Saturday, January 18, 2020

Yellowstone's Observation Point by Headlamp

Leaving the warmth of our cabin, Mary and I step off the porch onto packed powder. In the glow of our headlamps, diamonds glisten on the snow’s surface. We round the corner and walk hand in hand past other cabins, windows dark, their occupants sleeping—as most reasonable people are at 5AM. The night is clear and the temperature hovers a few degrees above zero.

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“Wow, it looks like my breath is actually freezing when it hits the air!” Mary exclaims in a whisper. She tilts her head skyward, forms an “O” with her mouth, and puffs three times. A trio of white circles drifts and expands toward the black, star-spotted sky.

We continue past the Old Faithful Snow Lodge along a path bordered by knee-high snow. We pass the general store and gas station, both shuttered for winter. We cross a road, its snowy surface rough with the tracks of yesterday’s snowcoaches and snowmobiles. Once we are past the visitor center, our feet crunch on snow-free gravel, a testament to the subterranean heat that produces the dependable eruptions of Old Faithful, steaming just ahead.

When we reach the walkway that borders the famous geyser, we stop and look around. The cones of our headlamps, moving left and right, illuminate not another soul. The Upper Geyser basin is all ours—and that’s exactly why we awoke so early to an alarm. I point my light at a nearby bench and tug Mary’s sleeve. Her light melds with mine and we laugh at the perfect outline of a visitor’s rump in the six-inch deep pillow of snow atop the bench.

Mary’s light swings skyward. “It’s really steamy here in the basin,” she says. “I can’t see the stars now.”

I point in the direction of a low hill, a dark shadow against a darker sky. “How about we head up to Observation Point?”

“Let’s do it,” she says, forging ahead.

I catch her, and we follow the tunnel of our headlamps along the wide, empty boardwalk, its snowy cover tracked here and there by winter’s sparse visitors. What a contrast to summer when, as an eruption nears, this would be standing room only and abuzz with excited comments in many, many languages.

A while later, we turn right onto the narrow half-mile trail that climbs through Lodgepole pine to Observation Point.

“My boots are digging in well,” Mary says. “Looks like we won’t regret forgetting the snowshoes when we left the cabin.”

We laugh at our forgetfulness and pass through glittering clouds of elated breath. We settle into a slow procession, the silence broken only by the rhythmic crunching of our boots. I turn off my headlamp and walk behind Mary, her down-clad figure silhouetted in her lamp’s glow. I look around, admiring how snow-flocked pine branches reflect the light. Then I bump into Mary, who has stopped in the middle of the trail.

“Sorry,” I mutter. She seems not to notice. I shrug and return to tree gazing.

A moment later she whispers, “Look at this.”

I step beside her and we bend forward. I click on my headlamp and our beams converge on a track. “That’s a dog type of print,” Mary says as she places her hand, fingers spread, beside the smaller track. “Coyote, I’ll bet.”

I nod my head and my light bounces.

Continuing to climb, we spot fresh coyote scat. “Looks like he’s going up this trail just ahead of us,” Mary says.

We kneel down, inspect the scat, and find hair and bone fragments. We stand, brush snow off our knees and move on. A few paces farther ahead the tracks of a hare cross the trail.

“Whoa, he’s in a hurry,” I say. “There’s about five feet of untouched snow from one track to the next.”

“And the coyote tracks don’t follow them,” Mary adds. “Looks like that guy may have sensed Mr. Coyote and beat feet.”

We stop and study the snow, eager to create even more stories. I point to small tracks that start at the base of a Lodgepole pine, cross eight feet of virgin snow, and then materialize along the top of a downed tree. “That’s a squirrel, I bet.”

Nearby, Mary spots a three-foot-long trail of tiny tracks that disappear into a small snow cave created by the root ball of a downed tree. She kneels and sticks her head into the cave. “Maybe a mouse,” she says, her voice muffled. “It’s insulated by the snow and even has grass to nestle into. Nice digs.”

She stands and we leave the tracks, continue upward, and reach Observation Point, where we lean against a fence, our hips touching. In the distance below, the Upper Geyser Basin steams away, surrounded by the Firehole River on one side and a collection of Park Service buildings on the other. We turn off the headlamps and allow our eyes to adjust to the dim pre-dawn light.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” Mary says, pointing straight up.

“And a flashing planet off to the west just above the horizon,” I offer.

As I try to recall the planet’s name, Mary leans in close and whispers. “Listen…You can hear an eruption in the basin.”

I pull down my hood and lift the wool cap off my ears. I catch the rumble, splash, and hiss of one of the many geysers that make Yellowstone a marvel, that led to its becoming the world’s first national park. I point to a gray column undulating against the dark sky. “Look at Old Faithful steaming away.” 

We find each other’s gloved hands. A moment later we hear a loud splash, like someone cannonballing into a swimming pool, as a pre-eruption water column gushes from Old Faithful and smacks back down. A soft hissing follows as the run-off slides toward the river. Finally, we hear a quieter splash when the steaming drops join the Firehole on its journey to the Madison, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

By the time those drops travel the thousands of water miles to the Gulf, we’ll be back in Gardiner, this moment a fond memory. But for now, it’s just us here, as we experience the joy of Observation Point in winter.

This post based on a chapter from the bestselling Deep into Yellowstone.

My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

My books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

All photos by Rick Lamplugh and Mary Strickroth


  1. Nice short winter piece. Thank you. I was there back in July 2017 after meeting with the Y2Y folks up in Driggs Idaho. It was my first visit to Yellowstone.

  2. Hi, Rick,

    As usual, I enjoyed this post, especially the audio accompaniment. You've got a good voice for "radio," I think. Also, I love the picture of your and Mary's relationship that comes through here! Nicely done.