Family-Friendly Winter Weekends in West Yellowstone

Any parent or grandparent can tell you that taking a vacation with kids takes a little extra planning and organization. To some, planning a winter weekend getaway may seem daunting, but here are some tips for making it manageable.

Where to stay?

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West Yellowstone is a perfect location for a budget-friendly winter family vacation. There is a wide choice of lodging options from vacation rentals to cabins, clean family-owned motels and full service hotels. Ask about special family suites, rooms with complete kitchens, or amenities such as indoor pools, guest laundry access, and adjoining rooms. Click here for monthly savings on lodging, attractions, and activities in and around West Yellowstone.

West Yellowstone is also great place to try out a new winter activity for the first time. Cross country ski rentals and lessons are available for beginners and the groomed Rendezvous Trail Ski System is located at the southwestern edge of town. Beginning snowshoers can travel the groomed Boundary Trail (also dog-friendly) or join skiers on the Riverside Trail which leaves from West Yellowstone into Yellowstone National Park. There are beginner snowshoe hikes with National Forest or Yellowstone Park rangers that are great for families.

Snowmobile rentals (including clothing, gear, and even a guide if you want one) are available in a variety of models depending on skill level. There is a 400-mile groomed trail system that winds through southwestern Montana and down into Island Park, Idaho.

West Yellowstone also offers a perfect mix of indoor and outdoor winter activities. A good rule of thumb to remember is to not exceed 30 minutes to 2 hours when children trying a new winter activity for the first time.

What to do in the outdoors?

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Have you been thinking about taking a family trip to a place where you can try all different winter activities? A first cross country ski lesson and ski on the trails? A trip over the snow into Yellowstone in the winter?

Cross Country Skiing
There are a number of places where you can rent ski’s or snowshoes for the trails, including children’s sizes. Freeheel and Wheel (on Madison Avenue) offers equipment fittings, family lessons for first timers, and guided trail lessons.

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West Yellowstone offers some of the best cross-country skiing in the nation, with over 35 kilometers of groomed runs within the renowned Rendezvous Trail System. Located at the southwest corner of West Yellowstone (Geyser and Obsidian Streets), the Rendezvous Ski trail system covers varied terrain from gently rolling hills to more challenging climbs, descents, and turns. The view is always scenic whether winding through tall stands of lodge pole pine or open meadows embraced by nearby Lionhead Mountain. The trail system is unique because of its location at a high altitude adjacent to the Continental Divide that produces early and late season snows (November through April), as well as the most annual consistent snows in the continental U.S.

The Rendezvous Ski Trail System is situated at the southwest corner of West Yellowstone (south end of Geyser Street), the Rendezvous Ski Trail system covers over 35 KM+ of varied terrain from gently rolling hills to more challenging climbs, descents, and turns. The view is always scenic whether winding through tall stands of lodge pole pine or open meadows embraced by nearby Lionhead Mountain. The trail system is unique because of its location at a high altitude adjacent to the Continental Divide that produces early and late season snows. Skiers in the know call it “ultra-reliable” snow because it comes every year.

The trail system is located entirely on U.S. Forest Service land and it is managed through a cooperative partnership between the Forest Service, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce and the West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation (WYSEF). The Rendezvous Ski Trails are groomed on an as needed basis except on Tuesdays for both skate and classis skiing. Generally speaking, that means they are groomed before and during weekends and after snowstorms.

Trail passes are required. From December 1 through March 31, day passes are $5.00 and season passes are $25.00. Passes are available at several locations around town including the Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center, Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop, Freeheel & Wheel and at the trailhead. There is a different fee schedule during the month of November and the Yellowstone Ski Festival. During that time day passes are $10.00, three day passes are $25.00 and month of November passes are $45.00.

