Jan 30 2013
When we were considering a trip to Big Sky Resort, one of the activities that intrigued me most was a snowcoach tour of Yellowstone National Park. While three million or so people visit America’s first National Park each year, only a fraction do so during the winter months when access to most of the park is only allowed by guided snowmobile or snowcoach tours. The idea of seeing Yellowstone’s geysers amidst a cover of snow, and without throngs of people, was something I wanted our family to experience.
There are several snowcoach companies that operate tours into the park originating from Big Sky, and each has its own unique vehicles–some modern, some from the 1950s era; some for larger groups, some for smaller. There are also various day trips offered to different locations in the park. We opted for a one-day Old Faithful Winter Adventure tour through Yellowstone Tour Guides that picked us up at our Big Sky hotel, entered the park at West Yellowstone, and culminated at Old Faithful.
Our driver, Rob, picked us up at our hotel just after 7 a.m. in a regular van for the trip to West Yellowstone on paved roads. There were ten visitors in this initial group from Big Sky. During the 60-90 minute trip (depending on winter driving conditions) to West Yellowstone, he shared much information about the Yellowstone ecosystem and some of the wildlife we could expect to see on our day’s journey into the park, allowing plenty of time for questions.
Once at West Yellowstone, we stopped at a combination gas station/convenience store/snowmobile dealership to take a bathroom break, grab some snacks, complete any pending payments, and switch to our snowcoach vehicle. Traffic in West Yellowstone in the winter is comprised largely of snowmobiles, making the gas station a bit out of the ordinary.
In West Yellowstone, we also picked up a few more passengers, filling our snowcoach to capacity for the tour. The snowcoach vehicle is a modified 15-passenger van, complete with “Mattracks,” special tracks put on the vehicle in place of tires for travel on packed snow. Driving a tracked vehicle such as this is a bit of an art, especially when there’s fresh snow on the ground that makes the vehicle’s engine work harder, and our speeds ranged from about 20-40 mph during the trip.
Taking frequent breaks, at least every hour or so, serves several purposes: to allow guests to get out of the vehicle to see the sites and wildlife from a better vantage point, to allow for restroom and food breaks, and to let the vehicle recover a bit before the next leg of the journey.
A microphone in the snowcoach allowed Rob to narrate the tour as he drove, and if he spotted something interesting, he stopped so we could get a better look. We saw two elk fighting, racks locked together, a rarity in the winter as described by our guide. We stopped to see elk and bison and had a coyote amble along the road right next to our vehicle. On the water of the various rivers running through the park, we saw ducks and geese and several types of birds. The only winter-typical wildlife we did not see on the trip was wolves.
The snow in the park was deep and fresh and clean and beautiful, and my children found it hard to resist the opportunity to play in it whenever we had a chance. After all, how many of us can say we’ve made snow angels at Yellowstone?
Snowcoaches and snowmobiles are the only vehicles allowed in the park, and the roadway is changed over to snowpack in the winter months expressly for this type of vehicle traffic. In the spring, the roads are closed, then cleared to allow for warm-season vehicular traffic. Throughout the park, the winter scenery was breathtaking. My favorite was the river water running through the snow alongside the road, but the views of mountains and geysers and trees with a snow-covered background were also something to see.
All of the winter tour guides for both snowcoach and snowmobile travel have been trained by the National Park Service and as such have excellent knowledge of the park. In addition, each guide makes almost daily trips into the park, so they have a familiarity with the ecosystem and can notice subtle changes that visitors might miss. For example, on most days, our guide Rob saved the Fountain Paint Pots area for the return trip to Big Sky. On the day of our tour, however, he noticed water running down the hill, which is sometimes a precursor to geysers in that area erupting. While Old Faithful erupts every 70-90 minutes, Fountain’s cycle is longer at about 11 hours, and more sporadic. Rob decided to give it a shot and pulled into the parking area on the chance that we’d get lucky and see Fountain erupt. We walked along the boardwalk above the hot springs and viewed the paint pots, and then, just as we wandered toward it, we saw a geyser begin to shoot its hot water in the air.
We were in for a real treat, however, because not only did Fountain erupt as we were standing there, but Morning, right next to it, which just became active again in June 2012 after 18 years of dormancy, erupted as well. Our guides assured us that it was a very rare occurrence to see these two erupt simultaneously. It was amazing to be standing in this beautiful place with geysers erupting so close to us that the steam collected on us and froze.
This was a hard act to follow, but we continued down the road with just a few minutes to spare before Old Faithful’s eruption around noon. Truth be told, Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the park, and it does shoot high and often, but the crowds are bigger there, and are kept at a distance, so it wasn’t as impressive as being in the middle of Fountain and Morning as they put on their show.
After watching Old Faithful, we hurried over to the food area where we had the choice of a quick-service grill or a sit-down restaurant. We’d been told that the grill lines could be long and slow, so we’d gotten there quickly and were third in line. Our food was ready in just a few minutes, and then we realized our fatal flaw: we had all stood in line together, while people behind us in line had split up their parties and were saving tables until their food arrived. There was nowhere to sit, so we ended up standing up and eating in the lobby area. Once done eating, we had time to browse the adjacent gift shop, make some more snow angels, sit on a bench made of skis, and even see Old Faithful erupt again from a distance as we waited for the rest of our traveling companions to finish their meals.
From Old Faithful, we headed back along the same road, stopping again for wildlife sightings, some hot springs, and Firehole Falls.
We returned to West Yellowstone, where we left at a gift shop for a few minutes while we moved from the snowcoach to a van to take us back to Big Sky. We arrived back at the resort around 6 p.m. after a full day of seeing Yellowstone in a very unique way.
If you go on a Yellowstone snowcoach tour . . .
- Book ahead of time, especially if you’re visiting during Christmas vacation. Our guide said this is usually the only week of the year when they run at full capacity. During other times of the winter, your snowcoach group will likely be smaller.
- Know that the quoted price may not include actual park admission ($12/adults, free for kids or pass holders) or a tip for your driver.
- Check to see if you should bring your own lunch or if you’ll be stopping along the way for it. Different companies have different policies.
- Wear your ski gear so you’re not cold when you’re out enjoying the park. We wore our boots, snowpants, and winter coats and were comfortable in the 20-degree weather.
- Let your kids bring a book or workbook just in case they need a diversion. They might not need it, but the trip is essentially a day-long car trip with several breaks to get out and stretch.
- Take your camera!
- If you have the time, do a second tour to a different area of the park on a different day. There’s a lot to see in Yellowstone.
- Warm-season tours are also available; at different times of the year you’ll see varied things. Our guide recommended May/early June as another good time to visit.
Yellowstone Tour Guides provided complimentary tours for my husband and me, and we paid for our children’s admission. Though this is not a low-cost tour, we felt it was well worth the price for the unique experience and information provided by our guide. We are very glad we spent a day in Yellowstone as a natural and educational complement to the fun we had at Big Sky Resort.