A Tale: An Arctic Explorer Braves Yellowstone Park in Winter — 1887

F. J. Haynes, Hayden Valley, 1887

Today tourists can enjoy the winter wonders of Yellowstone National Park in snow coaches and stay overnight in cozy warm lodges. But in the Nineteenth Century, the very idea of winter travel in the park was so forbodding that the first winter trip there was led by an arctic explorer.

Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, who earned his fame exploring the frozen reaches of Alaska and Canada in 1878-80, led a group of a dozen men from Mammoth to Norris Geyser Basin in two days beginning on January 5, 1877.  Schwatka fell ill at Norris, but Yellowstone photographer F. Jay Haynes and three others continued on to the upper geyser basin and Yellowstone Falls. On their return trip, they were stranded on Mount Washburn in a blinding snowstorm for 72 hours.

Here’s how F. Jay Haynes’ son, Jack Ellis Haynes, told the story in 1920.


In January, 1887, the first successful winter exploration of the Yellowstone region was made. Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of Arctic fame headed the party consisting of several eastern men, F. Jay Haynes, photographer, and a corps of guides, packers and assistants. Their outfit consisted of astronomical instruments, photographic equipment, sleeping bags and provisions which were drawn on toboggans; the party used Norwegian skis and Canadian web snowshoes, but the snow was so light that they sank readily and the toboggans were exceedingly difficult to draw. It took three days to cover the twenty miles from Mammoth Springs to Norris Basin; and the temperature the first night at Indian Creek was 37° below zero.

Unfortunately Lieutenant Schwatka fell ill at Norris and was unable to proceed. Mr. Haynes, desirous of obtaining a collection of winter photographs of the Park, employed two of the sturdiest men of the Schwatka party, and with Edward Wilson, a government scout, resumed the journey.

The toboggans were abandoned and this party packed their equipment and provisions on their backs—each man carrying about forty-five pounds.

Norris Basin was a gorgeous sight. Craters heretofore unnoticed by these men familiar with the Park in summer, steamed conspicuously. The foliage was heavily laden with ice near the steam vents and geysers, producing all the fantastic forms possible to imagine; while the entire basin resembled a vast manufacturing centre.

Tall trees buried in the snow appeared like bushes, and the general aspect of the country was completely changed; the average depth of the snow being about eight feet. The steam rising fully two thousand feet from the geysers at Upper Basin could be seen from the Lower Basin.

The beautifully colored walls of the Grand Canyon were masses of pure white. The north half of the Great Fall hung in immense icicles 200 feet in length. An ice bridge fully 100 feet high was formed at the base of the fall, coming up to the spray line (about one-third the height of the fall.) The brink was frozen over and was hidden in an arch of ice a dozen feet thick.

Thousands of elk were seen on the exposed ridges of Mount Washburn. The trip over Mount Washburn was one of most unusual hardship and privation; a blinding snowstorm which lasted four days overtook the party of four. During this entire time they wandered day and night without shelter, provisions or fire before reaching Yancey’s ranch, an experience that nearly cost them their lives.

The circuit covered was about 200 miles, and the thermometer ranged from 10° to 50° below zero during the twenty-nine days of the trip.


— From Jack Ellis Haynes, “Winter Exploration in 1887,”  Haynes New Guide and mortorists’ complete road log of Yellowstone National Park. J. E. Haynes: Saint Paul, 1920.  Pp. 134-137.

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