North Yellowstone: Winter 2015

 

We were discussing where to travel during the thanksgiving break.  We were already late for making reservations and given that it was November first week, most of the famous tourist destinations were either booked or super expensive.  Four of my friends decided to fly over to Phoenix airport and then drive to Albuqurque White Sands national monument for the thanksgiving break.  However, on looking up the state in tripadvisor, it seemed like there was not much to do apart from white sands and given that it would be freezing, camping or staying in tent was not in the option.  While discussing other options, one of my friends suggested Yellowstone… again!

We visited Yellowstone park in 2012 during our christmas break and it was an awesome trip.  Instead of reminiscing about the trip, we decided let’s do the trip again.  Most of the park stays closed for cleaning during thanksgiving break and only part open is a route between Gardiner, MT and Cooke City, MT that passes through Lamar valley.  We called up the West Yellowstone snowmobile company we used the last time named Two Top snowmobile and they confirmed that the park didn’t allow for snowmobiles to go in either.

Finally, the day of the trip arrived and I was super sick with cough and cold and it seemed at a point that I might not go on the trip but I was too thrilled to miss out on it.  We went to pick up our car but the Avis at San Jose airport was out of AWD suv, the kind we needed to drive through the snow storm Cara fast approaching the northern US states.  Moving around from counter to counter at the rental car centre, we finally got a nice AWD SUV with full coverage for ~500$ from Firefly rental.  We started our drive to Yellowstone from San Jose at around 7 pm on 25th November and reached West Yellowstone at around 5 pm on the 26th.  Do make sure to carry food with you as most of the places along the route stay closed for thanksgiving break.  We grabbed lunch at an IHOP in Pocatello, ID and bought some snow tubes from Walmart there.

_DSC0062The drive is a bit longer from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, MT because the internal road from within the park is shut off and that causes us to take a detour via Bozeman.  We had booked a room at Super 8 motel in Gardiner, MT and checking in our stuff, we went right to the North entrance at around 10 PM.  The weather had dropped to a chilly -9 degree F.  However, we got to see a few Bisons and elks resting around a patch of river that had lukewarm water from the volcanic activity in the park.  Tired and stank up from the long drive, we went back to the motel to relax.

The next day we woke up and had a dip at the heated pool in the motel.  They also serve a good breakfast of cereals, toast, yoghurt, coffee, apple and orange juice and boiled eggs.  Many of the places in Gardiner close out early during winter and once you enter the park, it is difficult to find anything to eat unless you cross over the Cooke City.

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Having had a good breakfast, we left the motel and stopped at mammoth hot springs first.  It is a small spring of hot water that melts the snow and creates nice steam on its way down.  There is a hike that takes you on top of the mountain to get a better view of the valley.  We were able to catch a herd of deers on the park entrance itself.  The whole area had received fresh snowfall and was covered in a white sheet!  It is mesmerizing and beautiful to drive through the open road within the park.  We drove through the Lamar Valley to witness huge bisons just eating through the snow, Elks and deers stopping on the warm street and the hordes of scientists and tourists trying to figure where the wolves are at.  Yellowstone has several packs of wolves and many people visit the park in winter to take a class on the habits of wolves.  We met with a couple from Ireland who showed us how to setup our tripod and shared information with us to visit the park early at around 7 AM the next day to witness packs of wolves in the valley.

We crossed over to Cooke city for lunch at Soda butte lodge.  They had a veggie sandwich for vegetarians and it is possible to rent snow mobiles/skis from Cooke city.  However, we just had our lunch and turned back to Gardiner.  The drive between the two cities takes around 2 hours.  On our way back, we met another group of scientists who showed us Mountain goats on their telescopes.  By the time we returned to Gardiner, the only place open for dinner was K-bar.  I have added information for the restaurants at the bottom of the page.

The next morning, I stayed back as wasn’t feeling well but the others left at around 6 am to catch the wolf packs.  They were able to catch Mollie’s pack and Lamar pack with their telescopes.  It is amazing to watch these wolves walk around the vast valley in early morning.  Everybody was exchanging information about the habits and behavior of the wolves.  Oddly enough my friends also caught a bison mating ritual and it was funny because the male would keep eating, suddenly try to mate with the female and on her rejection, start eating the grass again.

Once the group returned from the wolf chase, we visited Boiling river.  Boiling river is a small natural pool where scalding hot water from the park mixes up with the icy cold river water to provide a lukewarm reservoir for people to bathe in.  There is a small hike to get to the place and in winter the place is not much crowded.  The day we were visiting boiling river, the temperature was -21F.  We took off our clothing and dipped into the warm water.  However, the problem is the water at surface is warm and you still get a icy current at the bottom causing you to scream with cold.  It is a fun activity though and we met a bunch of tourists there.  Getting out of the water is the real ordeal as you are suddenly hit with the force of winter and as soon as I stepped out of the water, my hair turned into solid ice, I stopped feeling my hands and feet for the time I was dressing up.  The walk back to the car from this pool was horrendous with shivers ran through the spine within the large snow jacket and pants.

