Yellowstone in Winter

“When One Adventure Ends, Another Begins”

Although we flew home today, we squeezed in one more adventure. With the help of Ranger Mike, we toured around Mammoth Hot Springs. We followed the snowy boardwalks as the sun rose over Mt. Everts to see the travertine terraces. Steam from the ever-changing geothermal features surrounded us as we listened to Ranger Mike use analogy and humor to educate the group. We compared the Upper Geyser Basin where Old Faithful is located to the Mammoth Hot Springs where we now stood. Ranger Mike explained the travertine terraces build up quickly but non-violently while the geyserite deposits of the Upper Geyser Basin build up slowly but can be violent.

After braving our coldest morning (2 degrees Fahrenheit) yet we packed up our luggage to head home to North Carolina. As we drove from the North Yellowstone Lodge in Gardiner, MT to the Bozeman Airport we continued to use our newly developed wildlife spotting skills. The group finally saw the eighth ungulate, the elusive white-tailed deer. Golden eagles, bald eagles, magpies, elk, ravens and a possible carcass party were spotted along our drive.


We arrived at the Bozeman Airport and had come to terms with our grand Yellowstone adventure ending. The once group of strangers knew our newly developed friendships and passion for education would continue to grow. The ideas of bringing Yellowstone to our own classrooms flew out of our mouths as we chatted about the past week.


Through this experience both our eyes and hearts were opened to the importance of conservation of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Our first national park, now 150 years old, is the home of various extraordinary species that need to be protected, studied and learned from. Through the continued preservation of this special place, future generations will have the opportunity to experience all the magical wonders Yellowstone for themselves.


Yellowstone in Winter

“Tired Bodies, Full Hearts”

We awoke this morning with high hopes of a wolf sighting (or at least a howl or two). We set out and met Kira Cassidy who is a wolf biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. She was our guide and led us all around the park as she tracked wolves that had been fitted with radio collars. We bounced from spot to spot trying to get just the right angle where we could catch a glimpse.  All the while, Kira gave us insights into all of the knowledge she has gained on the wolves of Yellowstone over her 11 years in this position. While we were bouncing from spot to spot, we even ran into the author of the famed book, wolf “American Wolf,” Rick McIntyre.

Kira and Rick

Kira Cassidy and Rick McIntyre

Unfortunately, we struck out on seeing or hearing a wolf, but we hit the jackpot on a wealth of knowledge about the wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The entire group was grateful that Kira was able to share her time and passion about this topic with us.

Next stop was a quick check in with the only aquatic songbird in North America, the American Dipper! Cathy gave us the lowdown on this amazing creature. Including the fact that they nest in rock walls near water, which we saw shortly after on our snowshoe hike.

nest made of moss tucked in a hole on a rock wall

American dipper nest

Speaking of the snowshoe hike, that was AWESOME! We started snowshoeing down a nondescript path along Pebble Creek for a short distance only to make a turn and see this!!!

narrow canyon with snow

Snowshoe hike

It was a truly awe-inspiring experience.

While we were on the hike, Amanda stayed behind and saw two bull moose!

moose in trees

We ended our day with hundreds of bison crossing the road in front of us in the dark, many of them running as if in a stampede. It gave us just a glimpse of what it must have been like when over ten million bison roamed this country. We turned in with tired bodies and full hearts.

Yellowstone in Winter

“For the Birds”

We got to sleep in! We were able to sleep in until 7:00 am, so we could be on the road by 8:00 am. Our day started with a trip through the park, where we saw a herd of bighorn sheep. Then it was off to the house of Dan & Cindy Hartman in Silver Gate, located just outside the park. We were immediately greeted by a plethora of birds that included the Canada jay and the vibrantly blue colored Steller’s jay.

bird with black head, white eyebrow, and blue body and wings

Once inside, Dan regaled the group with tales of his time filming the wildlife, discussing the importance of conservation while showing one of his films. This visit was a highlight for the group because of Dan’s passion and dedication to his craft. It was intoxicating and contagious. The group left with a renewed sense of life and how everything in nature is interconnected, including human beings.

selfie of 3 people

After leaving the Hartman’s we were very fortunate that one of our members excitedly started yelling “Bird! Bird!” when Dustin (impressively) spotted a ruffed grouse from the very back seat in the trees along the road. We excitedly turned the cars around on the icy road to get up close & personal with the bird (from the car), who didn’t seem to notice our presence. After getting our fill of photographs, we were on our way. We hadn’t gone very far when we saw a massive bull elk using its front legs to “snowplow” for the rich grasses below the fresh snowfall. We watched him in awe and then loaded the vehicles to head out of park & back to the lodge. It was an amazing day for all!


