Yellowstone in Winter

“A Mammoth Ending”

This morning Yellowstone treated us to another amazingly beautiful sunrise. We stopped to appreciate the beauty before heading to the Mammoth Hot Springs to meet with Erin and Kieran, two members of the park’s geology crew, and Mike Coonan, an education ranger for the park.

Sunrise from Mammoth Hot Springs

As we walked the boardwalk, we learned about how the geology of Mammoth Hot Springs differs from that of the geyser basins in the southern part of the park. The Mammoth Hot Springs form terraces made of travertine, which comes from hot water dissolving limestone. The dissolved minerals precipitate out of the water to form the travertine terraces. The terraces grow very quickly, sometimes more than a foot a year! We even saw trees that previously were growing in the dirt and are now being swallowed by the travertine. 

Canary Spring at Mammoth Hot Springs, surrounded by dead trees

The park geologists also talked to us about some of their work in the park, ranging from piecing together the history of various areas of the park to being trained how to walk near thermal features in order to take measurements and retrieve trash that people lose in the hot springs and geysers, either accidentally or intentionally. A few decades ago, scientists working for the park occasionally took a small boat out on the hot springs to measure the depth. Erin and Kieran are very glad that they don’t have to do that anymore because many of the springs are close to the boiling point! The education ranger, Mike, reminded us of how special Yellowstone is. The 2.2 million acres of the park contain an intact ecosystem that is preserved and largely untouched by human development. Yellowstone’s wilderness today is very similar to how it was when the first indigenous peoples were using the area at the end of the last ice age approximately ~11,000 years ago.

After spending the morning at Mammoth Hot Springs, we packed up and headed to Bozeman to catch our flight back to North Carolina. 

Group at dinner in the Minneapolis airport celebrating Tracy’s birthday tomorrow!

On this trip, we were pushed out of our comfort zones by challenging snowshoe hikes, extreme cold, and even by taking the leap to fly across the country with a group of strangers. We proved to ourselves that we can do hard things and even thrive in challenging situations. (Having the right gear really helps!) We are exhausted, rejuvenated, and in awe of Yellowstone’s vast magnificence. We are walking back into our classrooms full of excitement and ready to share all we learned about ecology, geology and history. We hope to share with our students the understanding that nature is interconnected, fragile, and important to conserve. 

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and will understand only what we are taught.”                   

– Baba Dioum


Yellowstone in Winter

“-15°F? Oh, it’s warm outside!”

For our last full day at Yellowstone we had two things on the docket: to go snowshoeing and to see our last ungulate, the mountain goat. We got into the park before sunrise making our way to a bison carcass we saw yesterday. While there, we watched 3 coyotes feeding on the bison (and later in the day we saw a wolf feeding on the same carcass). After that, we made two passes through the northeast corner of the park looking for mountain goats, but saw nothing.

Wolf at bison carcass

Our morning was freezing while checking things off our docket. It was -28°F as we were heading into the park, and the highest temperature we experienced today was -4°F. Throughout this “negative” day, we (unfortunately) had to use pit toilets. The toilet seat was so cold our infrared thermometer couldn’t even give us a reading on the temperature! Surprisingly, several of us mentioned how much warmer today’s temperatures felt. If you’d asked us before this trip, none of us would ever have thought -4°F was warm. However, when experiencing temperatures around -30°F, -4°F really does seem warm! This trip has taught us the importance of layers of clothing; we added and took away layers as we moved throughout the day and got in and out of cars.

We made one more pass through Lamar Valley to spot a mountain goat but came up unsuccessful yet again. With the weather in the negative teens all morning, when we stopped in Cooke City, MT to get coffee at Cooke City Coffee we were thrilled. After warming ourselves with a hot beverage, we continued our search for the elusive mountain goat. This next pass was not without issues. One of our SUVs discovered the importance of friction, when it slid on a patch of ice and got stuck in deep snow on the side of the road. No sooner had we gotten out of our vehicle to investigate when help arrived. This “help” just so happened to be Dr. John Winnie, ecology professor for Montana State University, in his truck with a tow strap! Within just a few minutes he was able to pull us out. We thanked him and offered him some baked goods (which he declined), and we exchanged information (never pass up the opportunity to network).


