For more than 30 years, Nordic skiers from across the country and around the world have descended on West Yellowstone, Montana in November to take part in the Yellowstone Ski Festival. The Thanksgiving tradition has grown from a fall training camp for the U.S. Nordic Ski Team to a full-on celebration featuring ski clinics, races, on-snow demonstrations, an indoor expo, and presentations from renowned Olympic athletes and international competitors. West Yellowstone’s early-season snow makes the town’s expansive system of Nordic ski trails the ultimate destination to kick off the ski season.
Nordic skiers haven’t always converged on West Yellowstone in November. Tourists originally flocked to the area to explore Yellowstone National Park during the summer months. Once the winter snow paralyzed train travel and shut down the mountain passes, only the hardy locals remained to ride out the winter season.
The invention of the modern snowmobile in the 1960s breathed new life into the area’s winter tourism and West Yellowstone became a premier snowmobile destination. During the 1970s, Neal Swanson and his sons Kent and Carl, owners of the town’s Rendezvous Ski Shop, set out to attract Nordic skiers to West Yellowstone as well. The Swanson family worked with the U.S. Forest Service to create the Rendezvous Ski Trails on old logging roads near the south side of town—packing down the trails by pulling bed springs behind a snowmobile. Carl later won the 1978 Junior Nationals and the Swanson family helped to convince the U.S. Nordic Ski Team to hold its month-long November training camp in West Yellowstone.
In the years that followed, more ski enthusiasts began to discover West Yellowstone’s excellent early-season snow. In the 1980s, a group of locals led by Drew Barney and Doug Edgerton established Fall Camp, the predecessor to the Yellowstone Ski Festival. Barney began holding clinics for Nordic skiers of different levels and recruited coaches from around the country to join. Meanwhile, Edgerton developed a new tracksetter in 1983 that could be pulled behind a snowmobile or Pisten Bully and groom trails varying snow conditions. Edgerton’s improved technology revolutionized trail maintenance and quickly spread around the world. In 1985, a joint effort between Edgerton, the Montana National Guard, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Biathlon Association, and the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce established a firing range adjacent to the Rendezvous Ski Trails. As word spread about the new early-season biathlon offerings in West Yellowstone, Fall Camp attendance eventually tripled.
By the 1990s, between 300-400 skiers attended the annual Fall Camp. As the number of skiers increased, manufacturers began to show up and highlight their new equipment. The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce took note of the growing November tourism and saw the opportunity to market West Yellowstone as a Nordic ski destination. The Chamber aimed to boost the area’s economy by hosting an event during a typically slow season for the town’s business owners—between the end of Yellowstone National Park’s summer season in October and before the beginning of the park’s winter season in December.
The Chamber’s Cross Country Ski Committee worked to maximize the Fall Camp experience by formalizing a Thanksgiving-week celebration to ring in the ski season. The number of vendors in attendance continued to grow and the Indoor Expo was eventually created as a venue to showcase new equipment to festival-goers. During the years that followed, manufacturers began highlighting new gear through on-snow demonstrations, new races were organized during Thanksgiving week, world-class coaches began offering clinics and trainings, and the annual gathering was officially renamed the Yellowstone Ski Festival.
A variety of ski teams ranging from junior athletes to national competitors attend the festival each year, but citizen skiers and families have also created new traditions around the Thanksgiving event. Encompassing roughly one square mile, West Yellowstone is a safe and convenient family destination that visitors can navigate on foot to easily access ski trails, restaurants, and hotels. The festival has also grown to include evening events and entertainment for skiers of all levels and ages. Visitors can attend inspiring presentations from Olympic athletes, view one-of-a-kind films, or unwind with friends during the Apres Ski & S’mores. Unique sessions, such as “Women, Wine, and Wax” and “Whiskers, Whiskey, and Wax,” aim to improve attendees’ skill sets while making the festival a truly memorable experience.
Between 3,000 to 5,000 attendees have descend on West Yellowstone to attend the festival in recent years, including 300-400 racers. The festival is currently organized by the Chamber in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and the West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation. Together, these groups also work to manage the Rendezvous Ski Trails. Revenue from the festival supports the management of the trail system, provides matching funds for grants, compensates the festival’s director, and helps to market West Yellowstone for the remainder of the season.
The Yellowstone Ski Festival has become a Thanksgiving tradition for competitive athletes, novice skiers, and families from around the world. Come join us this year and make West Yellowstone your Nordic ski destination!
For a full schedule of events visit SkiRunBikeMT.com
AUTHOR: CAITLIN STYRSKY