Yellowstone in Winter

“From Bacteria to Bobcat”

We started today by coming together to watch Old Faithful erupt. It teased us for 45 minutes with small belches of water and steam before finally putting on a show. This was followed by a tour of the Upper Basin by Ranger Colin, whose passion for the world’s greatest concentration of geysers got us excited for our upcoming day of observing geothermal features. We had just missed Colin’s favorite, Beehive Geyser, due to Old Faithful’s antics holding us up.

At our next stop, we split up to choose our own adventure. Some went on a short but snowy hike to Black Sand Pool, laying down to feel the thumping from below. The others took to the boardwalks around Black Sand Basin, braving boardwalks covered in packed snow and slippery conditions, only to have to pause for two bison who decided to walk across the warm ground after wading through the cold river winding through the geysers and springs. Remember to stay AT LEAST 25 yards from a bison! They finally disappeared into the mist, and we continued our explorations.

people laying on the ground near a hot spring

Midway Geyser Basin started with the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring. The combination of snow, warm steam, and ice make the boardwalks here very slippery, but we persevered. We saw the thermophilic bacterial mats, the silica deposits in the flowing waters, and ephydrid flies! We witnessed larva and adult flies, all happily eating the bacterial mats. They stay active in winter because the waters coming from the springs keep their environment warm enough for them to live.

ephydrid fly

The next stop was Fountain Paint Pots. It was like a scene from another planet: smaller geysers erupting, steam rising from fumaroles, acidic mud bubbling, and colors from both mineral deposits and bacterial mats. Dustin gave us a lesson on Thermus aquaticus, one of the many bacteria making up the colorful mats where the warm waters from thermal features flow over the land.

Hitting the road again in the snowcoach, our driver John had to deal with bison in the roadway. He handled it like a professional, patiently waiting for the herd to decide to move out of the way. This was just out first encounter with road-bison today!

We stopped to see Firehole Falls, where the Firehole River splits the difference between two ancient lava flows, tumbling down exposed rhyolites. While exploring the stop and enjoying the view, we found a nice snowbank that made for a perfect slide.

Further down the Firehole Canyon we came upon a rare sight: a bobcat was feeding on a mule deer carcass on the other side of the river! The bobcat had been feeding on this carcass for days. No one knew how the deer died, but word had spread, and there were many snowcoaches pausing here to take photos. And the bobcat could not have cared less.


Next, we had a brief stop at Gibbon Falls, enjoying once again the power of flowing water to reshape the land. From there we drove home, but on the way we had an opportunity to experience stillness and silence. Stopping in the middle of Swan Lake Flats, we all stepped out of the snowcoach, John turned off the lights and engine, and we enjoyed a few minutes just absorbing the night-time scene.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Sights, Sounds, and Steam by Snowcoach”

Day two did not disappoint! We began our early morning with a fine breakfast and got off to a fast start. We arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs at 0715 and loaded into the snowcoach. We then took a very scenic ride on closed (but groomed) Yellowstone National Park roads.

a snowcoach - large yellow van with giant tires

Our first stop was at Roaring Mountain. We all stood very still and used our “deer ears” to hear the mountain speaking to us. Venturing further into the heart of Yellowstone we visited Nymph Lake and observed common goldeneye and ring-necked ducks as well as trumpeter swans. Further in our travels we visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where we observed frozen waterfalls and tens of feet of ice buildup at the base of the falls. The largest, at 308 feet tall, was the Lower Falls, where Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson once painted and photographed the magnificent scenery. Their art helped convince Congress to preserve Yellowstone as our first national park.

lake surrounded by snow and pine tree covered hills

Nymph Lake

happy looking people in front of a waterfall

Group photo at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Next, we traveled to the Mud Volcano and Dragons Mouth Spring. Here we used our senses to appreciate our surroundings, including the feel of warm steam, the smell of sulfur, and the deep bass sound and feel of steam explosions. The steam explosions of Dragons Mouth sounded like waves crashing into rocks, and Mud Volcano sounded like bubbling grits. Lakeshore Geyser, Black Pool, and Abyss Pool – three of the thermal features in West Thumb Geyser Basin – were amazing to witness. As we traveled on toward Old Faithful, we were able to lay eyes on the Grand Tetons from approximately 30 miles away. This evening, we’re enjoying our stay in the grandeur of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge!

