Snowmobiling Yellowstone National Park
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It felt like a waste if we didn’t visit Yellowstone National Park while we were living only 100 miles away for the winter season. So, when our friends Dolly and Bill mentioned they were also interested in a trip to Yellowstone while they were in town, I looked into snowmobile tours.
The thought of Yellowstone blanketed in a layer of snow and surrounded by the quiet winter was so enticing. But what I realized during our trip there was since we’re spending winter in Teton Valley surrounded by the peaks of Jackson (WY) and Victor (ID), we were already surrounded by a beautiful winter landscape. I also feel like Yellowstone is made to be appreciated for its vibrant kaleidoscopic colors.
Perhaps I would feel differently if our day at the park was under blue skies. Or if we were on skis or snowshoes deep in the heart of the park. But we weren’t.
Don’t get me wrong, as far as guided tours go, our snowmobile tour was good. We were part of a group of 9 snowmobiles, which is fewer than I expected. I really appreciated how organized the tour was. All the snowmobiles were driven in an orderly fashion - one behind the other on the road. We also parked this way in rows next to other tour groups when we stopped at scenic overlooks. There were a lot fewer people visiting the park while we were there in February than in other seasons. The roads weren’t filled with snowmobiles or snowcoaches, and the boardwalks we strolled on to see hot springs weren’t covered in people. Justin, our guide with Two Tops Snowmobile, seemed truly passionate about the park. He was full of knowledge about the landscape and wildlife, and enthusiastic to share it with us. Most importantly, I felt like he really respected the park. I hope this is something all the tour companies promote and encourage of their employees, but I don’t know. Justin was also very thoughtful and kind to me during the tour since I was in a medical boot with a torn Achilles tendon. For example, lunch was at the Old Faith Geyser Basin lodge and it was a walk from where we parked our snowmobiles. Not much of a walk if both your legs are working, but it was longer than I could comfortably do in my condition, especially after all the walking I had already done to see iconic features of the park. Justin picked me up from the Old Faithful visitor center and drove me to the lodge for lunch and then picked me up and drove me back to our snowmobiles.
I was initially conflicted about the negative environmental impact of snowmobiling in Yellowstone. While I’m not familiar with snowmobiles, I’ve heard a lot of them are 2-stroke engines and those are known to be terrible for the environment, not to mention really noisy. But I was really surprised and happy to learn that Yellowstone only allows 4-stroke engine snowmobiles in the park. Our tour in the park was 60 miles roundtrip and our machine used 1.9 gallons of fuel. So our 200+ mile roundtrip drive from Victor, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana was far higher impact than the snowmobile tour!
While snowmobiling allow visitors to see a wider range of the park and lets them be autonomous up to a certain point, there are also limitations to a snowmobile tour. Since it’s a tour, you’re following the guide at all times. This means there isn’t any driving at your own speed, stopping whenever you want to enjoy the scenery or take photos, or going exploring on your own in any way. But to Justin’s credit, he chose great locations to stop for us to enjoy the scenery.
If you’re interested in a snowmobile tour in Yellowstone National Park, below is a collection of information and my tips.
Yellowstone National Park Restrictions
All roads except between Mammoth Hot Springs and the north entrance are closed to regular vehicles in Winter. The only way to visit the park in the winter time is via snowmobile, snowcoach, or self-powered via skis or snowshoes from December through mid-March. All except the last two activities have to be done via a commercial tour (with one exception below).
Since December 2015, all snowmobiles that enter Yellowstone must meet NPS requirements for new Best Available Technology (BAT). This is outstanding to see because BAT snowmobiles are quieter and produce a lot fewer air emissions. It’s exciting to see the NPS create these restrictions, putting a priority on the park’s environment and wildlife.
Yellowstone also offers a Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Program where people can visit the park on snowmobiles without being part of a commercial tour. Permits are awarded through a lottery system (application accepted August 1 – 31) and only four non-commercial groups are allowed to enter the entire park daily. This means only one group is allowed to come into the park from each entrance. The maximum group size is five snowmobiles per permit.
Unlike in national forests where snowmobilers can bring their machines off-trail, this isn’t the case in Yellowstone. Snowmobiles are limited to plowed roads only. I actually didn’t realize this restriction until I was on the park’s website, but it makes sense.
Why We Chose Snowmobiles
Honestly, mainly because I didn’t think more about our trip ahead of time. I was familiar with visiting Yellowstone via snowmobiles because that’s how everyone I talked to visited the park. While I did a quick visit through the national park’s website (which is full of great information if I had put more time into it), I had only focused on snowmobiling information.
But going on a snowmobile ended up working out well: we got to see more of the park (even if all briefly) and I since had torn my Achilles tendon before the trip, I couldn’t have gone snowshoeing or skiing.
Sure, being in a snowcoach would’ve been warmer, but also being driven through the park inside a vehicle isn’t our kind of thing. Snowshoeing/skiing would’ve been great, but aside from me not physically able to do it, we would’ve only seen a small section of the park. Although once at Yellowstone, we saw snowcoaches that had skis stored on the back of the vehicles. It turns out that you can go skiing by having snowcoaches drive you to certain areas (I haven’t looked into the specific details, but at least now know that it’s an option). The park website includes an extensive list of trails that visitors can snowshoe and ski on.
