COOKE CITY — The cook at the restaurant was so frustrated with the slow pace of winter, he didn’t want to add his name to his comments: “Just tell ’em we’ve got plenty of wildlife and plenty of snow and no people.”
Yellowstone National Park staggers under the crush of 4 million tourists who mostly come during June, July and August. Some shoulder-season cognoscenti sneak in fly fishing around May and September or snowcoach tours in January. But show up in March and you’ve got Yellowstone’s equally staggering wildlife community to yourself.
“We’ve got spring break coming up and people will email asking, ‘Will I be able to get to Old Faithful?” Yellowstone Park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett said. “I have to tell them all those roads are closed, and there’s no lodging in the park.”
Few seem interested in hearing about Highway 212, which remains open to automobile traffic year-round between the North Entrance at Gardiner and the Northeast Entrance at Silver Gate, three miles from Cooke City. Snow blocks the road from there into the Beartooth Mountains, making 212 the only connection to the larger world for these two small towns. It's like being able to drive into the interior of Glacier National Park, with more wildlife.
Last March, about 18,000 visitors came through that entrance. Many of those never got farther than Mammoth Terraces, which billow steam and attract a satisfying share of elk, mule deer, bison and antelope. The road east leads to more wonders, yet few make the effort.
This March, Highway 212 feels like a seasonal time machine, rolling from a spring-like 40 degrees at Gardiner to an arctic 4 degrees by Soda Butte in a morning’s drive. While wildflowers threaten to bud west of Blacktail Plateau, bison still need all their massive shoulder hump muscles to clear snow off the meadows of the Lamar Valley.
Just be prepared to stop for a private viewing of bighorn sheep, coyotes, eagles and mountain goats every few minutes. The Lamar Valley in the park’s northeast corner holds some of its best wildlife habitat, where wolves are finishing mating season and grizzly bears are waking early from hibernation. Wide-open vistas framed by the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges remind visitors that geysers and hot pots aren’t the only justification for Yellowstone’s first-in-the-world national park designation.
High on Norris Mountain’s 9,936-foot summit ridge, a rocky outcrop presented a strange sight. Five sun-bleached, mouse-nibbled elk antlers of enormous size poked out of the snow, shed by bulls over several years that were drawn to the same spot each spring.
“They like those windswept hillsides, that’s where they can see predators coming and they have a better chance of getting fed,” said Rick Graetz, a University of Montana geography professor and frequent Yellowstone winter visitor. “That whole area around Soda Butte and the Lamar Valley is a favorite area for elk. It’s also where you see the wolves.”
Wolf-watchers make up most of the spectators on Highway 212’s eastern half. They come in individual cars of professional researchers and a few buses loaded with tour groups from National Geographic, Teton Science School, Off The Beaten Path and similar programs.
“We don’t have this much snow in Nepal,” said Ang Dawa Sherpa, who was visiting from Kathmandu. “And the chance to go driving through here by yourself is very different from any place I’ve been.”