Picture a “wild West” tourist town the size of Colfax or Priest River, bathed in sunlight and blanketed with fresh powder snow.
Now add 1,600 snowmobiles lined up and ready to rent, plus another 1,000 passing through on their way to nearby playgrounds.
That’s West Yellowstone, the self-proclaimed “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
If you’re into horsepower and handlebars, this is the epicenter of winter fun. The seismic event of the season occurs March 12-15, when the 1998 World Snowmobile Expo convenes here and “top racers from across North America battle to see who’s the best of the best.”
But can cross-country skiers, snowshoers and wildlife enthusiasts find happiness in ‘biler heaven?
Absolutely. And more easily than you might suspect.
Earlier this month, I accepted an invitation to explore the less flamboyant side of West Yellowstone and the surrounding vicinity - to see the features others miss when careening across the landscape at 50 mph. The three-day adventure left me eager to return.
The first morning began with an introduction to “Kitty,” one of a fleet of bubble-shaped Bombardier snow coaches operated inside the world’s oldest national park by Yellowstone Alpen Guides.
Driver/guide Cheryl DeStrooper fit the profile of many southwest Montana transplants who abandoned safe, professional careers in search of bliss. “I looked in the mirror when I was 30,” says the former electrical engineer, “and thought I looked 40.” Now the skiing-fishing-kayaking enthusiast is 40, yet looks 30.
Kitty, on the other hand, is 43 and looks it. But hard seats and rumbling tracks are part of her charm. Before we set out for an all-day wildlife tour of Yellowstone National Park, DeStrooper sprays antifreeze on the windows - inside and out - and keeps a squeegee handy.
As we pass through the park’s west entrance, she lists the animals we’re sure to see - bison, elk, eagles, trumpeter swans and Canada geese - as well as the more elusive local residents: coyotes and wolves. She also discusses the impact of the 1988 fire that burned more than half of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres.
Our search for wildlife is rewarded almost immediately, as a herd of snow-festooned bison comes crashing down a steep hillside and, after hesitation, plunges into the Madison River. A mother bison stays just upriver of her calf to create a protective, current-free pocket.
DeStrooper creates her own “current-free pocket” of sorts as she discusses the controversy surrounding the park’s bison population. Careful not to take sides, she explains the brucellosis issue, last winter’s destruction of 1,000 bison that wandered out of the park, and this winter’s efforts by animal-rights groups to keep bison from leaving.
The 46-mile snow-coach tour through the park continues, punctuated by frequent wildlife sightings and enthusiastic geology lessons.
“The best part of Yellowstone is the thermal features, and winter is the best time to see them,” says DeStrooper. She describes how geological time moves faster in the park - how thermal activity can change overnight in the wake of an earthquake.
“We’re on the hot spot of the world,” says DeStrooper. “Lava is coming through. We’re building up to a big eruption, and I can’t wait for that day. It will be a whole new evolution of Yellowstone.”
Fortunately, the big eruption doesn’t occur during our tour. Instead, DeStrooper drops us off several miles from Old Faithful, and we snowshoe our way along a thermal-fed stream where flowers grow - and even bloom - in mid-January. Just as amazing is how quickly we leave the sound and the fury of snowmobiles behind and are able to enjoy the tranquil environment that permeates most of Yellowstone.
The next day we stay in “West,” as locals refer to their town, and explore a different kind of tranquility: the 35-kilometer Rendezvous ski trail system.
Rendezvous’ season begins in November with a training camp, and culminates in March with a day of marathon (50k) and half-marathon events. Between November and March, visitors share the meticulously groomed trails with a few locals and the occasional Olympic athlete training at West Yellowstone’s 6,666-foot elevation.
Less hilly than Mount Spokane’s cross-country trails, Rendezvous still undulates enough to keep things interesting - and exhausting. And the heavily treed terrain muffles the sound of not-too-distant snowmobiles.
For classic cross-country skiers less bent on burning calories and more interested in viewing the ecosystem’s wildlife, there’s the partially groomed Riverside Ski Trail just inside Yellowstone. The 8k route from West Yellowstone follows the Madison River, a favorite spot for bison, elk and moose.
