Every night during the winter, snow groomers take their rigs out into the national forests outside West Yellowstone, Montana, and prepare 450 miles of snowmobile trails. Along these trails in Montana and Idaho, as far out into the mountains as one would want to venture, lie open bowls, untouched slopes, pristine hollows—so much land, in fact, that one snowmobile guide says it’s “virtually inexhaustible.” And this is where the snowmobile action is, where groomed trails establish easy access to the slopes and bowls that are free for fans of the sport to explore from the first heavy snowfall until the June melt. Not one square inch of this land is affected by the tussle over the Park Service ban on snowmobiles inside Yellowstone National Park itself.
You have to wonder, then, what all the fuss is about. Even the snowmobile guides admit that the snowmobilers don’t come for Yellowstone; they come for the national forests around Yellowstone. Sure, they’ll spend a day going to Old Faithful to look at the wildlife, the famous geyser and its many cousins, but they are restricted to the road, where the riding thrills are few. They’ll dismount to have a look at some of the other geological wonders and make a tour of it—otherwise they could cover the thirty miles to Old Faithful in less than an hour and be out of the park in barely more than two. But such a visit is easily available by snowcoach, a vehicle much like a van or bus on treads that carries as few as eight and as many as a full busload. These vehicles are dramatically cleaner and quieter than snowmobiles, despite the development of new four-stroke machines that are much less polluting than their two-stroke predecessors and are now the only snowmobiles allowed into the park.
An obvious compromise is to encourage a sharing of the snowcoach pie with the snowmobile rental companies that might see a drop in business if their machines are banned. Snowmobiling is a big business here, and riders come from the four corners of the country to pursue their sport. And yes, there are arguments in favor of snowmobile access to Yellowstone that involve pleas of equal access for all: the new machines are cleaner; their numbers can be restricted to reduce their impact; visitors and locals should have choices for how they want to see the park, inside a vehicle or outside in the elements, closer to the animals; the total number of snowmobilers all winter under these restrictions would be fewer than the visitors who come during a few days in August.
But in the end these arguments are unconvincing. If the machines are damaging Yellowstone (and studies show that they are), and there’s an acceptable and appealing, low-impact way to see the park, and the vast majority of the snowmobiling action is outside its boundaries, then the prudent course is to ban the machines. For snowmobile rental businesses it might take a change in direction on the marketing side and a couple of years to spread the word that a ban on snowmobiles in the park doesn’t affect the ability to visit Yellowstone in winter or the vast majority of snowmobile terrain, but by then business should be back to normal and West Yellowstone will still be able to tout its slogan: “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
Before I reached these conclusions I wanted to visit Yellowstone myself and experience the options for winter activities. My one and only Yellowstone experience had been 29 years ago during a snowy and frigid December when I entered at Cooke City, Montana, where I had to slither through a virtual snow tunnel to get into my motel room. I’d seen lots of wildlife on that trip, but none of the geysers that make the park famous.
This time, I spent my first day cross-country skiing the Rendezvous and Riverside Ski Trails a short distance from the Freeheel and Wheel rental shop owned and operated by two spirited young women, Kelli Criner and Melissa Buller. Most of my cross-country skiing has been on ungroomed backcountry trails, but I found the portions of the more than 25 miles of groomed tracks that I skied here easy and accommodating. The various loops on the Rendezvous trails climb through forest to outstanding views over the Yellowstone countryside. Apart from the swish of my skis on the snow, my own breathing, and conversation with friends, I heard only peaceful silence. Later, on the Riverside trail, we reached treeless expanses along the river covered in untouched snow glistening in the late-afternoon sun. A companion commented after a snowmobile passed in the distance that the noise in the area this year compared to last was dramatically reduced, that it used to be constant. I listened and heard nothing, then glided off alone into that virgin snow and enjoyed the high point of my day on skis: powder to my knees, flakes sparkling like jewels, a deep and pure tranquility.
The next day I took a snowcoach tour operated by Yellowstone Alpen Guides in a “Bombadier,” a vehicle that appeared to be half van, half tank, but was surprisingly comfortable with large windows, two hatch skylights, and enough room to be spacious for seven passengers and a little tight for ten. The snowcoach rolled along the road following the Madison River, lodgepole pines white with snow and frost, trumpeter swans gliding elegantly on the surface, plumes of steam rising here and there from springs and geysers. It wasn’t long before someone spotted a pack of three wolves in the distance; bald eagles perched high in the trees; bison ambled along the river and on the road; and herds of elk grazed peacefully in the flats.
All of these animals would find the winters rough going without the geothermal activity present here, and the open rivers and springs bring them in from the backcountry to gather where food is easier to find. Part of the magic of winter in Yellowstone is that wildlife is visible in such numbers and variety all along the route to the geothermal wonders that make the place unique in the world. These attractions are accessible whether you’re in a snowcoach or on a snowmobile, but a snowcoach can travel on loop trails that diverge from the main road where snowmobiles are prohibited, so you can see more of the park this way.