Places to eat in Gardiner for Vegetarians:

K-BAR

K-Bar is a pizza place that also serves half glasses of beers.  The owner of the place is also a San Franciscan and so we hit it off really well.  He gave us suggestions on the pizzas and we ended up ordering garlic bread with marinara sauce (Their alfredo sauce was watery and tasteless), tostada pizza and a make our own with pesto sauce.  K-bar has really good Pesto sauce and the pizzas were delicious.  Given that we were super hungry after a day filled with snow tubing, waddling snow and running around, we devoured the pizza in no time at all.  We ended up eating twice at K-bar on this trip as this was the only place open till 10 PM.

Yellowstone grill

Yellowstone grill had several veggie options.  We tried their Thai style burrito and black bean burger and both were good.  Their french fries were not that good however but do try out the soup of the day with their grilled cheese which is also delish.  The grill is warm and cozy and is right opposite K-bar.

Tumbleweed bookstore and cafe

Tumbleweed bookstore and Cafe is a small shop with lot of informative books on yellowstone area.  We were lucky to have the owner make warm soup as we entered.  They also had some hummus sandwiches.

Wokking Panda chinese

Wokking panda is a very small chinese place that has a very few vegetarian options.  In case you are bored of the american fare, you can try this place out.  It closes really early at around 8 though so do plan to be here early.  Also, the place can not sit large groups so take out would be your best bet.

Finally, if nothing works there is a subway in a gas station near the park entrance.

Many people claim that Yellowstone is best in summer but we have found it is simply astounding with its wildlife, snow covered peaks, hot water springs and frozen lakes to be a sight to behold in winter.  In case you have time, do stop by at Chico hot springs or Janitzio mexican restaurant in Twin Falls, ID.  A winter wonderland, a heaven on earth; Yellowstone in winter is one of the best places I’ve ever visited.

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West Yellowstone National Park

 

Yellowstone park

Yellowstone park

 

Snow ghosts at Yellowstone

Snow ghosts at Yellowstone

After returning from my Christmas break 2012, I was lazy to get on to wordpress and type in my next entry.  Finally, I got time today to pen the blog.  I went out to Yellowstone national park in winter 2012 and to tell the truth that was the best time I had travelling.  I am going to post pictures and hope this entry is really useful for someone planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Winter.  We decided on driving from San Francisco, CA to Los Angeles, CA as rental cars were cheaper in LA in the month of December.  The drive from Los Angeles to West Yellowstone Park, MT is about 1009 Miles and a journey of 15 hours.

Phase 1: Drive to West Yellowstone, MT

Enterprise Rental Car: We were supposed to get a 5 seater SUV from Enterprise Rental car at 12 noon on Saturday, December 22, 2012 from 21118 Ventura Boulevard, Woodland Hills, CA.  My friend and I reached there a bit early at 9 A.M. hoping to get a car early so that we could get a headstart in the traffic.  The person at the front desk was really nice asking us to wait and accommodated our request for early pickup.  However, a lady named Monica who came out to hand the car keys over to us was pretty rude and annoying.  She would just not let us drive without getting the Liability insurance (which is 20 bucks a day i.e. more than the cost of the rental per day).  I never purchase the liability from rental car company as most of the credit cards today act as the primary rental insurance.  I was pretty pissed by the behavior of that particular employee and it was really not good customer service.  I finally got behind the wheels of our Jeep Patriot after about 30 minutes of Monica’s annoying chatter and drove out deciding never ever to rent a car from this particular Enterprise ever in the future.

We stopped at two LA locations namely Halal Gyro Pizza House, which serves awesome Aloo Paranthas that are the size of a XXL pizza with spicy masala scattered on top served with yogurt and coriander chutney and Tawakal which serves pretty good Veg. Biryani that is spicy and the portion size is also pretty good here.  After devouring the food, we started driving for the journey ahead and made some stops in between for snow shoes, gloves, etc.  We went north from LA, covering the full width of Nevada and crossing over Idaho to finally reach West Yellowstone, MT on 23rd December right for lunch.

I would like to mention that the drive through Nevada was gorgeous.  It seemed like we were the only people driving out that night as the roads were pretty much empty except for our car.  We went through the death valley at night and it was covered with snow as far as the eye could see.  The moonlight shone brightly on the roads lighting up our path and because there are no human lights to distort the night sky, the twinkling stars are visible in a manner that is never possible in San Francisco.  One issue that we faced was that the gas stations in death valley are spaced far apart and so you should get your car filled up whenever you see one just to be safe.  You might also need snow chains if the roads are not cleared (lucky for us, the roads were always cleared and we didn’t have to use ours) or get a 4 wheel drive for the ice covered roads.

