Yellowstone. Gorgeous - even in the throes of winter

A GREAT shaggy bison stands belly-deep in snow, using its massive head as a plow. The beast moves slowly, conserving precious energy for winter's coldest days. Uncovering a patch of meager grass, the bison lowers its snow-encrusted head to graze. It pays no attention to a bevy of onlookers standing by a bright yellow snow coach. Nearby, clouds of white steam billow from a quiet pool. Freezing on bush and tree, the steam creates ghostly white statues against a blue sky.

Here in Yellowstone National Park, hot water still wells up from deep underground, even in the dead of winter. Geysers still erupt; fumaroles still steam; and mud pots still seethe and boil.

Nights dip to -40

Yellowstone National Park, lying where Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho come together, returns to nature in the wintertime. The cars that clog its roads in summer are gone, as heavy snow drifts across the high plateau. For the elk and bison that remain to face the bitter cold, with nighttime temperatures as low as -40 degrees F., mere survival is a challenge. But near the hot pools, some plants stay green all winter, and there the animals gather to find nourishment and a reprieve from the bitter weather.

For human beings, the park is much more hospitable. Two of the park's lodges are open all winter. On the northern edge, just south of Gardiner, Mont., Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel caters to snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Its wide lobby is a haven between adventures in the snow; and the films shown several times each day help park visitors understand the animals' struggle for survival.

This winter, Yellowstone will be more dramatic than ever. Forest fires burned out of control much of the summer, with flames racing from tree to tree in raging walls 200 feet high. Before weary firefighters could bring the blazes under control, nearly one-third of the park had been burned. Ten of the 13 park roads - including those most used by winter travelers - cross fire-scarred areas. There, etching the stark white and blue of the snowy landscape, blackened trees stand silent.

In the center of the park is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Because all roads to the Old Faithful area close in the late fall, the only way to get there is on top of the snow.

Cocoa at a warming hut

Some visitors buzz along in snowmobiles, stopping at warming huts for a cup of hot cocoa or coffee. A few of the truly hardy cover the 50 miles on cross-country skis.

For most wintertime visitors, though, the way to reach the Old Faithful geyser basin is on lumbering snow coaches. These specially designed buses rumble over the snow on tank treads, carrying a dozen riders each, in jovial company.

Frozen falls, steaming pools

A caravan of snow coaches departs each morning from West Yellowstone, near the west entrance, and the Flagg Ranch, near the south entrance, as well as from Mammoth Hot Springs. Frequently the drivers pull to a stop, and people climb out to marvel at the frozen falls, the snowy bison, the steaming pools.

The trip to Old Faithful by snow coach is not for the hasty. From Mammoth Hot Springs it takes four hours, long enough for a visitor to absorb the flavor of Yellowstone in winter. Those without reservations at the Snow Lodge have two hours for lunch and geyser-watching before the return trip.

Old Faithful itself is even more spectacular in the winter than in the summer. When the geyser erupts on a crisp winter day, steam billows forth in a great white cloud, as hot water shoots into the air.

The best way to savor the character of Yellowstone in winter, though, is to get away from the crowd at Old Faithful. The trail through the Upper Geyser Basin is passable on foot as well as on skis, because the steam drifting across the basin melts much of the snow. Here, the geysers erupt quite unexpectedly, one after the other.

A stop at Anemone Geyser

Right by the boardwalk, Anemone Geyser bubbles briefly, then spouts off a spray of water and steam. In a minute, the eruption is over. The water drains from its stony pool into a hole in the rock, gurgling like a bathtub as it goes. But just around the bend, Beehive Geyser is building up steam.

Those with skis or snowshoes, which may be carried in on the snow coach, can take longer trails in the Old Faithful area. The National Park Service maintains a variety of trails in different sectors of the park, rated from easiest to most difficult. In the Mammoth Hot Springs area, the Upper Terrace Loop leads through a snowy forest to an overlook of the famous terraces, where hot springs deposit layers of limestone in delicate travertine formations.

After a day on the trail, nothing suits one as well as an evening of good eating.

Dinners can be slow

The restaurants at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Snow Lodge both serve a pleasing variety of dishes in a cozy ambiance. Like the snow coach, these restaurants are not for the hasty; service can be interminably slow. On some nights, live music makes the waiting easier.

Thirty miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs is another popular lodge, historic Chico Hot Springs Resort. This rambling white Victorian inn, with green shutters and a sloping roof studded with dormers, features a pool full of naturally hot water for soaking outside, even in the middle of winter. Playing catch with a snowball in the pool is a challenge - drop it once, and it's gone. Surprisingly, even when the air is quite cold, the warm water of the pool is exceedingly comfortable.

Food surpasses scenery

At Chico, the scenery and the swimming pool are surpassed only by the food. Served on the original burnished wooden tables set with candles and crystal, offerings include lemon veal, roast duckling, and beef Wellington. After dinner, it's time to relax by the fire in the elegant but thoroughly Western lobby.

The winter season in Yellowstone lasts from mid-December to mid-March. Make reservations for lodging and tours well in advance. For more information on park lodges and snow coach tours, write TW Recreational Services, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-7311. For information on Chico, write Chico Hot Springs Lodge, PO Box 127, Pray, MT 59065; (406) 333-4933.

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