CODY, Wyo. — The week before Labor Day hardly seems like the ideal time for contemplating a winter trek through Yellowstone National Park. But Tuesday, Sept. 1, is a key date for anyone planning to travel through Yellowstone by snowmobile as part of a self-guided group. That’s the first day to submit applications online for the lottery system that allocates spots in the self-guided tour program.
Under a newly implemented winter-use plan, last winter was the first season since 2003 that allowed sledders to tour Yellowstone without a commercial guide. Despite relatively warmer temperatures and sparse snow, winter recreational visits parkwide increased by 14 percent over the previous year.
Snowmobile traffic through the East Gate from Cody rose by 65 percent last winter compared to 2013-14, largely owing to self-guided trips. But with a total of 269 total snowmobile visitors for the season, traffic at the East Gate was scant compared to the more than 9,500 who entered by snowmobile from West Yellowstone, the busiest gate.
Bert Miller was one of the hardy few who rode a snowmobile through the East Gate and over Sylvan Pass this past winter.
“It was a beautiful trip through a real winter wonderland,” said Miller, president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, a group that advocates for access to public lands.
Miller and his wife toured the park with their two adult children, who had never before visited the park on snowmobiles.
“It was a completely new experience for my children, and I had always wanted to get them to go through the park that way,” he said. “We have such wonderful views between the East Gate and Canyon, with the frozen waterfalls, it’s the most beautiful side of the park in the winter.”
Park officials say they are still studying the data from the first season under the new winter-use plan, which ended more than 15 years of contentious public disputes over issues ranging from avalanche mitigation on Sylvan Pass to how many snowmobiles, if any, to allow into the park.
Overall, the season was a success, said Wade Vagias, a management assistant in Yellowstone who was instrumental in crafting the new plan.
An adaptive management policy will allow the National Park Service to fine-tune aspects of winter travel — like speed limits or new snowcoach treads and tires — while still soliciting public feedback and monitoring noise, pollution and wildlife disturbances, Vagias said.
Based on anecdotal accounts, self-guided sledders last winter did not appear to be significantly more prone to violating park rules than commercially guided groups, he said, although detailed data from law enforcement is not yet available for comparison.
Vagias reminded prospective self-guided sledders to review the park’s self-guided sled rules, particularly regulations requiring the use of best-available technology snowmobiles, which very few sledders own. New standards in place this winter will require the cleanest, quietest snowmobiles ever in the park. Snow coaches must meet new standards in 2016-17.
Miller rented BAT snowmobiles for his trip from Gary Fales Outfitting, the sole winter concessioner for the East Gate. Vendors at every entrance offer BAT snowmobiles for rent.
Applications for self-guided trips will be accepted online at recreation.gov Sept. 1-30. The program uses a lottery to award one self-guided group of up to five sleds per day from each of the park’s four winter entrances.
If your first choice for dates doesn’t work out under the lottery program, check back from Oct. 1 through the end of the season to book unclaimed dates or search for cancellation vacancies.
Or consider a snowcoach trip, which is how 63 percent of winter visitors entered the park last winter. And there’s always the option of skiing or snowshoeing into Yellowstone,which is how 273 sturdy souls entered through the East Gate last winter — more than the 269 who rode snowmobiles.