The group I was with had opted for a ski drop at Biscuit Basin, so some two miles from Old Faithful we stepped into our toe bindings and headed up the trail. Again, away from machines the peace of the snowy woods descended upon me and the place took on an entirely fresh aspect. The only sounds were our passage through the snow, until we came upon a bison grazing right on the trail and we began talking about what to do. Was there room to divert around it? Did we have to retreat? How dangerous was it in this situation?
We found a diversion some fifty yards around the beast who paid no attention to us whatsoever, content as she was to nibble exposed grasses. A short distance down the trail we watched an elk cross our path, then spotted a bull elk in the trees. A moment later we realized we were between a baby and its mother, and we held up until the youngster could also cross in front of us and put its mother at ease.
The trail led into a wonderland of geysers and mudpots, and eventually to Old Faithful. We successfully timed our arrival to catch its eruption, and the three-minute blast of water and steam billowed toward the heavens.
On the way back in the snowcoach we stopped at Fountain Paint Pots, a cluster of colorful geothermal springs, where we strolled around the steaming pits with numerous snowmobilers who had stopped to see the attraction. We were all just enjoying a stroll around this amazing natural wonder, lost in our own thoughts. On the road out we saw several bull elks and that breathtaking river scenery, and left the park shortly before sunset.
On my third day I stepped into a snowmobile suit and mounted the machine for the first time in my life, despite having grown up in Minnesota, which is home to both Arctic Cat and Polaris, two premier snowmobile brands. My father was an avid ice fisherman, hunter, and sometime trapper, and I’m sure my love for the outdoors started with him, but he never had any time for snowmobiles. I don’t know if he just preferred the old skis he used to get out to his rigs or if he disliked those machines, but I do have a memory that he thought they were dangerous, and I had little incentive to try one. So I mounted up in West Yellowstone, got a quick instruction from my guide, and off we went, five machines in single file. At first I felt I was slipping all over the track and didn’t trust giving the sled power, but soon I was zipping along at close to the 45 mph speed limit. And hey, it was fun!
Bundled up as I was I didn’t feel the cold, and it was a thrill to roar up those trails through the woods, the winter equivalent of motorcycling. The landscape was just as beautiful on a snowmobile as it was on skis, but I had to watch the trail every instant to avoid veering off or exposing myself to oncoming traffic. A moment’s distraction on cross-country skis seldom amounts to much, but on a snowmobile it could cause serious injury.
We reached the summit of Two Top, a popular, accessible peak with stupendous views all the way to the Tetons in jagged relief against the blue sky, and when we cut our engines along with the dozen other machines up there I was jolted out of my reverie. Helmet off, crisp breeze tickling my face, I realized it was quiet. The sound of the wind, the crunch of my feet on snow, the murmur of conversation: this was all I heard. For the past hour I’d been whipping through this dramatic landscape, every nerve alert to protect myself, accompanied by the roar of the machine. Atop that peak between trees rigid with wind-sculpted snow I had a sudden urge.
“I’d rather be skiing,” I muttered to myself, looking down those perfect, powdered slopes. And it was then that I began to understand that I wasn’t cut out to be a snowmobiler. I preferred the natural sounds of the woods, the squawk of a raven, the whisper of wind, the rustle of snow falling from pine boughs, the squeak of boot or ski on packed snow. Since I’d mounted that sled I’d been on an adrenaline high fueled by machine power and noise. And don’t get me wrong, it was fun. I was having a blast roaring up and down the slopes, carving through the powder, and our descent from Two Top down a twisting trail that suddenly turned to a full-frontal view of the Tetons on the horizon brought a sudden ecstasy, but even then, as I twisted that machine through the course with the Tetons in view, I wished I was on skis.
Near the end of a long afternoon on our machines we stopped at a breathtakingly beautiful place called Big Springs. Here, what looks like the quiet backwater of a pristine river is actually a spring, the source of the North Fork of the Salmon River. The water is pure as the rains in heaven, the gravel beds a spawning ground for trout, a dollhouse of a hydro-mill on the far shore straight out of Hansel and Gretel (I had to take a picture for my young daughters so I could claim it had been my home for the night). It was one of the prettiest sights I saw in my several days at Yellowstone, and I would have been poorer in spirit if I hadn’t got there, and no doubt I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been on a snowmobile.
But on the way out of the forest I began to understand the slight wooziness I was feeling, a pinch at the temples and a light nausea in my gut. It was the fumes. For the last hour I’d taken up the anchor position in our group because I wanted to slow the pace a little to take in my surroundings, and the fumes were making me sick.
I’ll go snowmobiling again sometime if I have the chance. It really was a lot of fun to blast uphill and do figure eights in the powder, but I won’t rush back to it soon. I’ll go skiing, cross-country or downhill, it doesn’t matter much to me. That’s where my roots are, that’s where my natural interests lie. And if I can get nauseated from the fumes of just four snowmobiles in an hour of riding, the animals in Yellowstone Park deserve to be spared such an onslaught. As my snowmobile guide said, the land outside the famous national park open to these machines is “almost inexhaustible.” The park is pristine and precious, and there are options for all to visit. The wildlife deserves the peace and quiet. And fresh air.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.