Andy takes the temperature of Abyss Spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

Yellowstone in Winter

“Ermines and Everything, the Best Day Ever!”

Up before daylight and heading to Yellowstone after a long day of travel, we were all a little bleary-eyed, but soon we sprang to life!!! The first bison of the day was sighted shortly after Roosevelt’s welcome to the park (the famed arch at Yellowstone’s north entrance). The herd was closer and larger than we could have imagined, we could even hear them chewing (safely, from the car)! This was a great start to accomplishing our goal of an octo-ungulate day. As we continued our journey, we were able to rack up six more hooved-mammals (elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain goat, and moose) leaving us missing the ever-elusive white-tailed deer.

bison in road

While viewing the moose, much to our surprise and delight, a subnivean creature popped into view. Mayhem ensued as we scrambled to see the even more elusive ermine. It was hopping over and traversing through the snow drifts at lightning speed, finally crossing the road in front of us. Excitement continued as we tried to capture the perfect picture to share. This was a favorite of the 19 species we spotted today for many people in the group.

white winter weasel with black tail tip in snow

We wrapped up our day with a snowshoe hike to a lovely view of the Yellowstone River. This was a challenging first for many of us in the group and we are proud to say, we all made it to the top and back down. We can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds for us.

Dustin, Julie, and Tonya

Yellowstone in Winter

“Travel Day: The Adventure Begins”

Our day started at 4 am with a trip to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. After our first flight was in the air, we heard that the FAA had grounded all flights until 9 am due to a software update! Thankfully, we had already made it to Minneapolis and it only added an hour to our layover. We spent learning more about our trip and each other, which allowed us to begin our journals. We were given stickers of maps and our background info to begin our reflections, to which we added our own goals and expectations.

people sitting in airport

Our first flight was joyous, with only 35 people onboard. We could all spread out and some people even had 3 seats to lay down! The connector from Minneapolis to Montana was packed tight. After arrival we hit the grocery store for snacks, then hit the road to Gardiner via Livingston. We followed the Yellowstone River south from Gardiner and saw elk, mule deer, bald eagles, and magpies!

view out airplane window of snow covered mountains

We arrived at the North Yellowstone Hostel at 5:30 pm local time, 7:30 our time. A taco dinner awaited us as we had our first group meeting. We are now ready for our Yellowstone National Park journey tomorrow!

poster of lodge logo

Blue Ridge

“A Day in the Clouds”

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Beep, beep, beep! 4:45am comes early, but when we’re chasing a sunrise, nothing can stop us. We drove to Ridge Junction Overlook, through the fog and clouds, and watched the sunrise. Since we’re lifelong learners, we had to explore the surrounding wildflowers, too.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Next, we joined John Gerwin, NCMNS ornithologist, to catch songbirds in mist nets. He taught us about banding, tracking migration patterns, and releasing birds. We have all improved our bird watching and listening skills.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

The adventure continued as we traveled farther into the clouds. Our mission was to summit Mt. Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi River. This alpine ecosystem greeted us with Frasier firs, wind, cold, and lots of rain. This didn’t stop us from exploring the surrounding forest and discovering some salamander, lichen, and spider species that were new to us

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

After we returned to the van and peeled off all of our wet layers, we spent the afternoon choosing our own adventure. We visited Setrock Creek Falls, searching for salamanders and crawfish. Fun fact: crawfish carry their young on their underside even after they’ve hatched. South Toe River provided us with very cold water for snorkeling and trout-watching. While drying his mist nets, John caught a chipping sparrow, providing us more opportunity to learn about this species. An evening campfire gave us additional time to reflect and enjoy each other’s company. As we approach the halfway point, we all agree that this has been an excellent experience, and we cannot wait to see what’s on the other side.

