They close the roads in Yellowstone National Park. In the winter. Just because. Because it's snowing! Do they think the park is made of sugar and will melt?
When I fall out of the plane in Montana after 18 hours and my eyelids freeze shut after two seconds, I get a slight inkling that winter in the North American Rocky Mountains means more than slipping on a layer of salt once a year on the way to Walmart.
However, I never wait until things happen to me, but instead I make things happen. After three days my boyfriend and I find out you can rent a snowmobile on a guided tour through the park. When my boyfriend sees the price, the coffee almost slips out of his hand.
"No sweat!" I say matter-of-factly. "I got money for my birthday. I wanted to invest it well anyway. I'm booking the crap!"
Who could have known that this day would be one of the most beautiful days of my life? That I could almost touch a coyote and I would watch majestic bison with golden fur trudge through the snow just two yards away. Life is not tomorrow or twenty years from now. It is now. Hallelujah!
I'm in a space suit with moon boots at the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. On a snowmobile. It is 8 o'clock in the morning, the sun is painting sharp, fiery red edges on the mountains and the temperature is a chilling 7°F. Our guide asks something. I don't understand anything because I am wearing a huge bright yellow helmet that makes me look like Maya the Bee visiting the Hells Angels. But I’m not worried, I can't answer anything anyway because I have a ski mask in my face under the helmet.
A short time later we thunder through Sylvan Pass at an altitude of 8,200 feet. I feel like I'm on a motorcycle: the snowmobile is loud, I feel every hole on the road and it is hell-roaring fun. It's snowing. I briefly open the visor of my Neil Armstrong outfit to scratch my nose. Then my nose is suddenly gone. Actually, my whole face is gone. Ripped away as a result of the minus 13°F wind chill. No matter – who said that you need a face to see anything? I slam the visor shut and instead admire the snow-covered switchbacks on the way down to Yellowstone Lake.
Driving by car through Yellowstone in winter. I truly had fun ideas when I came here. I have to laugh out loud. But because the snowmobile rattles so loudly, nobody notices how silly that is. The asphalt is buried under 20 inches of snow. Nothing travels here without runners or tank treads. I start to lose the feeling in my toes despite moon boots. Good thing that happens in the first half hour of our nine-hour trip. If you don't need a face to see, you might not need toes to walk.
The huge Yellowstone Lake is completely gone. I mean: a lake with a circumference of 110 miles. Gone! Swallowed by thick snow-covered ice. On the left side, hot springs emit steam like candles releasing fog from their tops.
Suddenly we see a herd of bison on the road in front of us. We drive past them slowly, like a moon orbiting a planet. Our guide tells us to turn off the engine. Suddenly it is incredibly quiet, an icy silence. We dismount and stand behind the snowmobiles. The majestic beasts with the long, golden fur approach us peacefully. They walk quietly past us. I see snow crystals in their thick fur and on their long, dark eyelashes. Their warm, black eyes seem to gaze into the distance and I hear the crunch of snow under their feet. There is no wind. I can almost hear the snow falling. I am standing here in the infinity of this magical moment; right in the middle. I am part of this nature, this world. We and the bison. Everything is one. Where we come from, where we go. The earth on which we stand.
At a short stop in a wooden warming hut, I almost want to jump into the fireplace feet first. Then I go out again to photograph giant icicles hanging from the roof of an outhouse. Soon we roar through Hayden Valley. As I hold on to the heated handles of the snowmobile, the sun begins to shine, and the temperature is up to a balmy 17°F. I almost get a heat stroke. Then suddenly we stop again. I peek into the forest while everyone else is looking in the opposite direction.
"A coyote!" My boyfriend whispers to me in awe. It is obviously difficult to look in the right direction when you have no face! I finally figure out what is going on and I am looking at the road. Not yet seeing the snowmobiles, the shy animal comes closer, prancing on velvet paws. Like a mixture of fox and wolf. I forget to breathe. He just trots down the road towards us for a while, then he notices us, stops and decides he would rather walk through the forest than around our Mars rovers and he disappears into the undergrowth. I squeeze my boyfriend's arm like crazy with silent enthusiasm. He smiles. He knows that he lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Around noon we are at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. To be honest, the colorful, surreal gorge with the thundering, turquoise waterfall is much more impressive in summer than the other Grand Canyon in Arizona, which is mainly just deep. Of all the National Parks in the USA, Grand Canyon is the least emotionally moving for me.
