Ski trip across Yellowstone reveals unique sounds of winter

Derek Collins takes in the view while skiing across Yellowstone National Park.
Forrest McCarthy

Derek Collins takes in the view while skiing across Yellowstone National Park.

There are sounds in Yellowstone National Park that can only be heard in the winter, away from the snow machines and out of the snowcoaches. They are the squeak of cold snow underfoot and the whispered rhythm of skis pushing and gliding. They are the gurgle of thermal features and the splash of water descending from the air and returning to geyser pools, sounds too meek to hear above the din of throngs of people in summer. And, if your heart stops pulsing with that intensity you hear as well as feel, there is the quiet, a lack of noise so distinct it is a sound itself, said Derek Collins.

Collins and fellow Jackson resident Forrest McCarthy set out February 8 to skate ski from West Yellowstone, Mont., to Flagg Ranch near Jackson. For McCarthy, the trip, long on his tick-list, was a celebration of the park finally settling on a winter-use plan. For Collins, it was simply a winter adventure.

McCarthy spent his three years with the Winter Wildlands Alliance (he is still an ambassador with the organization) working on efforts to create a winter use plan. Work on the plan took 15 years and cost the park service more than $10 million as it struggled to balance multiple interests among snowmobiling, skiing and snowcoach tours, and environmental impacts to the park.

The plan is a great compromise allowing a variety of users to enjoy the park in winter, while considering clean air and the soundscape, McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s time in Yellowstone is often limited to the backcountry. Even in winter he avoided the roads due to the noise of snowmobiles. It had been years since he shared the park road with machines. He’s always loved big ski traverses and had wanted to ski across the park. When the park finally settled on a winter use plan, checking it off the list seemed a perfect way to mark the occasion.

Yellowstone ski

Derek Collins and Forrest McCarthy pose for a picture while skate skiing across Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy Forrest McCarthy)

Winter transforms the landscape to muted colors of grays and whites, thermal features swarmed by visitors in July are deserted. While a trip on Yellowstone’s road isn’t a total wilderness experience, McCarthy was surprised at the advancements in snowmachines, making them much quieter than years before.

Rather than marking the completion of Yellowstone’s winter use plan, Collins’ motivation was simply about the experience. “Snow and skiing is always a good combination,” he said. He’d skied in Yellowstone before, but never the route they planned. Winter in the park is special no matter a person’s mode of transportation, but skiing magnifies the isolation and the beauty. “You really slow down,” he said. “Skiing changes the whole game.”

The bison are startlingly close. The abandoned feel of the park and the falling snow provides a heightened sense of adventure. And while it is cool to see a coyote run across a field while you are on a snowmachine or in a snowcoach, on skis, you realize you aren’t just watching, you are part of the same landscape, Collins said.

The trip, which took about 32 hours including a 16-hour reprieve at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, spanned about 75 miles.

They crossed the continental divide three times, and climbed hills that felt as steep as Teton Pass, Collins said. They traveled light, their packs weighed about seven pounds. They carried a credit card, tooth brush and basic gear, food, water and a few layers, for the day.

The trip coincided with a massive winter storm, which meant that despite following the park’s groomed road, the two had to almost break trail for their skis on stretches.

Derek Collins takes a break while skate skiing across Yelllowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy Forrest McCarthy – click to enlarge)

Derek Collins takes a break while skate skiing across Yelllowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy Forrest McCarthy)

It’s a trip Collins hopes more people try — just remember; it’s more than a flat ski. It’s long and hilly with changing snow conditions. The best time to ski is before dawn when the track is fast and the road deserted.

Collins says the trip might be too daunting — physically and mentally — for some. If that’s the case, there are other ways to visit Yellowstone in winter; by snowcoach or machine, which can take you to Old Faithful where Collins and McCarthy met people from all over.

“Whatever your preferred mode (of transportation), it’s one of those things that, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Collins said. “It really is a special place. It’s pretty magical.”

No matter how you go, just don’t forget to stop and listen.

Republished with permission from “Peaks to Plains” a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on Twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton.

One thought on “Ski trip across Yellowstone reveals unique sounds of winter

  1. Back about 1937, my uncle Dean and his best friend Breck strapped on a pair of those old monster wooden skis that were about four inches wide, an inch thick , and nine feet long give or take. They attached to very heavy leather boots with beartrap steel bindings. The adventurous gents did not have Gore-Tex or miracle polyester insulated clothing. They wore wool garments with sheepskin liners. The backpacks were crude and heavy, as were any shelter gear they took upon themselves. No freeze dried food or high calorie instant coffee and super-drinks heated with space-age backpacker stoves. They packed raw food to be cooked on fires in camp ware . No electronics. Maybe a flashlight at best. If they had any tech at all, it was a Zippo lighter.

    Their route? Up Sylvan Pass from the East Gate down to the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake, then down the lakeshore and up past the mouth of the Thorofare to Bridger Lake, then up the head of the Yellowstone River to Two Ocean Pass, down Pacific Creek to the Snake River , then all the way to downtown Jackson . It’s got to have been a good 100 miles one way.

    Then they skied BACK the way they came…