Feature | Photo Gallery

Winter Wonderland

Photographer Taylor Glenn ski-toured across Yellowstone’s southwestern corner.

Sitting in the snow on the bank of the Bechler River, I struggle to dry my feet and wriggle my ski boots back on. Groaning in frustration, my adventure partner Taylor Phillips, “TP,” fights with me for elbow room as he pulls on his wool socks. Minutes earlier we came to an impassable spot on the south side of the canyon that forced us to take off our skis, boots, and socks and ford the river. Barefoot on our snowy, awkward perch, we look at each other and burst into laughter; it’s a moment of clarity and pure joy, and we both know we will never forget this moment.

Between December and March, Yellowstone National Park gets only a fraction of the visitors (159,219 people this past winter) that it does between June and August (2.677 million in 2023). Nestled in the park’s southwest corner, the Bechler region is one of its most remote and least-visited areas. In summer, the Bechler Ranger Station is a 23 mile drive—about 10 miles of which are on dirt—from Ashton, Idaho. In winter, the only way to get to the ranger station, which was built by the U.S. Army as a guard station in 1911, four years before the National Park Service was established, is by snowmobile. Or, if you’re looking for a big adventure, skis. 

One summer I had hiked the park’s Bechler River Trail to Mr. Bubbles, a thermal feature in the Ferris Fork Geyser Basin almost equidistant from Old Faithful (about 15 miles to the east) and the Bechler Ranger Station (about 15 miles to the west). I only recall small bits of that trip, but Mr. Bubbles is hard to forget; the pool gets its name from an air vent in the center that constantly bubbles air. TP was immediately sold on my idea for a 32-mile six-day ski tour from Old Faithful to the Bechler Ranger Station. We’d haul 80-pound sleds and camp each night in Yellowstone’s snow-covered backcounty as temperatures dipped well below zero.

At that time, I had never visited any part of Yellowstone in the winter—not even so much as a cross-country ski around Old Faithful Village. My thinking was that if I was finally going to experience Yellowstone in winter, then I wanted to really experience it in winter! We departed the Lone Star Geyser Trailhead near Old Faithful one day in February. Although we arrived at the Bechler Ranger Station as planned, most of the trip did not go as planned; we underestimated how difficult it would be. Still, it was a magical experience and stands as one of the greatest adventures I have ever done.

A bison forages in a meadow where the snow is shallow near thermal features in the Lone Star Geyser area. These guys have it tough in the winter. They use their broad heads to brush snow away from the ground and munch on what little grass and nutrients they can find.
We started out with a leisurely morning taking photos and gawking at the beauty around us. Assuming we would cruise our way up and over the Continental Divide, we took our time and enjoyed the moment. A mileage post on the trail reminded us of how far we had to go, 27.6 miles. We thought it’d be a piece of cake. Soon after, we began to realize just how wrong this assumption was. 
Skiing past Lone Star Geyser, the groomed trail ends and the real work begins.
It wasn’t always a slog through untracked, deep snow. In some of the thermal zones the snow was relatively shallow, and there were even spots with bare ground.
After four miles of skiing, we were totally spent and the the sun was setting. We made camp and, over dinner, talked about the fact we were in for a much more difficult journey than we had anticipated. Looking back on our leisurely morning, we decided it would be predawn wake-ups from now on.
Yes, I brought my tripod. It was heavy, but at least I was able to make this photo on our first night out, when it was a crisp -20F.
My ski partner, Taylor Phillips, is owner and lead guide of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. The beauty of traveling in the mountains with a naturalist is that you get to learn about things you would otherwise walk right by. With TP in the lead, he noticed this indentation in the snow, which turned out to be where a dusky grouse had burrowed for the night. You could see where it landed, then tunneled through the snow, and, once morning came, exploded out and left wing patterns in the fresh powder. There are so many wonderful things to see if you pay attention.
Just prior to our departure, the Tetons got almost two feet of snow over 36 hours. We couldn’t measure, but Yellowstone’s backcountry likely got more. Climbing up to Grant’s Pass, the deep powder pulled at our sleds, causing them to submarine into the snow. 
Skiing out along the Ferris Fork to Three River Junction.
Mr. Bubbles is on the Ferris Fork River. It is illegal to enter hot springs in Yellowstone, but there are a few features it is legal to soak in, like Mr. Bubbles, because they are part of flowing water. Mr. Bubbles is in the Ferris Fork River, where hot water flows into it from a spring (seen on the right in this photo). We were so fortunate to experience Mr. Bubbles in winter; it was worth every bit of effort to be there.
Our first of multiple river crossings was thermal warm, but that wasn’t the case in later crossings.
To cross the Bechler River here, we found a low spot in the snowy bank with a small gravel bar in the water. We stomped out a spot to prep for the crossing, piled all of our gear onto this makeshift platform, and then took off our boots and waded over to the far side. There, we shoveled out a landing. After several trips ferrying our gear, we got everything back in order and continued toward the north side of the canyon.
We intended to be at the Bechler Ranger Station the night before we made it for real. The plan was to camp there before our originally scheduled 10 a.m. pickup. Getting there seven hours late, we were just happy to have made it with a bit of daylight left. JH

Receive Published Stories In Your Inbox

Enter your email address below to subscribe to published stories.