Yellowstone by Coach

Yellowstone by Coach

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Mike England

A great way to visit the Park.

It's wintertime in Yellowstone, and few places in the world are as uniquely beautiful. Bison gather around steaming springs, their coats drenched in snow and frost; condensation billows from a thousand hotpots; herds of elk roam the river valleys, their massive heads burrowing under the snow in search of forage; and all around, the landscape is steeped in the tranquility of an alpine winter. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling are great ways to take advantage of Yellowstone's breathtaking sights. But these modes of travel aren't for everyone. Fortunately, there's yet another option for partaking of Yellowstone's winter wonders: the snowcoach.

Snowcoaches, which began operating in Yellowstone in the mid-1950s, are comfortable, heated vehicles that hold ten passengers and carry all your necessities for a great day visiting our first national park. Snowcoaches come in many shapes and sizes. Traditional Bombardiers look like overgrown VW Beatles on tracks. They have two large roof hatches that open for panoramic viewing and photographing of wildlife and scenery. Newer snowvans, which are becoming more common, are simply a modern van placed onto a tracked undercarriage for travel across the snowy roads of Yellowstone. This clever conversion allows the vehicle to operate on wheels in the summer and tracks in the winter. It is worth the trip to West Yellowstone simply to see the wide variety of vehicles being used in the Park today.

The distinctive Bombardier is the vehicle of choice for Yellowstone Alpen Guides in West Yellowstone, a year-round tour service that's been taking visitors into the Park since 1984. "These snowcoaches are great for family trips," says owner Scott Carsley, "because everyone can be together for the whole ride, and everyone stays warm." You can even charter the entire vehicle for a customized tour with family and friends. Seating is a horseshoe-style, which promotes more of a group experience. "They're very socially-oriented," Carsley adds, pointing to his fleet of eight bright-red coaches. "We have a lot of fun in those things." In winter, Carsley's guests usually see bison, elk, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks. Coyotes and an occasional wolf can be spotted strolling along a riverbank or across an open meadow.

At Alpen Guides and other operations like it, your snowcoach driver is also a trained naturalist. He or she will chauffer you throughout Yellowstone, all the while imparting fascinating natural and historical facts about the Park and the wildlife within it. All you have to do is sit and gawk. If, however, the snow-draped forests and meadows of Yellowstone call for a little more intimacy, you can always get out of the coach with a pair of skis or snowshoes and head off on your own. Generally, the driver will give you a map of the area and plot a pick-up point. You are then free to slide or step your way along a quiet waterfront, across an open glade, or through the inimitable stillness of the Park's rolling pine forests. And best of all, just when you start to get a little cold, the frigid air snapping at your cheeks and sliding up your sleeves, here comes the coach to pick you up. As you clamber into the toasty cab, you'll be glad you planned ahead and stashed a thermos of hot chocolate behind the seat.

Yellowstone's winter season runs from the third Wednesday in December through the second Sunday in March. To avoid vacationing crowds, try to come before Christmas or after the New Year, and steer clear of Presidents' Day weekend as well.

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