After, with our new friend John

With our crisis averted, we moved on to our last snowshoe hike along the beautiful Pebble Creek. The trek was simple but the beauty was breathtaking. This area was devastated by the floods of 2022, and we saw evidence of this devastation on the landscape – downed trees, tangled picnic tables, and freshly eroded rocks. Our group observed canine and moose tracks along with an American dipper nest (see our earlier post for more on this amazing bird). Our group was blown away by the beauty, history and geology found within this small box canyon. While there, Klara shared a beautiful poem with our group. Everyone of our group members gained something different out of this snowshoe experience.

We ended our day in the park with one last look for a mountain goat, with no luck. We headed out of the park and made one last stop to take in a magical Yellowstone sunset!

Group on snowshoe hike

As we wrapped up our final group meeting, we realized we all managed to fulfill all the goals we set at the beginning of the trip from learning about geothermal features (Tracy) to experiencing moments of stillness (Sallie) to adopting a science point of view (Landon, our history teacher). The group shared their experiences and the many takeaways from our time in Yellowstone. We are pumped about meeting with the Yellowstone Geology Crew and an Education Ranger in the park tomorrow to further our knowledge and look for ways to bring this experience back to our students.

Our time in Yellowstone is almost up, but we all feel so thankful to have experienced this magical place with each other!

The poem Klara shared

Yellowstone in Winter

“Our Children are Our Future”

We entered Yellowstone again in complete darkness and experienced the night sky. The number of stars far exceeds what most of us experience in North Carolina. From there we entered Lamar Valley just in time to view the sun coming up over the Absaroka mountains. It was the most spectacular view.

Lamar Valley at sunrise

As we continued into the park, we spotted a bison carcass being scavenged by a juvenile bald eagle and approximately 25 ravens. Maybe 50 yards east were 2 bedded wolves, lying in the snow across the valley. We wondered if maybe they had fed on the carcass which would explain their satisfied, docile behavior.

Afterwards we continued on to Silver Gate, MT to the home of Dan and Cindy Hartman but before we arrived we were blessed to find 2 moose, a cow and a calf, having a morning meal of willow plants. Dan and Cindy, who are wildlife photographers and naturalists, shared with our group some of their recent work creating movies about nature. Our feature film today was called “Harvest,” which was his new film on the impact of the loss of whitebark pine trees on a multitude of animals. This film was based on his study of middens, which is a cache of pine nuts made by red squirrels. After the video we talked about the invasive species, pine bark beetle which is killing off many of these tress and affecting the ecosystem. He shared with us that his mission is to encourage others to respect and appreciate nature through a deeper connection with all living things. One of our team asked Dan what we could do to help protect whitebark pine. His response: “It’s going to be up to our children to save them.” As we were leaving the Hartmans we were thrilled to see a beautiful fuzzy pine marten, a member of the weasel family, scampering up a snag outside his cabin. In addition, we saw numerous birds including some Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller’s jays, mountain chickadees, pine grosbeaks and a red-breasted nuthatch.

Pine marten at Dan and Cindy Hartman’s house. Photo by Adam Smith.

The other animals we spotted today include: lots of bison, more dippers, ducks, pronghorns, eagles, elk, ravens, a ferruginous hawk and two red foxes. We ended our day by exiting the park during daylight hours so that we could see the Roosevelt Arch.

Group at Roosevelt Arch

Even though it was a mere 3 degrees, we rewarded ourselves by taking a relaxing dip in the Yellowstone Hot Springs, a private spot outside of the national park where hot groundwater is used in manmade pools to create a lovely spot. This was much needed after the frigid week we’ve had. Our bodies should be ready for more park action tomorrow after soaking in the mineral rich geothermal waters which will help with our aches and pains from the physical activity we have endured.

Yellowstone in Winter

“How to Survive at -27 F: Hand Warmers, Keep Moving, Surprise Hot Chocolate”

Our day began with a sunrise hike to Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin. It was an absolutely beautiful morning with pre-dawn light tinting the sky blue and pink. We were graced with an eruption of Old Faithful at 7:47 am against that spectacular background.

