Photo archive: unedited photos of the trip

The final leg of our return ride -- a 22-mile jaunt through sun and snow -- left us all breathless. Several times we rounded a corner and were confronted by the awesome, rugged beauty of the Tetons."

" If you're in Jackson and can tear yourself away from the slopes for a day, a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone is well worthwhile."

March 1, 1997

Winter wonderland

Yellowstone's frozen beauty wows us
during a 90-mile snowmobile tour

By Bob Benz

Spiney at Old Faithful Spiney watches Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park.
Old Faithful belches steam, sending a sulfur smell into the air as the next eruption draws near. But today Yellowstone National Park has decided to upstage its most famous show.

An eagle appears out of nowhere, hanging momentarily above the steaming geyser before soaring off into a brilliant blue sky.

After the eagle is clear of the area, Old Faithful erupts, sending steam and water high into the air while we stand there watching, still stunned by the sudden appearance of the eagle and mystified by the geyser's workings.

kevin rutsch Kevin Rutsch.
During the 90-minute drive from Jackson to Yellowstone, Kevin Rutsch, our snowmobile guide, had warned us not to let the day hinge too much on Old Faithful. "That's only a few minutes of a 90-mile adventure into the park," he said. "You'll love Old Faithful, but it's only a small part of what you'll see today."

Kevin is a master of understatement.

The eagle at Old Faithful was only one example of the wildlife we saw during our snowmobile ride in Yellowstone National Park. Several times we had to slow to a crawl to creep past a massive bison that had decided to stake his claim to a section of the trail.

And wildlife isn't the only reason to visit Yellowstone in the winter. The park's geothermal features take on an eerie look as the earth's heat bursts into the cold air. Old Faithful is only one of many geysers and other geologic oddities that dot the park.

At West Thumb Geyser Basin, we watched an ice-coated bison forage around amid the steaming landscape for food. We saw bubbling mud pots and hot pools that were nearly 200 degrees.

Kevin spins a yarn Our snowmobile guide, Kevin Rutsch, tells one of his stories to our group as another group goes past.
Kevin's great storytelling skills made the trip especially interesting. As we gazed into a steaming blue hot pool, our guide told us about a man who's dog jumped into one.

Against all warnings, the guy jumped in to try to save his dog. Bad move. Bystanders managed to fish him out, but he died shortly after. The pool had literally cooked him, leaving him with third-degree burns over 100 percent of his body. As for the dog, well ... the poor mutt turned the hot pool into a giant vat of canine soup.

We pulled over repeatedly during the trip while Kevin, a guide for Jackson-based National Park Adventures, described in detail the history and geology of the park. He says he and the other guides compete to see who can tell the best stories, and his knowledge of the park was incredible.

The other thing that made this a perfect day was the weather. We had sunny skies and relatively warm temperatures (in the upper 20s). Kevin said the trail conditions were the best he's seen all season. There had been a dusting of fresh snow overnight, and the night before that brought 20 inches.

The final leg of our return ride -- a 22-mile jaunt through sun and snow -- left us all breathless. Several times we rounded a corner and were confronted by the awesome, rugged beauty of the Tetons. Spiney, my lovely and talented wife and Go West cohort, had been afraid an all-day snowmobile tour would be too grueling. But after talking to a few folks who had taken them, we decided to give it a try. It's really not too tough and most people who are in reasonable shape should be able to handle it. Our group included a retirement-age couple from Maine and a couple who own a grocery store in Oregon, and we all fared quite well.

If anything, it ended much too soon. If you're in Jackson and can tear yourself away from the slopes for a day, a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone is well worthwhile.

Trip planner

    bob on snowmobile No, it's not Mad Max. It's just me on a snowmobile.
  • Directions: If you're staying in Jackson, just call one of the guide services. They'll pick you up at your hotel room at about 6 a.m. and return you there at the end of the day.

  • Cost: I priced a full-day Yellowstone tour at several guide services, and the going rate seems to be $150 per person. You can save a little money by riding two on a sled, but don't. It's too much fun to drive it yourself, and it's not at all difficult.

  • Heads up: The Park Service doesn't joke around. Speeding tickets can cost you a hundred bucks. Follow the rules of the road and listen to your guide.

  • National Park Adventures: I get the impression all the guides are very professional, but I can say first-hand that these folks are good. If you want more info, contact them at: (800) 255-1572 or (307) 733-1572.

  • What you'll see: On the day we went, we were fortunate enough to see an eagle at Old Faithful. We also saw lots of bison, many of which were pretty haggard from struggling through a particularly difficult winter. On the way to the park, we saw elk and moose. We also saw a lot of neat geothermal features: hot springs, mud pots, geysers.

  • What you need: With the exception of 150 bucks, nothing. the guide service provides breakfast, lunch, appropriate clothing and helmets. The only additional cost is a $15 per person admission fee to the park.

  • The sleds: We rode Polaris Indy's with 488cc engines. They're trail sleds, which means they're designed for riding on packed snow. Powder sleds have shorter treads. the Polaris snowmobiles seem to be pretty popular. Most of the other tours we saw were riding them. The sleds have hand and thumb warmers, which really come in handy. I had mine set on high at first, but it was so warm my hands were sweating. I turned it down to low and that worked great. You don't need to shift the snowmobiles. Just pull the cord (almost like starting a gas lawn mower) and the engine starts. Give it a little gas and you're on your way. The brakes work great. It's best to pump the brakes to avoid locking them up, but I found that just letting off the throttle will slow you down pretty quickly and is all that's needed if you're following at a safe distance.

  • More info: National Park Service's Yellowstone page

    This story orginally ran on Go West, an ill-fated outdoors site that I was the content manager of in 1996-1997

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