The contrast is stark, and not just because of the bright white snow that blankets the steaming, otherworldly landscape.
“Welcome to Old Faithful,” snowcoach driver Ryan Edmiston said into his amplified headset to his eight passengers. “It’s a lot different. It’s a lot quieter.”
This winter is the second season under Yellowstone National Park’s new plan that has limited snowcoach and snowmobile traffic, although the changes were phased in over several years. The results are noticeable to many.
“We used to come to Old Faithful and the snow was brownish-black because of the concentration of snowmobiles in the parking area,” said Tara Ross, the West District ranger who spent eight winters at the more remote Grant Village inside Yellowstone.
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Now, even Old Faithful’s snow is white.
Part of the reason for the change is that there are fewer people in the park. From the heydays of snowmobile and snowcoach travel in 2002, winter recreation visits to Yellowstone National Park have dropped more than 36 percent, or about 53,000 people, in the last 12 years.
According to National Park Service records, winter recreational visitation to Yellowstone peaked in 2002 at 144,490 people. Out of those winter tourists, 87,206 rode snowmobiles and 11,832 used snowcoaches.
Another 45,150 entered the park’s North Entrance at Gardiner by automobile to travel to the Lamar Valley to view wildlife, or proceded on to Cooke City to snowmobile or ski. The route is the only one inside the park open to winter auto travel.
In comparison, in 2014 Yellowstone recorded 91,168 winter recreation visitors. Of those, 24,377 entered on snowmobiles and 22,084 used snowcoaches. The North Entrance counted 44,222 other recreational visitors.
Sounds of silence
Given the large decline, especially in snowmobile visits which have dropped 72 percent, it’s no wonder that Yellowstone’s interior is a much quieter, less busy place in wintertime. It’s a change duly noted by longtime park workers like Edmiston, the snowcoach driver.
“Before guided snowmobiles, this whole road all the way back to West Yellowstone would be bumpy and there would be a blue haze in the air from the snowmobile exhaust,” he said.
Now, all snowmobiles are required to be quieter and less-polluting four-stroke machines. And with the reduction in the number of snowmobiles, roads seem to have fewer bumps since the machines’ stopping and starting were largely responsible for creating moguls along the route.
Edmiston recalled one time that he joined a friend to ski 12 miles into Yellowstone’s backcountry to replace the batteries on trail cameras being used for a wildlife study. Even that far into the woods they could still hear the whine of snowmobiles. That’s not the case now with the quieter four-stroke machines, he said.
Although visitors will spend hundreds of dollars on motel rooms, transportation and food, the fact that there are fewer of them has taken a toll on the economy of towns like West Yellowstone, located at the western gate to Yellowstone National Park.
According to economic calculations by the National Park Service in 2014, the average spending by a Yellowstone visitor in 2013 was about $120. That number is only an average, and is not adjusted for how much people spend in summer vs. winter — winter visitors tend to stay longer and spend more, but there are fewer of them.
The majority of a visitor’s spending goes to lodging, about 30 percent, followed by restaurant and bar tabs, about 20 percent.
Can there be a price placed on the relative solitude and quiet that Yellowstone now offers winter visitors? Or is exclusivity, the fact that some people may be priced out of the park, against what the national park system is all about? Those are questions Yellowstone's managers have wrestled with while developing its less busy winter-use plan.
There is still one low-cost way into Yellowstone in the winter: rent cross-country skis and glide down a trail. When Ross lived at Grant Village in the winter, she relished nighttime skiing down newly groomed trails and backcountry ski treks into Park Service cabins on days off — even if it was a 12-mile slog of trail breaking. Her husband also is a park ranger.
“If we hadn’t had kids, we’d still be there,” said the native Tennessean who is now well acclimated to the arctic winters of Yellowstone. “We loved it. We could ski right out the front door.”
Back then, most of the snowmobile traffic was gone by about 5 p.m., leaving the nights deathly still, the forest muffled in a dense blanket of powdery snow.
“I remember going skiing at night, and all you could hear was your pulse,” she said. “I remember one night I could hear the snow landing on my earlobes.
“I liked the quiet.”