testing: How to Tell If a Winter Vacation in Yellowstone is For You

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August 02nd, 2011

Much of the country is experiencing the dog days of summer, when bright summer wardrobes are beginning to seem dreary and soaring temperatures are challenging the temperaments of even the most good-natured among us. So now is a perfect time to begin planning a winter vacation in Yellowstone National Park.

“While our summer operations offer more than 2,000 rooms per night, in winter we have only two lodges open with about one-tenth that number of rooms,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the lodges, restaurants, gift shops and activities in the park. “So winter is a much more intimate experience. And there is a reason we call this park wonderland in the winter. With its fascinating snowscapes and frosty animals, the park is, quite simply, breathtaking.”

How do you know if a winter vacation in Yellowstone is for you? “Here, you’ll see far more capilene than cashmere,” said Hoeninghausen. “Travelers who appreciate Mother Nature’s finest work and don’t mind a little frosty weather can experience a vacation here that will be truly memorable.”

Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are the park’s two winter-season hotels, with a combined room count of about 230 rooms and cabins. While travelers can drive to Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel through the park’s northern entrance, Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the park’s interior is only accessible by over-snow vehicles – snowcoaches or snowmobiles.

Hoeninghausen provided these suggestions for determining if a winter vacation in Yellowstone is for you.

You are a mind-over-matter type of person. It’s hot right now; it will be plenty cold then. Much of the country has been experiencing high temperatures recently. In December, Yellowstone could be experiencing in the below-zeros, although more typical weather that month is in the 20s. Don’t you feel cooler just thinking about it?

You’re tired of coach-class travel. No seat backs or tray tables to adjust in this coach. Xanterra’s fleet of historic Bombardier and rubber-tracked snowcoaches provide transportation from gateways to the park’s interior and take travelers on tours of the park. Classic Bombardiers have a history as colorful as the bright yellow snowcoaches themselves. Built in Quebec by a company founded by Joseph-Armand Bombardier – whose company also builds snowmobiles and jet skis – the Bombardier became widely recognized when Marilyn Monroe drove one in a hilarious scene from the movie How to Marry a Millionaire. Xanterra has a fleet of 29 snowcoaches, including two that are ADA accessible.

You have a thing for furry animals. The park’s signature animal – bison – wanders through the park slowly to conserve its energy in the winter, providing visitors with plenty of chances to observe these massive mammals in their natural habitat. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the bison population in Yellowstone today numbers more than 3,000. In Northern Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley – called America’s Serengeti because of the abundance of wildlife in that area – visitors may also see wolves, foxes, coyotes, elk, eagles, big horn sheep and even moose.

You’d like an excuse to buy some new long underwear. If you’re the type with a closet full of high-tech layers, and you know exactly where you stashed your Sorrels last spring, a winter vacation in Yellowstone might be for you. Xanterra employees during the winter season subscribe to the philosophy that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. And won’t it feel good to stride past the sports store displays of baseball bats and tents and head to the winter clothing section? You might just have the place to yourself.

You find your rhythm with skis on. The park’s miles of groomed cross-country ski trails are appealing to beginning and advanced cross-country skiers alike. Xanterra operates regularly scheduled ski shuttles that pick up skiers from both lodges and drop them off and pick them up from trailheads around the park. Both hotels offer ski shops with rentals and instructors.

You also like extra large shoes. With snow several feet deep in many spots, snowshoeing in the park is almost as popular as cross-country skiing. Snowshoers can travel along marked – but ungroomed — trails throughout the park, and guided tours can be arranged from both hotels every day with advance notice. Snowshoes can be rented from both lodges too.

And blades too. Completing the winter-season trifecta of human-powered activities, guests can borrow skates at no cost and skate on both lodges’ free outdoor ice-skating rinks. It’s possible to ski, snowshoe and skate all in one day.

You think starry nights are romantic. Picture this. You and the one you love are in the middle of the park on a cloudless winter night with no one else around except the handful of other guests who are also on Xanterra’s popular “Steam, Stars & Winter Soundscapes” tour. You can see nothing but the stars in the sky. Your guide urges everyone to be silent. And you hear steam hissing from fumeroles, trees rustling in the wind and even the occasional sound of an animal. On clear, moonless nights, it is even possible to see star shadows on the snow. Xanterra doesn’t promise the nights will be cloudless and starry, but tour participants do say it’s one of the most memorable parts of their vacations. The two and one-half-hour tour is under $40.

And you’re also a fan of mornings. The “Wake Up to Wildlife” tour departing from Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at 6:45 a.m. four days a week includes coffee, juice, a muffin and, potentially, wolves. Morning is the best time of the day to see wildlife in Lamar Valley, and winter is the best season of the year to see wolves. Xanterra guides explain winter wildlife behavior while searching for animal sightings. This tour returns at 11 a.m.

You favor fireplaces over disco balls. Your perfect evening involves a fire. Both Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge have inviting fireplaces where guests cozy up, sip drinks, read, chat and play cards or board games borrowed from the front desk. No DJs or pulsing lights, but live piano music is featured most nights in both hotel lobbies.

And you don’t mind saying “ahhh” every now and then. After a day of outdoor adventures, guests of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge can relax with a massage. A therapist customizes massage sessions, which range from 35 to 80 minutes, and use several different massage techniques.

Xanterra offers many other tours and experiences throughout the winter season, which begins Dec. 20 at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Dec. 18 at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and ends March 5 and March 4, 2012, respectively. For a complete listing of tours and activities visit www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com. An online tool allows travelers to search for activities based on the desired duration and intensity of the adventure.
Xanterra also offers multi-day Winter Getaway packages and Lodging & Learning programs that incorporate a variety of guided activities, some meals, ground transportation and lodging.

For lodging reservations and to book tours and packages, visit www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or call (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375).