What To Consider For Snowmobile Tours
Cost: It’s expensive. Our tour cost us around $320. This was renting one snowmobile for both Jerud and me to share. The only two additional costs we paid for was $15 for insurance and $6 for each helmet. We didn’t rent clothes and didn’t have to pay for the park entrance fee since we have the NPS annual pass. I looked into using a company in Jackson, Wyoming but their base cost was at least $100 more.
Tour companies: Yellowstone National Park’s website has a list of companies that offer snowmobile and snowcoach tours. Our friends Dave and Amanda of Travelish recommended Two Tops Snowmobile (based out of West Yellowstone, Montana). Turns out their cost was also the best out of the companies I looked at.
Choosing Which Yellowstone Entrance: Since we’re currently spending winter in Victor, Idaho, our two entrance options are west and south. Even though the west entrance is in Montana and the south entrance is in Wyoming, it’s nearly the same distance mileage-wise to get to either from Victor. The main deciding factor ended up being cost because the companies in Jackson were so much pricier.
Coming from Victor, Idaho, each entrance has its own potential logistical issue – in this case, possible road closures. Teton Pass is a high mountain pass located between Wilson, Wyoming and Victor, Idaho. This is the main way to get to Jackson from Victor. But the pass occasionally closes for avalanche control (this has happened and negatively affected our plans a few times this winter). If this occurs, the only other way is a 2-hour detour via Alpine, Wyoming where road conditions aren’t necessarily any better.
Heading to West Yellowstone, Montana from Victor also poses two potential road closures: ID-32 and ID-20. ID-32 runs through the flats of Idaho and often closes due to high winds. Two Tops warned me that sometimes ID-20 will close right before entering the town of West Yellowstone. The detour is long. I was told we wouldn’t get a refund if we couldn’t make it to our tour, even if it’s because of road closures. Two Tops also said that they don’t sell tours to individuals coming from Jackson, due to the double risk of both Teton pass AND Idaho highway closures.
While we made it to Two Tops for our snowmobile tour, ID-32 did close on our way back to Victor and we ended up taking a detour that added an hour to our return trip.
Two Tops offers two snowmobile tours: Old Faithful or Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We chose Old Faithful because we’ve never seen it in person.
Clothing: Staying warm was my biggest worry. I figured it’d be super cold sitting on a snowmobile going 35 mph in 10 degree weather! While Two Tops rents one-piece snowmobile outfits (along with insulated boots and gloves), we figured we owned enough outdoor gear to stay warm. Turns out we did:
Legs: I wore two pairs of fleece tights and insulated snowboard pants
Fleece: Patagonia Crosstrek pants
Snowboard pants: Patagonia Powderbowl insulated snow pants
Body: I had three layers on (two Smartwool layers and a Patagonia R1). Over that I wore a thick Patagonia jacket and then a hard shell (my snowboard jacket/raincoat) over it for windproof.
Baselayer: Smartwool Merino 250 base layer
Mid-layer: Patagonia R1 pullover
Insulated jacket: Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody jacket
Hardshell: Patagonia Triolet jacket
Head: We rented helmets that had a plastic face shield and it did a really good job keeping the wind off our faces. A full-face balaclava came with the helmet rental, but I added my own Smartwool neck gaiter for extra warmth.
Neck gaiter: Smartwool Merino 150 neck gaiter
Hands: I wore Smartwool glove liners and Black Diamond insulated gloves.
Liners: Smartwool Merino 250 gloves
Feet: My footwear of choice were Keen insulated boots. Since I had a medical boot on my right foot (because of my torn Achilles tendon), I couldn’t wear a regular shoe on that foot and was concerned my foot would get really cold. I wore two pairs of thick knee-high socks and one waterproof paddling sock on that foot (inside the boot).
Boots: Keen Revel II boots
Waterproof socks: NRS Sandal socks
My right foot surprisingly stayed fairly warm, although both feet eventually got cold at the end of the day. Overall my hands were the coldest part of me, but I think that’s because I kept taking my gloves off to take photos.
Upgrade Your Snowmobile
We wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen to upgrade our snowmobile, but the nicer ones were the only ones available when I made reservations. For $40 more, our snowmobiles came with heated seats and grips, nicer shocks, and a covered storage box for our personal gear. It was totally worth the extra money, mainly because of the heated seats! The heated seats worked incredibly well. So well in fact that my butt was burning up at times. Turned out having one part of my body being heated really helped me stay warm overall. The heated grips were also really nice to have, although the grips for the driver were a lot warmer than the passenger’s. I actually had one too many layers of gloves on to feel the heat. This isn’t a special feature on the upgraded snowmobiles, but the driver’s feet are placed right by where the engine heat is emitted – indirectly keeping them warm. As a passenger, I was surprised that my feet were somewhat protected from the wind while sitting in the back seat. It was really nice having a covered storage box for our backpack that held our lunch, camera gear, and water. Without it our bags would’ve sat in an open cubby behind the passenger seat.
Dine out or brown bag it! We brought our own thermos filled with soup, but lunch can be purchased at the Old Faithful Geyser Basin lodge. The downside of buying lunch is potentially waiting in a long line because a lot of the tour groups take lunch around the same time. We only got an hour lunch break, so being able to relax instead of stand in line was nice.
While I hope to go back to Yellowstone during the winter on cross-country skis to see the wilder side of the park, I’m glad we got to experience it the way we did this winter.
We visited the park on February 10, 2019.