Yellowstone Cross-Country Ski Trails (Gardiner Entrance)
There aren’t many places in the world where you can ski with a herd of elk at sunrise or glide carefully past resting bison, and there are even fewer trails that pass near boiling hot springs. As far as I know, Yellowstone National Park is the only place with this unique combination of geology and wildlife, and cross-country skiing is a great way to experience the park during winter. Wildlife sightings are common throughout all seasons at Yellowstone, but there are advantages to visiting in winter when animals are easier to spot against the white backdrop and crowds of people are mostly absent. On a recent trip, I skied several cross-country trails inside the park near the Gardiner Entrance. All of the trails were well-maintained, and on each one, I was surrounded by beautiful scenery. I’m always amazed at the dramatic change that occurs at the park boundary. Inside, animals act differently, views are unmarred by power lines and structures, and you get the feeling that you are about as close to nature as you can get in our modern world.
Tower Falls Trail
Tower Falls is the busiest of the three trails I skied during this visit. When my family arrived at the parking area around noon, there were about 30 other vehicles in the lot. Even so, the trail was not congested. The road from Tower to Canyon is closed to vehicle traffic in winter, allowing it to be groomed with two classic tracks, a wide skate lane, and a snowshoe path.
The views of the Yellowstone River along the trail are spectacular — especially the area around the Calcite Springs overlook. In winter, you can stop as many times as you like to take pictures without having to worry about causing a traffic jam. Erin took advantage of the situation, and stopped what seemed like every few feet to take photos. Usually, I’m the one who wants to keep up the pace, but on this ski, I was glad to have a break after pulling the Chariot uphill. There’s a steady but gentle rise for the first 2km of trail followed by a slight decent to Tower Falls. The trail conditions were very good, and the terrain is easy enough that most skiers don't need to herring bone or snowplow. The afternoon sun wasn’t ideal for viewing the falls, but it was still neat to see the iced formation, and the spectacular vistas along the way make the journey worth it, falls view or not. The trail continues past the falls, but we turned around after enjoying an epic snowball fight overlooking the Yellowstone valley.
Upper Terrace Loop
The Upper Terrace Loop is only a few miles from the Gardiner park entrance and is easily accessible by car or a short walk from Mammoth village. During the summer, the loop is a paved driving route, but in winter, the park service closes the road to cars and foot traffic — only skis and snowshoes are allowed. It is 1.4 miles around and has hill sections requiring some herringbone and snowplow. The trail passes a few thermal features and offers a nice view of the Yellowstone River valley from the summit of the hot spring terraces. I skated with my son in the Chariot while my wife classic-skied. Traffic was light — we passed only a few skiers going the opposite way and shared the views with one other group skiing our direction. The trail was in good condition for both styles of skiing, except in a few places where we needed to detour off trail around a resident herd of bison.
[2min video of ski trails in the Mammoth-Tower region of Yellowstone. Bison and elk frequent the area.]
Blacktail Plateau Trail
Blacktail Plateau is an eight mile trail that begins a few miles east of Mammoth along the road to Tower, but I only had time to skate the first 3 miles out from the trail head closest to Mammoth. The trail is groomed with a skate lane and a classic track (where snow depth allowed), and it gains elevation at a steady rate. About one mile up the trail, I stopped to rest and was really able to appreciate the profound stillness. A few snowflakes gently floated down without a sound, and the sunrise was almost visible behind a break in the clouds. Living in rural Minnesota, I’m used to quiet moments outdoors, but nothing compares to the absolute silence of Yellowstone in winter. A mile or so later, I came across a small herd of elk grazing on the plateau, traversing back and forth across the trail and surrounding hillsides as they searched for the best grasses. I turned around to head back to my car shortly thereafter, leaving the elk to continue their morning routine.
If you are looking for a quick ski or snowshoe to an interesting sight, the Petrified Tree trail off the Mammoth to Tower road is a good option. While the sign at the trail head indicates 1/4 miles, it's actually an easy 1.5 mile round trip trek from the parking area to the tree and back. The tree itself is quite large and neat to see, and the trail offers some pretty mountain scenes en route. On the day we went, there were no classic tracks set and some boot holes were present, but it was still definitely ski-able.