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Through the frozen forest: Yellowstone on skis

By Matt Volz

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 11:56 a.m. MST

This Dec. 24, 2011 photo shows Beagan Wilcox Volz skiing the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Most wintertime visitors choose to tour Yellowstone by snowcoach or snowmobile. But there's really no better way to become immersed in the park than with a pair of skis. There are some easy outings, such as the trails around the Upper Geyser Basin. Then there are the tougher ones, including arduous trails to the Continental Divide.

Matt Volz, Associated Press

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — I took a deep breath, positioned my skis and shot down the hillside, whizzing through a forest of trees covered with thick, feathered layers of ice.

I focused all my energy on not crashing into one, but my left ski kept slipping off the trail. Knees quivering and blood rushing in my ears, I willed it back and leaned into the curve to find my wife waiting on the trail ahead.

Somehow I stopped without crashing into her. We just stood there, our labored breathing the only sound in the frozen forest.

After a moment, we continued toward our destination, guided by the smoke signals rising from the pools and geysers in the distance.

My wife Beagan and I are new to cross-country skiing. After moving to the Rocky Mountains about two years ago, we figured it would be a good way to experience the backcountry in winter and stave off cabin fever. So we decided to learn in the wildest place we knew: Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone's wilderness is reclaimed when the throngs of summer tourists leave and the temperature drops below zero. Most of the park's roads and services shut down, and the landscape is transformed into an otherworldly land of ice and snow.

Relatively few people venture into the park at this time, just 17,262 overnight visitors last winter compared to the nearly 1.2 million overnight stays between June and September 2010.

The wildlife reemerges with the people gone, and wolves, foxes, swans, geese, eagles, bison and elk are more frequently seen at this time of year.

It's also a prime time for cross-country skiing. Yellowstone in winter has plenty of trails for novices like us and experts alike. No matter the skill level, a ski trip in Yellowstone leaves you with a sense of the park's beauty that is completely different from the busy summer months.

Beagan and I aimed to insert ourselves into this scene through what we pictured would be an unobtrusive means of transportation. For $40 each, we got a two-hour lesson and were outfitted with skis, boots and poles for 24 hours.

We spent the first part of that lesson in the Old Faithful parking lot. A groomed trail about a third of a mile in diameter had been cut there, and we practiced kicking and gliding. I was soon sweating through my layers even though the temperature was stuck at minus five degrees.

We moved on to a series of progressively steeper hills to practice stopping and turning. The last one was our final exam. It was the steepest and involved making a left turn at a high rate of speed to avoid plunging into an icy stream.

Halfway down, my hips lurched, my knees knocked and my arms pinwheeled. I collapsed into a pretzel of limbs, poles and skis. My wife swished past as I picked myself up. I watched as she made the turn effortlessly. We were as ready as we were going to be.

We planned our first outing in our room back at the lodge. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel near the northern entrance are the only accommodations inside the park during the winter season from mid-December until the first weekend of March.

There's usually plenty of space throughout the season, with Old Faithful normally running at about 70 percent of capacity and Mammoth about 60 percent full. The exception is Christmas, when the lodges are usually full.

Once you get to Old Faithful in winter, you're pretty much stuck there unless you pony up another $62 to take the three-hour snowcoach back to West Yellowstone. The rooms at Old Faithful are $206 a night, there's no television and reservations are a must at the one restaurant.

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