When I was originally planning this trip, one reason I wanted to leave by mid-October was so I could travel across the north of the country while it was still free of snow. In particular, I wanted to drive through Yellowstone National Park, and the roads in Yellowstone are very much seasonal: many are closed by early November, and those that remain usually require snow tires in order to safely traverse.
So it was with worry, a few days ago, that I noted the forecast for Yellowstone National Park was snow… snow… and more snow. I had originally wanted to approach Yellowstone from the south, so I could see the Grand Tetons, but the south was where the worst snow was due to hit, so I decided to cut through the north of the park instead.
Even so, as I prepared to embark from the little town of Cody, just to the east of Yellowstone, I wasn’t sure how far I would get. The National Weather Service had issued a Winter Weather Advisory urging against travel, and containing dire warnings of snow 10 to 20 inches deep in places. (For a North Carolinian, that much snow falls under the “apocalyptic” category.)
So in the morning, I stopped at the Cody Visitors Center on the way out of town to inquire about the actual conditions on the roads I wanted to traverse. If there really was a lot of snow on the roads, I could always bypass Yellowstone entirely. As disappointing as it would be, I had a hunch there was plenty of great scenery even outside the park to console myself with.
I hunched over the map with the lady at the information desk. There were two nearby entrances to Yellowstone: the east entrance, located just a few miles outside of Cody, and the northeast entrance, which would require a longer route that passed to the north, traversing a section of road called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, before entering Yellowstone. The east entrance was closed, but the northeast route, she assured me, was still very much open and passable.
With my concerns assuaged, I headed out. Almost immediately upon leaving Cody, the mountains began to rise up around me, snow-tipped at the top, but no sign of snow either on or near the roads. Above, the sky was a beautiful Wyoming blue, and the brown grass of the prairie stretched out around me. Soon I came upon the turn-off for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, and I took it.
The road began to rise up from the valley into the mountains, passing dramatic cliffs that loomed over the roadside. Around me, the mountains grew taller, dark green pine forests giving way to looming gray-and-white mountains which drew nearer with every curve of the road. Above the mountains, the blue sky was no longer quite so blue: snow clouds began to peek over their tops from the other side of the ridge.
Rising higher, the snow line began to drift closer, until finally the road was passing right through the snow-covered landscape. For a while, the road stayed clear of snow, but eventually it crept onto the road surface, and soon I was inching along carefully, keeping my tires within the same snow-free lines that previous cars had cleared. The snow had barely accumulated on the road (maybe half an inch, if that), but on the winding mountain roads I was particularly nervous. The snow got thicker as the road switchbacked around hairpin curves down into the valley, and I skidded briefly a few times. After each, I lifted silent prayers to the inventors of ABS and traction control.
Despite the snow, the scenic highway lived up to its name: the views were spectacular. There was wildlife along the way, too: I spotted a deer up the mountainside not far from the roadway, and I got the impression that it was feeling as put out by the snow as I was.
But the views, despite their grandeur, gave the promise of worse winter weather to come. The blue Wyoming sky was no longer anywhere to be seen.
Sure enough, as I approached the actual gate to Yellowstone, the roads got worse, and there were no longer so many pre-worn grooves in the snow left by previous cars. The snow was actually falling now, and getting harder, but I only had two ways to go, forward or backward, and I had no desire to go back up and over the Scenic Highway. The snow had been bad enough coming down; I did not want to try to go back up. Grimly, I pressed on toward the northeast Yellowstone Gate, wondering if it would even be open when I got there. If it wasn’t, what would I do? I had visions of ending up stranded in the wilds of Wyoming for several days, and I mentally inventoried my food and water. The situation was not pretty: the homemade cookies had given out back around Chicago.
I passed through two nearly-deserted towns: Cooke City and Silver Gate. A few places were open, but snow was starting accumulate quite a bit in the unplowed parking lots, and I didn’t stop, for fear I wouldn’t be able to get going again. There was nowhere to go but forward.
At last, I reached the gate to Yellowstone. I paid the entrance fee, eyed the road nervously, and asked the ranger if the roads got worse ahead. He reassured me that the roads were almost certainly better inside the park; the snow was lighter in the west. I remembered how reassuring the woman had been in the Cody Visitor Center, and was no longer quite so trusting of his word.
The first few miles did nothing to assuage my concerns. I was feeling more confident about my snow-driving abilities, though, and was no longer quite so worried about sliding off the road, especially since the road stayed mostly level and no longer tried to climb any high mountain passes.
As it turned out, the ranger had been right, and after several miles the snow began to lessen and the road began to clear. The cloud ceiling even rose a little, and I began to get some views of the classic Yellowstone landscape… not to mention classic Yellowstone wildlife, which unhurriedly crossed the road in front of me, seemingly quite aware that a puny little Hyundai was no match for a full-grown bison.
When I reached Mammoth Hot Springs, in the Northeast corner of Yellowstone, the roads were completely clear, and the snow was no longer falling. The conditions were good enough that I considered going south along the western edge of Yellowstone to see Old Faithful, but it was 51 miles out of the way. And at the Visitor Center, the stretch of road to Old Faithful was marked on the map with an ominous “Snow Tires Required.” The stretch I had successfully navigated earlier was merely marked “Snow Tires Advised.”
So I headed North out of the park, back toward the Interstate, and civilization, such as it is out here in the wilds of Montana. Tonight I’m staying in the town of Butte… I would have tried to push farther, but snowflakes were beginning to fall, and ominous clouds were looming to the west. Tomorrow is going to be a serious mileage day, but if all goes well, I’ll be in Washington state by the end of it.
The end is in sight.