The Riverside Trail is accessible right from West Yellowstone from a spur road located along the fence break on Boundary Street (the east end of Madison Avenue at the park boundary). From there the trail follows a power line to the old service road and merges with it shortly before Riverside. The "Upriver" and "Downriver" loops combine for nearly ten kilometers of groomed track up and down the banks of the Madison River along with great views of Mt. Holmes and the Gallatin Mountain Range. Wildlife is abundant along the river and you could encounter bison, elk, deer, moose, coyotes and foxes. Watch for bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and an occasional river otter in the river.

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After one mile, you will experience the remnants of the 1988 Yellowstone fires and a realization of just how close the fires came to West Yellowstone. There are also stopping places along the way, great for a picnic break on a beautifully blue winter’s day. Riverside Trail is perfect for new skiers or families with young children as it crosses easy terrain and has no substantial change in elevation.

The Boundary Trail (pet friendly) offers 7.9km of trails that parallel Yellowstone’s western border. This easy trail is groomed to accommodate classic cross-country skiers and snowshoers alike. The Boundary Trail can be accessed from Boundary Street in West Yellowstone, the truck pull-out on Highway 191/287, and Baker's Hole Campground. (Note: dogs must be under control and owners must pick up after their pets.)

Two major cross-country festivals bookend West Yellowstone’s long winter. Over Thanksgiving, there’s the Yellowstone Ski Festival, a five-day event featuring two days of races, eight different cross-country ski clinics, free equipment demos by major ski manufacturers, and speakers. The first week of March brings the annual West Yellowstone Rendezvous Ski Race and Youth Ski Festival. Hundreds of skiers come from across the nation to participate in a variety of age classes and distances in both classic and freestyle of 5 to 50K lengths. The 50 kilometers is over 31 miles and races make two laps on the outmost trails of the Rendezvous system. Five feed stations are located along the course and staffed with local groups and volunteers.

The Youth Ski Festival follows the day after the Rendezvous Race. All kids aged 13 years and younger are encouraged to participate in events such as a relay race, an obstacle course, musical chairs, and a sprint. Parents are encouraged to cheer on all the little skiers. Monthly citizen’s races, open to all ages and abilities, offer unique Spam trophies and provide a great opportunity for anyone to try racing.

Snowshoeing
Snow shoeing is a low impact, low cost alternative to other winter activities. If you are new to the sport, join the fun every Saturday afternoon with a Yellowstone Park Ranger for a fun and informative snowshoe hike into Yellowstone Park. (The West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation).The walk is approximately 2-hours and covers about 2 miles along the fairly flat Riverside Trail. No reservations needed. Meet at 1:30 pm at the West Yellowstone Visitor Center (30 Yellowstone Avenue in West Yellowstone). Bring: Snowshoes, water, snack, extra clothes, camera, etc. and dress in layers.

snowshoeing

If you love history too, try a snow shoe tour at Refuge Point located 23 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana on Highway 287. The Gallatin National Forest will offer ranger interpretive snowshoe hikes two Saturdays each month during the winter. The 2-hour hike covers two miles along interpretive exhibits that explain Refuge Point was a vital meeting place after the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Meet at the Forest Service building on the north edge of West Yellowstone along Hwy 191 at 1:00pm to caravan to Refuge Point Trail. For more information please call (406) 823-6961. No experience necessary. Dress in layers and wear snow-type boots. Bring along snowshoes, water, snack and binoculars.

snowmobiling

Snowmobiling
The West Yellowstone area provides a wide range trails that meet the demands of beginning, intermediate, and experienced riders. There are a number of ‘family friendly” trails perfect for beginners, or leading to some off-trail powder for the more experienced riders in your group. These trails are perfect for “two-up” snowmobiles where two passengers (parent and child or two adults) can share.

West Yellowstone businesses can provide everything for your snowmobile ride. Clothing, helmets, gloves, and boots are available from small children to large adult sizes. A wide range of snowmobiles are available. Some businesses also offer guide services for these forest trails. For more information, call 406-646-7701.

The Madison Arm Loop is located north and west of West Yellowstone and is 20 miles in length. This is an excellent trail for beginning snowmobilers or someone looking for a nice trail ride. The northern edge of the Madison Arm Loop skirts along the edge of Hebgen Lake, while the west edge goes along the South Fork of the Madison River. (Caution: ice along Hebgen Lake is not safe to ride on.)

