I was lucky enough to spend five days in West Yellowstone, Montana, during the last week of February 2012, with my son, Kelly. During the days we toured Yellowstone National Park on snowmobiles and a snowcoach, and went sledding in the backcountry. There is, however, a lot more for a family to do in West Yellowstone. It is a great place for a vacation filled with activities.
The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce puts out a regular bulletin—both online and in print—called What’s happening in West. This is a great guide to upcoming activities. Some of the programs available are: a Yellowstone ranger-led snowshoe walk, evening programs with a Yellowstone ranger, Wild West bingo at the Holiday Inn, West Yellowstone Conference Hotel, Forest Service Winter Snowshoe Program, free s‘mores skating and sledding (kids tobogganing), dogsled tours, the Yellowstone Youth Ski Festival, cross-country ski rentals, snowshoe rentals and snowmobile rentals.
This list is not complete, but it will give you an idea that West Yellowstone has a lot to offer for a family vacation. There is also the Yellowstone Rendezvous Nordic Ski Race that attracts cross-country skiers from far and wide, and a family friendly ice fishing competition. There is always something going on here.
At the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center a naturalist is available to answer any questions about the nine grizzly bears—including two very rambunctious one-year-old cubs—the two wolf packs or the raptors. There is a kids program called Keeper Kids. Here children between the ages of five and twelve are invited to join the staff to help hide food for the bears in the bear habitat. From the bear viewing area you can watch the bears forage for food, two at a time. The cubs are especially enjoyable because they run, play, wrestle each other and make the cutest grunting sounds as the tumble around in the snow.
The wolf naturalist cabin houses two very distinctive wolf packs, the High Country wolves and the River Valley wolves. The naturalist will explain the difference and the dominance of the alpha wolf in each pack. You can also watch the excitement build in each pack as feeding time nears. To view all of the grizzlies and wolves one can spend an entire day in the discovery centre. It is a great educational experience for young and old.
Next we have the Yellowstone IMAX Theatre. A time schedule and list of show titles is available almost anywhere in town. When we were there they were showing Yellowstone: Discover grizzlies, geysers and grandeur of the world’s first national park, Lewis and Clark: What they thought they would find and what they found and Amazing Caves: Explore caves in Greenland, Grand Canyon and underwater in Yucatan. The IMAX experience itself is amazing.
A piece of history
Located in the Holiday Inn is an old railcar. This is not just any old railcar; it was the executive railcar that once belonged to E.C. Harriman, superintendant of transportation for the Oregon Short Line Railroad. The president of this railroad saw a need for a spur line to run from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to what is now West Yellowstone, Montana, so folks could enjoy a carriage tour of Yellowstone National Park.
The railroad was not allowed to run into the park. The train, called the Yellowstone Special, made daily runs from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone throughout the summer months. The first train arrived in June 1908. The railcar has been restored to its original beauty with all of the original fixtures, stained glass windows, furnishings and carpets intact. The history of the car is displayed on an information board on the platform. Mr. Clyde Seely and Mr. F.W. ‘Bill’ Howell, who were partners in building the hotel, moved the car to its present location in 1994 and began the restoration. This exhibit is open to the public and free.
Another good place to visit is the Yellowstone Historic Center. This small museum is located in a 1909 Oregon Short Line Railroad depot. The exhibits cover the area’s history from early tourism to today. You will see railroad history, stage coaches, buses, how the 1988 fire has affected the park’s ecology and more. There are also geocaching sites in and around town. I found some of them hard to get to, buried under four feet of snow.
There is still more to do in West Yellowstone. Many of the hotels and bars offer live bands and entertainment. There are more than 21 hotels open in the winter, plus many vacation accommodations (cabins, condos, townhouses or private homes for rent). Eight accredited snowmobile and guide outfitters are available to take you into the park or guide you into the backcountry for some awesome sledding. One of eight snowcoach operators can take you into the park for some cross-country skiing and maybe an overnight stay in a yurt. Super friendly people are available everywhere you go, to answer questions and guide you in the right direction to ensure you have a great time while visiting West Yellowstone. I can guarantee you will have nothing but a good time and many great memories.
The best place to start gathering information about West Yellowstone before your holiday, is to contact the Chamber of Commerce. The building also houses a National Parks Information Centre. Go to the chamber website or call 406-646-7701 for free brochures.