We park and take off our helmets because the atmosphere still apparently contains enough oxygen to sustain life. The footpath to the viewing area for the 109-foot-high Upper Falls has been cleared. But the snow walls on either side of the path reach up to my shoulders as we walk.
"Holy moly!" I call, and put my hand in it as if I had to pinch myself in a dream. I think of the inch-high, brown, muddy snow, which is on my streets every ten years in Germany, when rush hour traffic collapses and the meteorologist almost gets a stroke on television. At the viewpoint, I notice tons of ice floes circulating in an eddy at the side of the Yellowstone River at the bottom of the Upper Falls.
"Do we see Artist Point today?" I ask curiously about one of the most famous vantage points in Yellowstone.
"Patience," says the guide mischievously.
"Patience is my middle name," I reply, rolling my eyes.
Of course, we see Artist Point. And something seems to be wrong with the hissing 308-foot Lower Falls visible from there. They don't hiss.
"Holy cow!" I finally shout and shake my boyfriend on the shoulders. "Are they really frozen?! I mean, the entire Lower Falls?”
We stare at the waterfall, which is almost twice as high as the Niagara Falls. Giant icicles in shimmering white and bright light blue hang from the cliff. Like huge organ pipes in an ice queen's symphony orchestra. Thundering water is still spraying out only at a narrow point. I've never seen anything like it. I dance around and point to the scenery again and again like one of Santa Claus’s little elves.
On the way back to the snowmobiles, my boyfriend dislodges lumps of ice from the snow walls next to the path and kicks them around.
"Does that make any sense?" I ask him.
"No. Not at all,” he says as he laughs. His ice blue eyes shine.
"I love you," I reply.
After we eat our previously-packed sandwiches at one of the few open and heated buildings in the park, I tried to go to the bathroom in my one-piece snowsuit in under three hours.
Now we dash back through Hayden Valley to Dragon’s Mouth. The snowmobile fights its way through dense snowdrifts and my third cervical vertebra falls out somewhere along the way. But I can't stop smiling. Great shit! On the way I ask my boyfriend if he doesn't get tired after almost seven hours of driving. He looks at me like I have a waffle where my brain should be. He is a By Gosh Cowboy from Wyoming!
Sorry, I had forgotten briefly.
By the way, two of the great sights in Yellowstone make no sense in winter: Both the Old Faithful Geyser and the colorful Grand Prismatic Hot Spring produce too much steam in the cold. You don't really see anything much more than a white rabbit with white eyes on a white, snowy background.
However, Dragon’s Mouth is impressive. This mysterious cave where water boils and roils as if a monster were cooking chocolate pudding with booze inside it.
"Look at the small, funny snow islands in the hot water," I say and look to the left.
"Look at the twenty bison," says my boyfriend, looking to the right. They graze almost right next to us. Something really is wrong with my face today.
After nine hours we land again in the small parking lot of Pahaska Tepee outside Yellowstone’s East Entrance. I can’t feel my feet and I have a sore butt. With my last bit of energy, I exclaim: "That was one of the best things I've ever done in my life!"
Yellowstone National Park usually only opens in May for normal car traffic and often closes in October. But now I also know that being outside during the winter is wonderful in Yellowstone! You can book snowmobile tours and roundtrips in heated buses with huge tractor-like wheels (for losers) at most Park entrances. You can expect a minimum of medium three-digit amounts for a day trip. For the East Entrance (as of February 2020) the only snowmobile tours are offered from Gary Fales Outfitting. In order to drive a snowmobile into the park without a guide, you must first attend a course and obtain a permit. Yellowstone in the summer is fabulous. But if you want to experience the park from a very quiet, magical although harsh side, you should definitely come here in winter.
You can find more adventures in the wintry Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Montana in my report A freezing Nose and burning Skin: Ice in the Canyon and a Tattoo for Eternity.