WEST YELLOWSTONE, MT — This may be the snowmobile capital of the world, but it’s also a budding, booming cross-country skiing mecca.
Before the snowmobiles get revved up for the season, the silent, snow-covered streets of West Yellowstone whisper with the sound of skis swish-swishing through town.
“It’s the nicest time of the year because it’s quiet. There are no tourists around, the park is closed and most of the stores are closed,” said Scott Carsley, owner of snowcoach touring company Alpen Guides. “It’s so quiet. They’re skiing up and down the streets normally filled with cars.”
And though snowmobiles start buzzing after the snow hits, it’s still easy to find solitude in the area.
During “fall camp,” before Yellowstone opens for winter visitors, the U.S. ski and biathlon teams take over the town, along with the best college ski teams from across the country.
Increasingly, citizen skiers (many of them novices) come to each fall camp for lessons. At the heart of their training are the Rendezvous Ski Trails adjacent to the southern edge of town. The 25-kilometer trail system was started in the 1970s by the Swansons, avid cross-country skiers who built and groomed the trails on old logging roads with Forest Service permission.
When the Forest Service refused to issue the Swansons a special-use permit so they could offset grooming costs by charging a fee for using the trails, the city of West Yellowstone took over the grooming.
The trails are meticulously groomed for both skate and classic cross-country skiing. They wind through forest and over gently rolling terrain, so they’re good even for beginners. “It’s easy enough that people don’t blow out their lungs and difficult enough to hold a beginner’s attention,” said Kurt Westenbarger, a West Yellowstone ski instructor and naturalist/guide.
The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce spends nearly $40,000 each winter grooming the trails. Money generated from the Fall Training Camp and the annual Rendezvous cross-country ski races each March helps offset the costs.
East of town inside Yellowstone National Park is the Riverside Trail, referred to by some locals as “one of those best-kept secrets.”
Except for a brief downhill ski to the Upriver Loop of the trail, which follows the Madison River, this infrequently groomed but well-used trail is easy enough for beginners. Following along the Madison River, it is also beautiful and a good place to see elk, and sometimes river otter, bald eagles and bison. It is about a one-mile ski into the loops.
If you want to hitch a ride on a snowcoach, there are plenty of places to ski in the park. Alpen Guides makes a daily skier drop-off at Biscuit Basin on the way to Old Faithful. The two-mile ski from Biscuit Basin to Old Faithful will take you past one-fourth of all the geysers in the world. The round-trip tour costs $79.
Visitors may spend the night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. There are 11 trails in the area, from easy to extreme and from three to 12 miles. Trails near the visitor center are usually pocked with hikers’ footprints.
Five miles from Old Faithful is the trailhead to Fairy Falls. This easy eight-mile roundtrip trail is relatively flat and leads along the Firehole River, then up to Fairy Falls, a beautiful winter wonderland of ice and water tumbling 100-plus feet. To get to the trailhead, it’s best to take a snowcoach and arrange for a pickup at the end of your ski. Ask for a snowcoach schedule at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
Alpen Guides occasionally does guided trips to Fairy Falls and other places in the park, including the Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A guided trip to Fairy Falls costs $98.
Alpen will also take you anyplace in the park you want to go.
There are three places in West Yellowstone that rent cross-country skis: Alpen Guides at 406-646-9591, Bud Lilly’s Trout (and Ski) Shop at 406-646-7801, and Free Heel ‘n Wheel at 406-646-7744.
Fall is the season for cross-country skiing in Yellowstone area
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By CANDACE BURNS
IDAHO FALLS POST-REGISTER