Old Faithful eruption just before dawn

As we walked across the Firehole River to Geyser Hill, we measured a temperature of -27°F. We made short stops to look at geysers and hot springs, but kept ourselves moving so we wouldn’t get too cold. As we walked past Lion Geyser, we were surprised as it started to erupt! We turned around, and in the opposite direction, we watched as the sun peaked out of the far ridgeline between lodgepole pine trees. In temperatures this cold, whenever we walked through steam from a thermal feature, the moisture in the air froze to our hair and clothing, and even our eyelashes.

Angie’s hood provided the perfect site for rime ice to form!

Shortly after departing from Old Faithful in our snowcoach, we stopped to hike to Black Sands Pool through about a foot of snow. Near the rim of the spring, where heat from the hot water below had melted any snow away, we laid down on the obsidian gravel covered ground. We were able to feel thumps in the ground below us caused by small steam explosions underground.

Our next stop was Midway Geyser Basin, where the huge amounts of steam produced by Excelsior Geyser coated the trees in rime ice. The lodgepole pines looked like the trees in Whoville! We took another weather measurement and the temperature was 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit while the wind chill was -17.5 degrees Fahrenheit, quite balmy after our frigid morning!

Ice-covered trees at Midway Geyser Basin

As we traveled north towards Mammoth, we got to stop at a warming hut where they served hot chocolate and snacks. We even got to use the bathroom in a heated building (every other bathroom up until this point had been in a pit toilet which had no heat or light).

Styling and profiling while waiting in line for the pit toilet

The brief moments of warmth and luxury still paled in comparison to the splendor we experienced among Yellowstone’s most famous geothermal features. Tomorrow, we head to the Lamar Valley again to look for more of Yellowstone’s other most famous features, the wildlife.

Yellowstone in Winter

“‘oh, what fun it is to ride in a Yellowstone snowcoach today, hey!’”

Friday proved to be more thrilling than we could have imagined! We started our day at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. We loaded up in a snowcoach & headed out for a day full of learning & adventure! 

Group with our snowcoach at Nymph Lake

We were caught up in a bison parade as we followed a herd down the road, but not close enough to alter their behavior. We visited multiple overlooks on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the famous Artist Point, where Adam taught us about Thomas Moran, an artist who visited Yellowstone before the park was established and whose paintings helped persuade Congress to create our first national park. At another overlook, Kelly helped the group spot an otter. We watched as it climbed the steep slopes near the Lower Falls, went into the trees, and after a surprisingly short time, appeared again on the ice near the top of the 308 foot tall waterfall!

Group at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

Amazingly, on our ride through Hayden Valley we spotted a very tightly gathered group of bison. Our driver, John, suggested that they might be gathered like that in response to a predator. Sure enough, we spotted a wolf a few minutes later, just to the side of the herd of bison. We set up our spotting scope in the door of the snowcoach and watched as first one, then two, then as many as 13 wolves came into view! For the most part, the bison seemed unfazed, but as a wolf approached too close, a large bison raised its tail and ran at the wolves, chasing them back. There were a few other similar interactions before we lost sight of the wolf pack behind a small hill and moved on. We were thrilled to have had the chance to watch such an amazing interaction!

Wolf watching from the snowcoach – in the back you can see Tracy peering through the scope set up in the doorway

As we continued our journey along the Yellowstone river, we stopped to view trumpeter swans and other waterfowl at Fishing Bridge, near where the Yellowstone River flows out of Yellowstone Lake. Before we could even get out of the snowcoach, we spotted a coyote doing face-plants on the other side of the road. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at catching prey, we got to see it munch on a small, gray-colored subnivean creature (small animals that live under the snow in the winter, and also Sallie’s expert topic). We think it was likely a vole.

Coyote chomping on what we think was a vole. Photo by Adam Smith.

Our group has learned and experienced so much together already. Johlynn summed up our day with a beautiful quote by Maya Angelou: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some humor, and some style.”

We ended our day at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Our group enjoyed group quality time over dinner. We turned in early to prepare for our next full, very cold day; tonight’s low temperature at Old Faithful is predicted to be -34°F with a wind chill of -45°F… We hope we survive our dawn walk around the geyser basin tomorrow!

