Yellowstone National Park – an amazing winter wonderland

Yellowstone National Park (YNP) was not only the first national park in the U.S., but also the first in the world. It was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. YNP is the Earth’s largest active geyser area, much of which is located within an ancient volcanic caldera (a large volcanic crater, especially one formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of the volcano). The last eruption was 600,000 years ago. The caldera has been slowly filled with lava flow which now fills most of the caldera. Volcanic activity is still present which heats up ground water creating the current thermal features which are seen today. There are four basic types of thermal features that can be seen; geysers, hot springs, fumaroles (openings in the earth’s surface that emit steam and volcanic gases) and mudpots. Over 4 million tourists visit YNP annually. Summertime is a very popular time to visit YNP and is very crowded.

Winter is a great time to visit YNP, as there are very few tourists. The snow-covered ground is spectacular, however, it is not the faint hearted as the winter temperatures range from 0°C – 30°C, and then there is the windchill factor to consider.  During winter one can see the numerous geothermal areas, natural beauty of the park, amazing snowy landscapes and very few wildlife as not many wildlife can withstand the harsh frozen temperatures and biting windchill factor. I have to add in here that it is not easy for humans either!

For people who enjoy the great outdoors and adventure travel photography, this is the perfect place.

Yellowstone National Park map
Yellowstone National Park map
Old Faithful

Old Faithful Geyser is the world’s most famous geyser. It was discovered in 1870 and was named due to its frequent and predictable eruptions. These eruptions can reach up to 54 metres and last 1.5 to 5 minutes with around 20 eruptions a day. It has been estimated that approximately 14,000 litres of water is expelled during an average eruption. The water temperature at the vent is around 96°C, steam temperature is 177°C.

Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful Geyser
Snowy Landscape
Snowy landscape
Hot spring
Hot spring

Whether it is the steam rising from the hot springs and geysers, the snow-covered landscapes or the wildlife there is so much to see and enjoy.

Grand Prismatic Spring

The spring is the most photographed thermal spring in YNP due to its size and aqua colour. It is deeper than a 10 storey building, 113 metres in diameter with water temperatures of 87°C.

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring
Grand Prismatic Hot Spring
Thermal landscape
Thermal landscape
Thermal pool, Yellowstone National Park
Thermal pool
Thermal Pool, Yellowstone National Park
Thermal pool and landscape
Norris Geyser Basin

Norris is one of the hottest and most acidic thermal areas and part of one of the world’s largest active volcanoes with temperatures up to 93°C.

Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Norris Geyser Basin
Thermal area, Yellowstone National Park
Thermal landscape
Bacteria Mat

Bacteria mats are mini ecosystems when individual bacteria join up to form long strands called filaments creating these thermophilic mats. These bacteria (heat loving microorganisms) can survive in temperatures of 73°C when they turn yellow-green, in cooler temperatures they change colour to orange and rusty brown.

Bacteria Mat
Bacteria Mat
Fountain Paint Pot, Yellowstone National Park
Fountain Paint Pot
Snowy landscape
Snowy landscape
Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River
WILDLIFE IN Yellowstone National Park

While YNP is home to many species of wildlife, only a few can be seen during the winter months. 

Bison

Bison (Bison bison) in YNP is the only place in in USA where bison have lived and been allowed to roam freely since prehistoric times. These bison have remained as pure breeds as they have not been crossed with any other cattle. They are the largest land-living mammal in North America. Males can weigh up to 900kg, and females 500kg. Both male and female have the large protruding shoulder hump. Their large shoulder and neck muscles allow the bison to swing their heads from side to side to clear snow and forage for grass during the winter months.

Bison have to be very strong and resilient to survive the harsh winters in YNP. They are very agile and strong swimmers and can run up to 55 km/h. In 1902 after years of hunting and poaching there were only 24 bison remaining in the park. Bison are considered to be the most dangerous animal in YNP. Conservation efforts over the past 100 years have been very successful in bringing this pure breed back from the brink of extinction. At the last count in 2020, there were 4680 individuals in the park.

Many of the bison in YNP have brucellosis (bacterial infection) which can be passed on to other cattle and humans, which is why bison are not permitted to migrate out of YNP. Hunting within YNP is prohibited. Any bison that are moved out of YNP will need to be tested for brucellosis and quarantined.

Bison
Bison
Bison ploughing through the sow
Bison ploughing through the snow
Bison taking over the road
Bison taking over the road
Snow covered bison
Snow covered bison
A pair of bison
A pair of bison
Coyote

Coyote (Canis latrans) are common predators in YNP, hanging around looking for food, particularly in winter months when food is very scarce. Living in packs of up to 11 adults, they are very clever, opportunistic predators, highly adaptable and will eat almost anything (rabbits, mice, insects, fruit, house cats, small dogs, livestock and garbage), and usually hunt alone. They can weigh up to 15kg, and are about 50cm tall at the shoulder. They have survived in YNP for many years, their numbers decreased once wolves were introduced back into the park from 1995 onwards.

Coyotes lost their habitat and had to share their food source with the wolves and were being eaten by wolves leading to a decrease in their population. Average lifespan of a coyote is around 6 years, but some have been known to live up to 13 years.

Coyote
Coyote
Coyote
Coyote
Red Fox

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) have lived in YNP since the 1880’s. They are smaller than coyotes, an adult male is around 5 kg. Average lifespan 3-7 years but have been known to live up to 11 years. Being mainly a nocturnal animal they are often not seen during the day. Foxes are solitary animals and hunt alone in early morning or late afternoon.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Bobcat

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are very rare in YNP and it is difficult to spot one during the day. Average adult size can be up to 13 kg. They are solitary animals and usually hunt early mornings and evenings. Their diet consists of rabbits, rodents, birds and small deer. Lifespan in the wild is around 7 years.

Bobcat
ELK

There are around 10,000 -20,000 elk (Cervus canadensis) in YNP during the summer months and around 4,000 during the winter months. They are the most abundant ungulate (hoofed animal) in the park and provide for 85% of the food source for wolves, coyotes, foxes during the winter months.

Female elk
Female elk
Male elk
Male elk
Trumpeter swans
Trumpeter swans
Trumpeter swans
Trumpeter swans
Yellowstone National Park Conservation

THREATS:

  • CLIMATE CHANGE
    • Increased temperature, changing rain and snow patterns are affecting the park
  • INVASIVE SPECIES
    • Insect infestations in flora e.g. pine bark beetles and spruce budworm
  • HUMAN IMPACT
    • Over tourism, disturbance of habitats, human animal conflict, introduction of disease, pollution due to littering and animals eating rubbish, car emissions
  • DISEASES
    • Brucellosis is a very contagious bacterial disease that has spread from livestock to the elk and bison in YNP. There is no cure for this disease.
    • Chronic Wasting Disease: A fatal infection that is spread through animal contact, environment and soil
Information link

https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/index.htm

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