Through the frozen forest: Yellowstone on skis

By Matt Volz

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

But the adventure begins just outside the door with the iconic geyser as the main attraction. I watched alone as Old Faithful hissed, gurgled and finally spewed in the twilight. Mother Nature was putting on a show and the only other attendee was a disinterested fox hopping on and off benches in search of some forgotten scraps.

Most wintertime visitors choose to tour the park by snowcoach or snowmobile. But there's really no better way to become immersed in the park than with a pair of skis. There are the easy outings, such as the trails around the Upper Geyser Basin just outside of the lodge. Then there are the tougher ones, including arduous trails to the Continental Divide.

For those who don't want to waste any more time than necessary, and have an extra $16.50, a shuttle is available to take skiers to more distant trailheads.

After the ski lesson and an afternoon of testing our new skills and fighting to stay upright on the easiest paths among the geysers, we woke up the next morning to sore muscles we never knew existed. Regardless, we decided to leave the training wheels behind and take a nine-mile out-and-back trek into the wilderness.

The first couple of miles to the Lone Star Geyser is a series of undulating hills in the forest. Beagan scooted up those hills using the herringbone technique we'd learned the day before, then glided back downhill with seemingly little effort. I fell farther and farther behind as I waddled the ups and resisted the urge to close my eyes on the downs.

Upon reaching the Kepler Cascades, the path becomes a level, groomed trail that follows the Firehole River. It is easy enough for a beginner, but provides a taste of the wild that lay just beyond the lodges.

Beagan quickly moved ahead and I reveled in the ease of following the river in the sunshine, alone with my thoughts on a crisp day.

When we reached our destination, the forest opened into a wide valley and the Lone Star geyser stood like a giant dirt dauber's nest. Like most of our excursions from the lodge, not another person was around.

I had thought Yellowstone in winter would be too extreme, too daunting for the novice skier. It wasn't. There was plenty of comfort and just as much adventure as I cared to taste.

We congratulated ourselves and had a celebratory snack of salami and granola just 20 yards from the smoking geyser. We then headed back before the already sinking sun slipped too far below the horizon.

If You Go...

YELLOWSTONE IN WINTER: Yellowstone National Park's winter season begins in mid-December and lasts until the beginning of March; http://www.nps.gov/yell . Winter package deals from concessionaire Xanterra: http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

SKIING: Rentals, $15 half-day, $24 full day. Lesson and 24-hour rental, $40. Snowshoes, $12 a half-day, $20 full day.

GETTING THERE: The only year-round access for private cars to Yellowstone is through the park's north entrance at Gardiner, Mont., to Mammoth Hot Springs. The rest of the roadways are closed in winter. Visitors to Old Faithful can take a snowcoach for $62 from West Yellowstone or the south entrance. Within the park, snow coach and snowmobile tours are available.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Old Faithful Snow Lodge Inn nightly rates: rooms, $206; cabins, $96 or $149. Mammoth Springs Hotel: room with shared bath, $87; room with private bath, $120.

FOOD: At Old Faithful, Obsidian Dining Room is the only restaurant open (reservations recommended), while the Geyser Grill offers more fast-food fare. Mammoth Hot Springs' Mammoth Hotel Dining Room is open in winter.

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