I love to hike but I have to confess that my first true love is with the sport of nordic skiing.
There’s just something about the sound of the snow gliding underneath my skis, it’s magical.
Cross-country skiing (and biathlon) pretty much defined me as a child and young adult. Every day after school I skied. On the weekends I traveled all over the western United States and eventually the world training and racing.
My racing career is long over, but I still coach cross-country skiing and biathlon on occasion.
Thanksgiving week found me in West Yellowstone Montana, for the Yellowstone Ski Festival. The ski festival is an annual event where thousands of skiers gather to take advantage of early season snow. There are races, equipment demos, ski waxing clinics, lessons, lectures and for old racers turned coaches like me it’s just one big ski-family reunion. I think I spent every Thanksgiving week in West Yellowstone from age 8-24 and this was the first time I’d been back in over a decade.
While it’s great to be surrounded by so many skiers sometimes the sheer volume of them at the festival can be overwhelming, especially for “nordorks,” like me who can sometimes be huge loners. So, in keeping with childhood tradition, on Thanksgiving I escaped from the crowded but impeccably groomed ski trails at the Rendezvous trailhead, grabbed my slow touring skis and headed into Yellowstone National Park.
From the West Entrance of Yellowstone, it’s almost too easy to ski into the park, you can either head down Yellowstone Avenue and ski down the road through the fee station.
Or head down Madison street, link up with the Riverside trail loops and still ski through the park, just through a forest and along the Madison river instead of down the road.
As a kid, teenager and young adult skiing into the park down the main road or even the Riverside trail loop was a solitary affair. I would usually only see a handful of people as my skis slid across the cold, powder snow. But, as nordic skiing has surged in popularity the past decade it seemed as if the crowds from the Rendevous ski trails had decided to join me in the park.
It wasn’t until I reached the Wyoming border, just a few miles in that the crowds dissolved and I found the solitude that I was seeking.
Growing up in Bozeman, Montana just down the road from Yellowstone, I always felt a certain connection to the Park. I took it for granted as a kid, it was the place we always went when guests from out of town came to visit.
But the summer after high school found me working at a nearby Dude Ranch where a guest once made a comment to me that stuck forever.
He said, “Do you realize how amazing it is that you grew up in a place that people spend their entire lives trying to visit?”
A few years later I was in the Army, living in places that weren’t super awesome and I longed for the mountains of Montana and Yellowstone in winter.
I think a lot of us feel like that about our childhood homes, we don’t appreciate them until we’re gone.
Skiing into Yellowstone on Thanksgiving afternoon was like coming home for me, a reunion between me, my skis and that magical place.
I became lost in my thoughts as the minutes turned into hours and the sun sank low in the sky.
I’m older and slower now than I used to be. I’ve also learned to take the time to enjoy the natural world when I’m skiing, instead of blaze by it with a blur of lycra.
I stopped to look at animal tracks.
I stopped to examine scat along the trail.
I took a detour to break track along the Madison river and watch geese swim in it’s frigid waters.
I skied through a forest of trees burned in the massive wildfires of 1988 and remembered that summer in Bozeman, when ash fell to the ground like tiny snowflakes and the sky was streaked with vibrant reds and oranges. I was just a little girl but old enough to notice what was going on and understand the impact the fire had on the park.
I thought about my husband and my kids, who couldn’t make the trip to West Yellowstone with me and instantly wished that they were there. I thought about my parents and felt grateful that they had supported me and my ski career with enthusiasm (and money) for so many years. I thought about the beauty of the Park and it’s rich ski history and felt thankful that places like National Parks have been set aside for our use and enjoyment.
Eventually, my desire for dinner was greater than my desire to keep on skiing and I skied back into town just as the sun set and an incredible dark stillness filled the air. It was a magical afternoon.
I wish I could say that something incredible and amazing happened when I skied in Yellowstone, like that I skied all the way to Old Faithful (totally on my bucket list) or that I saw wildlife more exciting than geese. But I didn’t. I just let my skis glide down the road, detouring down every trail that I could find. I let my mind wander. I let my eyes shine and mouth smile thinking about my childhood and planning for my future.
I learned that maybe what makes an adventure epic isn’t the terrain or the scenery, but just being able to really soak in the experience.
If you plan to ski into the Park from the West Entrance here are a few tips to make the experience awesome.
Where to start: You can start by taking Yellowstone street to the park entrance. There is parking in this area but if you’re staying in West Yellowstone and the snowpack is good just ski to the entrance or walk. You can also take the Madison street to the Riverside Trail loop. It’s very easy to ski into the park from either location, nothing too technical or difficult. It’s perfect for beginners.
What to pack: This depends on how long you’ll be skiing but for a few hours on the trail I definitely recommend packing almost just as you would for a winter hike. Think fluids, fuel, and extra layers. This blog post might help.
When to go: The road into the park is closed in the winter so you can pretty much ski it as long as the snow is skiable, it’s safe to plan mid-November thru March but we all know that Mother Nature does her own thing so check the snow conditions before going.
Where to gear up: Stop in at the Free Heel and Wheel in West Yellowstone for ski rentals and equipment. They have great service (and bonus…it’s also a coffee shop)
How to cross-country ski: Basic nordic skiing is actually quite easy, I believe that if you can walk you can ski. If you’re interested in learning to ski check out this blog series I wrote for Just Trails.
Have YOU ever skied (or hiked) someplace and felt like it was going home? Leave us a comment below.