TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Skiing Yellowstone: wildlife, scenery, and hot air

The snowcoach rumbles away, leaving us in a wintry silence disturbed only by a slight breeze and the gastrointestinal emissions of a supervolcano that last let out a really big one 640,000 years ago. Back then, it ejected about 240 cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. Today, as seems always the case with these things, it just sounds a little rude and smells badly.

Skiing at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

My wife, Penny, and I, with our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have just stepped off the snowcoach with our cross-country skis in Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Watching us disembark with our grade-school kids, the other passengers stared solemnly, as if expecting they would be the last to see us alive. Clearly, none of them are Nordic skiers, otherwise they might have realized that we’re setting out on one of the coolest half-day adventures in the entire national park system: ski touring along the Firehole River through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

Skiing two-and-a-half miles up an almost flat valley—with one fun, long downhill that’s not very steep—we’ll pass through an area that’s home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them. When we reach Old Faithful after a few leisurely hours and a lot of stopping and gawking, we’ll rendezvous with the snowcoach for the ride back to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’re staying.

We set out down the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the tracks of previous skiers, though completely alone for now. Across the open valley, white steam clouds billow into the sky from scores of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, giving the landscape the look of Hell bursting up through the Earth’s surface. Steam freezes to lodgepole pine trees, sugar coating some of them while long icicles hang in bunches from others. Elk graze the patches of ground kept open by the heat from thermal features. Bald eagles soar overhead.

Nate and Alex throw snowballs—mostly at me—and every few minutes point excitedly to another geyser spitting or erupting scalding water. We gaze into one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the 23-foot-deep, sky-blue mouth of Morning Glory Pool. A short while later, as we’re watching steam and hot water spurt from the 12-foot-tall mound of Giant Geyser, Nate shouts and points at a plume shooting skyward just a few hundred feet away: Riverside Geyser, named by the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sends a 75-foot-high arc over the Firehole River for as much as 20 minutes.

Read the full story, and see a gallery of photos and a video of skiing in Yellowstone, as well as other outdoor-adventure stories and reviews of new gear, at TheBigOutside.com.

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