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A Cross-Country Skier's Guide to Yellowstone

by Greg M Peters Feb 23, 2010
Comprehensive trail options and itineraries for cross country skiing Montana’s Yellowstone National Park.
Itinerary #1

From Bozeman, drive Highway 191 along the Gallatin River and through the valley of the same name. This will take you to the town of West Yellowstone and is a good route for downhill skiers, as it passes Big Sky Resort, Montana’s premier downhill skiing destination.

West Yellowstone is the busiest of the park’s gateway towns. Several accommodations operate year-round and provide lodging from $60 to $300+. West, as it’s known locally, is popular among snowmobilers. Trails run right through town, and it’s common to see snowmobiles parked at bars and restaurants.

West has incredible skiing too, both in and near the park. Freeheel and Wheel is the local cross-country headquarters. Staff can rent you equipment, sell you the right wax for the conditions, and tell you where to ski.

Just outside of town is the Rendezvous Trail network, a 25-mile system of groomed trails that cruise through the Gallatin National Forest and are easily accessible from town.

Riverside Trail skirts the Madison River through the park and offers beginners and families a great option for a mellow ski and possible wildlife viewing.

Just north of West Yellowstone, Highway 191 dips into the park for roughly 20 miles and has numerous access points for touring. These include Telemark Meadows (mile post 18), Bighorn Pass Trail (mile post 20), Fawn Pass Trail (mile post 22), and Specimen Creek Trail (mile post 27).

Be sure to check with the staff at Freeheel and Wheel for conditions and safety information before heading out on any trails from West Yellowstone.

Itinerary #2

If downhill skiing and snowmobiles don’t do anything for you, skip West Yellowstone and head to Gardiner instead. From Bozeman, go east on Highway 90 to Livingston, and then take Highway 89 south along the Yellowstone River to Gardiner, passing through Paradise Valley.

Look for the turnoff to Chico Hot Springs Lodge. This uniquely Montanan hot springs resort is nationally recognized for its delicious gourmet food and fun lodging options. It’s worth an extra night’s stay on your way back to Bozeman for the trip home.

Gardiner is the gateway to the North Entrance of Yellowstone and is 45 minutes from the Lamar Valley, where the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program started.

You can’t ski out directly from town like in West Yellowstone, but a short drive from Gardiner and into the park gets you to Mammoth Hot Springs and its geothermal attractions.

The Mammoth Hotel is open year-round and has quality, if pricey, lodging inside the park. There’s plenty of free parking if you’re staying in Gardiner and driving in for the day.

The park concessionaire, Xanterra, operates a small ski rental and retail shop right next to the hotel. Be sure to check in for condition and safety information before you head out.

The skiing from Mammoth is incredible. Two intermediate trails begin right at the hotel: Snowy Pass Trail and Brunson Mountain Trail. Or, for $16/person, the hotel will shuttle skiers up the unplowed road for a deeper start.

From Norris Junction, skiers can head back to Mammoth on either of the previously mentioned trails, or continue farther into the park along Sheepeater Trail, which cuts for five miles to the Indian Creek Warming Hut, where the shuttle picks you up for the twenty-minute ride back to Mammoth.

Expect to see lots of bison, some elk, and coyotes on all of these trails.

If you don’t want to shell out for the shuttle ride, a plowed road from Mammoth to Tower Junction is a good option. From the junction, a groomed trail climbs for 2.5 miles towards Tower Falls.

The falls are frozen blue in winter and make a great destination and picnic spot, while the views from the trail into the Yellowstone River canyon are spectacular.

Additional loops run from the Tower Falls area for skiers who want to extend their tour.

The plowed road continues from Tower Junction to Cooke City, bisecting the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone’s wolf-watching region.

While few marked ski options exist in Lamar, snowshoers and hardy cross-country skiers with the right equipment and knowledge can head off in any direction for a self-designed tour.

A few miles before Cooke City, there are some signed trails that head into and through the forested peaks of the Absaroka Mountains in the northeastern corner of the park.

On your way back to Gardiner from Mammoth, keep an eye out for a small, unmarked parking lot on the right-hand (eastern) side of the road, just before you cross the Gardiner River. A half-mile trek following the water brings you to the Boiling River and one of the few natural hot springs sanctioned for use in the park.

More options and tips

You don’t have to go independent. There are guided wildlife tours, natural history tours, snow coach rides, and snowmobile tours that can be arranged from vendors in both Gardiner and West Yellowstone.

However and wherever you go, entrance to the park costs $25 for a seven-day pass, except from Highway 191 north of West Yellowstone, where you can ski into the park for free.

Weather can be extreme in this part of the country. West Yellowstone is one of the coldest places in the U.S. and snow can fall for days.

Be prepared, use reliable equipment, and carry extra food and clothing, a map, a compass, extra water, and let a friend know your plans before you go.

Still, there are plenty of options for both beginners and experts, ranging from a couple miles of groomed track skiing to fifteen-mile-long tours in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Be sure to inquire locally for conditions and trip suggestions.

Community Connection

Eric Warren is one of Matador’s experts on Montana, and more can be found on the community’s destination expert page. Hit them up with your questions.

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