Escape to Yellowstone Adventure Travel

First-timer snowmobiles this iconic park
When can you see Yellowstone without the crowds? That was the allure of renting a snowmobile to see Yellowstone National Park at a time of year when the hordes are nonexistent. Four million visitors will come to see the world’s first national park each year in the summer. Four MILLION! In the winter, it doesn’t surpass 100,000.

But while I embarked on the journey for the solitude, the riding, albeit on groomed trails at relatively slow speeds, proved to make the experience unforgettable.
Yellowstone National Park snowmobile
Yellowstone National Park snowmobile
■ Do It Yourself
You’ve all probably heard the ramblings, but for decades this has been a battleground for environmental groups and motorized advocates. Environmental groups went so far as to question whether snow machines belonged in the park at all. The National Park Service resolved that they do, and our travels through the sacred swath of Northwest Wyoming were finally made possible again by the park’s “non-commercially guided access program” — or private snowmobiling.

Entering Yellowstone National Park through Jackson Hole and the park’s South Gate on an early March morning, the solitude was confirmed. Save for a single snow coach that rolled by, we didn’t see another human for more than an hour. It felt like Yellowstone was as wild as it was supposed to be — and all ours.

The crew I accompanied, which included a newlywed Minnesota couple and an itinerant photographer friend, were all almost entirely new to snowmobiling. We found ourselves riding Ski Doo Grand Touring Sport 600s that were equipped with an “eco mode” setting that met required emissions and noise standards of sleds allowed in Yellowstone. With really no large points of comparison, it was a cushy, straight-tracking trail sled that’s straightforward and easy to operate.
Yellowstone National Park snowmobile
Winged and wild. You will see plenty of wildlife as you wing your way along through Yellowstone, and they don’t mind, if you don’t mind. Beauty is around every steamy river bend and tree.
The Yellowstone experience in winter isn’t without its hazards. We dodged the often truly frigid temps and the blinding blizzards that can turn snowmobiling newbies off to the experience in a hurry. Cheery Yellowstone ranger Denise Altherr told us as much as we arrived to check in at the South Gate. “They sit at home watching some travel show in the convenience of their heated home and recliner,” Altherr said. “And they think, ‘Isn’t that beautiful? I want to do that.’ Well, when you have minus-27 degrees for a week, you have a lot of wives mad at their husbands that had convinced them to do this. It wasn’t the big romantic getaway they thought it was going to be.”

Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife is easy to spot when the backdrop is snow and ice, and at times on our trip, bison made themselves about as conspicuous as possible. Cruising into Old Faithful (the park’s lone interior winter lodging area), stomach’s empty and bodies craving warmth, we bumped into a cow enjoying her walk who had no interest in moving to let a stream of Ski-Doos by. Trying to squeeze by along the groomed, two-lane road, she dropped her head and, thankfully, just sauntered along. With the reverse button and a seldom-used alternative entrance of Old Faithful, we averted a more interesting encounter.

Thick, cold fog socked in the Firehole River valley as we awoke on day two of the trip. To avoid an Old Faithful out-and-back, our party headed north toward Madison, then on to Norris, Canyon, Fishing Bridge, West Thumb and back out the South Gate. In all, we logged more than 100 miles on the second day. Trying to cover Yellowstone’s entire southern groomed loop while having to make it out to the entrance in a day is a long day.
Yellowstone National Park snowmobile
Quiet, but not underground. It may be silent lucidity above ground, but the whole of Yellowstone sits over volcanic area that has potential to blow and change life on Earth.
■ How it works
Since snowmobiling Yellowstone National Park is for most people a once-in-a-lifetime deal, I’d recommend taking three days. A lottery is open the month of September is one way to land a permit. They’re not easy to come by, especially for those who aren’t flexible on timing. Yellowstone’s do-it-yourself program is designed to be self-limiting, with only one party of up to five snowmobiles allowed in through each entrance each day. After the lottery closes, remaining permits become available first-come, first-served.

Throwing your name in the hat isn’t for everyone. One prerequisite is being willing to make the trek all the way to the Northern Rockies with no promise of enjoying its abundant powder. The rules on snowmobiling Yellowstone are strict: no sleds are allowed off groomed surfaces, there’s a parkwide 35 mph speed limit and a requirement that all groups must stay bunched up within a third of a mile and keep behind their designated leader. Also, there is plenty of incredible snowmobiling possible outside the park that you can do on your own, but in my experience the actual park was all worth it — an introduction to snowmobiling, and a better way to snag solitude in an often-overrun world-famous park.
Yellowstone National Park snowcoach
Snowcoach Sightings!
While snowmobiling in Yellowstone you will undoubtedly see several snowcoaches and or buses and vans with track systems on them. Certainly interesting the first time you see them, but nowhere near the same experience you get on a snowmobile.
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