Yellowstone in Winter

“Stop! Look! Listen!”

We headed out before dawn on our first trip into Yellowstone. We were giddy as we sighted the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone’s North Entrance, where Roosevelt gave a dedication speech in 1903 and laid the cornerstone for the arch.

Kira Cassidy, a biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, kicked off our first full day of exploration. She possesses a wealth of information from her twelve years studying and documenting the wolves of Yellowstone. Kira told a story about one of her favorite wolf experiences. A wolf nervously moved at the top of a snowy ridge. With one misstep and a howl, the wolf set off an avalanche; fortunately, that wolf, as well as the opposing pack at the bottom of the ridge, all escaped unscathed.

Kira spotted our first wolf at the top of Specimen Ridge, near the west end of Little America. We each took turns excitedly viewing this majestic canid. Imagine our surprise when, all of a sudden, a vehicle pulled up and out jumped Rick McIntyre! We were admittedly all quite starstruck due to him being featured in our required reading about the history of wolves in the park. Amid snapping selfies with Rick, we eagerly listened to his knowledgeable insights into the various packs of wolves and their lineages. He became such an aficionado through his over thirty years of observations of the Yellowstone wolves.

The group with Rick McIntyre (in blue jeans) and Kira Cassidy (far right in blue).

The group with Rick McIntyre (in blue jeans) and Kira Cassidy (far right in blue).

It wasn’t long after that we noticed four coyotes interacting with three wolves on the north side of the road in Little America. One wolf was a yearling female (less than a year old) and the other two were born in the spring of 2022. They were from the Junction Butte Pack.

Black colored wolf on the left being chased by three coyotes on the right. Photo by Adam Smith.

Black colored wolf on the left being chased by three coyotes on the right. Photo by Adam Smith.

Later in our journey we headed towards Barronette Peak where we spotted a beautiful red fox right on the road. She gave us a show as she posed on a seasonal stream. It flows during times of high snow melt in the spring. This third canid led us to the achievement of a three dog day, meaning we had observed a fox, coyote, and a wolf all in one day!

Red fox on left, two wolves (one gray and one black), and coyote howling on right. Photos by Adam Smith

Today was epic, but we are even more excited about what tomorrow holds: we will pile into a snowcoach and travel throughout the interior of the park down to Old Faithful.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Early Birds Get to Yellowstone”

Everybody made it to Raleigh despite the extreme weather that affected our state yesterday. Some folks had such a long trip yesterday that they stayed in a hotel last night, and they had to deal with power outages. Our travels began extremely early today, and most of the folks on our team got up at 2:30am to be at the airport at 4am. Surprisingly, even with the weather, neither of our flights was affected. One of our team members, Adam, celebrated a major life event this morning, as it was his first flight!

Adam gets his wings on his first flight.

Our team is really meshing well, and we have already started to bond. Our teachers are enjoying surrendering control to our museum leaders and getting the opportunity to be in the role of students.

On the drive to Yellowstone from the airport in Bozeman we saw magpies, elk, bald eagles, bison and mule deer. We observed the angles, layers and textures of the rock formations, which we used to deduce the geologic history of the area.

We arrived at our hostel, nestled beside the Yellowstone River. We got settled in our rooms, had a refreshing team meeting and enjoyed a yummy supper. Everyone is exhausted and happy, so we are going to bed early. Tomorrow starts with breakfast at 5:30am and a 6am departure for Yellowstone National Park!

Yellowstone in Winter

“Yellowstone, here we come!”

Early Wednesday morning, nine outstanding North Carolina educators will meet three Museum staff at the RDU airport heading to Yellowstone National Park! For the past few weeks, everyone has been preparing in their own way. Team members shared snippets of what’s been going on as they look forward to this snow-filled educational adventure to our first national park….

Adam testing out his winter gear and camera.

Adam testing out his winter gear and camera.

