West Yellowstone, Montana Really Is a Snowmobile Paradise
As a long term snowmobiler West Yellowstone has always been at the top of my list as an ultimate destination. February 9th to 13th I got my wish and had the opportunity to ride three days in this beautiful part of the world.
“ Most people during the winter fly into Bozeman. There is a shuttle called Karst Stage that will bring them down to Yellowstone as most of the hotel properties sell a complete package. Karst will take you down to your hotel. The snowmobile companies will rent you clothing in sizes from 6 months old to 5 XL for men. All you need to bring is you,” smiled Jan Stoddard, Director Of Marketing, West Yellowstone Chamber. “ There may not be a lot of snow in Bozeman but as you go to Yellowstone you get to 6500 elevation and our snow increases. We are 12 miles to the east of Idaho and in the park 3 miles to Wyoming.”
West Yellowstone has a normal population of 1000 people that drops to 700 in the winter and goes up in the summer. In fact there are 3.5 million visitors to West Yellowstone each summer alone and close to 3000 hotel rooms open in the winter. There can be 3000 snowmobiles in West Yellowstone where the park is 3.4 million square acres in size.
You can’t build in the park which is surrounded by 3 national forests. 100 years ago Yellowstone was 2 by 2 blocks and now is 10 by 12 blocks. You can’t build any further because of the forests. The people live in these blocks and there is employee housing.
“ 20 years ago the people who snowmobiled here were from Minnesota or Alberta, places where they had snowmobiles. Today they come from all over including Montreal and Toronto. We have a group of 65 guys from all across Canada for a week each year,” said Stoddard. “ The Holiday Inn Sunspree is one of our biggest properties which can range in size from 100 to 150 rooms or more. There are 8 properties that sell a package with snowmobiles. You have to be a concessionaire to rent snowmobiles. If they don’t have it they partner with those that do. In the early 80s Cylde Seely, the owner of the Holiday Inn Sunspree, decided to get some snowmobiles to rent out. Before that they would close many hotels here for the winter. Today it is amazing how many snowmobiles come each year.”
“ Only rental snowmobiles that are 4 stroke are permitted in the park and you must have a guide with each group. There are also those who specialize in back country riding and they know about avalanche conditions. There are 400 miles of groomed trails including those that take you high up as well as in meadows areas and powder. It gives people of every skill level the ability to get up to 9000 to 10,000 square feet in elevation outside of the park,” said Jan.“ All you have to do is get on the plane, get picked up at the airport by Karst and go to the hotel where you will get suited up and ride snowmobiles from their back parking lot. There are packages that save you some money. I have seen a 4 night, 3 day package for $359 PP. The rooms range from Mom to Pop operations at $49 to mid range $79 to $89 or private cabins for $200 or with a rate per week.”
Another great attraction in Yellowstone is the 6 storey IMAX surround sound theatre. There is one movie called Yellowstone and this is the only IMAX in which you can see it in the US. In addition there is the Grizzlies Discovery Centre which is a sanctuary for animals that
got in trouble in the park and have been brought here. Animals you can see in the Park include Big Horn Sheep, Moose, Bison, Elk, Deer, Bald Eagles and Trumpeter Swans.
“ West Yellowstone is at 6667 feet elevation and you can go up to Lyons Head which is 11000. We average 143 inches of snow per year. It doesn’t melt and we have snow on the ground from Halloween to mid April. Last year they rode on July 4th here, it just depends on the snow,” said Jan. “ I like that you can live so close to nature in Yellowstone. You can snowshoe, snowmobile or ski right from your door. In the summer you can go fly fishing. It is a beautiful place. The people who live here choose to be here at elevation. We are a hour and half away from any Walmart or big grocery store. It is an amazing place. We have no mailmen and you go to the post office to pick up your mail.”
Our guide for our 2 days of riding at Yellowstone in the park and outside was Alex Moldenhauer, guide Yellowstone Arctic Cat Yamaha. “ We saw a couple of bull bison here as well as some elk. They are grazing on grass and use their heads to dig down in the winter time. We don’t have very many elk that stay in the park in the wintry time but those that do stay are along the river that remains open because of all the geysers and thermal features. Open water is a great attraction to wild life. That is why we see so many bison, elk and
eagles near the river. The eagles have been nesting 5 miles into the park for several years.The animals are safe in the park but may not be outside.”
There are four different types of thermal features at West Yellowstone. Geysers, hot springs, fumarole and mud pots. A fumarole is a technical term for a steam pot. Yellowstone is a 60 mile wide culebra, a giant super volcano sediment formed in a big dome and when
it exploded everything fell back in and left this big flat space. That is why inside the park it is kinda flat because you are inside the culebra. They call it a hot spot. The magna is rather closer to the surfaces compared to other places. The water gets super heated down
below and forms all those different features. The snowmobile speed limit is 35 to 45 MPH in West Yellowstone and that felt good to me given the spectacular scenery you are amongst.
Our second day of riding was outside of Yellowstone Park. “ Today we went down to Big Sprint down Idaho. We were right along the continental divide for a good bit of that. We were down in Henry’s Lake flats right near the headwaters of the Snake River. The moose we saw today were in the flats. It is a normal route outside of the park. The powder was mighty nice today.” noted Alex.
Near the start of our riding day a scary accident occurred for one of our riders, Arlene from Virginia. Arlene was riding along in front of her son on a windy elevated trail when she just flew off and landed on a rock against a tree some 20 feet below. We all knew it was a
dangerous situation so I drove ahead to get our guide Alex and bring back the other members of the group. 911 was called but due to the remote position we were in and the snowy overcast conditions which meant a helicopter could not land we were in for some trying times waiting for help.
“ Arlene probably panicked and pressed the gas rather than the brake when she realized she was gong somewhere she didn’t went to go and ended up gong off the trail and getting hurt,” said Alex. “After that we called search and rescue and they came from both Idaho and
Montana. They got Arlene out of the situation she was in and used a rescue sled to bring her out. It was a snowy day so the helicopters couldn’t come in. Once they got her into the rescue sled they brought her to a waiting ambulance and to the hospital.They would have flown
into a rest area just a few miles from the crash with better weather. There is a lot of back country and those people respond on a moments notice. They was about 15 people there.”
Arlene went through a difficult day but had surgery that evening to repair a broken hip, femur and 3 ribs. Thankfully she is dong well now!
Riding snowmobiles for two days with our guide Alex was a real treat. I asked him what he like about snowmobiling. “ What do I not like abut snowmobiling would be an easier question. I get to ride 5 to 7,000 miles per year. My favourite thing about the sport is all the different people you meet when you are doing it. You meet people from all over the world and it is fun just spending time playing in the powder with them. I just love to see their faces light up after a day of riding in deep powder. It is a wonderful thing. We had a beautiful day in the
Perhaps my favourite experience riding in West Yellowstone Park was when we had to pull our sleds over to the side of the trail for a herd of bison to pass on that same trail some 5 feet to our left. To see these huge 2000 to 3000 pound wild animals so close up was both fun and scary. In fact I didn’t pull out my camera because I didn’t want to rattle them. On the other end of the animal scale were two huge white trumpeters swans floating down the open river at one stop. They were so beautiful and with my simple sense of humor I asked one of our riders if he though they were married! West Yellowstone is a must place to visit for every snowmobiler. You will have fun!