For a curious soul, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most captivating destinations on the planet. American history, wildlife, archeology and awe-inspiring geology all converge within this ancient and sacred land’s 3,472 square miles. As the world’s first national park and home to two-thirds of the planet’s geysers, it’s an understandably popular destination.
According to the National Park Service, approximately 3 million people visit Yellowstone every year, creating traffic jams during warmer months near various tourist hot spots that starkly contrast the park’s natural scenes of beauty and wild animals. It’s not unheard of for more than 30,000 people to enter in one day during summertime’s tourism peak.
Big changes sweep through the park in November, when the climate chills, visitors taper off and, eventually, nearly all of Yellowstone’s roads are closed to wheeled motorists. That leaves track-equipped snowcoaches and guided snowmobile tours as the only means of entering the majority of the park.
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone is popular, but very controversial, as we’ve discussed at length in these pages. Last season we decided to cut through the quarreling and see for ourselves what exploring the world’s greatest national park is like behind the bars of a snowmobile.
Yellowstone Snowmobile Tour: The Setup
There are plenty of influential folks who’d love to put the kibosh to snowmobiles inside Yellowstone, claiming they’re disruptive to the wildlife, too loud and too smoky.
As enthusiasts, and fans of logical thinking, we’ve always found it curious that 30,000 people per day in the summer are allowed, while just more than 20,000 clean-technology snowmobiles per winter gets certain folks up in arms.
However fair-minded (or not) their arguments may be, snowmobiles can no longer run the park’s un-maintained roads on their own. These days sleds must go through the park as part of a metered, guided ride from one of several local establishments — mostly based in the adventurous town of West Yellowstone, Montana. No more than 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches may enter in a given winter day.
So, getting in takes the price of admission and, depending on recent weather, a bit of luck to get into a group. I saddled up with Yellowstone Vacations, and hit the road toward the West Entrance as part of a group of approximately 15 snowmobile riders. Our youthful guide was Tim Knaus, who moonlights as a horse-riding backcountry law enforcement ranger during the summer.
Yellowstone Snowmobile Tour: Riding America’s Best Idea
Filmmaker Ken Burns called the creation of our national parks America’s best idea in his recent “The National Parks” series. Heading east from West Yellowstone, our group crossed the road and followed the unplowed U.S. Highway 20 into the park. We motored a hundred yards up to the large entrance gate where a NPS employee checked our credentials and let us pass.
I’ve visited Yellowstone twice before during the summer months, and my fascination for the park grew stronger with each encounter. I didn’t know what to expect during the winter, but was already looking forward to seeing it all without the crowds of people, and unending streams of automotive traffic.
The scenery quickly became more rugged after entering the park’s western boundary. Even though we rode in a pack, all was quiet inside my helmet as I scanned my surroundings. To the right, Mount Haynes rose to nearly 8,200 feet. Our snow-covered trail, on top of the buried highway, paralleled the meandering Madison River.
We rode at a moderate pace, about 25 mph, which was ideal for animal scouting. I quickly spotted two plump bald eagles doing traffic counts from a dead tree limb. Below, a lone elk climbed up the hill. Guide Tim steered us into a rest area where a herd of bison was grazing along the river, and the cameras came out in force.
Yellowstone Snowmobile Tour: The Heated River
Once the handful of bison finished posing, we hit the sleds and crossed the invisible divide into the bounds of the Yellowstone Caldera where things heat up, literally. The caldera last exploded about 640,000 years ago and would devastate much of the U.S. if it blew again.
Perched above this geologic hotspot where molten rock perpetually rises toward the surface, this segment of the park contains countless paint pots, geyser basins, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Old Faithful, both falls of the Yellowstone River and most of Yellowstone Lake — the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America.
Amid fields of deep snow, a steaming river without the usual covering of ice cut its way through the scene, with green grass miraculously growing on its shores. Tim said the river’s water was nearly 50 degrees, and the bare, snow-free ground provides vital grazing that helps maintain the park’s bison and elk populations throughout the unforgiving winter.
