West Yellowstone: riding the backcountry

The snowmobiling around West Yellowstone is well worth experiencing, as these snowmobilers found out during their winter getaway

by Dwayne Brandly

a group of sledders in West Yellowstone, Montana
Dwayne Brandly photo

When you mention the word Yellowstone, most people immediately think of Yellowstone National Park. This icon, the first national park in the world, is well known for its beauty, thermal geysers and, of course, Old Faithful. But my son Kelly and I found there is another side to Yellowstone, and that is the backcountry that surrounds the park on three sides.

With over 1,100 kilometres of trails available, the groomed terrain south and west of West Yellowstone is a dream come true for snowmobilers and quadders. There are more than 320 kilometres of groomed trails winding in and around Two Top Mountain and down to the village of Island Park, Idaho. From there, you can access another 800 kilometres of groomed and ungroomed trails. The day we toured this area it was snowing very heavily, so our venture to Two Top was limited.

We left the Holiday Inn, West Yellowstone Conference Hotel at 8:30 a.m. with our guide, Terry Search, of Yellowstone Arctic Yamaha. The Arctic Cat M800s performed perfectly. Terry grew up in this area and knows it like the back of his hand, as he operates a horse-packing service both in and outside the park. He is the only guide allowed to do this in the West Yellowstone area. That’s a good thing, because the farther south we travelled, the harder it was snowing.

A blanket of snow

We travelled on well-groomed trails that were covered with a deep, soft blanket of snow. This made for some great playing along the trail, but we had to keep up with Terry or lose him in the snow. We wound around several smaller mountain trails and beside a small creek with high snowbanks on either side—a beautiful scene not easily forgotten. This is a wonderful place to bring your family for a vacation. Terry brought us to a large pond that seemed to rise from nowhere and formed a stream that drifted down the valley. He said this is the site of the Snake River headwaters; it is formed completely from an underground spring.

We later stopped at Island Park Lodge, Idaho, for a hot chili lunch, then I wanted to find a geocache in the area. We tried, but couldn’t sled to it because of the homes in the area, so I decided to walk to it. That was a mistake! We followed the GPS through the slippery streets onto a snow-covered golf course. We followed an old sled track and soon found ourselves in the middle of a field. Even though the GPS showed the cache to be 150 feet away, we were too tired to try and plow through waist-deep snow, so this cache was a "did-not-find." For my efforts I got a large blister on my foot.

Terry then took us through more trails and onto Two Top Mountain. I was really looking forward to seeing the famous snow ghosts that formed on the few trees at the top, but we could not reach the top because of the heavy snowfall. We did, however, find a very large bowl where we played among the trees, in the deep, fresh powder.

A bluebird day

The next day we hooked up with High Country Snowmobiles and our guide, Taylor Detienne of Ace Powder Guides. The sleds were the latest Ski-Doo Summit SP 800 models with 154-inch tracks and 2¼-inch lugs. Taylor took us about 56 kilometres north of West Yellowstone to the Teepee Basin area. It turned out to be a bluebird day with about a metre of fresh powder in the bowls.

This trip was the highlight of our sledding week—not because of the beautiful snow-covered geysers in the park or the magnificent winding trails to the south of town, but because this was the first clear day we could play unrestricted in very deep powder up and down the hills and among the trees. It was a bit too dangerous for us to go into the challenging mountains, so we played in what seemed like endless bowls. The sledding was phenomenal; I just don’t know how to better describe it.

For any intermediate sledder or newcomer to the mountains, this was the place to be. We met up with several sledders from Minnesota and other eastern states who were experiencing mountain sledding for the first time. As an experienced sledder, I found it hilarious to see them trying to conquer some of the steeper slopes and getting stuck. Naturally, we helped turn them around. The learning curve was quickly mastered and soon they were playing around like everyone else and having a great time. We learned from Taylor that this area is only a very small part of the high country experience available for sledders of all skill levels. There is very challenging mountain terrain, sloping, rolling bowls at the treeline and gentler areas for the beginners and families who just want to experience deep-powder sledding.

From our experiences on the backcountry trails south of West Yellowstone, the challenging hills of the high country to the north and the snowmobile and snow coach tours into Yellowstone National Park, it is clear to us that snowmobiling in this area offers a wide open, all-round experience. With this and the many other activities in town available, any family or rider cannot help but have a worthwhile winter vacation.

For more information about a winter or a summer vacation, contact the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

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