January has become our go-to vacation time, and our Facebook memories from the past decade prove it. With a couple of exceptions we have almost always taken off sometime after the New Year for a week or two.
When you farm and don’t have livestock, winter is the logical vacation time. Hopefully the columns this month will pique our farming and ranching readership’s curiosity and spark some ideas for winter getaways.
We seem to have a penchant for warmer climes as past pictures show us along balmy Hawaiian shores, beaches in California or Florida and also the sunny desert Southwest. However, in the midst of a pandemic where should the prudent person go? Obviously anywhere you can socially distance. The warmer spots just weren’t that appealing this year for a number of reasons, and higher population density was just one of them.
One night while scrolling through Facebook posts I happened upon one from a journalism friend touting the wonders of Yellowstone and the areas surrounding it in the winter. Hubby had never been to Yellowstone and lamented that it was so tough to get away in the summer to see it. A few messages and a phone call to Steve, then a stop at his home for more information and we were in the thick of planning a trip to Yellowstone in the winter.
While all but five miles of the park roads near the north entrance by Mammoth Springs are closed to public traffic in the winter, since 1955 the park has been open to snowcoach tours and since 1971, supervised snowmobile tours. There are private companies, as well as the Yellowstone National Park Lodges firm, that book tours out of the west, north and south gates of the park. You may also cross-country ski or snowshoe in the park.
We opted to stay three days in West Yellowstone, Montana. We drove the first day to Rock Springs, Wyoming, and in hindsight wish we would have spent a day there. Rock Springs has been a coal-mining center in Wyoming since the 1880s. Multiple coal mines provided coal for the Union Pacific steam engines running through the community. The historic downtown is undergoing a revival and the oddly angled streets are a throwback to the numerous mine trails that ran through town. A museum and other historic buildings will be worthy of a return stop someday, not to mention a thriving microbrewery and restaurants galore.
The next morning we headed north to Jackson, Wyoming for a tour of the National Elk Refuge and a quick drive through the southern half of Grand Teton National Park. By mid-afternoon we were heading over Teton Pass toward West Yellowstone, thankful for good weather, as the pass can quickly close in the winter as storms move through.
While about half the motels, eateries and touristy businesses in West Yellowstone close in the winter, enough remain open to keep the snowcoach and snowmobiling customers housed, fed and comfortable. The winter atmosphere is relaxed and low-key. It is mostly quiet, too, except the mornings and evenings when the snowmobiles were going out or coming back in.
West Yellowstone is home to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and we spent our first day exploring this highly recommended wildlife haven. While bears in the wild hibernate during the winter because of the lack of food, bears at the Discovery Center are out and about daily because they have a constant source of food and daily exercise activities supervised by their caretakers. The grizzlies housed there had been removed from the wild because they had developed an affinity to human food and were becoming either a nuisance or outright danger in various communities.
The center is also home to a variety of wolves, raptors unable to return to the wild and a group of otters. The otter pavilion just opened this winter and is an absolute delight as they frolic and play in rotation in their indoor stream. The wolves and bears are also rotated to their outdoor pens about every hour so all get fed and get their exercise each day.
It was fitting that after our time at the Discovery Center we ate our noon meal at the Slippery Otter Pub, which was right across the street from our motel. Can’t ask for anything better on a cold winter day than lobster bisque and a bison burger now can you? Next week we’ll explore Yellowstone National Park’s winter wonderland.
Barb Bierman Batie can be reached at email@example.com.