The older I get, the more I love cross country skiing as much as downhill skiing. Marcela McAllister, a New Jersey woman in her 70s, whom I met over coffee at Freeheel and Wheel, a rental shop just outside Yellowstone National Park in West Yellowstone, MT, loves it too. “There are no people, no lift lines, no noise.” Her husband Don added, “The vastness is incredible.”
I met the McAllister’s when five of us prepared to visit Yellowstone one February morning. We were renting equipment for a warm-up glide with Melissa Adler, one of Freeheel’s owners, on the Riverside Trail just outside West Yellowstone, the primary winter gateway to Yellowstone.
The Riverside trail is gentle and quiet. When we took a motorized snow coach into Yellowstone, it was loud, but it enables you to reach amazing sights in the country’s first national park.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s the nation’s iconic Western national park
- Fabulous exercise, animals galore
- Wintertime visitors are a fraction of the summer hordes
Our coach first took us to Old Faithful itself – a vision of a white spray plume that shouts an exuberant welcome every hour or so from deep inside the earth. From there, we set off for the Lone Star Geyser trail. Over the Fire Hole River we swooshed into a dark wood, always on the lookout for bison, elk or even wolves. (No bears in winter; they are hibernating.)
For five miles, with a light dusting of snowflakes on our shoulders, we followed a double track indicating at least a few others were scouting this irregular geyser as we were. A turn in the trail and a pair of tall humans came gliding toward us.
I did a double-take as we drew abreast – I knew one of them! He was a NewYork work colleague, skiing with his wife. Neither he nor I had mentioned our destinations, so what were the odds? Astonished, we chatted for a few minutes. Then my companions and I continued to the smoldering geyser hole.
Few Winter Visitors at Old Faithful and Other Landmarks
Later, back at Old Faithful, my only companions in watching the grand eruption were a dozen buffalo that warmed their backsides on the heated dirt at the edge of geyser. I have been to this place in summer, where you practically have to take a number among the throngs to get a clear view. Now I was granted a private viewing.
On either an easy groomed trail near Old Faithful, or more difficult ungroomed trails such as Biscuit Basin or Black Sand basin, you may be, in your mind “off the beaten track” but animals like bison and elk call this home. Somehow, I did not feel as much an intruder as I did in summer. We were all sentient beings, sharing the landscape.
On the Canyon Rim Trail the next day, we were able to glide to the very edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a dramatic gash in the wilderness with the Yellowstone River cascading 300 feet at the Lower Falls.
Hot springs, waterfalls and mudpots fo one-on-one visits
For three days, we might well have been fur trappers before the Civil War, so few people did we encounter once leaving the snow coach behind. We visited simmering mudpots and misting hot springs, profoundly silent forests in which the only sound was that of lodgepole pines creaking with the wind and a few log cabins used as information centers and way stations.
We were not alone. Elk lounged by the river not far from trumpeter swans sailing downstream and a bald eagle perched in a tree on one trail. “Your multispecies bonus,” Zack, our coach driver and local expert called it.
More reasons to love cross-country: the gear is lightweight and the movement involved puts little pressure on joints. Yet it is a great cardiovascular workout. After a few hours outdoors during the day, I dove into bed after dinner at the Snow Lodge or the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge, and slept the sleep of the just.
Learn while Viewing with Yellowstone Association Institute Guides
On our final excursion, we left skis behind to join a dawn animal hunt with interpreters and viewing telescopes from Yellowstone Association Institute. We watched from a distance as two packs of wolves confronted one another on a ridge. Nature in the raw? Yes, but also a predators’ symphony. If we viewers were a collective Peter, the wolves’ chorus was exciting enough to impress Prokofiev.
Those howling wolves and the mighty canyon are still nestled in my memory. Don’t take them for granted, naturalist Rick McIntyre said. “You folks got to see great stuff – one of the best days of the year.” For me, Yellowstone on skis in winter counted as four of the most memorable days of any year.
Nearest airport: Bozeman, MT. Transporation to West Yellowstone or the park itself via Karst Stages. No need to rent a car.
West Yellowstone, MT, gateway to the park in winter, has lodging, rentals, activities to begin or extend your stay.
Two comfortable Xanterra lodges, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, stay open in winter.
Yellowstone Association Institute offers daylong courses and packages including guides