Time for a Vacation

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Bison jamb along the road between Gardiner and Cooke City.

One of many bison jams along the road between Gardiner and Cooke City. It’s tempting to reach out and pet these guys as they pass by but don’t do it lest you get yourself fined or even killed.

Being retired and traveling full-time in an RV may seem to many like a permanent vacation but we’ve discovered life on the road can get monotonous after a while. Just like those who go to work everyday, it does the body good to shake things up and take a vacation every now and then. We’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone in the winter and since the campgrounds are closed, we decided this would be a good time to leave the motorhome behind and spend a couple of weeks visiting the park.

What to do with the RV? Should we store it or leave it in an RV park?

Since we live in our RV full-time, we have a fully stocked fridge and freezer meaning we need to leave our RV plugged in. Finding a storage facility that offers electric hookups is difficult so we decided to simply leave the RV in a commercial RV park. We chose American RV Park in Albuquerque NM. Sure, it’s a 2 day drive from ABQ to Yellowstone but 1) the weather in ABQ is relatively mild so no need to winterize the RV and 2) the driving distance to Yellowstone is about the same going east or west of the Rockies giving us an alternative in case the weather turns bad. And to top it off, American RV Park offers a winter monthly rate that comes out to ~$15/day. It would be hard to find short term storage for that rate.

The Perfect Place to Stay and it’s Dog Friendly!

The road east of Cooke City is closed during the winter so the only way for residents to get out of town is to travel west to Gardiner MT. This road runs through Yellowstone NP and is the only road in the park that is open to auto traffic during the winter.

The road east of Cooke City is closed during the winter so the only way for residents to get out of town is to travel west to Gardiner MT. This road runs through Yellowstone NP and is the only road in the park that is open to auto traffic during the winter.

If you’re going to visit Yellowstone by car in the winter there are very few options of where to stay. Only one road in Yellowstone National Park is kept open year-round and it’s the road between Gardiner and Cooke City MT, about 60 miles away. Cooke City lies just outside the northeast entrance of Yellowstone and all roads east of Cooke City are closed in winter due to heavy snow.  As a visitor, you have 3 choices: 1) Mammoth Springs just inside the north entrance, 2) Gardiner just outside the north entrance or 3) Cooke City . We chose to stay at the Yellowstone Gateway Inn in Gardiner. They’re pet friendly and all the rooms are 1 bedroom apartments with fully equipped kitchens.

Main Street in downtown Cooke City MT. The nearest grocery store is in Gardiner MT, almost 60 miles away. I'd love to live here!

Main Street in downtown Cooke City MT. The nearest grocery store is in Gardiner MT. It reminds me of the fictional town of Cicely AK in “Northern Exposure”. And much like the town of Cicely, those that choose to live here are unique and hardy individuals.

Weather – What to Expect

Yellowstone in winter is cold! 40 below is not uncommon but come mid-February there may be days when the thermometer climbs above freezing. During our two week stay, we saw lows in the single digits and a few days in the upper 30’s. We came prepared with down parkas, snow boots, thermal underwear, ski masks, and heavy mittens. Hand and toe warmers, sold in the Gardiner grocery store, were a must-have. Before we arrived, I had many sleepless nights worrying about how our car would fare in the snow. Turns out, I was worried over nothing. The road in Yellowstone is kept well plowed and gravel is spread where most needed.  Our front wheel drive Honda CRV with regular tires did just fine.

On the road from Cooke City to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone.

On the road from Cooke City to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. The snow pack in the park and Gardiner was nothing like what we saw in Cooke City.

Wildlife

This is our 7th visit to Yellowstone National Park. We come every fall for the primary purpose of viewing and photographing wildlife, especially the wolves. The road between Gardiner and Cooke City passes right through Lamar Valley or as I like to call it, wolf-central. Winter offers a unique opportunity for wildlife viewing: 1) the park has few visitors this time of year and many who visit come to see the wolves, 2) the wolves and other wildlife are easier to spot against the white backdrop of snow, and 3) the wolves are more active and seem to relish the cold weather.

One set of four fresh wolf tracks from the Lamar Pack in the northeast corner of Yellowstone.

One set of four fresh wolf tracks from the Lamar Pack in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. I did not see these wolves on this particular day but did watch while they took down a bull elk a few days later.

Wolves have huge feet, almost the size of my hand!

Wolves have huge feet, almost the size of my hand!

Winter is an easy time for the wolves. The elk, bison, deer and sheep have a hard time finding enough to eat resulting in many weakened individuals for the wolves to prey upon. Necroscopic analysis indicates that up to 80% of wolf-kills are of injured or sick animals.

A big horn ram hanging out in Lamar Valley.

A healthy big horn ram hanging out in Lamar Valley.

Coyote giving me the stink-eye.

Wolves provide an easy meal for scavengers such as this coyote. After the wolves have had their fill, it’s common to see coyotes, foxes, ravens and eagles help themselves to a wolf-kill.

A member from the Prospect pack hanging out in Lamar Valley.

Wolves are extremely territorial and will kill another wolf that encroaches on their territory. This member from the Prospect pack is inviting trouble by hanging out in Lamar Valley, home of the Lamar pack.

Another Prospect pack member hanging out in Lamar Valley.

Another Prospect pack member hanging out in Lamar Valley. I imagine he’s keeping an eye out for the Lamar pack.

On my last day in the park, I was fortunate to witness the Lamar pack take down a bull elk. The actual kill was behind a berm so I was unable to video the event but immediately after the kill, the wolves reappeared for a well deserved rest.

 

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5 thoughts on “Time for a Vacation

  1. Allison

    Your blog fell off my history list, so I got behind in reading. It’s been fun catching up with you. Congratulations on the new motor home. Like you, we started traveling, looking for the “final resting place” and instead we continue to travel. The new RV looks very nice. Your photography continues to be outstanding.

    Reply

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