Despite shutdown, winter activies continue

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Enterprise photos by Johnathan Hettinger

A sign at the Old Faithful visitor Center in Yellowstone National Park on Sunday lacks the prediction time due to a lapse in federal funding.

A flag pole stands without any flag at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center in Yellowstone National Park on Sunday.

A group of people stand near a snowcoach watching a herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park on Sunday.

The flag pole in front of the Old Faithful visitor center is empty. The sidewalks up to the door are not shoveled and the snow is about 2-feet-deep. A sign hangs on the door declaring “Area closed” because of a lapse in federal appropriations. The green and black sign which predicts the estimated eruption time of the world’s most famous geyser is blank. Guides radio each other to announce when the most recent eruption was and when the next one will be.

In the middle of the winter, there are two ways to get to Old Faithful: a snowmobile and a snowcoach. On Sunday, I chose the latter.

The first thing you notice on the giant yellow snowcoach is the tires.

They are at least 4 feet high, durable, snow-covered and utterly ridiculous, except for the fact that you’re driving to a place where the average snowfall is 150 inches a year and where some places get twice that.

The tires are reminiscent of a tractor or a combine, not a tour bus.

The speed limit for snowcoaches in Yellowstone National Park is 25 miles per hour.

A sign in the windshield of the bus declares that if the speedometer reads 21 miles per hour, you’re actually going 25 miles per hour. That’s because the tires are so large that they take up more space than a regular tire. At 25 miles per hour, the tires on the giant yellow bus can handle 4,500 lbs at 12 psi, according to Michelin. At 23 psi, they can handle 8,320 lbs.

The ride is surprisingly smooth and other than the passing snowmobiles (their speed limit is 35 miles per hour), the park is open and inviting, without the crowds that can make a July day on the western side of the park less than relaxing.

While frequent visitors to Yellowstone National Park get used to long days in vehicles especially in the summer, those speed limits don’t make winter traveling much faster. Bison still dot the roads, along with vehicles stopped for coyotes and bald eagles. A trip from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and back — along with many other thermal features on the way — was a daylong trek in a snowcoach this weekend.

Shutdown effects

I have now been in Yellowstone National Park four times since the government shutdown started on Dec. 22.

Yellowstone has seemingly not felt any of the major effects that has caused other parks like Joshua Tree National Park to close. The Boiling River still opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. Bathrooms are open. You can still buy a hot chocolate at a warming station.

One of the worst things about the government shutdown is they cannot answer questions. As a person whose job it is to find out information and report it back to you, that situation is less than ideal.

Our guide explained that Yellowstone guides are lucky because otherwise, they would be out of business for awhile and vacations would have been canceled.

“Yellowstone is not suffering in the same way other parks are,” he said. “The only way to get in the winter is with a guide anyways.”

He said guides pratice “carry in, carry out” in the wintertime, meaning they carry all their trash out. Concessionaires run the warming huts, which is one of the only places where you run into people in the winter anyway.

“I’m grateful we’re able to be here,” he said.

Old Faithful’s eruption is still standing-room-only in the winter.

People who paid hundreds of dollars to get inside Yellowstone in the winter still whip out phones to record the eruption.

‘I couldn’t have even imagined’

Why is the park still open? It’s a question I’ve heard many people ask throughout the past month.

A family from Alabama is on the snowcoach. They don’t get very much snow in their town on the border of Florida and Alabama. Last year they got some on a Friday night. It melted by 11 a.m. Saturday, they said.

At every chance they got, they would throw snowballs or jump into drifts.

They were amazed at how coyotes stood out against the white backdrop. They were awed by the way the geysers would melt the accrued snow on the boardwalks at the Fountain Paint Pots stop.

On the way back to West Yellowstone, the grandma of the family couldn’t believe how much snow there was.

“If I only get to go here one time I’m glad it was in the winter,” she said before a long pause. “I really am.”

She looked out the windows at snow-capped peaks and evergreen trees.

“Because I couldn’t have even imagined,” she said.