Free Presidents’ Day Weekend in Yellowstone National Park

Winter trips to Yellowstone have been great outdoor adventures for us the past few years.  You can cruise the Park in the warmth of your own automobile or truck and enjoy many sights.  The road from Gardiner – Mammoth to Cooke City is open year round and most often provides great fun for a weekend outing.  As you can see from the post below we had a exceptional trip last winter and saw lots of game including a wolf.  The road to Cooke City goes through the Lamar Valley which always yields a good chance to see the wolves.  Scroll through the photos below and let them tempt you into a drive to the park.  Hopefully when we get back next week we will have more photos to share.  Enjoy your weekend.

Over Christmas Vacation 2013 we took a two day trip to Yellowstone National Park. It is quite amazing how much there is to see in the park from the comfort of your car or truck in the winter.  It is also surprising how many people are touring the park in the frigid cold.  Keep in mind that there is only one road open throughout Yellowstone in the winter and that is the road from Mammoth to Cooke City.

On a winter visit you will see tons of snowmobilers on their way to Cooke City and the Beartooth Mountains. Every year Cooke City gets filled to the brim with snowmobilers and snow. During the winter there are a number of diners open there so you can get something to eat but there’s not a whole lot else in town.  There are a couple of gas stations just in case you need to fill up.

 

Before we get to Yellowstone our route takes us through the Shields Valley where we often see large herds of elk (pictured above), a few mule and whitetail deer, and more often then not, eagles and hawks.  Click on any photo to enlarge and enjoy the slide show.  For more about the eagles we saw on this past trip head on over to our post Bald Eagles in Montana Big Sky Country.

If you want another attraction of the Shields Valley there are the cool barns, both old and new! The one pictured below really reminded our family of a book, The Big Red Barn, that we use to read when the kids were just tiny little munchkins.

Big Red Barn

Another part of the trip down the Shields, if you time it right, is to have a great home cooked breakfast at the General Mercantile in Wilsall. The menu is small but the food is big on flavor so definitely give it a try!

Wilsall Mercantile Company

While driving through Paradise Valley south of Livingston watch for the deer on the road because there are lots of them all the way to Gardiner.  Also keep an eye out for elk as there are plenty of them in the far south end of the valley around Tom Miner. Many a time we have seen three to five hundred head of elk in the hay fields on the east side of the highway just north of the canyon.

When you get to Corbin just north of Gardiner watch for the bighorn sheep as most times we see them right there on the east side of the highway.  They are also around the airport just outside of Gardiner on both sides of the highway. We often see elk and mule deer at the airport and on the west side of Gardiner.  Once through Gardiner, as you drive through the Roosevelt Arch look to the south hills and you might see elk bedded down and antelope feeding along the road.  Just inside the park along the river before Mammoth you can sometimes see bighorn sheep again. They are often on the east side of the highway just before the 45th Parallel which is marked with a sign on the highway. Many of the sheep pictured in our Big Horn Sheep post were in these areas. If you have time and “hot pots”  are something you like, stop at the 45th Parallel and take a dip where the hot water mixes into the cold Gardiner River.

The bull elk in the photos below were just east of Mammoth.  We see elk and bison in and around Mammoth almost every trip.  In the summer and fall during the rut you really need to be careful around the elk. Because the elk are sometimes in the town of Mammoth people must forget that unlike pets, they are wild animals and do not liked to be approached. They do put on a great show though and despite the warnings, people will also give you a show with the chances they take getting so close to the animals. Click on any photo to enlarge and enjoy the slide show.

Some of the bison pictured were in the town of Mammoth and some were out in the Lamar Valley. They looked so cool in the snow trying to scrounge up some grass. It sure gives meaning to survival of the fittest, getting something to eat isn’t easy in the winter. It is surprising the large number of bison spending the entire winter in Yellowstone.

