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SNOWMOBILING WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONTANA

Story & Photos by Vicki Andersen

 

After a morning of romping through powder-laden bowls and stomach-churning hillclimbs, I was ready to sample touristy delights like shopping and dining. What was unique about this venture was doing it aboard a snowmobile. It is incredibly novel to find over-the-snow machines greatly outnumbering wheeled vehicles on the streets of West Yellowstone! Camping in your RV? You won’t have to fire it up to go anywhere. Ensconced in a motel? Don’t even think about parking your vehicle in the parking lot - those are relegated to the back streets, while your snowmobile gets top honors in front of your door.

Snowmobiles Get Front Door Priority
Man Takes His Best Friend for a 'Cat' Ride

 

This snowmobile-friendly town accesses the nation’s most extensive trail network, including over 400 miles of groomed delights in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, 180 miles of groomed roadway in Yellowstone National Park, and off-trail exploration on countless acres of national forest.

Heading just west of town, we caught Two Top Trail and found ourselves winding among snow-laden trees and through powder-filled play areas. A gentle 2,000-foot ascent suddenly found us atop the Continental Divide with a panoramic view of all three states. We could pick out the Grand Tetons and Centennial Mountains, Lionshead and South Plateau, and Yellowstone National Park. This 34-mile marked and groomed loop connects with a system of groomed trails in the Targhee National Forest. For a more challenging route, the summit is also accessible riding off-trail.

Mosquito Gulch from Two Top Mountain
Exploring Skyline Ridge

 

 

Looking for an adrenaline fix, we aimed our machines towards Lionshead. Accessible from Two Top Loop, this fairly easy, 10-mile marked and groomed trail skirts the eastern side of the Continental Divide, eventually climbing to over 10,000 feet unveiling a dazzling vista. Access to steep mountainsides provides a chance to sample some of the trickiest terrain in the area.

Just north of town the Big Sky Trail stretches 120 miles towards Bozeman with various access points providing shorter and easier alternatives. The approach from Horse Butte Loop is groomed for about a dozen miles, but beyond this point I’d recommend only proficient and well-conditioned riders due to deep, ungroomed snow and incredible hillclimbing options.

Taking a Break at Cabin Creek
Big Sky Trail Serves up Abundant Snowfall

Numerous other signed and groomed trails offer relaxed and scenic rides. Cougar Creek meanders through the woods and past open areas. Horse Butte Loop navigates thick pine forests and open meadows, with a fantastic view from the Butte’s lookout tower. Madison Arm Loop includes matchless visions of Hebgen Lake. South Plateau follows creeks and rivers as it parallels Yellowstone Park’s boundary to connect with a groomed network in Idaho.

West Yellowstone not only welcomes snowmobilers on its public streets, it provides sales, service, rentals and tours. Elevations start at 6,666 feet in town and soar to over 10,000 feet in the surrounding mountains. The riding season is usually underway by Thanksgiving, stretching into late spring thanks to snow depths that average about five feet in town to over 12 feet in the mountains. Trail grooming schedules are available from many local businesses and the Forest Service office.

Madison Range from Cabin Creek
Mt Haynes

 

This area offers an abundance of steep-and-deep so remain aware of potential avalanche conditions. Stay abreast of weather changes and reports. Daytime temperatures in this area run 10?-30? mid-winter, dipping to below 0? at night.

Many trails around West Yellowstone interconnect, making it easy to tailor a brief jaunt or day-long expedition to suit your ability and desire. With a long and abundant snowcover, and more riding possibilities than can be experienced in one visit, West Yellowstone truly earns its reputation as the “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”

Mtns Longfellow & Holmes & Madison River
Bison Forage in Midway Geyser Basin

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

About a dozen of us had cruised gently and effortlessly past the Very Big Beasties alongside the trail. Bringing up the rear was Debby, most novice of our group and the only one riding a red sled. I don’t know if bison react like bulls, but just then a couple of them stepped into the roadway, blocking her progress and eyeballing that crimson machine she was riding. As her husband yelled the encouraging words “just go around them”, Debby’s eyes looked as big as the parts that declared these to, indeed, be bulls.

Browsing in Black Sand Basin
Thermals Bubble in Black Sand Basin

A winter visit to West Yellowstone isn’t complete without an excursion through the nation’s first and most accommodating National Park to welcome winter visitors. Nearly 200 miles of groomed trails access scenery and wonders enhanced by winter’s mantel.

Feeding Time in the Firehole River
Biscuit Basin Steam Vents

The 98-mile Upper Loop encompasses such sights as Gibbon Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, Mount Washburn, north side of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, and Norris Geyser Basin. The slightly shorter Lower Loop glides along the Madison River, past geological marvels such as Firehole Falls, Fountain Paint Pots, Midway Geyser Basin, Morning Glory Pool, Old Faithful, West Thumb Geyser Basin, and the south side of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.

   
West Thumb Warming Hut

Riding is permitted only on groomed trails - no sidehilling or off-road travel. Stop signs and a 45 mph speed limit are strictly enforced. Wildlife has the right-of-way and chasing, molesting, or feeding them is prohibited. Road closures include Mammoth to Cooke City and Canyon to Tower, and a number of small off-shoots identified by visiting the Park’s website, which also provides detailed Park regulations.

Airstrip Racers & WannaBees
Daily Challenge Time at the Airstrip

There has been much controversy about banning snowmobiles from the Park, but for now sledheads are welcome as long as their machine meets noise and exhaust regulations. A daily limit on machines entering the Park has been imposed, and you must have a valid motor vehicle driver’s license. The Park is open 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM mid-December to mid-March, and offers fuel, food, restrooms and lodging. Entrance fee is $20 per snowmobile, good for seven days and also allows entry to Grand Teton National Park (keep your receipt).

Taking in the Sights at Midway Geyser Basin
Snow Pillows Dot the Lewis River

After a day of play in the mountains, on the trails or in the Park, many folks head to the old air strip in West Yellowstone. Anywhere from a dozen to many, many dozens of snowmobilers show up to test horsepower in impromptu races, swap stories, and make new friends.


DETAILS

Montana requires your snowmobile be registered in your home state, and you must have a valid driver’s license. Operators under 16 need to carry safety certificate and be in the company of a licensed rider. In Wyoming, non-residents must pay a users fee, and a valid driver’s license is required only in National Parks. Idaho does not require operators to be licensed but visitors must purchase a non-resident user certificate for their snowmobile.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Idaho State Snowmobile Association http://www.idahosnowbiz.com
Montana Snowmobile Association http://www.mtsnow.org
Wyoming State Snowmobile Association http://www.snowmobilewyoming.org 307-733-7359
Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association 406-763-4387
Gallatin National Forest/Hebgen Lake Ranger District 406-646-7369
Yellowstone National Park www.nps.gov/yell/planvisit/todo/winter/snowmobile.htm 307-344-7381


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Vicki Andersen, member of the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Snowsports Journalists Assn and Northwest Outdoor Writers Assn, is a freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon.




Vicki Andersen may be reached at: skicat1@comcast.net.

 

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