A Rustic Retreat In Remoteness.

Yurts and heated tent cabins accommodations in remote corner of Yellowstone.

When skiers talk about great backcountry, they often cite the Tenth Mountain and Braun systems in Colorado; Sierra Club huts in California; Skoki Lodge, Assiniboine and Shadow Lake in the Canadian Rockies. I’d like to add a new destination, near Canyon in Yellowstone National Park. (Check an atlas, find Yellowstone in the northwest corner of Wyoming; Canyon is in the north central part of the Park.)

Actually, Yellowstone Expeditions is in its 38th season. And to be honest, they use yurts and tent cabins, not log huts or lodges. But “great” is perfectly appropriate, whether it’s skiing or snowshoeing, staff, dining, or the amazing landscape of the world’s first national park (1872).

Yellowstone isn’t exactly a winter secret, but skiers visit the Canyon area only when they’re passing by in enclosed heated snowcoaches or on snowmobiles, mainly because there’s no lodging within 35 miles except Yellowstone Expeditions.

The company was founded by Arden Bailey, who in summer works as a geologist who once specialized in radioactive waste disposal. (There’s a theory Arden is such a bright guy that no one in his vicinity needs a headlamp.)

The high point of my winter used to be running winter trips in the U.S. and Canadian Rockies, so it was a joyous thing to be a guidee around Canyon. Most of the time I skied with Erica Hutchings, a Renaissance woman who’s been office manager, snowcoach driver, PSIA-certified instructor, and super-guide. Come summer, she’s been a river ranger in Grand Teton National Park.

Who Are Those Guys?

Dining room and kitchen yurts glow at sunset.

All the guides are a hoot. They’re also naturalists, dishwashers, and talented cooks, working crazy hours with all kinds of clients, and carrying it off with humor and panache and quick wits. What a work ethic!

Arden’s talents include amazing stories and still more unbelievable jokes. This sense of humor seems to inspire guests, who tend to be crazy-diverse in their professions and interests anyway. Our group on one visit included a doctor from New Mexico, a writer from New York, and the owner of a trucking firm in Texas. I learned something about publishing fiction, summer weather around Houston, anatomy, movies, Superfund sites, national politics, and succession tree species after the Yellowstone fires of 1988.

A typical four-, five- or eight-day trip begins with a snow van ride from West Yellowstone to Canyon with skiing near the rim of the Yellowstone toward the end of the day. We enjoyed a novel experience along the Gibbon River—a herd of maybe 200 slow-moving bison. We couldn’t pass them for almost two hours. It was a photographer’s dream, including the chance to take pictures of fuming snowmobilers who revved engines but still didn’t intimidate the beasties.

And There’s Skiing

Here’s why people come to Yellowstone.

You can visit the park for its beauty, for wildlife, for geysers. I did it that time for long tours, powder, and downhills. It’d been a long time since I’d really skied hard in the backcountry. It’s easy to forget how few miles a small group can REALLY go in eight hours when you’re breaking trail through two feet of fresh snow.

The Yurt Camp is based at 8,000 feet, so it gets and holds 200-250 inches of snow, usually the light stuff Montanans call “cold smoke.” It’s in a spectacular area, minutes from the deep canyon of the Yellowstone. Terrain runs from long-open-steep to wooded-gentle.

I’ve always been a so-so unenthusiastic telemarker, never quite found that ideal combination of grace, strength, and technique. After that trip, I’m a certified Wannabe.

It stood to reason that 205 cm light touring gear would do the trick for touring, even for low-angle telemarking. This might have worked if the heels of my boots hadn’t kept jamming with snow. It’s demoralizing to start a turn, come round just far enough that skis are pointed down the fall line, and find the only part of the boot/binding system meeting its obligations is the toe.

Humility is a great teacher.

Yeah yeah, I know, “It’s the equipment.” But the next day I used mid-length general touring gear with a 3/4 metal edge with backcountry boots and bindings. Spectacular improvement! Even carrying a full pack, those skied floated and came around on request.

Actually, we could have skipped hills almost entirely. There’s a huge variety of trails—groomed, ski-set, or just marked—taking off right from camp, including gentle tours to places like Inspiration Point and Cascade Lake.

Wilderness luxury

Guests stay in warm, comfortable hut tents, a moments walk from the kitchen and new dining yurts. Here’s the thing you sweat for and dream of on skis or snowshoes: getting home at twilight and trying the new cedar sauna before dinner. Or better yet, a backwoods (indoor) shower—rapture!

Among my favorite moments were the intermittent thunder of the Yellowstone’s Lower Falls (much higher than Niagara); walking around Washburn Hot Springs (it’s a map-and-compass trip in); watching a park ranger skate at dusk beside the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, just after a grooming machine came through; learning the differences between fisher and coyote tracks; digging a snow pit for evaluating avalanche potential; and the pleasure of a heated outhouse.

Now, that’s livin’!

More Detail

Packages include delish meals, lodging, snowcoach, sleeping bags and sheets, and guiding. The season runs December 17-March 7th. Four-day/three night visits run $1,260 per person, double occupancy. The camp holds 10-12 guests. Check out the dynamite web site by clicking here or call 800-728-9333.

Late afternoon along the thermal waters of Alum Creek


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