Blue Ridge

“A Day of Surprises”

Surprising our fearless leaders, the group was ready to go about 30 minutes early this morning. Leaving Stone Mountain, we traveled down the Blue Ridge Parkway stopping to observe the natural beauty along the way.

Ranger Jonathan Bennett regales us with the story of how Linville Gorge got its name.

Ranger Jonathan Bennett regales us with the story of how Linville Gorge got its name.

At the Linville River we ate lunch (and fabulous desserts). Ranger Jonathan Bennett entertained us with a rousing history of the Parkway, and more specifically the Linville area itself. Of great note were his sound effects (particularly the clip clop of horse hooves).

A spectacular group of NC Educators overlooking Table Rock from Wiseman’s View in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

A spectacular group of NC Educators overlooking Table Rock from Wiseman’s View in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

We then journeyed up to Wiseman’s View and took in the breathtaking view of Linville Gorge. Words cannot express this view, go see for yourself! Watch your car’s suspension though.

At the North Carolina Museum of Minerals we met up with Ranger Bennett again, where he showed us a recently deceased rattlesnake specimen.

Dead on the road Timber Rattlesnake, collected by the National Park Service to be used for genetic studies.

Dead on the road Timber Rattlesnake, collected by the National Park Service to be used for genetic studies.

We finished the day at Briar Bottom campground where we set up camp. While dinner was prepared, John Gerwin (fantastic ornithologist) prepared us for our birdwatching adventure tomorrow.

Early to bed, early morning tomorrow!

Blue Ridge

“The Highs and Lows of Stone Mountain”

We completed a 3.3 mile hike on the Stone Mountain Loop trail after breakfast. Along the way we found an brightly colored red eft, the terrestrial juvenile phase of the Eastern Red-Spotted Newt, on the trail. We determined it was a salamander rather than a lizard because it had no scales and no claws. FYI, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. Newts are toxic to fish and small mammals. Adult males have something called nuptial pads, which are raised rough ridges, on the inside of their hind feet during the breeding season to help hang onto the females.

Bright red salamander with sand stuck to its back held in an open palm. The salamander is about 3 inches long from nose to tail tip.

Eastern newt in the red eft life stage encountered in Stone Mountain State Park

We snacked on the summit of Stone Mountain while we observed the minerals in the igneous rock and discussed the processes that we thought were responsible for the creation of the granite dome, including continental collisions, magma cooling underground millions of years ago, and tons of weathering and erosion.

12 adults standing or sitting in two rows on top of a rock face of Stone Mountain (North Carolina) overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Institute poses atop Stone Mountain, NC.

After lunch, we met with TR Russ, one of the eight non-game fisheries biologists in the state that work for the NC Wildlife Commission. He passed around a stone roller fish preserved in alcohol, as well as a paddle fish, just 2 of the more than 200 species he works with!

Using a backpack electroshocker and a swine net, we collected (for observation only) a handful of species of fish, along with a few crayfish/crawdads, 2 with a leeches attached to them. TR found a horsehair worm, the stuff of nightmares, a parasite that burrows into a cricket’s body, driving it crazy and drawing it to the river, where it then EXPLODES out of the poor creature to continue its life cycle in the water.

We then went snorkeling to observe the same fish within their natural habitat. The heat and humidity was bad today, so the cold river water felt refreshing.

Two people pose for a selfie holding up a small fish that is mostly a light brown color.

A quick selfie with Lenae, Becqui, and a striped jumprock fish while exploring the Roaring River at Stone Mountain State Park

This was followed by a visit to the bottom of Stone Mountain Falls, a 200-foot tall cascade. The problem is, to get to the Falls you have to climb down a flight of 300 stairs…and back up again.

We also learned to use the Seek app, which is a very resourceful tool in identifying species of flora and fauna. And experts within our group presented on topics of the hemlock wooly adelgid, the southern flying squirrel, and the raven. We received a bookmark full of adelgid information, played a group game featuring flying squirrel facts, and created a make and take modeled after the amazing raven.

All this in our first day! And what a day it was.