By Jamie Balke Explorebigsky.com Contributor
It was dark and early when Rob Patterson of Yellowstone Tour Guides departed Bozeman for the Summit Hotel in Big Sky. There, he picked up the four others, who were just as excited as my brother and me to experience a snow coach tour in Yellowstone.
Hailing from North Carolina and New York, these lovely people were cheerful partners in the adventure. After getting the group settled in the van, Patterson began the drive to West Yellowstone. Snow fell gently, and elk congregated not far from the road.
A native Montanan and avid hunter with a wide-ranging knowledge of the area, Patterson scanned the passing landscape for signs of wildlife. He’s been with Yellowstone Tour Guides since 2007, and believes he has the “best office in the world.”
Driving down 191, as darkness softened into morning light, it was difficult to argue. The view was partially obstructed by frost on the inside of the windows, which one resourceful group member cleared off with her credit card just in time – across the river a female moose and her calf grazed. After a pause for questions and photos, the journey continued past willows dusted with snow in meadows where we spotted an otter.
In West Yellowstone, Patterson traded the van for a snow coach.
“Your chariot awaits,” he proclaimed, explaining the imposing green vehicle perched on track treads called Mattracks is owned by Loomis Enterprises, which has a business relationship with Yellowstone Tour Guides.
YTG, which opened its doors in July 2001, offers a variety of snow coach tours. This particular journey is known as the Old Faithful Winter Adventure.
The group climbed into the coach, and after a stop at the Chamber of Commerce for entrance permits, cruised into Yellowstone.
“Welcome to the mother park!” Patterson said as the coach made tracks past frost-covered pine trees shimmering in the sun, steam from geothermal features rising against a backdrop of mountains.
In a tree across the Madison River, Patterson pointed out two bald eagles. Positioning the lens of his cell phone camera against the eye of a pair of binoculars, he photographed the birds.
The coach motored along, small chunks of snow tossed up by its treads, flying by the windows.
The drive to Old Faithful yielded views of wildlife large and small, herds of elk and bison near the Madison River providing photo opportunities. Patterson even spotted a small American Dipper camouflaged in the river.
Our coach played leapfrog with a handful of other coaches and snowmobiles, but I kept in mind that we were surrounded by roughly 2.2 million acres of land in Yellowstone National Park. Patterson explained that according to recent National Park Service statistics, of the park’s 2.5 million annual visitors, only 50,000 come in the winter.
After a walk at Black Sand Basin, Patterson led the group to a quick lunch at the Geyser Grill, followed by an Old Faithful eruption and a trip through the visitor’s center. One member of the group broke off to work on his ambitious goal of jogging in every state.
The return route included a walk at Fountain Paint Pots, where Patterson and other guides were excited to see changes in some features and unusual activity – the eruption of Fountain Geyser was surprisingly long, and Clepsydra Geyser was much louder than usual, according to Patterson.
While driving back along the Madison River, Patterson’s prediction of seeing coyotes in this particular area was fulfilled when three came into view.
Shortly before exiting the park after a day filled with wildlife, geothermal activity, and remarkable scenery, he spotted another bald eagle. A fitting conclusion to a wonderful day, it felt as though the eagle was seeing us off.
Weekly columnist Jamie Balke can’t wait to return to Yellowstone.