After more than an hour of skiing in the shaded, narrow Spring Creek Canyon, I slid into a patch of sunlight. The snow sparkled with promise of longer days, light reflecting off every crystal. My toes were still frozen and the sun on my boots didn’t help warm them. My hair iced up, blond braids turning white. I knew if I kept moving I would eventually defrost, but I lingered in the sunshine of the year’s shortest day before heading back into shadow.
From the pool of sunlight, I listened to Spring Creek gurgle as it flowed under ice and snow bridges. The creek was named for the several cold springs that flow out from beneath the rhyolite. I must have been one of the luckiest people alive to spend winter solstice in Yellowstone National Park.
My husband, two kids, and I had ridden in the day before from Mammoth Hot Springs in a Xanterra snowcoach. We stopped to wander through ghost trees piled high with snow and condensation from Beryl Hot Springs. A mangy-looking grey wolf ran past us on the road, and we gazed on Gibbon Falls gushing over its rock ledge with only a few other people around. In short, we had an experience that few people ever have. Yellowstone is great in the summer, but winter is when the magic happens.
Finn and Anders, our four- and five-year-old sons, were thrilled by the massive lobby at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Henry and I sat by the big fireplace and sipped warm adult beverages. We were surrounded by snow, hot springs, wildlife, and trees—no other civilization within miles and miles.
The next morning, I woke before the rest of my family to catch a snowcoach shuttle to the Spring Creek trailhead. Pinprick stars lit the sky as I carried my skis and pack to the coach. I cinched my hat down and zipped up my jacket. It wasn’t the coldest temperature I’ve felt at Old Faithful, but it was still breath-freezing cold.
When the friendly coach driver left me at Spring Creek, I felt like I was really “out there,” maybe because I didn’t have a car in the parking area, or perhaps because I was the only one on the trail on this frigid solstice morning. I loved the feeling of being alone in the woods, and started skiing down the trail.
I may have felt isolated on the trail, but many people had come before me. The ski trail follows the route of a 1890s stagecoach road described in early writings as “one of the prettiest short trips on the loop.” At Turtle Rock, I sidestepped up the steep canyon wall, around the 20-foot rock, and back down. The largest stagecoach robbery in U.S. history in the 20th century was perpetrated at Turtle Rock. One man robbed 17 stagecoaches in one day without getting caught. He walked away with more than $2,000 in cash and jewelry (worth $50k in today’s dollars) from the passengers.
I skied past the robbery site to the junction with Lone Star Geyser trail. I turned left and hoped I’d be lucky enough to catch an eruption before climbing the hill on the Howard Eaton Trail. Sure enough, Lone Star was erupting, sending steam and water to the sky just as I got there. No one else was around and I again reveled in my good fortune.
Back at the Snow Lodge, I found Henry and our boys sliding around on their skis outside the building. We grabbed our sled and skied to a little hill with views of geysers and bison. Henry pulled a thermos of hot cocoa out of his pack and we took turns bombing down the hill and sipping cocoa.
Almost a year later, Finn and Anders still say it was their favorite family trip, and they can’t wait to go back.