On December 15th, the west entrance of Yellowstone re-opens to a truly unique experience. Winter visitors enter the park only by over-the-snow means, either people-powered (snowshoe or cross country ski) or via snowcoach or snowmobile. Daily tours are available from West Yellowstone through businesses with Yellowstone park permits, called ‘concessionaires’.
Commercially guided snowmobile trips travel over snow covered, groomed roads to popular destinations including Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. These vehicles travel on the same roads that you do in the summer over snow prepared by groomers. The groomers work to smooth and pack the snow ensuring that the roads are adequately covered and making for a much smoother ride for visitors.
Yellowstone Park has very specific guidelines for any over-the snow travel. Snowmobiles must travel in a group of ten or less and be accompanied by an authorized guides. Additionally, snowmobiles must have a four-stroke engine and comply with BAT (best approved technology) standards designed to minimize noise and emissions.
These newer snowmobiles also include rider-friendly features such as heated handgrips and thumb-warmer, seats, mirrors and even reverse. This makes them easier to drive, even for someone who has never driven a snowmobile before. Many models are two-up allowing a driver and passenger to share the same snowmobile.
Snowmobile tours leave each morning from West Yellowstone and return in late afternoon. Many local hotels arrange for shuttles to tour operators or have snowmobiles right on site. Others arrange to shuttle you to your snowmobile or vice versa. If driving to West Yellowstone, you can just park your car at the business for the day. Some companies even offer shuttle service to-and-from the Big Sky area.
You will need a park pass to enter Yellowstone. The tour business will help determine what pass is needed and take care of all the paperwork at this time. Yellowstone Park also requires a valid driver’s license if you are going to drive a snowmobile. Make sure to bring your license along with you on the tour. If stopped by a ranger, you will need to show it. A temporary driver’s license or learning permit is not allowed.
Remember, you can ride “double” if you want on these four-stroke snowmobiles. A child could ride with a parent, or a couple could share a sled. Speed limits are very controlled in Yellowstone and you will be riding only on approved roadways. So, many people choose to double up to relax and enjoy the ride or reduce the cost of individual snowmobiles.
Tour companies will also provide optional insurance. The insurance will cover any accident, minus a deductible. If you have existing ATV or snowmobile insurance at home, check with your agent to see if you are covered. Or, ask to add a rider if you would like.
Once you have signed the necessary paperwork, it’s time to suit up. When traveling in Yellowstone in winter, just remember the basic rule of thumb is to keep warm (but don’t sweat) and keep hydrated. The best dressed Yellowstone visitor always layers! Several, easily adjustable layers of clothing allow you to adjust to rapid changes in weather and temperatures. Many people don’t realize that weather conditions can vary from one part of the park to another.
You clothing should handle cold down to -35 to -40 degrees F. Be sure your clothing includes a windproof, hooded outer layer with wool or other insulated garments underneath. Many snowmobile rental companies rent snowmobile suits made of high quality new technology materials. Avoid wearing cotton jeans and sweatshirts under your suit that do not allow sweat to evaporate.
The majority of heat is lost through the extremities so go the extra length for your hands, feet, and head. When snowmobiling, make sure that you have a baklava or head sock on under your helmet. We have ones with extra thickness around the neck area or just make sure to wear a warm, turtleneck type long underwear and/or sweater. Some tour operators include them as part of the equipment rentals while others sell them.
Wear gloves or wool mittens with shells that breathe to allow moisture to escape from sweaty hands. Good boots, rated to -40°, are essential when snowmobiling. Again, most snowmobile tour operators will provide boots and gloves as part of their rentals.
My husband taught us a trick that really helps. Before leaving, he takes small disposable heat packs and puts one in each glove and one in each boot, and one on the top of his head on very cold days or for anyone with less-than-thick hair. You need some type of clothing in between the heat pack and your skin, so he puts them in-between socks and boots, inner gloves and outer gloves, or head sock/baklava and helmet. Those packs will do more than anything else to keep you warm for the entire day.
Yellowstone’s high altitude and dry climate require a little extra packing. Always pack extra water and continue sipping it during the day. I know that sounds funny when surrounded by millions of gallons of frozen water, but the dry climate drains moisture quickly from people without realizing it and you get cold quicker. The added water helps.
Remember, high altitude sunlight reflected from snow is much more intense than at lower elevations; snow-blindness may occur if sunglasses are not worn. Your snowmobile helmet will have a visor that you can pull down. We bring sunglasses to wear when walking around areas where you put up your visor. Wear dark glasses on sunny days. We even wear them on gray days. Apply sunscreen lotion to exposed skin to avoid sunburn.
After suiting up, you will move outdoors to your snowmobile. At that time, your guide will spend some time explaining the rules and regulations inside Yellowstone. You must always stay with your guided group and obey speed limit signs. Your guide will also talk about what to do when encountering wildlife on the roads and how to safely pull over for photography stops.
Your guide will show you the basics of how to operate a snowmobile. If you have never ridden a snowmobile before, there are two things to know. The accelerator is a switch that you press with your right thumb. To stop, you simply pull the levers on the right and left handles of your snowmobile. There is nothing else you have to do with your hands or your feet. To steer, you simply turn your handlebars to the right or left. Once you have learned how much pressure it takes on the accelerator to start forward and maintain a speed, it is easier than driving a golf cart!
Your guide will also show you how to ‘reverse’ but most people never use this feature. You pull into parking areas in a long line and then simply go forward to leave.) You will also learn how to activate your hand and thumb warmers, and your seat warmer. (Heated seats are the best!)
There is a compartment in the back of the snowmobile to store some personal gear. We usually take a small bag with sunglasses, sunscreen, bottle of water, and extra heater packets. If taking a camera, we generally wear it on a strap and tucked under our clothes to keep it warm.
Your guide will lead you in a single line from the business, down West Yellowstone’s streets (stay to the right), and up to the park entrance. At the entrance, the guide will provide the rangers with the necessary paperwork and then you are on your way! Throughout the day, your guide will pull over at turnouts where you might see elk, deer, eagles, trumpeter swans, foxes, coyotes, wolves, or other unexpected sights.
Most guides stop at Madison Junction about mid-morning for a rest stop, restrooms, and to check on how you are doing. There is a park trailer at this site offering hot coffee and chocolate and snacks. There is also a Yellowstone naturalist ranger there to answer any questions. Make sure to stop and say hi and ask your toughest questions!
At this point, tours will split. Those going to Old Faithful will head south and those going to Canyon will go north. Old Faithful tours will stop along the way at various thermal areas like Fountain Paint Pots or geyser areas. Generally, these tours will stop at Old Faithful long enough for a lunch break and a chance to see Old Faithful erupt (a not-to-be missed sight). Then, the tour returns along the same route you took in the morning.
Tours to Canyon will travel north to Norris and then east to Canyon for a lunch break. A highlight of this trip is the chance to see the semi-frozen grandeur of the waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This tour is longer and travels through more forested areas but offers some incredible winter views. It returns along the same route later in the day.