Touring Yellowstone on Cross Country Skis
By David McKay Wilson
Yellowstone National Park has emerged as a world-class destination for cross-country skiers who yearn for high-altitude touring in and around the world’s first national park.
On a visit in mid-February, the powder was dry and light – the kind that provides cross-country skiers with plenty of grab for their kick, and a surface of silky smoothness for their glide.
I’d come to Yellowstone, hoping to rediscover the sport I’d learned 40 years ago in Norway. But it had been more than 20 years since I’d done any serious touring on the skinny skis.
The gals at Free Heel and Wheel in West Yellowstone, Mt. put me at ease the moment I walked in door our first morning. The town – simply known to local as “West” – lies on Yellowstone’s western boundary. So the park’s trail system starts a block away at the Riverside Trail, which runs along the Madison River – one of the park’s many waterways that stay ice-free in the deep of winter, warmed by water from the park’s geo-thermal features.
The 2004 decision by the National Park Service to strictly regulate snowmobiles in the park to up to 318 a day, and require the snow sleds to be equipped with cleaner four-stroke engines, has made Yellowstone much more enticing for cross-country skiers.
Leading us into the park was Melissa Alder, one Free Heel’s owners, who with her college chum, Kelli Sanders, founded the shop in 1995 when cross-country had grabbed a toehold on the park’s edge. The shop doubles as a coffee shop, so after our four-mile morning warm-up, we came back for a spicy chicken enchilada and a warm cup of zebra mocha coffee. I then traded in the waxless Rossignols that rent for $20/day for a pair of high-performance Atomics, which Alder promised would add some oomph in my kick that afternoon in the Rendezvous Ski Trails, just down Yellowstone Avenue.
The trails are known for some of North America’s earliest snow, and during Thanksgiving week, draw up to 3,000 skiers for a weeklong festival that kicks off the season for racers who descend on West Yellowstone to train. That festival also draws families and recreational skiers for clinics and the continent’s premier late-fall skiing. The Yellowstone Rendezvous Race in early March, part of the American Ski Marathon series, draws another huge weekend crowd. And while the event ends the race season, the trails typically stay open through May.
The Rendezvous Trails wind through rolling terrain, the kind that’s just right for cross-country skiing. You have to work a bit on a few uphills, but the downhill sections aren’t so steep as to cause issues. At Rendezvous, in a forest of lodge-pole pine, I rediscovered the wonder of the cross-country rhythm – letting the kick drive me forward, feeling the pole plant, not rushing the motion to find the sweet-spot of the glide.
We reconnoitered at Rendezvous the next day, joining 140 others for the second annual Taste of the Trails event, which featured tasty offerings on food stops along the trails – dates wrapped in bacon, a savory tomato-dill soup, hearty quinoa salad, and the Blondie I felt I’d earned for dessert after skiing 10 kilometers that day.
Following three nights at the West Yellowstone Holiday Inn, and great meals at Serenity Bistro and Madison Crossing, we headed into the park on a snow coach – a transport vehicle operated by the park’s lodging concessionaire, Xanterra. The heated coaches, with cozy seats and big windows, look like a cross between a small school bus and an Army tank, with skis in front to steer it along snow-covered roads. We headed for Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the well-appointed hotel built in 1999, with recycled post-and-beam construction, succulent bison steak for dinner, and a cellist who played dreamy classical pieces in the lobby. Winter rooms are $206/night.
The skiing at Old Faithful was superb, giving skiers the opportunity to view the extensive geothermal activity, which bubbled to the atmosphere through geysers, steam vents, and fumaroles. We took the Lone Star Geyser Trail, following a groomed trail on a steady, gradual climb along the Firehole River and up into the forest. We arrived just as the geyser erupted, sending a plume of steam, and as whiff of sulfur – into the crisp winter air.
Our tour took us the next day to Mammoth Hot Springs, near the park’s northern boundary. There we stayed in the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, one of the region’s best bargains, with rooms with bathrooms $117 a night, those with shared bathrooms just $87.
After four days of cross-country skiing on the well-groomed trails, it was time to test our mettle in the high-altitude back-country. The sun shone. Four inches of light powder had settled as we began our climb up Snow Pass, a winding 1.5 mile-climb through a forest of Douglas Fir. It was a heart-thumping ascent, with my friend, Alan, leading the way. At the pass, Mt. Sepulcher rose to 9,600 feet to the west as we met the Glen Creek Trail. We glided east as the afternoon sun cast long shadows along the expansive snowfield, where a bison herd had left tracks the previous day.
Now it was all coming together, that rhythm, the glide and kick and pole, all together, propelling me with surprising alacrity. Atop the plateau, we were alone, in a wilderness vast enough to support bison and the wolf packs that hunt them. Then I paused to catch my breath. I drank in the silence. It felt like we were on top of the world. But the lengthening shadows interrupted my reverie. The sun was setting, and it was time to descend.
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David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.