Adam writes:

Here we are just a few short days out and I feel both prepared and unprepared at the same time! I know that I am ready. I have read “American Wolf,” studied my topic for discussion, watched documentaries about Yellowstone, watched YouTube videos on winter wildlife photography, read multiple articles about layering to stay warm and bought all the appropriate gear! Yet here I am doing a dry run on packing my bag and trying on clothes in our few 30-degree days thinking am I missing something — what is left to do? During a 6-mile training hike today, my wife reminded me to just relax. I have done all the prep work, I have everything I need, ‘just get ready to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ that I have been blessed to be a part of!

Johlynn and her kitty reading American Wolf together.

Johlynn and her kitty reading “American Wolf” together.

Johlynn writes:

I cannot believe that in just a matter of days I will be in Yellowstone.  When I talked with my elementary students about the trip, they especially enjoyed hearing that I am going to switch roles and be the student for a week; I told them I even had homework!  Speaking of which, my cats Tabitha and Agatha have been working through our assigned reading, “American Wolf,” by Nate Blakeslee, with me. It’s been fascinating learning about the history of wolves in Yellowstone, and I am very hopeful for wolf sightings on the trip.  My Edgewood Wolfies (future Whiteville High Wolfpack) especially hope I can bring back some photos and videos of wolves.  My cats have also been good sports while I worked on another pre-trip task: familiarizing myself with my new digital camera.

Tracy's daughter helps her prepare substitute plans for her time away from school.

Tracy’s daughter helps her prepare substitute plans for her time away from school.

From Tracy:

The Best and Worst of Preparing for Yellowstone.

Best = Packing the Layers! It’s going to be COLD and snowy and I’m feeling prepared and blessed as I try on all my gear that my family and friends gifted me in 50-degree Raleigh weather.

Worst = The worst is time spent preparing sub[stitute] plans while I’m gone. It takes HOURS and HOURS of preparing 30+ lessons for while I’m out. But on the bright side, my 5th graders are super excited to track our team’s whereabouts on poster-sized maps of Yellowstone and read about our daily adventures on our blog.

Landon's very organized packing... this blog editor is impressed.

Landon’s very organized packing… this blog editor is impressed.

From Landon:

I always start my preparation for a trip with a packing list. I’ve been going over what I need & then checking twice to make sure I have it in my stack. I’ve been playing around with my smaller suitcase to see if I can squeeze everything into that! I used this trip as an excuse to buy a new carry-on duffle bag. I am SO looking forward to Yellowstone during winter! My shoe gaiters came in & were the wrong size, so I panicked and bought two new pairs. I’m hoping they both come in time & that one of them fits… Here’s hoping. 🙂

Kelly's cat is checking to make sure she's packing enough warm clothes.

Kelly’s cat is checking to make sure she’s packing enough warm clothes.

From Kelly:

How does one prepare for such an adventure? Luckily we got a list — two pages of stuff — that our intrepid leaders recommended that we pack so that we will have an amazing experience in the freezing Yellowstone landscape. I’ve found lots of stuff in my closet, borrowed other things, and thrifted a few. Luckily my cat is doing quality control on this hodgepodge of gear. I’ve been working on this for weeks, slowly adding things to the pile in my guest bedroom as I think of them, and I’ll do a final packing the night before we have to be at the airport at 4am. Until then, I’m dreaming of frosty bison, starry nights, steamy geysers and howling wolves. Oh yeah, and I’m still packing, and packing, and packing….

Getting ready!! I have my hand warmers and learned what a balaclava is … and bought 2!! Can’t wait to see everyone again at RDU at 4am. It’s an early morning I’m thrilled about!

From Angie: “Getting ready!! I have my hand warmers and learned what a balaclava is … and bought two!! Can’t wait to see everyone again at RDU at 4am. It’s an early morning I’m thrilled about!”

Sallie writes:

I’m spending the weekend figuring out just how many warm layers I can wear at once! Answer: many! The snowy and blustery weather in Western North Carolina is helping me gain some perspective on how Yellowstone might feel. Temps in the mid-30s like we have today are MUCH warmer than what we will experience during our entire time in the park. As I prepare for the coldest temperatures and wind chills I’ve ever experienced, I am getting excited for the snow and wildlife, and seeing how the landscape changes from dawn to dark!

We hope you will follow our adventure over the next week as we explore the magic of Yellowstone in Winter. We’ll post a blog each night of our trip, so check back often!