I have been coming to this park since I was born, but this is the first time I’ve seen a wolf.
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It’s ten degrees below zero, two days before Thanksgiving, and my dad and I are waiting just inside the western border of Yellowstone, yards from where our car is parked at the start of the Fawn Pass Trail. Up ahead, an enormous gray shape lumbers across the snowdrifts, fur billowing in the wind. My hands are so cold I feel like I might scream. Our skis squeak on the crisp snow.
Yellowstone has always felt like home to me. It’s the place my parents met in their early twenties and the place we visited every summer until my younger brother and I were teenagers. The sulfuric smell from the steam vents and the herds of bison blocking traffic on the roads were as familiar to us as summer camp was for most kids our age, and we prided ourselves on knowing the secret spots, as if Yellowstone were ours.
But I’m here at the start of winter to cross-country ski. For 35 years, the portal town of West Yellowstone has hosted the Yellowstone Ski Festival—a gathering of some 3,500 spandex-clad amateurs, part-time enthusiasts, and Olympic hopefuls training and racing on one of the most consistent early-season snowpacks in the lower 48.
On Monday night, we pull into town on unplowed roads and watch as clusters of college kids in matching technical tights jog or ski back from the Rendezvous trails—the 25-mile system just a few blocks from town—past kitschy log cabins and shops, as if an old-west movie set has been invaded by endurance junkies. Two men hang holiday decorations from the streetlights. “One of them is probably the mayor,” my dad says as we pass.
Like any technical sport, nordic skiing is hard to master as an adult. It’s also physically grueling, which is probably why few people ever seriously take it up. The sport uses almost every muscle in your body—a day of skiing is a great way to become acutely aware of any athletic weakness.
Still, as far as workouts go, there are few better ways to spend a winter. Between sessions at my three-day clinic, I spend hours zipping around groomed trails the size of country roads, lungs burning and legs aching.
Nordic skiing is also a way to see a Yellowstone few people ever do. After renting a pair of skis from Freeheel and Wheel, my dad and I head for Fawn Pass. For eight miles, we follow blue markers as the trail winds past several tributaries of the Gallatin River and over the state line into Wyoming. We say few words and see even fewer people, just one older man eyeing that wolf through binoculars. When we drop off our gear later that night, a fluffy malamute puppy is waiting outside, tied to a Swix sign, impervious to the cold. Dad turns to me and says, “I’d like to own a store like this some day.”
Two days later, we ski along the banks of the Madison on similarly empty trails, the sun casting light over the whole valley. We have the entire park to ourselves. “You could ski all the way to Old Faithful from here,” Dad says as we turn back toward the entrance road. Next year maybe we will.
Access + Resources
When: The Yellowstone Ski Festival runs during Thanksgiving week, but you can typically ski in the park November through April, pending snowpack.
How: Fly to Bozeman or Idaho Falls and rent a car. The drive to West Yellowstone from either takes about two hours.
Stay: Condo rentals in West Yellowstone are available on Airbnb and VRBO. Or stay at the Holiday Inn ($119), which is the meeting place for most of the clinics and events.
Eat: Stock up on groceries in Bozeman for Thanksgiving dinner or get a meat-and-veggie pizza at the Gusher in town. During the festival, the Yellowstone ski team sells soup, pumpkin pie, and hot chocolate at the Rendezvous warming hut.