Catch Early Snow in West Yellowstone.

West Yellowstone Rendezvous Trails might be the center of XC in North America.

If you head to West Yellowstone, MT, in late November, you can visit the early winter cross-country ski epicenter of North America: the Rendezvous Ski Trails.

There are a bunch of fall camps in the Rockies – including Silver Star, BC, Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs, CO, plus Mt. Bachelor in Oregon – but the Yellowstone version is the oldest, largest, and incredibly convenient: literally right beside town (http://www.skirunbikemt.com/yellowstone-ski-festival.html). You can fly into Bozeman, MT, and stop to downhill at Big Sky Resort on the way to or from the Rendezvous Trails.

For decades, West Yellowstone was known as Snowmobile Capital of the World, partly because Yellowstone National Park is right next door (geysers! wolves! bison!). These days, the winter economy is also driven by cross-country skiing. (The Park isn’t open to over-snow traffic until December 15th this year, but you can ski from town before that onto snow-packed roads inside Yellowstone.) XC has changed from a handful of locals who thought XC was cool to a community where skiing is a life-style for a lot of residents.

A Lovely Trail System.

“West” has as lovely and lilting a trail system as anywhere in North America. What’s remarkable is that the roughly 35 km are loved by racers (like the Norwegian, Latvian, and German national teams, who trained there for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics) and recreational skiers. Perhaps the favorite recreational trail is the Rendezvous Loop, which passes by the biathlon course. A lot of competitors like a good long workout on Dead Dog and Windy Loop, on the far end of the network.

The Rendezvous Trails routes can hone your technique but aren’t a survival challenge (there’s only about 200’ of vertical change). And while they’re full of free-skiers and Fall Training Camp participants around Thanksgiving, the rest of the winter (especially non-holiday weekdays) they can be so peaceful that you can be out for an hour and see only a dozen people.

The trail system is a cooperative venture on U.S. Forest Service land, managed by the Forest Service, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, and the non-profit West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation. A WYSEF Director once told me, “I would personally love to see West Yellowstone known as the Cross-country Ski Capital of the World. Our proximity to the trails inside Yellowstone National Park, our lengthy ski season, and competition-worthy grooming lend themselves to this possibility.” 

Several thousand skiers, from beginners to families to elite athletes, flock to “West” in November for the marvelous skiing, moderate altitude (around 6,700’), superb grooming, and reliable snow. In rare years when the white stuff arrives a little late in town, groomed skiing begins on a higher plateau, accessible by four wheel drive vehicles.

Yellowstone Ski Festival.

YSF has racing, but there’s a lot more including Pilates, kids activities, clinics, classes, demos. YSF is modified for this year but may be back full strength again in 2021

Before the upcoming “interesting” winter, the Fall Training Camp was known as the Yellowstone Ski Festival. It included natural science programs for kids, Pilates, backcountry films, indoor equipment expo and clinics, beer tasting, on-snow ski demo, and an end-of-week party. While the indoor component has been reined back – thanks, COVID-19! – there’s still a wide-ranging array of XC clinics with outstanding coaches, biathlon, and an FIS race (Ma Nature cooperating). Winter 2021-‘22 may be back to full-scale festivities.

Post-Festival, there’s still plenty of activity, with the winter schedule getting nailed down as I write this in early October. There are plans for ski races, biathlon (ski-and-shoot) competitions, and fun events, perhaps including the annual “Taste of the Trails.”

West Yellowstone has a daily trail fee (probably $12). Amenities along the trail are pretty limited (there’s a trailhead building with bathrooms and a communal room), but you can rent skis at several locations in town. Freeheel and Wheel (www.freeheelandwheel.com) has instructors, clothing for sale, and equipment rental and retail – plus they’ve got great coffee and a sense of humor!

There’s a mix of hotels and motels in “West”—check http://www.skirunbikemt.com/sleep.html for recommended lodging.

Rendezvous Trail System. Something for everyone.

One Comment

  1. Avatar Charlie kitchens says:

    I skied a few years back with Rendezvous XC from driggs ID into a yurt on the backside of mt Moran in the Tetons. Any relationship? I love Yellowstone I’m winter, but have always entered from mammoth hot springs. This year if able I’ll enter from west. Charlie

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