My Winter Visit to the Famous Old Faithful Geyser

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Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park during the winter

Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park during the winter

During the off-season, many feet of snow bury the road to Old Faithful, and the only way to reach it is by skis, snowmobile, or snow coach. My wife and I opted for the snow coach: a decades-old, school-bus-yellow vehicle that resembled a stretch VW with tank treads and two skis in front. In late afternoon we finally arrived at Old Faithful Snow Lodge, built in 1998 a few hundred yards away from the 110-year-old Old Faithful Inn. Before finding our room, we checked a posted schedule for Old Faithful’s next eruption and then trotted across packed snow to catch the geyser’s famous explosion of steam and spray against a dark-blue late-afternoon winter sky.

Our comfortable, motel-like cabin room was a short walk from the main lodge along snow-covered roads. Guests at the cabins cross-country skied to breakfast; a housekeeper arrived at our room by snowmobile, brooms and mops sticking out the back.

About 70 miles of well-traveled ski trails crisscross the Old Faithful area, and after breakfast the next morning we boarded the snow coach with our skis to hitch a ride seven miles back up the road to the Continental Divide and the start of the Spring Creek Trail. Although the road was busy with snow coaches and snowmobiles, the woods were silent just a few hundred yards away, as the trail meandered downhill into a narrow canyon. Enormous pillows of powder clung to every stump and rock ledge. “I’ve never seen so much snow,” my wife exclaimed.

That evening we signed up for the Stars and Steam tour, and once again climbed into a snow coach for a drive north from Old Faithful. Through the frosted windows, we saw herds of bison pawing at the snow by the road. At Fountain Paint Pot (a spot much farther than we’d likely have skied), we walked up a boardwalk under a bedazzling night sky. My wife and I were in front when our guide suddenly said, “Whoa, there, c’mon back!” Just ahead, in the glow of our headlamps, a bison stood by a fuming hot spring, keeping warm on a subzero night. We backed away and returned to the coach, giggling at the thickly frosted hair that poked from under our fleece caps.

In the morning we skied past Old Faithful and down through Upper Geyser Basin to Biscuit Basin and back, passing pools, spouts, burbles, and whistling teapots of every description. The boardwalks were icy, and snow sometimes piled above the handrails, making the skiing tricky and potentially hazardous above the boiling pools. But the trails were packed enough that walking was always an option.

Less than a mile from Old Faithful, we saw wolf tracks in the snow: a straight line of unmistakable saucer-size paw prints. The wolf had been walking along a boardwalk that twists among the hot springs and fumaroles of Upper Geyser Basin and then had jumped down to the snow. A few minutes later, we heard low-pitched moans above us on the snow-covered ridge to our east—we couldn’t see them, but the wolves were there.

Travel Planning

The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is open from mid-December to early March. Reservations for lodging, dinner, and the snow coach are essential; rooms range from $99 (cabin) to $239 (lodge room) per night. Meals—tasty and rather pricey but not spectacular—are served at the main lodge dining room; there is also a snack bar for cheaper lunchtime fare and a cozy fire-lit bar for late-night libations. Inquire about three- to six-day inclusive packages, which are a good value. Contact Xanterra Parks & Resorts: (866) 439-7375

Ski and snowshoe rentals, trail maps, and instruction are available at Old Faithful, as are snowmobile and snow coach tours; there’s also an ice rink (skates available on-site) outside the lodge. Many of the geysers and other attractions can be reached on foot (in good winter boots) during normal snow conditions. Plan for very cold temperatures.

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