Talking about wolves and the most important factor for spotting them in Yellowstone Park is to go there often. You never know when or where or if you will see a wolf or any of the other wildlife in and around the park.  Some trips are productive for viewing wildlife and some trips are a nice drive and the incredible scenery is what you get.  Anyway it happens, Yellowstone is a great place to go for a day trip or a weekend trip winter, summer, spring or fall.  We have seen wolves in the middle of the day in the summertime and in the winter.  First thing to watch for is a group of people all lined up on the side of the road with cameras all on tripods and everyone pointing and talking. Don’t be shy, stop and ask people what they are looking at and where. You may need your binoculars or spotting scope just to get a look so don’t leave those tools at home.  Winter trips to the park can be better than one may expect. As stated above the only road open in the winter is from Mammoth to Cooke City and it goes through the Lamar Valley.  The Lamar is an active area for bison, elk and wolves year round. Often you will see the elk in among the bison. Strength in numbers, one would assume.  Another tip, of course the wolves will feed on carcass of the elk or bison and often they aren’t too far off the road. Finding a carcass can be a jackpot for finding wolves and sometimes grizzly bears if it is the right time of year. If people are waiting for the wolves to show up at the carcass keep in mind that the wolves may never arrive and they may come at night so don’t be afraid to drive off and look somewhere else.  It is a roll of the dice.

Who knows what else you may see!  While driving don’t be in a big hurry. When vehicles are tailgating you pull over and let them by.

Make sure to only pull off in the turnouts in the winter as the Yellowstone roads have a very sharp edge and once you go off you might need a tow truck or help from passers by to get back on the road.

While you are stopped do some spotting.  Most often when we see wolves it is because we putz along and stop and look. Wolves are often hard to see and don’t just run across the road. At least we aren’t that lucky that way. If you take your time and spot though you might see something no one else sees.

On our trip during this past Christmas holiday we spotted this lone wolf sitting at the top of this bare mountain doing his own spotting of the river bottom below.  We timed our drive though the Lamar to be at the end of the day because that as well as early morning is a great time to see wildlife coming out of the hills to water. We were pulling over at all the turn outs to spot the area. When we pulled up to the turn out Dad looked up and knew right away what he saw, a lone grey wolf. This wolf just sat there for ten minutes or more before he headed off the mountain. There were a number of elk feeding not but a few hundred yards from the wolf and the elk seemed mostly unconcerned with exception of one as she was watching him pretty close.  As we sat viewing the wolf many vehicles drove by us and no one stopped to ask us what we saw. Once the wolf came off the mountain he dropped into a coulee and he was gone with our family being the only ones who got to see him that day. If you click on a photo for the slide show give the pictures a few extra seconds to load as they are big files and they will clear up.

Not to be discouraged.  We were on a planned two day trip and spent the night in Gardiner so we could go back in the park the next day.  The perfect scenario the next day played out just past Roosevelt Tower were there were a large number of people at a turn out with cameras and spotting scopes lined up and they were looking off in the distance.  They pointed out three wolves bedded down about two plus miles out. Even with spotting scopes we could only see black dots that may or may not have been anything.  We decided to move on to the Lamar.  When we got in the Lamar at the same place we saw the wolf the day before it was snowing pretty good.  We were idling along when Liza said “Stop, I think I see something.”  Looking down to the river she gazed through her binoculars and she spotted what appeared to be the same lone wolf we saw the night before.  Again he was a long way out but we got some good pictures of him.  Just like the night before, no one stopped to ask what we were looking at.  We watched this wolf for a good half hour and he was slowly moving farther away so we decided to move on again.

We went only a few miles to the far east end of the Lamar where we came upon five bull moose in one bunch.  Five bull moose in one bunch was a first for all of us.  In fact over the years we have seen only a few moose in the park, making this one of the coolest parts of our weekend trip and one of the greatest trips to the park.  So enjoy these photos.

Then, if that wasn’t enough, as we pulled into Silver Gate which is just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone we found three more moose just off the highway. This group consisted of a cow and a calf and a young bull. We got some really good photos of these animals as they were browsing and you can see the horn nubs on the young bull if you look close. For some cool facts about moose head on over to our Winter Wonderland post.

This concludes our photos and stories for this trip and this post.  Hope you enjoyed all that you see. Now, one more thing. If you can time it right and want to have a great dinner go to Montana’s Rib and Chop House in Livingston. Located on East Park Street just past the railroad depot it is easy to find.  They do have a web site and you can see the menu before you get there.  Get the phone number off the site as it is a good plan to call for a reservation because it is always a full house.  Enjoy!

Yellowstone Facts and History…..

Yellowstone contains:

  • 67 species of mammals
  • 322 species of birds
  • an annual 3 million+ visitors
  • the biggest hot springs in the North America (Grand Prismatic Springs)
  • nearly 2000 earth quakes annually
  • the largest high altitude lake in North America (Yellowstone Lake)
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