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Snow Trip 2018: Snowmobiling at Yellowstone National Park
By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor
February 20, 2018

DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip through western states, in search of snow and adventure. In between skiing the steeps at Jackson Hole, he snuck in a trip to Yellowstone National Park.

For years, I’ve wanted to ski at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, so I made sure to budget a few days in northwest Wyoming during my road trip. But I had an ulterior motive for visiting Jackson. Ever since visiting nearby Yellowstone National Park as a child during family summer road trips, I’ve wanted to return to Yellowstone in the winter — when buffalo and elk outnumber tourists and the sulfury steam from geysers rises above a quiet, snow-covered landscape. Yellowstone in winter is sort of the reason why bucket lists exist, and it was definitely on my bucket list.

Yellowstone in the Winter. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

And this is why I found myself waking up at 5 a.m. one morning in between two days of skiing at Jackson Hole. At 6 a.m., headlights began to appear through the lightly-falling snow as a small shuttle bus pulled up to my hotel in the town of Jackson. Terry, a seasoned guide from a tour company called Scenic Safaris, emerged and introduced himself, his enthusiasm warming up the cold and still-pitch-dark night.

After gathering a total of 13 guests from hotels throughout Jackson, Terry pointed the shuttle bus north for the 1.5-hour drive to Flagg Ranch, located on the edge of Yellowstone. A steady snow was falling and continued to fall for most of the day. Along the drive, Terry shared many details about the history and ecology of the Jackson Valley. Trained in veterinary medicine, Terry had previously worked at the Bronx Zoo but was inevitably drawn to the beauty of the Tetons in Wyoming. In addition to doing some veterinary work, Terry spends most of his time as a wilderness guide and naturalist. The depth and breadth of his knowledge about Yellowstone was impressive.

The sun breaks through snow clouds. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

We arrived at Flagg Ranch, which is where the concept of a plowed road ends. During the winter, there is no way to reach Yellowstone from the south via car. Route 191, which normally runs through the park, closes with the first snowfall and doesn’t re-open until mid-May.

Well, it doesn’t really close. It morphs into a different kind of road — one that is packed with over 5 feet of compressed snow. Each day, the National Park Service takes a snowcat and grooms the snow on the road, compressing any newly-fallen snow. This creates a surface that can be navigated by special kinds of vehicles, including snowcoaches — large vans with ginormous tires made to go over slippery, deep snow — as well as trucks that have had their tires replaced with tank-like treads.

In the winter, alternative forms of transportation are required to visit Yellowstone. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

A snowcoach provides a nice, leisurely way to visit the Park in the winter. Its height provides commanding views of the landscape from the comfort of a heated cabin.

But I wasn’t interested in that.

No, I was interested in something a bit more adventurous.

So after a tasty breakfast buffet at the historic Flagg Ranch, I found myself being fitted for snowmobile gear. Never mind that it was snowing, frigid, and gusty — I was going to feel the frosty winter air blasting against my cheeks.

Bison resting during a snowfall at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Before we took off on our snowmobiles, Terry taught us how to use the snowmobile safely, and established some ground rules. For example, if we encountered bison on the road, we would make a tight line of our snowmobiles and stand on the side of the snowmobiles away from the bison until they moved along. Although Yellowstone is home to many grizzly bears and wolves, bison are the most dangerous animal in the park to people — mostly because people can be stupid. Occasionally, a tourist will choose to get all up in a bison’s business, perhaps trying to pet them or snap a selfie. Bison don’t appreciate that, and they can charge at you at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. When a 1,400-pound animal collides with you at that speed, you’re not going to be on the winning end of that physics experiment.

See also: moose. Moose are located throughout northwest Wyoming (and can even be spotted in downtown Jackson on occasion), and according to Terry, moose have a perpetual chip on their shoulder. Moose can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds, and unless you’re a professional basketball player, you’ll be looking up at their heads, antlers, and angry eyes if you get too close. Don’t do that.

A moose grazes in the distance, which is the safest place for a moose to be. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

The wild animals are larger out here, and that extends to the elk too, which can approach 600 pounds and carry impressive antlers. Just north of Jackson is the National Elk Refuge, where thousands of elk descend from the mountains to winter over. In normal years, food is put out for the elk in the Refuge. But according to Terry, this is not a normal year.

“There’s no snow this year,” he explained. Looking at the landscape, I saw a lot of snow, so I threw him a quizzical look.

“The snowpack is significantly less this year,” he explained. “Normally this valley would be a sea of white.”

Sure enough, you could see grass sticking out of the snow in the National Elk Refuge, and groups of elk were happily grazing on it. In a typical winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which oversees the National Elk Refuge — supplements wintering elk’s diet with alfalfa pellets. So far, this hasn’t been necessary. The National Elk Refuge is continuing to monitor available forage and winter conditions to determine whether a supplemental feed will be necessary in late winter.

More broadly, the reduced snowpack is providing an easier go for many types of animals to power through the winter. In turn, this could lead to a bumper crop of offspring later this year, which could alter the ecological dynamics of the area. The reduced snowpack could affect many things, including wildflowers and farming down river in Idaho.

The snow grew deeper as we ventured into Yellowstone. It’s not uncommon for Yellowstone to receive hundreds of inches of snow in a winter, and everywhere we looked, we saw deep snow — undisturbed except for occasional tracks where an animal of some type had wandered through.

A deep blanket of snow covers Yellowstone in the winter. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Traveling through Yellowstone on a snowmobile is, admittedly, fun. It’s a physical experience. The snowmobile is constantly dipping, swaying, and trying to run off in different directions as it bounces through ruts in the snow. You use your entire body to control the snowmobile, leaning into turns you want and away from ones you don’t. Our snowmobiles were in “sport” mode. Terry didn’t explain what that meant, but come on — it’s sport mode. If you’re going to snowmobile, you want it to be in sport mode, obviously!

