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.
But the adventure begins just outside the door with the iconic geyser as the main attraction. I watched alone as Old Faithful hissed, gurgled and finally spewed in the twilight. Mother Nature was putting on a show and the only other attendee was a disinterested fox hopping on and off benches in search of some forgotten scraps.
Most wintertime visitors choose to tour the park 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 the easy outings, such as the trails around the Upper Geyser Basin just outside of the lodge. Then there are the tougher ones, including arduous trails to the Continental Divide.
For those who don't want to waste any more time than necessary, and have an extra $16.50, a shuttle is available to take skiers to more distant trailheads.
After the ski lesson and an afternoon of testing our new skills and fighting to stay upright on the easiest paths among the geysers, we woke up the next morning to sore muscles we never knew existed. Regardless, we decided to leave the training wheels behind and take a nine-mile out-and-back trek into the wilderness.
The first couple of miles to the Lone Star Geyser is a series of undulating hills in the forest. Beagan scooted up those hills using the herringbone technique we'd learned the day before, then glided back downhill with seemingly little effort. I fell farther and farther behind as I waddled the ups and resisted the urge to close my eyes on the downs.
Upon reaching the Kepler Cascades, the path becomes a level, groomed trail that follows the Firehole River. It is easy enough for a beginner, but provides a taste of the wild that lay just beyond the lodges.
Beagan quickly moved ahead and I reveled in the ease of following the river in the sunshine, alone with my thoughts on a crisp day.
When we reached our destination, the forest opened into a wide valley and the Lone Star geyser stood like a giant dirt dauber's nest. Like most of our excursions from the lodge, not another person was around.
I had thought Yellowstone in winter would be too extreme, too daunting for the novice skier. It wasn't. There was plenty of comfort and just as much adventure as I cared to taste.
We congratulated ourselves and had a celebratory snack of salami and granola just 20 yards from the smoking geyser. We then headed back before the already sinking sun slipped too far below the horizon.
If You Go...
YELLOWSTONE IN WINTER: Yellowstone National Park's winter season begins in mid-December and lasts until the beginning of March; http://www.nps.gov/yell . Winter package deals from concessionaire Xanterra: http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
SKIING: Rentals, $15 half-day, $24 full day. Lesson and 24-hour rental, $40. Snowshoes, $12 a half-day, $20 full day.
GETTING THERE: The only year-round access for private cars to Yellowstone is through the park's north entrance at Gardiner, Mont., to Mammoth Hot Springs. The rest of the roadways are closed in winter. Visitors to Old Faithful can take a snowcoach for $62 from West Yellowstone or the south entrance. Within the park, snow coach and snowmobile tours are available.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Old Faithful Snow Lodge Inn nightly rates: rooms, $206; cabins, $96 or $149. Mammoth Springs Hotel: room with shared bath, $87; room with private bath, $120.
FOOD: At Old Faithful, Obsidian Dining Room is the only restaurant open (reservations recommended), while the Geyser Grill offers more fast-food fare. Mammoth Hot Springs' Mammoth Hotel Dining Room is open in winter.