CODY, WYO. — Heavy spring snowfall this week caused Yellowstone National Park managers to temporarily close some entrances, and motorists in parts of the park were told snow tires were required for entry.
But having the right tires for snow in Yellowstone isn’t just an unexpected issue for some spring travelers—it’s also shaping up to be one of the biggest changes to winter travel in the park in years.
The 2016-17 winter season was the fourth year the National Park Service has allowed snow coaches to use large, low-pressure tires instead of tracks, and the first winter with enough heavy snow to truly test how the tires perform in the most challenging conditions.
With a majority of Yellowstone snow coaches using tires instead of tracks this past winter, the tires are getting favorable reviews from visitors and tour operators, said Christina White, a concessions management specialist for Yellowstone.
“It’s been really successful,” White said. “Visitors seem to really like them, it’s a pretty smooth experience. And we like the benefits the low-pressure tire coaches bring to the park.”
Among those benefits are vehicles that are much quieter than coaches on tracks, and with triple the fuel efficiency, White said.
The tires also are cheaper than tracks to buy and maintain, said Erik Dawkins, with Buffalo Bus Touring Company in West Yellowstone, Mont.
“I am totally, 100 percent sold on the low-pressure tires,” said Dawkins, who has been using low-pressure tires for private recreational trips outside the park for 20 years.
The big tires can be remotely inflated or deflated by the driver, and operate at pressures of 4-12 psi in snow, or up to 30 psi on asphalt roads. Operators have worked with the Park Service over the past four winters to test different sizes of tires with various tread patterns and at a range of pressures.
“You try to find that perfect balance between traction and floatation, and I think we finally found the balance this last winter,” Dawkins said. “It’s all about staying on top of the snow and having a tread pattern that works well.”
Terry Dolan, a guide for Gary Fales Outfitting, operating at Yellowstone’s East Gate near Cody, Wyo., said the tires appear to work well in most conditions, but he wasn’t sure how they would handle the steep approaches on each side of Sylvan Pass.
Gary Fales Outfitting is the only winter travel concessioner operating from the East Gate, and offers guided snowmobile tours and rentals for self-guided trips, but no snow coach trips.
Previous efforts by another concessioner to offer snow coach tours over Sylvan Pass were not financially viable, Dolan said, with the expense of buying and maintaining a coach being the major hurdle.
Providing gear and sled rentals for self-guided tours has been an important boost for Gary Fales Outfitting, Dolan said, with business this past winter turning out about the same as the prior year, despite many more pass closures and rougher weather.
Yellowstone saw 4 percent fewer winter visitors this year than the 2015-16 season, with the East Gate visitor count remaining virtually unchanged, according to information posted online by the Park Service.
Some user days are not being filled because self-guided travelers don’t show up for their reserved slots, Dolan said. Snowmobile riders can go online to reserve a travel day, paying a $40 fee to hold the date.
Dolan said the loss of $40 is not always enough to deter no-shows, and the Park Service should consider how to better ensure self-guided days don’t go unused.
White said the Park Service has yet to finalize its policy on the use of low-pressure tires, with managers waiting for as much data as possible. A report is expected this summer from a team of Montana State University engineers who have been studying how weather, traffic, tires, snowmobiles and other factors affect snow road conditions.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].