Guided snowmobile groups can have no more than 10 snowmobiles. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Our destination for the day trip was Old Faithful, known as the geezer geyser, and probably the most famous geyser in the world. Yellowstone doesn’t only have the most famous geyser in the world, it also has the most — around 500, as well as 10,000 thermal features. In fact, Yellowstone unapologetically hoards over 60% of the geysers in the world.

Geysers are hot springs with constrictions in their plumbing. Normally in a hot spring, warm water can circulate freely with the surface, allowing heat to escape. A geyser has a narrow path to the ground. Once enough heat and pressure build up, water is sent bursting into the air in a dramatic fashion, being forced through a tiny path. In the case of Old Faithful, each time it erupts — which on average is about once per hour — as many as 8,400 gallons of 204-degree water are sent as high as 184 feet into the air for as long as 5 minutes, to the delight of tourists gathered on a boardwalk around the geyser with smart phone cameras held high in the air. Impressively, all of that water is forced to squeeze through a passage that’s only 4 inches in diameter, like steam escaping from a teakettle’s whistle.

A park ranger shares details about Old Faithful right up until the moment it erupts. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
Reflection of guests lined up to see Old Faithful erupt. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Terry timed our arrival to the Old Faithful area so we’d have time for a quick lunch before the next eruption. A buffet-style lunch was served in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only lodging facility open in central Yellowstone during the winter. If you want to stay there, Terry suggests making reservations a year in advance. The more famous Old Faithful Lodge — one of the first lodges to use a now-classic architectural style now known as “parkitechture” and seen throughout National Parks — is closed during the winter, and for good reason.

“It was designed in an era before things like caulk and insulation were used,” explained Terry. “Gaps as wide as a couple inches can appear in the rooms during the winter cold, allowing sunlight and snow in,” he said.

I posited that this would also allow a thriving population of rodents to make the lodge their home during the winter, and with a half-smile, Terry returned a slow nod.

Old Faithful lets off some steam. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

After watching Old Faithful erupt, we continued heading north into the park until we reached a thermal feature. Steam rose from pools in the ground, with each pool a different color based on temperature and the type of bacteria that thrive in that temperature. Soon, my camera lens was covered with steam, which then quickly froze into ice.

Snowmobile guide Terry explains the science behind a thermal feature at Yellowstone. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

It was now time to turn back. We had already snowmobiled 44 miles, which meant we had 44 miles left to go.

On the way back, we encountered some bison in the distance, and stopped for a few minutes to watch them. We also stopped at a frozen lake and walked out on it. I tried digging through the snow unsuccessfully to find the frozen top of the lake, but the snow was too deep to make much progress. Meanwhile, members of the group took the opportunity to make snow angels.

Frolicking on a frozen lake. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

We crossed the Continental Divide four times on our snowmobiles, climbing over 8,000 feet above sea level. It was cold — so cold that the gas gauge on many of our snowmobiles simply ceased to function, causing my snowmobile to perpetually complain that it was out of gas. But the snowmobile helmets had flip-down visors that helped keep out the wind, and the handles on the snowmobiles were also heated, which kept the digits from going too numb.

Finally, we pulled back into the parking lot of Flagg Ranch, gased up our snowmobiles so they’d be ready for the next day’s group, and shed our layers of outerwear. It was back into the shuttle for the drive back to Jackson.

On the drive back, I asked Terry how snowmobile usage was regulated within the Park. As it turns out, for many years, it wasn’t.

“You wouldn’t believe what it used to be like,” Terry explained. “The entire Old Faithful area was filled with snowmobiles. It was bumper-to-bumper on the roads, and very dangerous, with lots of accidents.”

After 15 years of debate, the U.S. Government set in place new rules in 2013. Environmental groups had lobbied to ban snowmobiles outright, as they were loud, spewed out exhaust, and were disturbing to wildlife.

Instead, the U.S. Government compromised. New rules were established that strictly limited the number of snowmobiles permitted into the Park each day. Now, snowmobiles have to pass stringent tests for noise and pollution. Only licensed commercial guides can bring groups into the park, except for four non-commercial groups per day, which are selected via random lottery.

Another snowstorm or two, and that sign will be hidden until late spring when the snow begins to melt. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Park rangers patrol the road on their own snowmobiles, and Terry cautioned us that they won’t hesitate to issue citations if they catch a snowmobile speeding or going off-road.

“If they see the strap to your helmet dangling down, they’ll stop you — it’s like riding without a seatbelt,” Terry had cautioned us. “They take it seriously.”

Every visitor to Yellowstone must also pay the park entrance fee, which is currently $25. I have an annual National Park pass, and was able to use that.

The total cost of my trip with Scenic Safaris (not including park entrance fee) was $345; I opted to pay $20 for a damage waiver which carried a $750 deductible. I had a snowmobile all to myself, but if you add a passenger, it costs $195 extra per adult or $175 per child. Tips are extra, and well deserved by the hard-working guides.

The sun set over the Grand Tetons as we trekked back to our hotels in Jackson, and Terry made one final stop to let us shoot the sunset.

The sun sets over the Grand Tetons. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

It was a long day, but an exhilarating one, full of incomparable scenery from one of the most awe-inspiring parks in the world. It also gave my legs a chance to rest in between two strenuous days of skiing the steeps at Jackson Hole.

I was able to cross something off my bucket list, but I realized it would just be temporary; already, I want to re-visit Yellowstone in the winter, perhaps taking a multi-day trip into the Park next time. So my bucket list might once again be expanding.

Next up on my road trip: heading south to the state I was born in.

Fresh snow at Yellowstone. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Read the Entire Snow Trip 2018 series:

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