Hop aboard a winter tour of Yellowstone

December normally signals the start of the winter outdoor sports season in and around Yellowstone National Park, one of America’s great snowy wonderlands. But this year, as in 2016, the snow may fall earlier, attracting snowmobilers before Thanksgiving. [See “A Big Snow Year,” below.] And there’s no better place to headquarter than the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, west-side gateway to the park and such spectacles as the Old Faithful geyser cloaked in glittering ice and brilliant snow.

This is no ordinary snow. Chad Reichensperger immediately grasped its extraordinary quality when years ago he moved to West Yellowstone from Minnesota, where snowmobiles are a way of life.

“I came from flatland snow, where three inches of snow equals one of water,” he says, “Here, the [snow-to-water] ratio is a dozen to one.”

Reichensperger is an elite snowmobiler who has watched the sport evolve from low-key tours through snow-laden lodgepole pines around town to what he calls “steep-and-deep” powder riding at elevations to 10,000 feet. He runs Hi-Country Snowmobile Rentals, which caters mostly to experienced snowmobilers who want the exhilaration of feeling their high-powered sleds sink into “the white room.” Man and machine submerge, then pop back up.

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These are day trips. Typically, four to five visiting snowmobilers and a guide start out after breakfast at 10 a.m. The small parade is constantly moving, covering 60 to 80 miles altogether. When they get up high, there is a lot of wind. This is no time to learn how to operate the throttle and the brake. By 3 to 4 p.m. they are out of gas and back in West Yellowstone where they started.

“Do you have to be in good shape?” I ask Reichensperger.

“It doesn’t hurt,” he says.

The sport isn’t exclusively for risk-takers. Surrounding West Yellowstone are some 150 miles of groomed, beginner-friendly snowmobile trails coursing through the two-million-acre Custer Gallatin National Forest. To the west, these trails connect to another network of trails radiating from nearby Island Park, Idaho, and to trails leading south to Big Sky, Montana. Backcountry Forest Service snowmobile rangers are deployed to teach etiquette and offer assistance in the rare event of an emergency.

“We have some of the best snow conditions in the West,” says Jason Brey, district ranger for the Hebgen Lake Forest Service District at West Yellowstone. He explains that the backcountry trails are groomed multiple times each week, December through March, making them among the finest anywhere. Last year, Brey says, 54,000 snowmobilers were experiencing the adventure. “I want people out there enjoying their public lands,” he says. “It’s a blessing.”

Someone else who thinks winter in Yellowstone is about as good as snow gets is Clyde Seeley, owner of Three Bear Lodge. Decades ago he showed up at age 19 and took work as a laundry boy at the lodge. Several years later he bought the place. In 1971, after the “season,” Seeley pioneered taking guests into the National Park on snowmobiles. The crowds were gone. But the steaming geyser basins were transformed, attracting elk, bison, and other wildlife seeking warmth and exposed grasses. His guests were awed.

Seeley loves introducing newcomers to snowmobiles. “Most of our guests have never been on one,” he says. His guides go through all the instructions and safety precautions. “We show them how to sit and operate the machine so they feel comfortable.”

Families are welcome. Seeley remembers, back when he started, hosting 1,200 Boy Scouts over the holidays, not one of whom had been on a snowmobile. Today the rule is that anyone 14 or younger must have a signed waiver from his or her parents—and must stay within 50 feet of them on marked trails.

“The park was and still is the draw,” Seeley says. “When our guests get in there, it’s a whole different world from what they’ve seen in summer. They are riding on the same roads. We ask them to respect the animals. We remind them they are riding on hallowed ground.”  

A Big Snow Year    
Exceptional quantities of snow fall on Yellowstone when a high-pressure polar jet stream from Alaska and western Canada collides with a wet and cool Pacific jet stream—La Niña (Spanish for “the girl child”). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cold water emerges in the central Pacific Ocean below a shallow mass of warm surface water that is losing steam each day. This heat loss is a signal that El Niño is on the way out and La Niña is making her move. As the cold mass of water builds, surface sea temperatures drop, resulting in a strong La Niña weather system and a big snow year in the northern Rockies. —T.R.P

Traveler Info
Around the first of November, before the snow starts accumulating, most roads in Yellowstone National Park close to regular traffic. By mid-December roads open to “over-snow” travel only. Visiting Old Faithful, Midway Geyer Basin, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and other popular destinations during winter is by guided snowmobile or snowcoach, or through the Park Service’s non-commercially guided snowmobile program. The classic Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs lodges remain open but reservations are essential. Winter rangers also maintain mapped warming huts throughout the park.

If you fly privately to Yellowstone, you can land in Bozeman, Montana, or Idaho Falls, Idaho. For more on Yellowstone, visit nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit or call (307) 344-7381. For info on snowmobile rentals and guided tours, visit threebearlodge.com or call (800) 646-7353. For info on backcountry riding, visit hicountrysnowmobiles.com or call (406) 646-7541. For info on lodging and dining, visit destinationyellowstone.com or call (406) 646-7701. —T.R.P.

Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of the new hunting book Turkey Men.