On one side of the road, Gibbon Falls was stunning against the pines, but I was drawn to the less common spectacle on the opposing side — hissing ground and a jet of foul sulfur steam shooting from the ground at Beryl Spring. This contrast of fire and ice is endlessly fascinating, and an unmistakable reminder that the Earth does whatever it likes, regardless of season. There was no looking for parking, waiting in line or jockeying for position with other tourists to inspect this fascinating, rare sight, and in the winter such sights also seem more intense.
Here was one of nature’s most dramatic performances right before our eyes. It seemed like this spectacular show almost deserved a crowd, but the experience was much more profound without a herd of humans.
Grand Canyon Of The Yellowstone
Our sleds — “best available technology” Arctic Cat four-strokes — pulled into Canyon Village, home of Artist Point, the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River and the severe, steep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Along with Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful, this is the one of the park’s most popular attractions. We parked the Cats in the front row, of course, and sidled up to the canyon’s edge for a peek, and more photos.
It’s about 900 feet deep and a half-mile across, but numbers do no justice to this natural wonder. While it still runs through the winter, the base of the 300-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River are encased in a shield of ice. Snow clinging to the brightly colored stone cliffs of the canyon highlight the infinite surfaces in view, and it’s truly hard to picture how anything, let alone trees, could survive in such extreme terrain. These very thoughts are the enduring fascination of visiting Yellowstone.
By sled, we crossed to the other side of the canyon, near Inspiration Point, for another look at the falls and the rest of the canyon. Having such a personable, excitable guide made the day vastly more informative and entertaining, and the group started to coalesce.
Inside Yellowstone, there’s so much to behold in every direction — whether it’s a herd of bison, flock of birds, a bubbling hole or a steaming river. There’s no need to go any faster than we did, and any off-trail riding is vehemently prohibited. Riding as part of a guided group only added to our experience.
Yellowstone Snowmobile Tour: Loving The Unpredictable
An unseasonably warm day in early March, our ride through the park ended up being the final one of the winter season. Temperatures were in the 50s, the highway’s pavement was exposed on portions of the ride and it was a fine day to ride a snowmobile in a T-shirt.
From Canyon Village we doubled back to the west and rode to the Norris Geyser Basin, home of Steamboat — the world’s tallest, still-active geyser. Three major faults converge here, steam blows from the ground in every direction, aqua-colored pools bubble away and the adventurous sect of our group that chose to walk the basin was collectively blown away by the scene.
We tenuously walked wooden boardwalks covered in packed, slippery snow. It was unspoken, but clear that falling off onto the unstable, acidic ground was best avoided. While most Yellowstone geysers are alkaline, the acidic waters of Norris fuel bacterial thermophiles, which paint the water and surrounding ground in vivid hues.
It’s not as predictable as Old Faithful, but Steamboat Geyser sends a column of scalding water more than 300 feet up into the sky. Eruptions can happen every four days, or up to 50 years apart. We didn’t get to see it, but the surrounding thermal activity still amazed every one of us. Here, there’s no denying the Earth’s powers of creation and destruction.
One walkway, home to a curious, naturally formed snow cone created by geyser exhaust, provided a view that made the whole trip — a meandering creek, endless stands of tall pines, alternate patches of snow and green grass, steam rising from the woods in all directions and the towering, snow-covered Gallatin Mountains against the setting sun to the west.
I’ll never forget my first visit to Yellowstone with my family, or my return trip a few summers ago, but this majestic park is a whole different animal during the winter. Geothermal activity is more a contrast against a snowy backdrop, the park’s wonders are less congested and the entire, wild scene of the area seems more at peace without streaming lines of car traffic.
Snowmobiling within Yellowstone isn’t about speed or mountain riding at all, but that’s just as it should be. Riding this park during the winter months is one of the great treasures of snowmobiling, an unforgettable life experience that should be passionately protected for current riders and future generations.