Snowmobile Capitol of the World
Billed as the Snowmobile Capitol of the World, West Yellowstone is more than a winter sports town, it’s an all-season destination, but winter sets it apart from surrounding Yellowstone towns and destinations. Budget Travel and National Geographic Traveler both consider West Yellowstone as a very desirable place to visit in the winter, ranking it as one the “11 Coolest Winter Places in America” (Budget Travel) and as one of the “Top 10 Winter Towns” (National Geographic Traveler).
My first introduction to West Yellowstone was in the summer of 1993 on a business trip to meet with Clyde Seely, owner of the Three Bear Lodge and See Yellowstone. It was a Summer trip when visitors from all over the world come to see Yellowstone National Park. Since that trip I’ve visited the park every season numerous times and discovered what many others have, Winter!
How to get there
West Yellowstone, Montana is located in the most southern tip of Montana at the western boundary of Yellowstone Park, just two miles from Wyoming and ten miles from Idaho. If traveling from Utah, where we live, the fastest and most direct route is Interstate-15 north through Idaho to Highway 20 at Idaho Falls that routes you through Island Park, ID to West Yellowstone, MT. From Salt Lake City that’s about 320 miles or 4.5 hours of driving. In the warm weather months I like to take the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway through Ashton to Island Park. This is the route I take when leading tours in this direction (see below)
Winter at Yellowstone National Park
During the Winter months the park service packs the 30 mile stretch of road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful allowing snowmobile and snow coach access to the scenic points of interests along the way. I’ve done both and must admit that I prefer taking a snow coach. Driving snowmobiles to Old Faithful is a blast, but the trip back seems twice as long and twice as cold, even with hand warmers. Rangers on snowmobiles occasionally sit on the side of the road at the end of the day with radar. This is when everyone is eager to get back and go 2-3 times the posted speed limit. In the warmth of a comfortable snow coach we sit back and enjoy the ride. When we want to go fast and play in open meadows and trails, we stay out of the park and take the sleds to Johnson Cabin, Two Top Mountain, and to other popular areas west of town.
One of the frequent experiences we’ve had in the Winter are bison encounters, favorable, I might add. We ain’t tourists thinking these massive animals are domesticated! You read about tourists in the news each year who seem to think these animals are like domesticated cattle.
What an experience it is to pull your snowmobile to the side of the road and allow these majestic animals room to parade by. You can actually feel the heat coming off their steaming hide as they snort and give you a look that says it all.
Over the years we’ve seen wolves, coyotes, swan, elk and many other local residents of the park, some up close and personal! If you get “skunked,” you can always check out the wildlife habitat at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in town. A stop we highly recommend.
Old Faithful in Winter is the crowning event when visiting the park. What’s different is that the parking lot is filled with snowmobiles and snow coaches and it’s cold! I can’t overstate how cold it can get in this region. You can’t say we didn’t warn you but don’t let that stop you. As Mike Navidomskis frequently states on the KSL Outdoors Show, there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes.
Other Scenic Attractions
Other attractions along the route to Old Faithful worth seeing are Firehole Lake Drive, Lower Geyser Basin where the Fountain Paint Pots are located, and Midway Geyser basin home to the Grand Prismatic Spring, which you may not know by name but you’ve seen photos of it. (See map below)
There are many great places to stay in West Yellowstone, our favorite place is Three Bear Lodge. We love the nostalgia of the lodge, it’s convenient location to the park entrance, Giant Screen Theater (think Imax), Grizzle and Wolf Discovery Center, restaurants, shopping, and to snowmobile rentals and guided snow coach and snowmobile tours. Speaking of restaurants, three of our favorites are the Three Bear Restaurant next to the lodge, Bullwinkles on Canyon Street, and Buffalo Bar on Old Highway 20.
When pulling into West Yellowstone don’t expect to see all the streets plowed and free of snow. This is by design. They pack the streets making this one of the snowmobile friendliest places on earth, after all, it is the snowmobile capitol of the world. Drive your snowmobile like you do an ATV in Marysvale Utah.
Other Things to Do
Besides driving your snowmobile around town there is much to see and do. Catch a movie at the Giant Screen Theatre, see wolves and grizzly bears at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, Learn the history of the area at the Yellowstone Historic Center, do some skinny skiing at nearby Rendezvous Trails, go on a sleigh ride or dog sled adventure, or go snow shoeing. For a complete list of things to do visit www.destinationyellowstone.com
There’s a whole slate of Winter events scheduled each year, we try to plan our Winter visits to West Yellowstone watch the dog sled races and at the end of the season for the snowmobile drag races, or between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the town is lit up. Click here to get the latest line-up.
Please note that during Covid-19 restrictions some activities and services may not limited or unavailable. Contact the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce for more details.