West Yellowstone A Surprising Backcountry Ski Destination

Bridger and Hyalite canyons offer backcountry skiing in Bozeman’s backyard with plenty of options to keep a skier busy all winter. Some might question why a Bozemanite would go anywhere else. Every so often wanderlust or boredom strikes, and the intrepid backcountry skier is motivated to head out of town in search of an adventure. Just as ski options close to town are plentiful, so are possibilities for a weekend jaunt. It is picking among these road trips that can be tricky.

My partner Mike and I debated this first-world problem as a three-day holiday weekend approached last year. Sun Valley? Too far for a long weekend. Utah? Too crowded. Jackson Hole? A great option, but we’d been there plenty of times and wanted something new. The answer was closer to home than we first realized.

Given the shorter drive, lower cost, and lack of crowds, we decided to give West Yellowstone a try. Located at the edge of Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone draws a steady stream of snowmobilers and Nordic skiers each winter, but backcountry skiers are few in number. With multiple areas to ski, affordable lodging, and several restaurants, West Yellowstone is worthy of a weekend trip.

West Yellowstone, or simply West as locals call it, is a nice change of pace from other ski destinations. Although it’s not a big, exciting one with endless opportunities for backcountry touring, there are enough places to explore to make a three-day trip interesting. The town, which is easily navigable by foot, has everything you need, and the cold weather and remote location assure the snow is light and abundant yet the skiing remains un-crowded. And, when you think about it, what more do you need in a backcountry ski weekend?


The Skiing
As with any backcountry ski outing, it is essential to find an objective matching the skill and fitness level of everyone in your group. All members should have proper avalanche gear (Beacon, shovel, probe at a minimum) and know how to use it. Before taking off, be sure to review Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s current advisory.

To get to West Yellowstone from Bozeman, you’ll pass through the Powder Belt, an area along Highway 191 south of Big Sky in a quiet corner of Yellowstone National Park. This spot is home to a unique micro-climate producing more snow than the surrounding areas. As you drive south, you’ll notice the snow piles become bigger around Bacon Rind Creek with the apex of snowiness around Grayling Creek.

Telemark Meadows (Mile marker 18) and Bacon Rind (Mile marker 23) are two go-to spots in the Powder Belt. With low-angle meadows and a quick approach, Telemark Meadows is perfect for beginning backcountry skiers or on high avalanche danger days. Bacon Rind offers a longer approach through the trees with some nice meadows worthy of several laps.

The Hebgen Lake area, approximately 13 miles from West Yellowstone, is for more experienced backcountry skiers. The Kirkwood trailhead parking lot is the place to start with skiing on both sides of the highway. From the well-worn skin track up Trapper Creek to the little explored area near Kirkwood Ridge, there are multiple areas to explore for those with map-reading skills and backcountry knowhow.

Driving to these locations from Bozeman takes well over an hour, so staying in West Yellowstone will allow you to hit these areas on consecutive days with only a short drive each morning.

The Weather
Historically, West Yellowstone often tops the list as coldest spot in the lower 48 states. If you have an aversion to cold, this is not the place for you. With temperatures often plunging below zero, wind, gray skies for days on end, and big piles of snow lining the streets, West Yellowstone winters are not for wimps.

There are many chain hotels in West Yellowstone; we decided to try the independent Stage Coach Inn. Billing itself as a “Western-Swiss” style hotel, it sports an elegant arched roofline and rustic feel and is a comfortable and clean place. The rooms include a ‘fridge and microwave, the lobby is big and inviting for a lazy evening of reading or games, and an uninspiring but sufficient continental breakfast is offered each morning. The Stage Coach boasts an indoor pool, sauna, and small gym, if you’re inclined, but perhaps the best amenity is the underground parking garage, a warm, wind-free place to put on skins and keep old Subaru’s happy. (http://www.yellowstoneinn.com/)

While you won’t find any Michelin three-star restaurants or trendy boutique brewpubs in West Yellowstone, the eateries will not disappoint. All have punctual, friendly service; hearty, reasonably priced food; and a chill atmosphere. It’s a nice change of pace from the loud, bro-brah joints popular at other ski destinations.

Wild West Pizza, also know for its pasta, hot sandwiches, and regular live music, is a perennial favorite among visitors and locals alike. For coffee, don’t miss Freeheel and Wheel. An espresso machine and comfy couches give this small gear shop an unmistakable coziness and a palpable sense of community. https://wildwestpizza.com http://www.freeheelandwheel.com    

Ann Vinciguerra lives the good life in Bozeman, Montana where she practices the art of balancing work and play. She enjoys backcountry skiing, mountain biking, and serving as a volunteer DJ at KGLT, Bozeman’s alternative public radio station.