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Experiencing Yellowstone’s Winter Wonderland

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When Yellowstone National Park is covered in a blanket of snow, things can get a little weird.

Throughout the winter season, the park becomes a 2.2-million-acre visual smorgasbord, full of strange sights and sounds that delight the park’s visitors and residents alike.

“Even those of us who have lived here for years can still feel like a kid in a candy store when we experience the wonders of the park in the winter,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts in Yellowstone.

“When you combine the park’s geothermal stew of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots; a dizzying array of wildlife from survival-focused bison to feisty wolves; an average of 150 inches of snowfall; and a vast and diverse landscape, visitors are rewarded with an experience like few other places on Earth.”

Here are just a few of the strange experiences visitors can expect during a winter visit to the park:

Snowball beards. Bison have it pretty rough in the winter. These massive creatures spend their winters foraging for food beneath the snow, and they can sometimes be seen with large clumps of snow and ice dangling from their chins by their hair. These oddly shaped “beards” dangle precariously from a bison’s jaw until the weight forces them to break off, sometimes taking fur with them.

Ice Fog. When the conditions are just right, visitors will see light-reflecting ice crystals floating in the air, giving the illusion of a fog. As the crystals drift through the air, they reflect the sun’s rays.

Monkey flowers. Only a few inches tall, these strange yellow wildflowers grow exclusively around hot springs. They are able to survive because of their short stature as well as the heat of the springs. There’s a summer-season monkey flower too, but it is much taller, and it grows around streams and springs.

Ice sheets. In the winter, Yellowstone Lake can have 136 square miles of ice, making it one of the largest ice sheets in the lower 48 states. Ice can be two feet thick on the surface but some spots on the bottom of the lake might still be boiling because of the park’s thermal activity.

Ghost trees. During periods of extreme cold, rime from hydrothermal mist accumulates on the branches of trees. When combined with falling snow, trees take on an eerie appearance and are known as “ghost trees.” These much-photographed trees are stunning to behold, but they can eventually cause tree limbs to break.

Snow sculptures. The park’s powerful winter wind blows snow around like dust, and the resulting drifts, patterns and formations, some strikingly and eerily symmetrical, are breathtaking.

Snow mirrors. Shiny, icy patches of snow form when the snow melts slightly and then refreezes, creating a smooth, reflective surface. When conditions are right, entire fields and mountains can appear shiny and reflective from a distance.

Geyser rain. When the near-boiling water from a geyser shoots into frigid air, the resulting “geyser rain” looks like frozen ice pellets floating back to Earth.

Rivers that never freeze. Despite the park’s cold temperatures, the Madison River and many other rivers in the park never freeze because the rivers’ flows come from geothermal sources.

Starlight shadows. Thanks to Yellowstone’s dark skies, it’s possible to see one’s shadow created by starlight alone. The winter snow cover helps create the perfect surface for the shadows. The shadows can be faint, so allow enough time away from other light in order for your eyes to adequately adjust to the dark. But don’t forget to look up as well, as the star show is incredible, again thanks to the lack of light pollution.

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