Where the landscape ends and the heavens begin
Story and Photos by Peter Schroeder
“Should we ski around them or through them?” I asked my friends.
A small herd of bison, coated by hoarfrost, glowered at us as they munched on frozen weeds buried under three feet of snow. Fumaroles simmered in the distance. We were stopped in our tracks, because the hairy beasts stood on the groomed cross-country ski trail.
The bison won as we detoured to avoid disturbing the 1,500-pound behemoths, allowing them to conserve their hard-earned winter energy for survival.
I’m in Yellowstone National Park with friends exploring on cross-country skis, and experiencing a side of the park that summer visitors seldom experience.
Most people think of Yellowstone as a summer destination. But for Nordic skiers, the park offers not only unsurpassed cross-country skiing, but also the opportunity to explore its wildlife and wilderness in a unique way.
Winter in Yellowstone offers many outdoor activities: Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, moonlit snowshoe walks, stargazing, wildlife viewing and more, not to mention some of the clearest air in the country.
At night there’s incredible star gazing in cold, crisp air without disturbance from lights. An astronaut remarked Yellowstone was his third favorite place to observe stars, with the first two being from somewhere in orbit.
West Yellowstone (Montana)
My week-long Montana explorations began in the town of West Yellowstone, which offers the easiest access to the park in winter. Center of the winter recreation programs in West Yellowstone is Free Heel & Wheel, the town’s first and largest specialty Nordic center offering rental, retail, instruction and guided trips.
The company was founded 17 years ago by Melissa Alder and Kelli Sanders who met as classmates at the University of Montana, where they were both passionate about the outdoors.
“West Yellowstone gets lots of dry powder in early November that lasts until May, so we attract Nordic skiers from all over the country throughout the entire winter,” said Kelli.
Kelli and Melissa equipped us with rental gear, then shuttled us to Rendezvous Ski Trails, the premier destination in the region, offering 35 kilometers of skating and groomed trails. More than a foot of powder had fallen the previous evening and the track had been groomed that morning, so conditions were perfect.
For the next several hours we glided through lodgepole pine forests and across rolling meadows. Along the way we stopped at the biathlon range where world-class athletes practice throughout the season. (West Yellowstone is also renowned for having the only biathlon supply store in the U.S.).
Rendezvous Trails is the site of the Yellowstone Ski Festival, the biggest Nordic festival in the country. Held each year during Thanksgiving week, the event features clinics, demos, rental gear, races and more. (See sidebar page 26.)
Another town attraction is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, where visitors get up-close views of grizzly bears and two gray wolf packs. Because they are fed year-round, the bears don’t hibernate, so anytime is a good time to visit.
The groomed terrain and captive wildlife were a good preview to Yellowstone National Park where we would encounter wildlife roaming freely.
Lower Geyser Basin (Old Faithful)
Although we could have spent several days exploring Rendezvous Trails and Yellowstone River Trail just inside the park, we headed for the heart of the Yellowstone—the Lower Geyser Basin, site of Old Faithful Geyser.
Roads into the park are closed to cars in winter, so we traveled by snow coach, which is essentially a bus mounted on snow tracks. Along the way we viewed elk grazing along the shoreline of the Madison River and trumpeter swans foraging for submerged vegetation.
“This is their Florida,” quipped our driver referring to the swans. “They winter here from their breeding grounds in the Arctic.”
More than 20 years after the devastating fire in 1988 that incinerated more than one-third of the park, the forests are recovering. However, miles of blackened stumps and dead trees still create an eerie contrast against the snow.
In summer, Yellowstone offers 2,000 guest accommodations in nine lodges and numerous cabins, as well as many campsites. However, in this section of the park only Old Faithful Snow Lodge — with just 90 rooms — remains open in winter. Peace and quiet reign supreme.
The next morning we met Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which runs concessions in Yellowstone National Park. After we outfitted ourselves at the Bear Den Ski Shop with cross-country boots, poles and skis, Rick, who’s also a naturalist, led our group on groomed trails away from the village.
“Winter is my favorite season because you don’t have to share Yellowstone with anyone,” he said, as we glided past steam vents, geysers, mud pots, hot springs and other geothermal wonders. “You’ll see the same wildlife — bobcats, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, antelope, foxes and bison — as in summer, but there’s no vegetation to block the views.
“Because there’s less noise and disturbance from people, animals come out of hiding to seek hard-to-find food beneath the snow. Furthermore, skiers in winter cover far more terrain than hikers in summer, so they see more wildlife in remote areas.”
Famous Yellowstone geysers
Yellowstone is home to one-quarter of the world’s geysers. The network of groomed trails led us past many of these thermal features with descriptive names like Firehole River, Geyser Basin, Paint Pot, Morning Glory Pool, Black Sand Basin, Grotto Geyser, Mystic Falls, Fairy Falls and more. Smaller fumaroles are more noticeable in winter since they’re not surrounded by vegetation. Limits on snowmobiles assure peace and quiet with perhaps the cleanest air in country.
We returned after several hours, just in time to watch Old Faithful’s eruption, which stays on schedule all winter long. Next to the famed geyser stands a one-year-old multimillion-dollar visitor center where we checked out historical, geologic and wildlife displays.
Mammoth Hot Springs (North Entrance)
During the winter, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, our next stop, are the only two overnight facilities open in the park.
Located five miles inside Yellowstone’s northern entrance, Mammoth Village makes the perfect base
from which to explore Yellowstone’s wildlife-rich Northern Range.
This region became the center for wolf studies after 14 wolves captured in Canada were relocated in the park in 1995 followed by another 17 wolves a year later. Today the area is home to three dozen packs and 400 wolves.
While skiing in the open area in Lamar Valley along the Northern Range, it’s easier than in the woodlands to spot wolves and large herds of wildlife.
Just outside the front door of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel awaits another attraction for Nordic skiers: the groomed trail around the Mammoth Terraces. The trail offers close-up views of thermal features within the travertine geologic formations as well as expansive views of Montana mountain vistas.
As I turned in my rental skis at the end of our last day, I reflected on the advice given earlier in the week by Emily Meyer, who works at the rental shop at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge:
“Watch out for the bison prints; they can be pretty deep. But don’t always look down at your feet. Look up at the incredible beauty all around. It’s hard to tell where the landscape ends and the heavens begin.”
Yellowstone Ski Festival Nov. 22–26
Make tracks to West Yellowstone in Montana for the Yellowstone Ski Festival Nov. 22–26.
This week-long cross-country festival draws skiers from Olympic athletes to first-timers on perfectly groomed corduroy on their Rendezvous Ski Trails.
There’s plenty to do for all ages including an On Snow Gear Demo, indoor Expo, a variety of clinics daily including lectures and films, a kids’ center and the Backcountry Film Festival. Skiers can also enter to win a $750 ski gift certificate.
During the Festival, West Yellowstone will host the USSA SuperTour opening including sprint, freestyle and classic races as well as biathlon races.
A high mountain valley town, West Yellowstone is located about 90 miles south of Bozeman, Mont.
For more information, clinic registration or to find the trails, log onto www.Yellowstoneskifestival.com.
Lodging and information in West Yellowstone: www.DestinationYellowstone.com
West Yellowstone Ski Trails: www.rendezvousskitrails.com
Nordic Rental and Equipment, West Yellowstone: www.FreeHeelAndWheel.com
Lodging in Yellowstone National Park: www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com
Old Faithful Area Ski Trails:
Mammoth Area Ski Trails: