Celebrating a new year in a northwest winter

New Year, New Adventures

We brought in the new year with an adventure to northwest Montana.

Our trip began in Colorado and we headed up through eastern Wyoming to Billings, Montana, across interstate 90 to Livingston, Montana (just north of the entrance to Yellowstone). At this point it was around 11pm and we were both tired, so a small convenience store / cafe would do for the night. We pulled in, organized our sleeping spots, and put our heads under the blankets this night. Low temperatures potentially into the negatives were expected.

North Entrance of Yellowstone
North Entrance of Yellowstone

Breakfast & Bison

Morning welcomed us early, before sunrise, with frosty windows. We quickly headed from Livingston to Gardiner, Montana (Yellowstone’s north entrance gateway town). Driving past the hot springs to ensure a morning in Lamar Valley, we drove for just a few hours into a very crisp, cold, sparkling, snowy wonderland in northern Yellowstone. This time of year only the road from the north entrance (Gardiner, Montana) to the northeast entrance  (Cooke City, Montana) is open to driving through. The rest of the park is guided by snowmobiles and coach tours.

Breakfast & Bison
Breakfast & Bison


Animal Sightings Incredible in Yellowstone Winter!

It didn’t take long to start spotting animals. These guys are enduring some tough conditions in Yellowstone, known for its extreme cold and high snowfall totals. Bison were the first spotted – some of the toughest winter dwellers in the park. We pulled off in a partially plowed spot to have a small breakfast.  We heated some water for a nice cup of hot cocoa to try to stay warm, as temperatures hovered in the negatives and my nose froze together with each breath. Homemade zucchini bread and hot cocoa never tasted better!

Continuing on, we came upon an elk on the side of the road. He had large antlers and looked beautiful in the morning sun!

Finally we entered into the main part of Lamar Valley and, as promised, wolves were in the area. A typical Yellowstone traffic jam hinted at a probable animal siting. However, we didn’t see anything as we drove past.  So, we pulled off and walked down a path towards some spotters with large lenses (another hint at wolves). Sure enough, a wolf pack had 3 seperated bison on watch. One wolf in particular was very close to the bison, as he circled them and their young vulnerable bison. However, with two adults there, the wolves just never got the opportunity to snag the baby bison. We watched them for a little under an hour, mostly through long range lenses of other wolf watchers, researchers, or tourists. The grey wolf eventually reluctantly moved away from the bison.

Yellowstone Wolf Chase Bison
Yellowstone Wolf Chase Bison

Yellowstone in winter is very different than the hustle and bustle of summer. Less traffic, less crowds, and all white makes this an incredible place to see, and a must if you love Yellowstone, nature, and wildlife. The density of animals was still fantastic, aside from the hibernating bears.  Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see a Red Fox against this snowy background (one of my hopes), but we’re pretty happy with our wolf sightings.

Yes, I said sightings… we got lucky with another wolf show later on (around sunset).  This time, one wolf was harassing several coyote. It took a while to realize there were about four or so coyote in the area.  At first, they just yipped and yelled at this black wolf who appeared to be munching on some remains of a carcass, partially buried, and apparently already claimed by the coyotes. One by one, they surrounded the wolf, but he seemed less than intimidated by this approach. Eventually, he moved on, but not before first rolling on the ground like a happy dog, shoving it in the coyotes faces.

We did make it through to Cooke City, before the second wolf siting. We had a cold lunch (leftover sandwiches) on our way there while looking at the beautiful Yellowstone landscape. Once in Cooke City, a town of snow mobiles, we ensured that this road was closed right at the edge of town – no chance of seeing any part of the great Beartooth Highway.  I guess we’ll have to wait until later this year for another trip to this awesome place!

We began our journey out of Yellowstone shortly after the second wolf siting, which was at dusk. The setting of the sun takes away any small amount of solar heat that day provided, and the landscape, already in the near negatives, began to give way to a very cold night. As we journeyed out, we saw the coyotes crossing a frozen river as they departed the area too. Bison in the sunset were a beautiful end to this day. By the time we made it back out of the park, darkness had set. We decided to stop at a rest stop just past Gardiner. We cooked up some spaghetti on the pocket stove and then tucked in for another cold night.

The next morning we drove through the beautiful sparkling valley of blanketed snow, surround by mountain views and filled with elk herds. We made our way up to Missoula area where we explored for our future home base in Montana.

Glacier in Winter: A Must See

We also made a stop in Glacier National Park in winter. The pines barely held up globs of snow on their bending branches and a cold Lake McDonald was calm and clear, offering us picturesque reflections of the local mountains. We were lucky to have gone on a clear day. We played by the water of the lake, taking pictures and filtering water to drink. The pup enjoyed this delicious refreshment! We watched some deer and then headed out.

Snowy Travels Home, No Hope for Seeing the Tetons

Next, we began our long journey back to our current home base in Colorado. This time, we headed down through eastern Idaho to take a chance at seeing the Grand Tetons in winter. We weren’t so lucky though. As we headed down through Idaho, we entered a snow storm which meant icy roads and a slow journey down, but we were lucky enough to add one more animal to our list from this adventure – big horn sheep! Afterwards, the snow storm impeded our view of the Tetons. We took our lunch to a potential mountain view, waited it out, and when we knew the snow was too much for a view we made the best of it and played in the snow.  Lillee was unimpressed by the cold afterwards we headed back to Colorado, a long 9 hours more, for a late arrival back.

For more pictures from this trip, see: Northwest Winter Photo Album

After less than a week of amazing fun, we can’t help but be overwhelmed with excitement of what’s to come this summer on the road.