Travel

Winter in Yellowstone Means One Thing: Wolf-Spotting

Head west to get up close and personal with America's Big Five.

David Osborn/Shutterstock
David Osborn/Shutterstock
David Osborn/Shutterstock

Most people head out to the Wild West in desolate wintertime for one thing only: skiing some of the best terrain North America has to offer (we’re looking at you, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort). But what most travelers don’t realize is that Yellowstone in the wintertime is a completely different way to experience the world’s first national park. It’s snowcapped, it’s raw, and it’s full of wildlife. While the bears are busy hibernating, there’s a whole world of fuzzy critters lurking in the picturesque, frozen wonderland-and elusive gray wolves that nearly went extinct from the park in the 1920s.

The most rewarding way to explore Yellowstone when it morphs into winter mode is by embarking on a six-day wolk-trekking safari with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. “Seeing a wolf in the wild brings me back in time,” says founder Taylor Phillips. The gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after being eradicated for nearly 70 years. As of December 2021, approximately 95 wolves with eight distinct pacts were identified. “To see them move across the landscape and howling in the distance stops the clock,” says Phillips. “The rest of the world becomes insignificant.”

Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures

Nicknamed the American Serengeti, Yellowstone’s ecosystem offers an exciting array of scenery and wildlife, including its very own Big Five-grizzly bears, bison, wolves, elk, and moose-and you don’t have to fly across the world to experience it. This specific tour starts and ends in Bozeman, Montana, an up-and-coming ski town, which has direct flights out of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, and New York City. By dusk, you’ll be hanging out with a naturalist guide over a cozy dinner in Bozeman to prepare for the week’s adventure ahead.

Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures

How to get there and where to stay

You might wonder what it’s like to get to Yellowstone in the winter. Driving in the snow, you ask? Not a chance as a tourist, nor would you ever want to. While Yellowstone is open to visitors year-round, it’s hard to navigate in the colder months due to the excessive snowfall (think on average 150 inches or more). Most roads close for the season in early October and the only way in or out is via snowmobile, snowcoach travel, and vehicles with chains. Maybe you’ll get a bit of The Shining vibes, but in a 2.2 million acre park instead of a deserted mountain hotel.

For lovely lodging, you could go between the Element in Bozeman, with easy access to the park, and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, an iconic hotel built in the 1930s and one of the first grand hotels built inside of a national park. The luxury of staying here is that you don’t have to leave the park when the sun goes down, and if you’re lucky, might spot elk grazing around the hotel. Not many can boast seeing a sky full of stars on a clear evening in Yellowstone.

Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures

Wake up early to see the most animals

If you’re not a morning person, you’ll quickly learn to be one with a French Press of pre-sunrise coffee before making your way into the Lamar Valley-the most prominent place to spot wolves. The animals’ peak playtime is dawn and dusk, making it nearly impossible to spot them unless you’re in the thick of the park before sunrise or at sunset. Most people enjoy a very long day trip into Yellowstone, but the magic happens when all that’s left to hear is the crisp snow crunching underneath your snowshoes. Josh Metten, a senior Naturalist with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, has previously spotted the 16-member Junction Butte wolf pack galavanting through the snow. “We excitedly watched as the pack tested a herd of bison, walking within a few feet of the giant beasts,” says Metton. “Wolves are coursing predators, preferring to visibly approach prey, looking and smelling for weakness before choosing a target.” This time around, the bison were healthy and strong, so the wolves moved along.

“To see the wolves in their natural habitat is a really wonderful and intimate experience,” says Phillips. “There’s a bear den that’s visible with a spotting scope. Last year and at the start of this hibernating season, the bear’s head was poking out,” Phillips notes. “It’s really a fun sighting.”

Michael Gordon/Shutterstock
Michael Gordon/Shutterstock
Michael Gordon/Shutterstock

Spend the afternoon refueling and learning

If you’re in the northern part of Yellowstone, head to Cooke City, population 77-ish (probably way less in winter), for a lunch break at Miners Saloon. This Gold Rush-inspired tavern offers fuss-free food and craft beer. After lunch, a journey into the park in search of moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats on the peaks of the Absaroka Mountains is on the agenda-followed by an evening safari in search of a wolf pack.

Later in the day, during a presentation by a Yellowstone wolf biologist, you’ll become even more fascinated by these creatures after realizing their habits. Metten points out how there’s a “disproportionate influence of older wolves over the age of five years on pack success,” and that packs with older wolves are more likely to win territorial disputes with other packs. “The old wolf was more valuable than even a big, strong, younger male in these conflicts,” he adds.

Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures
Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures

Take in other winter sights

Having the park to yourself in peak winter is the real prize. Spending a week in Yellowstone will give you a newfound appreciation for the park’s ecosystem, filled with diverse wildlife, spewing geysers, rivers, sharp jagged peaks, forests, alpine tundras, and more. In addition to identifying and tracking various wildlife, the naturalist guides will reveal tidbits about the area’s geology, history, ecology, biology, as well as current political issues.

“In winter you get the best of both worlds-you get to be intimate with wolves and also explore the interior of Yellowstone National Park via a SnowCoach,” says Phillips. To see Old Faithful erupt in winter, on the snow-covered walkways of Biscuit Basin and Fountain Paint Pots-which are wildly overcrowded in summer-is otherworldly. “It’s just amazing,” Phillips says. While Phillips offers year-round excursions and safaris that are superb, a wintertime visit is a big check on the bucket list.

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Jenn Rice is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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