Two Brothers Snowmobiling Yellowstone in -40F temps
Recently my brother called and asked if I wanted to go snowmobiling Yellowstone National Park. This was one of the first trips we have ever planned together. I immediately said yes. A chance to spend time with my younger brother and a chance to see Yellowstone like I have never seen it. Growing up in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Yellowstone is practically in our back yard. I have been there more then I can count it seems like. I have been there in the early spring right after it opens and there is still over 20 foot of snow still on the ground and the road is plowed just enough to drive through. And I have been there in the heat of the summer. But I have never seen it in the middle of the winter when the animals are all alone in the park.
Getting to go snowmobiling Yellowstone without the thousands of tourist and without hundreds of people standing waiting for Old Faithful to go off would be the best. Fighting crowds and waiting in hours of traffic in the park is a blessing and a curse. A blessing knowing that our great country and the place we call home is being presented in all its glory to visitors. And a curse that it is so overly driven in and crazy tourist don’t respect the distance the creatures of the park beg for.
Two Brothers Plan
A few years back anyone on a snowmobile could drive right into the park and speed along anywhere and everywhere in the park. Then park put restrictions on entry in the winter time. Now you must ride in small groups, have an authorized guide and have certified snowmobiles that wont pollute the park with gas, oil and fumes. Every year there seems to be more and more restrictions. Now don’t take me wrong, I think there definitely needs to be conservation measures in the parks to protect the environment and the animals. I also worry that there is a chance that it can be taken too far and the ability to see this beauty could be limited so much it would make it impossible to ever see. So I told my brother “Yes Lets Do It”, before they take the chance away from us.
The days before the trip was scheduled for we carefully watched the weather. Snow storms are always expected in the high mountains. In Idaho we are used to it. We are also used to the cold weather, especially being raised in eastern Idaho. Not far from where I lived, Stanley Idaho quite often quietly claims the coldest recorded temperatures through out the year, much to the dismay of the folks in North Dakota or Minnesota.
Driving from the Boise Idaho area to eastern Idaho to pick up my brother from the Idaho Falls airport, I began in a snow storm that closed all of the surrounding school districts. I continued east across the state and once I turned north onto I-15 heading to Idaho Falls, the blizzard hit. Visibility dropped, speeds on the high way turned to a crawl and cars and trucks began sliding off the highway. My brother flew into a dry and sunny Salt Lake City Utah only to learn that the connecting flight from Salt Lake to Idaho Falls was cancelled due to the blizzard. Plans were discussed from me driving the six hour round trip from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake and back to John renting a car and driving north were discussed.
We decided that I would drive in the blizzard south to Pocatello and pick him up there. While I waited there for him to drive up north Pocatello had about 10 inches fall in about two hours. We dropped the car off at the local rental car company, and hit the highway north. Warning were all over the news about semi’s in the median ditch and dozens of cars slid off on the side of the road. There were warnings of chains recommended going up the hill north of Ashton Idaho into Harrimen State Park. Driving in our heavy Excursion, I had brought food and water for a week, a shovel, and large truck tire chains for all four wheels, and even four winter sleeping bags in case we also slide off the road in the middle of nowhere.
Snow Plows are awesome
One thing we learned is the further we drove north the better the snow plow drivers got. They had mad skills and we were so impressed with the efficiency of the road crews. When we passed Ashton towards the hill they recommended snow chains on heading to Island Park home of ultimate trout fishing and the prime snowmobile country we prayed we would make it to West Yellowstone Montana. Slowly we headed up the hill and saw the results of the awesome road crews. They had plowed the roads to a nice packed snow floor on the road. They had sanded the roads with the familiar red lava rock that east Idaho is know for and we never had to stop for chains or even put the truck into 4×4.
Just for Us
It was as if they plowed the roads for us because there were no cars or trucks for miles. Driving through Harriman State Park and Targhee National Forest we began to check out the weather on our phones. Earlier in Ashton getting fuel for the truck we saw the temp was already -7F. By the time we made it to Island Park it was -17F and by the time we finally arrived at our hotel in West Yellowstone it was -23F. Yikes it was dropping fast!
