Sixty-six below zero.
That’s the coldest temperature ever recorded in Yellowstone: -66ºF at Madison, near the park’s west entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana. How cold is that? Cold enough to break the thermometer that made the measurement back in 1933.
It was fitting then, that we should stop at this momentous site for a break at the warming hut in Madison. Luckily, on this sunny January day, the air was much, much warmer—a toasty 16º F (-8º C) that swelled to nearly 24º F (-4ºC) by midday.
Riding snowmobiles makes you much more aware of the cold, and although I was bundled up fiercely, I felt the cold burn on my cheeks as I sped across the wintry landscape of the park. It’s just 30 miles from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, but I didn’t rush the journey, stopping along the way to enjoy the immense wildlife of America’s first national park. Within the first hour I saw bison, elk, deer, fox, coyote, a bobcat, three bald eagles, and several trumpeter swans. Perhaps the white backdrop makes it easier to see the wildlife, or perhaps with fewer people, the animals are less shy, but my January safari was indeed action-packed.
Just last summer, I visited Yellowstone in the height of its busiest season, and though I enjoyed the wildlife, visiting in the dead of winter offered a far more intimate experience. I truly loved the lack of crowds and traffic. I loved the way I could pull aside and stare across a snow-filled landscape and watch a buffalo herd grazing before a line of geysers steaming skyward.
Though snowcoach tours can take you into the park with relative warmth and comfort, a guided snowmobile tour drops you right into the vast nature of the place, almost brushing shoulders with the bison. They also move much more quickly: we made it to Old Faithful by lunch, then spent the afternoon exploring the colorful geysers, steam vents and bubbling mud of Fountain Paint Pots.
Yellowstone in winter is a different planet, practically devoid of tourists and so remarkable in the colder light. I have always been a firm believer in traveling during the off-season, but I would go so far as to say that Yellowstone is actually better in January, on a snowmobile . . . as long as it stays above sixty below.