This could easily be considered the most relaxing ride of the trails in the Yellowstone area. The trail is well maintained and usually provides great wildlife viewing opportunities. If you are new to snowmobiling, consider this as a first ride before heading out to the other trails in the system.

See the snow ghosts of Two Top on the most famous trail in all of North America! Two Top Trail is a popular choice for its variety of terrain and 2,000-foot elevation gain. The trail is groomed, and powder fields abound. From the upper areas, the surrounding mountain ranges come into view, including the Wyoming’s Tetons, Idaho’s Centennial Mountains, Lionshead in Montana, and Yellowstone National Park. Constant driven winds create ghostly ice patterns plastered on the trees at the top of this mountain creating the famous "snow ghosts."

This trail has everything and makes it one of the most visited trails in the system. Whether you are a novice or an expert, you will enjoy this well-groomed trail. This trail is a large loop with plenty of extra off-trail riding for those in search of more adventure.

ice skating

Ice Skating & Sledding
Ice skating is available at the West Yellowstone Ice Rink from mid-December to mid-March (depending on the weather). The rink is made and maintained by West Yellowstone volunteers.

It is located on Faithful Street which is at the western end of Yellowstone Avenue (the street that goes into Yellowstone Park). It is located about a block down on the east side of the street. The entrance is right across from Westmart Do-It-Center. The rink is lighted until 9 PM each night.

Westmart offers daily ice skate rentals for great rates. Adults are just $5.00; kids are just a $5.00 deposit that you get back when you return the skates. Westmart is open from Monday through Saturday during the winter.

You will also find a Kid’s Sledding Hill at the ice rink. (Bring your sled or you can purchase one at Westmart or the Roundup Trading Post on Dunraven Avenue.) There is also a great sledding hill in the City Park, located at the corner of Dunraven and Highway 20 (Firehole Avenue). Note: sledding and skating is unsupervised and at your own risk.

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Local events & activities
Winter brings a variety of events to West Yellowstone. Don’t miss the monthly “Sleddin’ & S’mores” party. Bring your sled to try out the sledding hill at the West Yellowstone City Park. Then, walk over to warm up at the bonfire, drink some hot chocolate, and make a S’more with free fixin’s furnished by the WY Chamber.

Kids ’n’ Snow weekends are being planned for Winter 2012 where kids learn to have fun outside in the winter.

The Spam Cup races take place throughout the winter. These citizen ski races are open to every age and racing ability. Winners take home the highly coveted SPAM can trophies.

The World Snowmobile Expo culminates a year of Snocross racing with three days of racing thrills, the popular Freestyle Aerial demo, and evening fun from March 11-13, 2011. Or, wind down the winter at the Equinox Ski Challenge on March 19-20, 2011.

For a full list of events and activities in West Yellowstone, check out the calendar

geyser

Take a Trip into Yellowstone
While Yellowstone logs more than three million visitors annually, only five percent of those come during the winter months. No other season rivals the wonder of Yellowstone in winter. Erupting geysers and hissing vents propel amazing clouds of steam into clear blue skies.

From December 15th through March 15th each winter, the west entrance to Yellowstone Park opens to a unique experience and adventure. Each day, commercially guided snowcoach and snowmobile tours travel over snow covered, groomed roads from the west entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana to popular destinations inside the wintry heart of Yellowstone.

snowcoach

Families with small children, seniors, or physically challenged may want to consider taking a snowcoach as a relaxed, climate-controlled, and environmentally friendly way to tour the park. Your driver/guide provides real-time information as you travel through the park. It is also a chance to interact with your family or friends, and meet others on the coach. You can dress in layers and travel comfortably, enjoying the elevated view through large windows.

