Well, we had decided that we were done sleeping in the cold, but we were also passing by Yellowstone and didn't want to miss out on this huge national park. So we decided to hold off on our search for warm weather for a quick stop, and look for a warm place to spend the night in the meantime.
In the winter, the roads through the park are closed to cars, with the exception of a bit of the northern end. Other than on foot, if you want to go through and see the wildlife, you must be part of a commercially guided snowmobile tour (or have your own snowmobile and guide license).
Luckily, we found a deal with Two Top Snowmobile where we not only could join a tour, but if we paid $120 more, we would get two nights accommodation at a Best Western, including a shuttle to and from the snowmobiling, two days of breakfasts, and an indoor pool and hot tub. Done deal!
I was silly and looked up what we could expect to see on the tour ahead of time... and saw a handful of pictures of wildlife seen close to the road, and even bison crossing the road. Mike's previous coworker had been just a week or two earlier and had some amazing up close and personal photos. I quickly got excited, and then just as quickly, nervous that I had gotten my expectations up too high, which I do all too easily. I spent the night before trying to become less excited, telling myself that we'd only see animals from afar and that most of the trip would probably just be enjoying the snowmobiling and the trails.
Luckily, that wasn't the case.
Yes, the first bit of wildlife we saw was off in the distance, across the Madison River... but it was only about 5 minutes into entering the park! Our group had pulled over so the guide could tell us about the River and how big it was, and as I was looking around I spotted the huge bull on the riverbank. I shouted "BISON!!!" and pointed and ran to get a better look -- I'm pretty sure I interrupted the guide, and may have even squealed like a little girl. The guide was amused and assured me we'd see more of them, and closer ones. But it was there. And it was huge. And so fluffy! It would in fact be the largest bison we would see the entire day.
Our guide was, naturally, correct -- we would come across many more animals over the next few hours. The snowmobiling tour lasts 4 or 5 hours, the better part of the day, and we had just started. Soon we would see elk, coyotes, swans (unexpectedly), and MOAR bison. Yes, we did get to see them on the road! And yes, they are HUGE!
A big part of a trip to Yellowstone is getting to see not only the wildlife which lives there, but also seeing the geysers and geothermal areas which dot the land. Our first stop was to see the Ink Pots, large pools of extremely hot water coloured by the bacteria teeming within. We learned that the hottest parts are the clear waters, where temperatures are too high for even the bacteria to survive. Steam rises continuously from the ground, and the air is filled with the sounds of water running and bubbling. The ground is too tempermental to walk on -- just underneath the crust lie hidden pools of boiling water, and the conditions change so often that they've built boardwalks around the whole place.
The tour follows the roads to Old Faithful, where we take a prolonged break to enjoy lunch and watch the famous geyser erupt. This is pretty much the turn around point marking the day as half over. There are many more geysers here than just Old Faithful, he's just the most reliably, powerfully erupting geyser in the world. Most of the others in this area spout of sporadically or not at all, and have less water passing through them.
Our last encounter with wildlife on the way out was to watch a heron catch its supper -- almost more than it could handle. He struggled for at least 10 minutes after catching the fish, which was too heavy for him to carry away, but proved difficult to swallow as well. Eventually he succeeded, but the fish fought hard!