We unpacked, checked in to our hotel, and hit the sack to get some sleep for out trip in the morning. At 7am we woke and got ready to leave. We put on our five layers of shirts, long-jons, fleece jackets, winter coats, and winter boots and headed over to the snowmobile company. We check our phones and to our surprise it showed -38F!!! Nether of us had been in actual air temps like that before. In Idaho Falls we had seen temps in the -20F’s but never that low.
Too cold for Search and Rescue
The snowmobile guide company said we had to wait till it got a little warmer for safety. Not because we might get cold, or because the machines didn’t like to work in that cold of weather, but because search and rescue in the park wouldn’t come help us till it was -20F or warmer!!!! What we said… we are going to go into the park with no chance of search and rescue.. and the answer was, well yes we just need it a bit closer to their temp cut off point! So finally around -30F we jumped on the snow machines and headed to the main gate into the park. The ranger at the gate said the official temp at the gate read -43F, man was it cold out. And they had just got 3 feet of snow too the day before.
Guided trip begins
So in we road in our guided group of 7 snow machines including the guide, Amy. Me, my brother and a family of a mom and dad and their grown son and daughter. We first stopped at Gibbon River valley. It had only been about a mile or two, and our guide was basically checking out how we were holding up! As we jumped back on and took off John and I saw America’s Bald Eagle fly parallel with us along the road. It wasn’t but another mile or so down the road and we saw a herd of Bison along the side of the road. We carefully road to the right of the herd as to not interrupt their desire to find food to stay warm.
As we drove to our next destination we saw a poor little fox all curled up in the trees, a coyote along the river bank and more bison off across a valley. We all settled into our single file line riding our snow mobiles out further into Yellowstone. Not long after we made a turn, being that we all followed the packed snow on the roads, we stopped at the parks “warming shelter”. Basically it’s a way for the park to sell warm food to cold tourists in the park. I had never been snowmobiling before and for those who have never been with enough layers and with quality snowmobile one piece suits that are windproof and waterproof you are actually quite warm. And with these snowmobile’s the handlebars actually get quite warm even through our thick gloves.
We made it in the the famous Old Faithful just in time to watch it go off in the middle of an arctic blast! With all of the snow and cold clean fresh air there were only about 50 people there watching it! If you have ever been to Yellowstone and Old Faithful in the summer there you will know of the massive crowds you have to weave your self through to get a view of Old Faithful geyser going off!
After warming up inside the new visitor center and walking around the exhibit of geothermal and park facts inside we suited up and hit the trails again. By then the wind picked up and cleared the steam of the melting pot area out of the valley and we drove to them to check them out.
Melting Pots cleared up
After leaving the sulfur air of the melting pots and hitting the trails again we had fun snowmobiling Yellowstone. The roads were packed with snow and were beautiful too. Seeing the miles of snow cover pines, the pure virgin snow of such wide open country was just inspiring! All of this snow is what keeps the rivers full and the farmers fields full of moisture through out the west!
Elk still in the park
Next we were surprised to see a half dozen bull Elk searching for grass to eat in the valley floor. Even the guide was surprised to see them. Not sure if the wolves kept them from heading to warmer areas or what. But they normally are not still up there in this type of weather. The two you see here, the one on the left is what we call a 6 point out west. It has six spikes on the left antler and six spikes on the right antler. The other bull elk on the right back in the distance was a three point. After this picture they both headed right up the hill towards us. They then crossed the road and headed up the mountain on the right side off camera. In the evenings they normally do that.
Shortly after the elk we passed another larger herd of bison in a valley. I stopped to get my camera out to record us passing by the herd. The temps dropped and winds picked up. And the speed of my snowmobile increase quickly my bare fingers began to hurt in intense pain. The length of the video is all I could with stand in cold pain!
Snowmobiling Yellowstone turned out to be warm inside our suits. It was an awesome day of brotherly bonding, and an inspiring day seeing the virgin snow. The beauty of animals and the vast free country we live in made us feel even more blessed. If you are ever out in the west, yes I would recommend seeing our beautiful back yard. Come snowmobiling Yellowstone in the winter or even driving it in the summer!