Some families choose to tour by snowmobile because of the individual mobility and more personalized interaction with the environment. You’ll feel the cold of a winter breeze balanced by the warmth of an afternoon sun and experience close encounters with wildlife as bison and elk walk and graze along the roads. Note: You have to have a valid driver’s license in order to drive a snowmobile in Yellowstone Park.

Visit www.destinationyellowstone.com for more information on Yellowstone tours or call 406.646.7701.

What to do indoors?

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skier

The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is open year round (these grizzlies don’t hibernate) and offers kid-friendly activities and presentations. The new Wolf River Valley habitat features a log cabin complete with large stone fireplace. Relax on the benches, while listening to a naturalist presentation, or just watching the two wolf packs on either side through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Visit http://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org/ for more information and to print off a coupon for $1.00 discount on admission.

The neighboring Yellowstone IMAX Theatre offers large-screen movies including a feature presentation on “Yellowstone” and other wildlife and adventure shows. The IMAX is open Thursday through Saturday during the winter. www.yellowstoneimax.com

Kids will want to sign-up for the Yellowstone Junior Snow Ranger Program at the West Yellowstone Visitor Center. Kids from 5 to 12 can earn a cool winter badge when they complete their activities. The program is based on age-appropriate activities and an easy to follow activity book (for a small charge). Each child chooses from activities focusing on geology, wildlife adaptation, weather, snow crystals and more.

The Bear’s Den Theatre (located on Electric Street across from the Holiday Inn) plays new features. Enjoy a small time theatre location where the snacks are reasonable too!

What to pack?

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Follow these easy tips for making sure your kids are suited up for comfort and safety this winter.

  • Dress in layers. Start with a good quality pair of thermal underwear tops and bottoms. Add thick, warm socks (wool not cotton). Next, layer on a turtleneck or sweater and a quality pair of water/wind resistant bibs or pants.
  • The ideal coat should also have wind flaps over the zippers and should have the ability to fit snuggly around the child’s waist and wrists in order to keep out the cold.
  • Your head, hands and feet get the coldest so make sure to wear a warm hat that covers the ears. Quality gloves and boots that fit properly will keep snow out and everything dry and warm. (Avoid long scarves which can get tangled.)
  • Clothing should be both water and wind resistant. (Bright colors will stand out and not blend in with snow drifts!) Even with multiple layers of clothing, it still important for children to move freely. Thinner, well insulated clothing works better than thick or too tight clothing that is tempting to remove.
  • The sun’s rays can still cause sunburn in the winter on both sunny and gray days. Apply SPF 30 sunscreen to any exposed areas of the face, and use good quality goggles or sun glasses.

While on your winter adventure, remember:

  • Keep hydrated. Even though it is cold, it is still dry and high! Bring (and continually drink) extra bottles of water or juice. This is especially important for children.
  • Children should always explore with an adult. Watch for animals, like bison and elk, and give them plenty of space.
  • Stay on marked trails and boardwalks. Don’t climb large snow banks next to roads and driveways where you could slide down into traffic.

Suggestions for a Winter Weekend Itinerary

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Friday

  • Arrive in West Yellowstone
  • Spend the afternoon taking a ski lesson and then exploring the Rendezvous Ski Trail
  • Rent some snowshoes and join a guided hike for beginners with a Forest Service guide
  • Rent some ice skates from Westmart and take a spin around the West Yellowstone ice rink
  • Explore the small shops along Canyon and Madison Avenue
  • Share a pizza
  • Take a swim in the hotel pool or take in “Yellowstone” at the IMAX Theater

Saturday

  • Take snowcoach or snowmobile into Yellowstone Park (all day adventure)
  • Attend a Yellowstone Park ranger presentation at the Visitor Center at 7 PM
  • Take in a movie at the Bear’s Den Cinema

Sunday

  • Pancake breakfast
  • Visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center (Keeper Kids at 10 AM)
  • Rent snowmobiles and explore the groomed trails around West Yellowstone
  • Visit Klondike Dreams kennel and meet some real sled dogs
  • Ski into Yellowstone Park on the Riverside Drive ski trail
  • Upload your new family photo
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