Car traffic ends in Yellowstone National Park interior for winterDicey weather, closed campgrounds and scarce amenities make it a bit of a gamble to visit Yellowstone National Park in the fall, but a few savvy travelers and hardy locals are getting lucky with a last pass through the park before it closed to autos for the season.
By: Ruffin Prevost, The Billings (Mont.) Gazette
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Dicey weather, closed campgrounds and scarce amenities make it a bit of a gamble to visit Yellowstone National Park in the fall, but a few savvy travelers and hardy locals are getting lucky with a last pass through the park before it closed to autos for the season.
“Everybody knows about Old Faithful, so I figured it was something special I better see,” said Ken Steiner, who was traveling through Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks two weeks ago as part of a bus tour group.
Steiner and others in his group were marveling at the scenery and raving about seeing Old Faithful without the crush of summer crowds. They also bragged about getting a bargain rate on the offseason trip.
“I don’t mind the cooler weather, because it’s like this on the East Coast now,” said Steiner, who lives in Connecticut. He gave Old Faithful top marks as a travel attraction, putting it on a par with the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.
“Coming from the East Coast, we’re definitely not used to seeing scenery so dramatic as this. It’s like the Alps,” he said, describing panoramas of splendid fall color set against imposing mountains.
Steiner’s group had stopped on the way south from Yellowstone at the Colter Bay Visitor Center in Grand Teton. Though the center was closed, the glass-still waters around the empty marina offered a perfect chance to photograph a mirror image of mountains reflected in the bay.
While the tourists discussed a morning moose sighting and basked in 70-degree sunshine, bus driver Phil Theisen said he was happy to be free of the maddening traffic of summer.
“June was the craziest I’ve ever seen it,” said Theisen, who was taking his last scheduled group through both parks after starting with his first tour of the season on May 15.
Yellowstone already has seen a record 3.4 million visitors this year.
But while drivers can count on fewer traffic jams, Mother Nature is known for fall surprises in Yellowstone country.
“This is great. This time last year, there were six inches of snow on the ground and we couldn’t get through Craig Pass,” Theisen said. He had to detour through Rexburg, Idaho, after that storm, and his group missed seeing the Tetons.
Near Roosevelt in Yellowstone, a couple zipped along the road in a Mini Cooper convertible. Though the top was down, their windows were up, and they sported scarves, hats and coats in simultaneous defiance and acknowledgment of the brisk fall weather.
A day later in Cooke City, Mont., the Friday after the Columbus Day closure of the Beartooth Highway, Leo Gaertner was grilling burgers in front of his Buns and Beds Deli and Cabins.
“It really doesn’t affect us that much when that gate closes,” Gaertner said, gesturing down the road toward the park’s Northeast Entrance. “It’s when the Beartooth Highway closes that it’s like they’ve cut off a spigot.”
With most other tourist businesses already closed, Gaertner was looking forward to a brief fall respite before getting ready for winter, when Cooke City becomes a haven for snowmobile riders traveling in the park and surrounding mountains.
Each year at this time, Gaertner takes his four sons to see a Pittsburgh Steelers football game.
“Then it’s back to work for the winter,” he said.
Gaertner has spent 15 winters in Red Lodge, Mont., and says he doesn’t mind the snow and isolation, although he misses playing golf.
Jim Knoelke has spent more than 20 winters in the interior of Yellowstone, where he is currently working as the acting chief of maintenance for the park.
Knoelke and his crews are working to close and winterize buildings that will be vacant until spring, but also to gear up for the winter season.
Hundreds of buildings must be shuttered and prepared for months of frigid temperatures, including many days where the mercury may hover at 50 degrees below zero, he said by telephone Wednesday.
Preparations include draining water lines, blowing them clear with compressed air and pouring antifreeze in sewer traps.
Workers even dismantle parts of some boilers, where small pockets of trapped water can freeze, bursting pipes and causing major maintenance headaches in the spring.
In Grant Village, for instance, workers drain almost all the water lines, including main distribution lines, Knoelke said.
Though water mains are buried 9 feet deep and are unlikely to freeze, a leaky fire hydrant could freeze and crack, or lateral lines at lesser depths could freeze, he said. Draining the mains ensures that no water remains.
At Old Faithful, where a winter lodge hosts overnight visitors throughout the season, workers are laying in supplies, ranging from snow shovels to toilet paper.
While small quantities of vital goods can be brought in by snow coach or snowmobile, Knoelke said, major deliveries must be made before the snow arrives.
That means topping off every propane tank now, as supplies must last the entire winter.
“There ain’t no calling the gas company to run out and fill it up,” Knoelke said with a laugh.
Old Faithful also boasts one of the few spots in the park’s interior where drivers don’t have to worry about digging a sled or truck out of deep snow.
A geothermal hot spot under a parking lot behind the lower store at Old Faithful becomes a popular winter vehicle storage area and parking zone, Knoelke said.
Park workers, too, are enjoying their last taste of fall, especially those who spend winter in the Yellowstone’s isolated interior.
“Most folks really enjoy their first winter here because of the novelty of it,” Knoelke said. “It’s the second winter when the cabin fever tends to set in for a lot of folks.
“You’ve got to be a little bit of an introvert and enjoy skiing. Or be a big reader,” he said.