YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Here's an idea that might seem counter-intuitive: To get away from it all and seek some solitude, try going to one of America's most popular places.
That would be Yellowstone National Park. The trick is to go there when the crowds are not there. In the wintertime the park is still loaded with great scenery and with the famous Yellowstone wildlife, but it is not jammed with people.
"Yeah, Yellowstone in winter is just a totally different place — like a different planet," said Steve Fuller who has lived and worked in Yellowstone year-round for nearly half a century. He noted that the best winter snow in years has settled in at Yellowstone.
"This is what I call an old-fashioned winter," Fuller said as he stood hip-deep in snow on the roof of the Canyon Lodge. As summer maintenance chief and winter caretaker, one of his duties is to clear snow off the roof, carving it with a snow-saw and pushing it off with a shovel. The lodge is in the national park's popular Canyon Village, but it's deserted because it's closed for the winter. Fuller was first hired in 1973 and raised two daughters in Yellowstone.
"Well, believe it or not, I've worn out three saws in my career," he said as he pushed another huge pile of snow off the roof. "I've loved every minute of it. It's an extraordinary place to be able to live."
Surrounded by blue sky, green trees and oceans of white snow, Fuller said he's right where he wants to be, even when the temperature plunges to 40 below.
"Winter (in Yellowstone) is what offers one those rarest things in the modern world," Fuller said, "some peace and quiet and solitary-ness."
If it's a great place to live for the relative handful of winter workers, it's a magical place for the lucky few visitors who tour the park this time of year.
"It's great, it's beautiful," said Maidi Remmer of Juno Beach, Florida, seated on a snowmobile near the famous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. "Blue skies. Clear. Gorgeous. "
"Been here summer and winter and I think this is spectacular," said John Froelich of Andover, Minnesota, who was touring the park by snowcoach.
Kandice Froelich agreed. "Yeah, come in winter," she said. "It's more beautiful."
A Salt Lake couple on the tour had similar thoughts. "Well, I love it," said Judy Kirkham. "We were here in the summer, and this beats it."
"No crowds," added Roger Kirkham. "That's attractive, especially for here."
Yellowstone is the fifth most visited national park. It attracted well over 4 million visitors last year. But in the winter, the crowds are virtually non-existent.
And there's plenty to see that visitors cannot see in the summer.
The animals of Yellowstone — vastly popular with tourists — are sporting a full winter coat. Much of the scenery is dressed up in a winter coat, as well. Most trees are wrapped in blankets of snow, but some trees near the park's famous geysers and hot-pots acquire a thick frosting of frozen mist. They're often shrouded like ghosts in mysterious clouds of steam that boil out of the earth.
Wintertime tourists are often delighted with the solitude.
"This is fabulous," said Kathy Opitz of Alexandria, Virginia, as she stood near Old Faithful. "We were walking along the geyser field yesterday and we were the only people out there."
Except for the tiny minority willing to enter by snowshoes or skis, the only practical way into Yellowstone in winter is by snowmobile or snowcoach. The number of motorized vehicles is severely limited by the National Park Service, which issues permits based on a complicated formula tied to the amount of noise each machine makes. That guarantees fewer visitors and a quieter park.
"Well in the winter there's a lot less people," said Mindy Morris in her 14th year as a snowcoach driver and guide. She vastly prefers winter to summer, partly because there's less stress of the kind that tourists tend to generate. "Most everyone is guided in the winter, so there's not many people doing things they shouldn't be doing," she said.
Rachel Cudmore lives outside the park in neighboring Gardiner, Montana, but she enters the park regularly for a crucial task. As the National Park Service winter courier, she delivers mail and supplies to the relatively small winter work force that lives in the park.
"I travel the park twice a week on either snowmobile or snowcoach," Cudmore said. "That's about 150 miles per week."
She's undaunted by sometimes harsh conditions such as freezing rain, fierce winds or blowing snow coupled with temperatures that are often deep below zero.
"Overall," Cudmore said, "I think I like it a little more every year."
One of the pleasures for winter tourists is to spot wildlife without the traffic jams that are frequently triggered by summer sightings. On a snowcoach or snowmobile, encounters with bison are common since the big beasts tend to walk on the groomed trails. It's not unusual to see coyotes hunting for food in the winter landscape or a bald eagle eyeballing a snow-covered meadow. Even the famous Yellowstone wolves sometimes make an appearance along the snow-packed roads that are groomed for snow vehicles.
"It's fun to experience these wildlife encounters with other people," Cudmore said. "But when you can see those things by yourself, that makes it even more special."
"There she blows," exclaimed a tourist as Old Faithful began one of its regular eruptions. It was almost like having a private performance — only about two dozen spectators were spread across the huge snow-covered viewing area.
"The difference between the 25 of us and the 2,500 that are probably here in the summer (is like) night and day!" said Pete McVoy of Cleveland, Ohio. "Why would you ever come in the summer if you could do this and have this to yourself? That's amazing."
"To be here, and to even hear it, with so few people here, was wonderful," said his wife Linda McVoy.
Renting a snowmobile or hiring a seat on a snowcoach can cost a family hundreds of dollars a day, but it's a ticket to something most people will never see.
"No, it's not cheap," Roger Kirkham said, "but it's worth it."
As she steered her snowcoach along a groomed trail through the woods, Morris said, "I think that people need to experience Yellowstone in winter at least once in their lives."