Montana Snow: Visiting West Yellowstone

West Yellowstone, Mont., is difficult to spot on a map. Only five blocks by eight blocks, the town’s residents number less than 1,000. West Yellowstone is a major gateway for Yellowstone National Park thus tourists by the hundreds of thousands pour through this small town every summer. Winter, however, is a different story.

West Yellowstone’s winter tourist flow is around 5 percent of the summer crowd. Most come to enjoy the snow-covered landscape. Between Yellowstone National Park and the national forest lands around West Yellowstone, there’s plenty of landscape to go around. The region receives 13-1/2 feet of snow each year, most of which remains until the spring thaw. Winter temperatures that regularly dip to minus-40 degrees see to that.

Snowmobiling Two Top Mountain Loop Trail in Yellowstone.

Controversial, snowmobiles remain the primary, convenient mode of winter transportation in the area. The vehicles are operated on all streets of West Yellowstone, except Main Street. Roads through Yellowstone are closed in winter to vehicular traffic, but 200 miles of groomed trails are open to snowmobiles.

Our First National Park
Yellowstone is a strange, living bit of real estate, which became our first National Park in 1872. Volcanically alive, this land with its hotspots, geysers, and heated flowing water has long been a winter haven for wildlife.

This park covers 2-1/4-million acres and part of three states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Here one finds the world’s largest collection of geysers in one location. Molten rock, lying near the earth’s surface heats ground water seeping down to it. Under pressure, the water’s boiling point is raised to nearly 400 degrees.

As the water finally boils, it rises through a vent tube, vaporizing the water in the tube, erupting as a geyser. Patches of geologically-heated ground remain clear of snow, allowing bison and other animals to forage all winter. In an area where most everything is snowed over and frozen solid, ice-free water and bare patches of ground provide a welcome refuge.

The landscape of Yellowstone is primarily a high, volcanic plateau, dotted with sharp, jagged mountains. The elevation ranges primarily between 7,000 feet and 8,500 feet. The altitude keeps the air dry. Even though the temperature regularly dips far below zero, it doesn’t feel as cold because it’s a “dry” cold.

It is a combination of wildlife viewing and the strange geological features, such as geysers and boiling mud, that attracts visitors. The typical Rocky Mountain wildlife inhabiting the area includes bison, elk, coyotes, deer, moose, bear, and once again, wolves. A herd of bison foraging presents quite a sight. Each massive animal swings its head from side to side, acting as biological snowplow, pushing away the snow until it reaches the ground. The elk use their forelegs to paw away the snow. Trumpeter Swans drift by on the geologically warmed Madison River.

Steam, Hot Water, Boiling Mud
The snow-covered landscape stands in stark contrast to the steam, hot water, and boiling mud sputtering from the earth. The sulfurous steam drifts across the snow-crusted earth creating a prehistoric scene where one expects to see roaming dinosaurs instead of bison, an otherworldly scene of fantasy and imagination.

A trip to Yellowstone would be incomplete without seeing Old Faithful. Watch as steam and water, super-heated and pressurized, spew over 200 feet into the air. Old Faithful goes off faithfully at varying intervals averaging 77 minutes apart. Park rangers observe eruptions, then post a sign informing visitors, with plus or minus 10 minute accuracy, when to expect the next eruption.

Old Faithful erupting in winter, Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves, once an essential part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, were reintroduced amid great controversy in 1995. I was hoping to see a few in the wild. I did see evidence that the wolves are once again assuming their rightful place in the ecosystem. I saw a partially eaten elk carcass and plenty of wolves tracks — leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. I also saw some live wolves, at the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.

The Grizzly Discovery Center’s is primarily an education center. The mission statement says the center exists to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Grizzlies and the Gray Wolf. The center has its own Gray Wolf pack, consisting of 10 captive-born wolves, roaming an acre of ground.

More And More Trails
Yellowstone National Park is by no means the extent of nature to be explored in the area. There are an additional 600 miles of groomed snowmobile trails within the surrounding National Forests of Beaverhead, Gallatin, and Targhee. Gallatin National Forest alone covers 1.8 million acres. While in the park, riding is limited to the groomed trails, not so on national forest land.

Two Top Loop Trail, looping through national forest land, is one of my favorite rides. The trail zigzags back and forth across the Continental Divide and across the Idaho/Montana border. The snow-encrusted pines along the trail are beautiful, but nothing compared to the view from Two Top Mountain in Idaho. The bent, twisted snow-crusted pine trees resemble snow sculptures. The expansive view seems to carry on forever.

West Yellowstone has much more to offer the traveler than one would normally expect in a town this size. There are excellent accommodations and several good restaurants. Most accommodations offer some sort of snowmobile package, usually including an area guide. There are over 1,400 snowmobile rentals available in town.

Making The Trip
The easiest way to get to West Yellowstone is to fly into Bozeman, Mont., and then drive or take a bus 90 miles south to the town.

For more information, contact:

West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 458
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Days Inn, West Yellowstone

The Days Inn offers snowmobile packages ranging from 1-7 days, but will design custom packages.

Grizzly Discovery Center
P.O. Box 996
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
Fax: 406-646-7004

West Yellowstone Tour & Travel
P.O. Box 410
West Yellowstone, MT 59758-0410

Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort
315 Yellowstone Ave.
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
Fax; 406-646-4433

Big Western Pine Motel, Restaurant, and Lounge
234 Firehole Ave.
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Three Bear Lodge and Restaurant
217 Yellowstone Ave.
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
Fax: 406-646-4567

For a fine selection of snowmobile clothing and gear, click here.

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