Eager to see wildlife and learn about their idiosyncracies, we arrange a safari with Bozeman-based guide Ken Sinay, who offers wildlife and cultural history tours in and around the park.
When we meet up with Sinay early the next morning, he’s distributing an armful of binoculars and loading everyone into his well-traveled Suburban.
“My job is to give people skills they can take home with them,” explains the wildlife biologist, whose past clients have included the Nature Conservancy, the Museum of the Rockies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The same environmental issues facing Yellowstone National Park are going on outside most people’s door.”
Listening to Sinay is like channel-surfing among several interesting radio programs. Just as he gets rolling about the origins of an exposed rhyolite formation on an adjacent hillside, he interrupts himself to point out the rough-legged hawk perched on a telephone pole.
Our daylong safari takes us east from Bozeman to Livingston, then south through Paradise Valley all the way to Gardiner, the only park entrance open to cars year-round.
Sinay says the foothills north of the park are prime winter range for many species. “They’re here,” he explains, “because of the difference in terrain and elevation. The animals are trying to conserve energy, and it’s warmer and dryer in the Paradise Valley.”
The pace of Sinay’s safari is deliberately casual. “When you slow down,” he says, “you not only see more wildlife - you see them doing something.”
Before long we spot a trophy ram from one small herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep approaching another herd. Aided by Sinay’s interpretation, we watch as a complicated, almost theatrical ritual of dominance and submission unfolds several hundred yards from the car.
Winter is the best time to see one of the park’s 93 wolves, and some clients hire Sinay with that as their primary goal. But he prefers to find the magic in any wildlife sighting. “The more a client wants to see wolves,” he says, “the more likely they are to miss something really neat.”
Wolves and snowmobiles - the two features that have become synonymous with winter in Yellowstone Nation Park. As we leave Sinay and head for the heated pools and gourmet meals of nearby Chico Hot Springs, it occurs to me that the biologist’s advice - to look beyond the wolves - applies equally well to snowmobiles.
Yes, West Yellowstone is overrun by loud, flume-spewing sleds. And, yes, their riders do occasionally distinguish themselves with random acts of dumbness, such as swatting bison on the rump as they throttle past. (Locals refer to these types as SPORS - Stupid People On Rental Sleds.)
But Yellowstone is expansive. Rangers say in summer you can leave 90 percent of the tourists behind by getting just 100 yards off the road. In winter that statistic probably jumps to 98 percent.
Outside the park, too, opportunities abound, as southwest Montana’s tourism industry increasingly caters to winter and shoulder-season visitors.
Montana has been called “the last best place.” As the state’s popularity grows, winter may become the last best time to enjoy it.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go West Yellowstone, Mont., is just over 500 miles from Spokane. One option is to drive to Bozeman on Interstate 90, stay overnight, then drive the last 90 miles through the scenic Gallatin Canyon the next morning. Where to stay Twelve miles south of Bozeman is historic Gallatin Gateway Inn, a grand railroad hotel built in 1927. Recently restored, the 35-room landmark boasts gourmet food and elegant public spaces. Winter room rates start at $70, including breakfast. Reservations: (800) 676-3522. Also in Gallatin Gateway is Aspen Grove Bed & Breakfast. Rates: $60-$80. Reservations: (406) 763-5044; email@example.com. Accommodations in West Yellowstone are plentiful. One option: West Yellowstone Conference Hotel, a full-service Holiday Inn. Rates: From $109. Reservations: (800) 646-7365. Where to eat Between Gallatin Gateway and West Yellowstone is Lone Mountain Ranch. Fixed-price dinners: $32. Reservations: (800) 514-4644. Where to play Yellowstone Alpen Guides offer daily snow-coach trips into Yellowstone National Park. Individual rates: $79 audlt, $60 children. Information: (406) 646-9591; westyellowstone.com/ yag. Rendezvous Ski Trail daily fee: $3. Information: West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, (406) 646-7701; or Drew Barney, (406) 646-9379. Ski/snowshoe rentals: Free Heel and Wheel, (406) 646-7744. Klondike Dreams Sled Dog Tours: half- and full-day adventures starting at $75 per person; (406) 646-4004. Yellowstone National Park: (307) 344-2107; nps.gov/yell. Bozeman Chamber of Commerce: (800) 228-4224.