North Entrance of Yellowstone to begin our adventure. Our passes began the next day. But that didn't mean the adventure didn't start now!
With only one stop along the way to use the loo and practice reversing in the empty parking lot with the trailer. It was my first time ever using one and beginners luck, it worked the first time. But the second and third I over turned and had to realign several times. With more than a few reverse attempts under my belt and feeling like I had a handle on how it worked we continued on.
We arrived in Gardiner by noon on the 6th. Too early to check into our hotel so we drove past it and up to Mammoth Hotsprings. The snow was pretty deep at the upper terrace and turned into a blizzard at one point but we hiked around the whole loop. The sky was being very temperamental, my favorite, and it made for some astounding photographs.
I was surprise by the difference in the colors in the pools from my last trip, as well as areas that had dried up.
The winds were blowing hard and snow was pelting our faces till our cheeks were hot. But we had warm jackets, proper footwear and treats to warm our bellies. The snow was a very welcome sight for the snowmobiling adventure we were about to start. We left Mammoth in high spirits to check into the Park Hotel and prepare for the upcoming adventure.
I had a huge mix of emotions that evening. The rush of excitement and fear kept me awake that night. We had prepped a lovely hot meal and all our food and gear got packed into the bags we would be bringing with us on the first day snowmobiling.
Next morning we arrived at the upper terrace of Mammoth which was our staging area for starting. There were white out snow conditions and high winds. But the forecast had sun for late afternoon. First light was on us by the time we were unloading the snowmobiles.
I say we but I mean my daughter. After warming the machines up, I sat on mine on the trailer and after trying to be brave enough to drive it off, she offered to do it. She climbed on, said "oh yeah, this is scary" and just did it. I was both proud and relieved.
We locked up the truck and were off through the gate. The first mile was perfect snow. A good warm up. Then there was a patch of bare road with sections of ice sheets. It wasn't huge, maybe 10 meters long. But the road was slanted in the direction of a cliff and you lose all control when there is no snow for the skegs to bite into. We had fortunately experienced this when crossing the road at Mt Washington. So we started on the high ground and went slowly and made across like a boss!
Shortly after that we came across and area that was maybe twice as long with compressed snow topped with rocks and bits of wood. It was a strange situation with a sheer cliff above and below. Fortunately the blizzard had left a light dusting of snow there but it was a bumpy section for sure.
Our goal for this day was Norris Geyser Basin. Which was 35km down the road. Thankfully the road was snowy the rest of the way. Just rutted in some areas. I expected way worse conditions due to the shutdown furloughing most maintenance jobs. As it turned out the private tour companies had pooled their resources and were grooming the roads daily.
We took our time and stopped many times along the way. It turned into a stunning day!
When we arrived at Norris there was one tour that was just coming up from the trails. It was about noon so we had some warm soup and tea. Packed a few morsels as I had intended on taking us on the full basin hike. And prepared our vehicles to deter any ravens from getting into our gear. They are smart little buggers so you have to tuck and cover everything very well.
As it turned out we had the basin entirely to ourselves for the rest of the evening. An experience very few will ever get in Yellowstone which see millions of visitors every year. We hiked down to Steamboat Geyser which has seen more action in the last year than ever before in recorded history! We did not see it go off but just the steam coming from deep within was beautiful. Amplified by the cold temperatures it had coated the rocks and trees around it in ice.
We continued down the path. Beyond any other footprints in the snow to where I had hoped to get a shot of a blue pool surrounded by trees similar to one I had taken last time I was there but to my surprise it was empty. It had drained when Steamboat re awakened!
There were many differences in the landscape and pros and cons to being there in the winter. This was one of the most drastic for me as it was a photo that I had really hoped to get. That snow with a little sun.....ah well. We tried hiking past this point but the snow became far too deep and there was still the other side of Norris to explore, which hold so much beauty. It was a tough slog climbing back up in the deep snow. Being up at 8000' as opposed to sea level can take its toll. We both avoided elevation sickness by drinking lots of fluids and pausing often so as not to push too hard.
The other side of Norris did not disappoint. The day was a stunning mix of cumulus clouds and clear skies. I was grateful for the yaktraks as we hiked down the other side of Norris. The boardwalk was billowy with snow with a tiny trail down the middle of trodden footprints. It was fairly easy hiking.
After spending a couple of hours hiking around we hiked back up to our snowmobiles for some more nourishment. I was happy we staved off the ravens.
It seemed to me that all was aligning for a great sunset and I convinced my daughter to stay until sunset which meant riding back in the dark. So we ventured back down the trail and were rewarded with not only one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen but also a sense of peace and solitude in the quiet of the basin that filled me to the brim with happiness.
We perched ourselves behind the plume of steam that you can see in the top left pic above and watched the sun set over the basin.
What a wonderful end to our first day snowmobiling in Yellowstone. We warmed our sleds up and started the drive back to our staging area. It was really nice to find the road really smooth and we found out why when half way back we caught up to a groomer going the same direction. When it could it let us pass and the road was far bumpier after that.
The areas that were rough and icy were a bit worse for the nice weather of the day but we made it passed those obstacles. But once we were back at the gate we were shocked to find it closed and locked! Our pass and all the literature said we had until 9pm to be out of the park and it was only 7!
Thankfully there was an area where the gate was about 1cm taller than our snowmobiles and after stamping the snow down we were able to slowly ride them under, doing the matrix move to avoid the bar taking us out. Phew!
We also decided to leave our snowmobiles parked there overnight so we did not have to load and then unload again the next morning. Which turned out to be a great decision!
Off we went to the warm and cozy Park Hotel to get warm, cook dinner and lunch for the next day and make sure all our photography gear was dry, charged and organized for the next day.
I worried about those bad spots on the road that night but mostly just felt stoked on how amazing that day was!
If you have any questions about the trip, leave a comment.