Wandering the West
December 6, 2011
You can ski at all three Park City resorts now, with Deer Valley joining the lineup this past weekend. Skiing is limited but good. There’s no such thing as a bad day skiing, so laps on Payday still work for me. The golf-course track was set last week but melted out quickly. Every year is different. Sometimes we’re ready to boot in in late October, other years we’re twiddling our thumbs into December waiting for the big natural dump that opens most everything.
For certain snow in early season, try West Yellowstone. You won’t find any downhill ski resorts there, but early, skiable snow is sure to be there at least a month before it shows up here. I know Parkites who make the West Yellowstone pilgrimage annually to get their Nordic ski legs moving, and they’re already back now with glowing reviews about snow conditions there.
West Yellowstone is in Montana and one of the main gateways into Yellowstone Park, summer and winter. Yellowstone’s gates are locked until December 15, but at that point a winter excursion through the park needs to be on your bucket list. Still, I’ve gone on (and on) about Yellowstone winters here before so won’t belabor the point now.
What may be lesser known is that there are several winter ways to access snow-covered backcountry and front country outside of Yellowstone and they’re just as nice, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find geysers outside the park boundaries. From West Yellowstone’s many motels you can walk or ski to the trailhead for the Rendezvous Trail, a system winding 35 kilometers through the forests and hills around town. The trail opens early and is in fine shape now. National cross-country ski teams from around the world do early season training here each year. They’ve already come and gone. There’s a biathlon range, too, if that combination of sport appeals to you.
One oddity of West Yellowstone is that, unlike almost every other winter town, there’s no attempt here to clear the streets of snow. They remain snow packed on purpose so snowmobiles, the preferred mode of town travel, can get anywhere in town without crossing dreaded blacktop. Don’t be afraid to drive a car on them just watch for low-slung snowmobiles zipping along beside you.
While the Rendezvous Trail and backcountry ski opportunities in the bordering Gallatin and Targhee national forests are close and plentiful, the dominant winter recreational travel here is by snowmobile. Some 400 miles of trail are maintained on the forest lands. Add the 200 of groomed trails in Yellowstone Park itself and you have a snowmobiler’s heaven. You can rent snowmobiles, clothing and helmets from a number of shops and strike out on your own or join a guided tour.
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If you go into the park, your sled must be state of the art with a BAT (best available technology) engine. Even then there’s a snowmobile quota to fight congestion, noise, wildlife stress and air pollution. One hundred and sixty sleds a day can enter the park from West Yellowstone daily. If you’re number 161, you’ll have to amuse yourself elsewhere, and you easily can.
If you’re more winter-hardy than I, you can amuse the family with a sleigh ride, a dogsled trip or maybe an ice fishing excursion on Hebgen Lake. But you’ll want to know where the hot drinks and the hot tub are when you finish those trips.
Nightlife in West Yellowstone is pretty limited. There are snowshoe walks led by forest rangers, and talks by Yellowstone park rangers at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. There’s also what’s getting to be a standard fixture in major national park gateway towns an IMAX theater.
The vitals: Park City to West Yellowstone, Montana 354 miles
Insider tip: There are lots of funky mom-and-pop motels along with the major chains. The grand old tourist hotel, the Stage Coach Inn, covers most of a block and is my favorite for both lodging and meals.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.