Grab your best friend and head to West Yellowstone for some snowy fun! That’s what I did!
Winter is still in full swing at this gateway town to Yellowstone National Park with expectations of peak snowpack by early March. The national park is closed for the winter to traffic unless you are on a guided tour, so this is the perfect chance to take in all of the sights just outside of the park entrance. The sights and sounds of West Yellowstone.
Do not be deceived, the town is only a few blocks long by a few blocks wide, however, on our first half-day after arriving, we clocked a solid seven miles of walking. Walking in snow boots over snowy streets has a magic all of its own. The crunch and squeak of boots pressing onto fresh snow is a wonderful composition of Montana music. Wearing layers of clothing, warm gloves, scarves, and hats when one isn’t used to doing this on a daily basis, also feels very festive and fun!
West Yellowstone, where the population hovers just under 1500 during the winter months and many businesses are temporarily closed for the season, is still filled with winter activity and thriving seasonal activities. Families can enjoy a weekend each month designed specifically to introduce kids to snowy outdoor activities. Kids ‘N’ Snow weekends provide a safe environment for families to learn new skills together such as ice skating, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.
While it was tempting for us to try our hand at ice fishing, break a sweat cross-country skiing, or even find the dog sleds for a cozy ride, we opted for a full glorious day of exploring by snowmobile. First-time snowmobile riders should note right away, this is possible for you! You can do it! You need no experience to take on the trails with an organization like Yellowstone Adventures behind you. With your reservation, Yellowstone Adventures loans you all of the necessary gear; full snowsuit, gloves, and helmet, and trust me, you will need it. Having the proper apparel will keep you from getting uncomfortably cold and will protect you from potential danger if you happen to take a small spill.
In addition to the gear and careful instructions given, Yellowstone Adventures connects you to an App on your phone and gives you a map to the 400 miles of snowmobile trails. Yes, you read that right! Groomed trails spanning miles and miles with well-marked signs at each snowy intersection will take you deep into the woods. Riders can opt for a group tour with a guide, or they can venture out on their own.
My friend and I chose to explore on our own and explore we did! In the morning we drove the low route which took us along the lake and eventually up to Horse Butte Lookout. I will forever remember making a snow angel near the tower while overlooking the lake and town down below. We followed the trails back into town and parked our snowmobile alongside others, lined up in our parking spots as though we were normal full-size vehicles. Hot-from-the-oven pizza lunch at the Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon refueled our bodies for the second half of the day. We zoomed out to the trails like experts after lunch and headed directly to the path which lead us to Idaho. West Yellowstone is located a few miles from the Continental Divide and borders the state of Idaho. We rode through trails and trees to summit the Two Top Loop where we stopped to take photos of the Continental Divide sign and celebrate our crossing into another state. We stopped, turned off the engine and took in the absolute stillness and deep white fluff that surrounded us. We could see for miles. This is one of those moments when talking is too much, but quiet appreciation is all that matters. We did not want to leave.
We covered 83 miles on the snowmobile! I am almost certain I smiled the whole time.
We were back to walking around town on our next day. Conveniently located just a block from downtown is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. This sanctuary is a not-for-profit wildlife park and education facility that is the home to six grizzly bears, seven wolves, and eagles, owls, and otters. All are rescues that now have a safe home at the center. If you plan accordingly you can watch as the wolves or grizzly bears have enrichment activities, which help reteach them skills like hunting, foraging for food, etc. The discovery center was such a hit with us, we went to it twice!
Two restaurants to note in West Yellowstone, in addition to Wild West Pizzeria, are Serenity Bistro and Madison Crossing Lounge. Serenity Bistro is a quaint little bistro located on North Canyon street. With nine tables and an approximate capacity of 34 if every seat is filled, this restaurant is for the much-needed quiet dinner, date night, or an intentionally slow and relaxing evening. It was perfect for us to recap our adventures and to sip a glass of wine with our entrees. I ordered an exceptionally prepared pasta dish with shrimp, artichokes, and pesto sauce. Switching up the vibe the next evening, we dined at Madison Crossing Lounge, located in the first school building in West Yellowstone, dating back to 1918. The restaurant sits in what once was the 1st-grade classroom, and long-time locals remember back when. After a quick discussion, we decided to go with a true Montana meal, so I ordered the 8-oz Angus beef flat iron steak and my friend ordered Montana raised Bison Burger which came with bacon-onion jam and fresh-cut fries. It’s easy to eat well in West Yellowstone!
Where to stay? The Kelly Inn.
This hotel is located conveniently one block from downtown and equipped for the most adventuresome winter traveler. After our 83 miles of snowmobiling, we were thrilled to reach our hotel and unthaw in the hot tub. While soaking we visited with some other hotel guests who have been returning to West Yellowstone to ride the trails on snowmobiles for over 20 years. They trailer their machines and make the journey from Utah each winter, now with second-generation riders. We were impressed by their commitment and passion for this destination.
Driving out of town, through soft snow falling on our windshield and back to our regular lives, I will forever anchor West Yellowstone as the ultimate destination for fun-in-the-snow seekers. I will return, I must!
AUTHOR: Valerie Estelle Rogers