Yellowstone National Park today again welcomes visitors from across the country and around the globe. A large percentage will travel to the world’s first national park through my community of West Yellowstone. They will come to experience timeless natural wonders in a season of breathtaking contrasts: Old Faithful’s boiling eruptions shooting into sub-zero air; waterfalls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone frozen as if by a spell; bison, perhaps even wolves, crossing steaming thermal basins.
Yet for all its continuity, Yellowstone has recently witnessed considerable change in its winter season. In West Yellowstone, the park’s most popular winter portal, many more visitors now arrive with skis, snowshoes, cameras and spotting scopes. They increasingly express a desire to learn about Yellowstone and to be a part of its protection. A growing percentage is eager to access the Park’s interior by motorized vehicle, but then to get out under their own power on boardwalks and trails.
Demand for active tours
In short, Americans are increasingly demanding specific opportunities and qualities in their winter visits to Yellowstone that we did not always emphasize. Gateway businesses have responded, providing new services. As a result, the park’s atmosphere and the access available into Yellowstone from its western doorstep have changed markedly in just the past five years.
One challenge for those of us welcoming winter visitors — a major opportunity as it turns out — has simply been demographic. Among tens of millions of “baby boomers,” exercise has become a quality-of-life issue. Boomers wanting to be more physically active, and interactive with the outdoors, are a big part of the increasing percentage of winter visitors arriving in West Yellowstone wanting to ski, snowshoe or walk as part of their national park adventure.
To accommodate this growing demand, tour operators have equipped more snowcoaches with ski racks. Some businesses have expanded tour offerings to include guided ski and snowshoe outings. Meanwhile, more visitors now combine a day in the park with another day just outside on West Yellowstone’s “Rendezvous Ski Trails,” 35 world-class kilometers in gently rolling lodgepole pine forest, groomed by the chief groomer at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Another shift in public preferences has required more from communities like ours that serve as gateways to unique natural places. Visitors increasingly want more than simple access. They want to learn about these special areas, and to be assured that the way in which they are visiting is helping to protect fragile resources for other visitors and for their children and grandchildren. More visitors seek out tour operators making special efforts in visitor education and resource protection.
Modern snowcoaches and updated historic snowcoaches are a popular response to these visitor preferences, improving protection of Yellowstone’s air quality while reducing traffic and enhancing opportunities to hear the park’s quiet and its unique sounds.
Meanwhile, gateway tour businesses have hired guides who work with the National Park Service’s outstanding interpretive staff and provide the wealth of information that visitors are increasingly seeking about Yellowstone’s wildlife, geology and history.
Winter access now is reliable on those occasions at the shoulders of the winter season when snow is too light on park roads to be passable for snowmobiles. Snowcoaches equipped with rubber tracks can dependably travel the roads in these conditions. This assures visitors who book vacations well in advance, and travel great distances, that they will be able to access and enjoy Yellowstone. Yellowstone also added its first ADA-compliant snowcoach last winter, making the park more accessible to visitors who use wheelchairs.
In all these ways, West Yellowstone has helped usher in a new chapter in the 137-year-old love affair with the wonderland of geysers and wildlife. Visitors who come this winter will also see improvements in access that meet the increasing desire of winter visitors to be physically active, learn about Yellowstone and help with its stewardship.
Randy Roberson and his wife, Jeanine, own and operate YellowstoneVacations.com. The park’s west entrance and route to Old Faithful is scheduled to open this morning while most other interior park roads were to open Wednesday for guided snowcoach and snowmobile travel.