testing: Yellowstone Offers Variety or Rare Memorable Experiences

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November 12th, 2009

Nearly 100,000 people are expected to visit Yellowstone National Park during the winter season this year, and some of those travelers will hear something few Americans ever do: the howl of wild wolves. And that is just one rare and memorable experience that winter-season travelers can have in Yellowstone.

“We call Yellowstone ‘wonderland’ during the winter season. It not only seems like a completely different park in the winter, it sometimes seems like it is on an entirely different planet,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the lodges, restaurants, tours and gift shops. “Our visitors in the winter are typically curious and adventurous, and they tend to know a little something about fleece.”

Two lodges are open during the winter season – Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Travelers can drive to Mammoth through Gardiner, Mont. at the northern entrance to the park. Old Faithful Snow Lodge is only accessible via oversnow vehicles, snowmobiles or snowcoaches. Regular snowcoach transportation is available from the West and Southern entrances to the park as well as from Mammoth.

Here are some classic Yellowstone winter-season experiences:

Listen to the sound of the park awakening. One of Hoeninghausen’s favorite experiences is to park, pre-dawn, at a Lamar Valley viewpoint and listen to the sounds of the park’s non-human residents wake up as the sun rises. “There could be vanloads of people on tours, families and other travel groups sharing the viewpoint, but most people are truly silent for nearly an hour as the sun slowly rises,” said Hoeninghausen. “Some mornings we get lucky and hear wolves howl. Often the first sound is a bird chirping in the trees. It is amazing how loud these wild sounds can be when you allow yourself to hear them.”

Glide. Skiers will find that the park’s groomed cross-country ski trails provide plenty of appealing options. And recreational skiers seeking simply a pleasant day in the outdoors will find many easy, level trails. Xanterra takes guests of the two winter-season lodges to trailheads via snowcoaches. Regularly scheduled ski shuttles pick up skiers from both lodges and drop them off at trailheads around the park. The Lone Star Geyser Trail – considered a classic park ski trail of minimum difficulty – is a five-mile round-trip trail that takes skiers through a pristine backcountry area along the Firehole River. Lucky skiers can catch an eruption of the Lone Star Geyser at the end of the trail. Or take a Ski-Daddle and ski with a guide to Fairy Falls, a stunning backcountry waterfall. Both Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel offer ski shops with rentals and instructors.

Scope for wildlife. In Northern Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley – called America’s Serengeti because of the abundance of wildlife in that area – parka-clad travelers lined up at viewpoints to focus spotting scopes on valleys, ridges, woods and cliffs in the hope of seeing wolves, foxes, coyotes, bison, elk, eagles, big horn sheep or even moose. Do not walk in front of someone’s scope, advises Hoeninghausen, but feel free to ask fellow visitors for a peak if you are scopeless. “Our regular wildlife-watchers are fabulous, fun people who truly enjoy sharing the special experience of observing wildlife with other travelers,” he said.

Experience the Bomb. Yellowstone’s bright yellow Bombardiers – 10-person capacity snowcoaches – were introduced to the park in 1955. The coaches are loud, clunky and classic, with a history as colorful as the machine. The vehicles were built in Quebec by a company founded by Joseph-Armand Bombardier, an inventor whose company built Bombardier snowcoaches as well as Ski-Doo snowmobiles, and eventually Sea-Doo personal watercraft and other vehicles. Movie buffs may recognize snowcoaches from the movie How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. Although Bombardier stopped manufacturing snowcoaches in 1981, Xanterra still operates 19 of the vehicles as well as numerous other snowcoaches, including two that are ADA accessible.

Defrost. Both winter-season lodges – Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge – have inviting fireplaces where guests cozy up, sip drinks, read or just relax. Groups of guests can frequently be found playing board games and cards borrowed from the front desk.

Rejuvenate. After a day of outdoor adventures, guests of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge can relax with a massage. Therapists customize massage sessions – ranging from 35 to 80 minutes – with several different massage techniques.

Hear a winter soundscape. One of the most unusual and memorable tours in Yellowstone is the “Steam, Stars & Winter Soundscapes” excursion. Departing nightly from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, this snowcoach tour takes visitors down unlit roads to selected points where guests disembark. Guides urge guests to be as silent as possible. With the only light provided by stars, guests must rely only on their sense of hearing. Sounds such as steam hissing from fumeroles, trees rustling in the wind and even the occasional sound of an animal become quite noticeable – almost loud – when all other senses are deprived. The two and one-half hour tour costs $35 per person.

Skate. Both Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel feature free outdoor ice-skating rinks. Guests can borrow skates at no cost.

Crunch. Snowshoes are popular in Yellowstone, where the snow can be several feet deep in spots. Snowshoers can travel along ungroomed trails throughout the park. Guided snowshoe tours depart from each hotel every day.

Xanterra offers many other tours and experiences throughout the winter season, which begins Dec. 21 at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Dec. 18 at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and ends March 8 and March 7, respectively. For a complete listing of tours and activities visit www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com. A new online tool allows travelers to search for activities based on the desired duration and intensity of the adventure. For example, a visitor searching for a level six intensity ski excursion departing from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel will be directed to the Bunson Peak Trail, a six-mile loop trail that is rated “moderate to difficult.”

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 call (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375).