Ask Me: Advice on a Multi-Day Backcountry Ski Tour in Yellowstone
I very much enjoy the stories posted on your website. My friend and I are planning a winter ski trip to Yellowstone in early March and your advice would be much appreciated. We’re looking for something in the 4-day, 3-night range that would be self-guided. We’re moderately experienced winter campers and have completed an 8-day backcountry ski trip in Denali together. Having read your post about the Bechler Canyon route, it reminded me of a similar storm experience in Denali and I can’t say I’m looking to repeat the experience of slogging through waste deep snow at less than 1/2 a mile per hour :-). It’s also a longer trip than our time allows.
Do you have any suggestions for a 4-day winter trip in Yellowstone?
Thanks for writing and following The Big Outside.
Besides my Bechler traverse, which you read about, the only multi-day, winter backcountry ski tour I’ve done (camping out) was up the Lamar River Valley, camping a couple of nights only a couple of miles from the road, at Cache Creek. I was solo and had been planning to ski farther up the Lamar Valley, but the snow conditions were terrible, with a crust that was icy and fast but breakable at times. I took some nasty face plants. On the morning I skied back to my car, a storm rolled in and I was skiing and navigating in a whiteout—extremely challenging, especially finding a safe way across some of the braids in the Lamar River, which were not frozen over. Skiing up the Lamar Valley would require skills in assessing avalanche hazard, too.
I’ve cross-country skied many of the park’s ski trails on day trips.
Yellowstone is a tricky place to ski in winter, especially on a multi-day trip that takes you beyond where day-trip skiers have created tracks, because the climate and snowfall varies so greatly across the park. The southwest corner, including Bechler Canyon, is famous for getting a lot of snow every winter and occasional, single storms that dump feet of snow. The Lamar Valley and northern stretch of the park gets much less snow—it’s not unusual to see open ground in winter. That’s why so many animals migrate to the Lamar Valley in winter—because grazing is easier. So the Lamar Valley is a great area for wildlife viewing. But the skiing may be terrible if there’s a breakable crust or the snow is so shallow that cold temperatures and clear skies have turned the snow mostly to sugar (below a breakable crust!).
For a four-day trip, I suggest you arrive at the park with a few options in mind and make your decision based on how much snow is on the ground in those places and the snow’s condition. Backcountry rangers should be able to give you some information about conditions right before your trip, and you won’t have a problem getting a last-minute permit for wherever you want to go in winter.
Because so much of the terrain in the park is lodgepole pine forest, with few distinctive landmarks to help you find your way, navigation can be very challenging. If you go beyond trails that are groomed or typically have ski tracks, you’ll want good map and compass skills. I suggest having a GPS pre-loaded with key waypoints.
That said, skiing from Old Faithful to Lone Star Geyser, Grants Pass, and the Shoshone Geyser Basin, and returning the same way, is a nice trip. It’s also fairly flat, and as I recall the only spot we encountered any concerns about avalanche safety before we reached the Bechler Canyon was at Grants Pass, which is a natural terrain trap (a narrow passage with slopes on both sides that are probably steep enough to slide in moderate to high avalanche hazard).
Also, I would think skiing from West Thumb or Grant Village out and back along the southern and eastern shore of the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake (and continuing along the lake’s shore) would be scenic, with views of the Absaroka Mountains on clear days, and following the lakeshore would make navigation easier in any weather. That’s dependent on adequate snow coverage on the ground, and I don’t know how brushy the forest is in those areas. And if there’s good snow coverage and conditions, skiing up the Lamar River Valley could be nice, too.
While skiing and camping in the Yellowstone backcountry is quite a unique experience and assures you of solitude, the trails that are popular for day trips cross-country skiing are some of the most scenic ski trails in the park, including the Upper Geyser Basin, the short loop through Mammoth Hot Springs, skiing to Tower Falls, and the Canyon Rim Trail. It’s worth planning some extra days to ski them; or if backcountry snow conditions are really bad, consider just skiing day trips on the park’s best trails. You can find out more about them in this story.
As you probably know, you’ll have to look into snowcoach schedules to access the park interior in winter, and check on the date that the park closes for the winter. I’d go in March for somewhat longer and warmer days; early winter is dark and can be extremely cold.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have other questions, and I’d be interested in hear how your trip goes.
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