Phase 2: West Yellowstone, MT

The Gusher Pizza at Yellowstone

The Gusher Pizza at Yellowstone

 

The first thing we wanted to do after reaching here was to grab something to eat.  However, because it is winter time and there aren’t many tourists most of the places are shut off for the season.  We found a place called The Gusher which seemed decent and was the only place open at 2 PM.  The waitress was very nice and welcoming and we ordered tons of food.  The Taco special pizza was not great but wasn’t bad either and resembled the CPK tostada pizza.  They had some real good garlic bread though and nothing seemed to be extraordinary from what we ordered.  Once we finished lunch, we were all tired from the exhaustive drive and so next destination was the hotel room.  We booked rooms at the Best Western and the room was pretty cheap and decent (69$ for 2 double beds per night).  The kid at the front desk was very helpful and the awesome thing is that they have a jacuzzi and heated indoor pool!!!  As there was not much rush, we got our room right next to the pool and headed out for a dip straightaway after checking our luggage into the rooms.  It is awesome to see snow falling down outside while you are relaxing in the heated jacuzzi.  However, the walk from the pool area to our rooms was freezing as we were down in our shorts and had to run through about knee deep snow to get to our room.  Also, the hotel was right next to the park entrance making it a viable choice.  Lodging options within the park are really costly but would be a better option as the Old Faithful lodge is right next to the Geyser and if you are staying in the park then you can roam around without a guide to help you out (which is mandatory for people staying outside the park!).  I took out my newly purchased Nikon, got dressed up in about 4-5 layers of clothing and went out to take a few snaps while the rest of the gang hit the bed.  I met some locals, took some great pictures and then drove back to sleep before we go out and grab dinner.  REMEMBER it is freezing here and so always wear several layers of clothing, gloves, some sort of head wear to warm you up as the weather can really drop to 0Fs in no time at all.

We woke up and walked up to a place called Wild West Pizzeria.  They have divided the place into pub and restaurant and we went to the restaurant area.  My friend mentioned that the Pub is also good and they have some very cheap drinks to offer.  I ended up ordering a macaroni and cheese which was really bad.  My friends also ordered some chicken wings which they mentioned were disgusting too, a spaghetti that was mediocre and so we were pretty much all disappointed with the food.  We enjoyed a lot in the snow after that… we took along a snow tube and so played with it first, there was a parking behind the hotel that was not cleared and covered with snow that was almost waist high.  I tried to be an athlete from X-games trying to run and then jump onto the snow sliding plate, falling down hard in the process and injuring my wrist that hurts to this day 😦  It gets dark in this season at about 4:30 PM itself so at about 10 PM we were done for the day and went to sleep.

Phase 3: Snowmobile ride in West Yellowstone, MT

Snow Mobiles

Snow Mobiles

 

We had booked snowmobile rides from before for 24th December, 2012 at Two Top Snowmobiles for a guided tour of the park until Old Faithful geyser.  As we did last minute reservations, we didn’t get the full day adventure that covers more areas of the park.  There are also options to rent snowmobiles for the day and drive outside the park.  We rented out helmets, overalls and gloves from the rental office for 16$ per person.  After getting all suited up, we were given primary driving instructions and safety orientation by our guide.  Handling the snowmobile was a bit tricky at first but once you get the hang of it, it is awesome.  I sort of imagined myself to be James Bond driving through the snow peaked mountains chasing the bad guys all over the place.  We got to see coyotes, Elks, Bisons, etc wild animals in their natural habitat and I cannot describe the experience in words.  The park looks simply marvellous with Aspen trees everywhere, snow covered mountains and steam from the hot water geysers rising up intermittently.  We drove all the way to Old Faithful geyser, saw it erupt against the white backdrop provided by the snow.  We ate at the park fast food joint run by Xantarra Parks and Resorts.  We ordered some french fries, Veggie burgers, black bean burgers, ministrone soup and some hot drinks.  The food was good and some of it was tasty.  I actually had no expectations from the place in the middle of this much snow but vegetarians will seriously have no problem.  We drove back out of the park. making stops at some geysers, a hot waterfall in midst of snow and was close to 5 PM when we left the park for the day.  We had dinner at a chinese place called Red Lotus where a single old chinese man did all the work.  We were the only customers there at night for dinner and the place had some good hot soup, nice chow mein and friend rice.  We also ordered the Lo Mein but I like spicy food and the noodles were very bland for my taste.

Although I want to continue writing and finish the rest of the journey too, I am feeling sleepy and am craving the Beard Papa’s chocolate filled bun at my place so will continue the thread tomorrow with part 2 of the trip and probably post some pictures here and also in the next post.  Sorry to keep you waiting!!