Man riding a snowmobile off a mountainside.
Chuck Thompson

Adventure Found: Exploring Montana’s Big Sky Backcountry by Snowmobile

We shrug off a frigid mist, awestruck. Deep in Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest, we’re perched on a platform, witnessing the Snake River froth into a torrent that plunges 10 stories through a frozen tableau of volcanic rock and turquoise-hued ice. For sure, Mesa Falls is a rare sight to behold. And if you want to behold it this time of year, you need a snowmobile.

That’s how our group arrived here, just a few hours into a two-day wilderness snowmobiling excursion skirting the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. We rode in via a wide trail gone a bit craggy in an overnight refreeze. At regular intervals, the tops of 45-mph-speed-limit signs poked out of deep snow, a caution to cars during seasons when the paved scenic byway beneath is not buried. Fortunately, there is no snowmobiling equivalent of a speed trap, as we’ve been easily exceeding that threshold.

River with a group of people standing on a snowy platform observing.
Chuck Thompson

The overcast day began in decidedly more cozy conditions, with hot coffees at Western Cafe up the road in Bozeman. A nearby storefront bears John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley quote, “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love.” I feel the same depth of emotion for Western’s breakfast special of bacon, eggs, hash browns, biscuits and thick sausage gravy.

That beyond-hearty meal is still fueling our trio when we rendezvous with guides Tony Jenkins and Steve Martin at Pond’s Lodge, barely across the state line in Island Park, ID. They in turn introduce us to our Ski-Doo snowmobiles (aka “snow machines,” aka “sleds”), including a pair of spanking-new Summit models equipped with 165-horsepower engines, heavy-duty suspensions and, perhaps most welcome, heated handle grips. In snowmobiler lingo, these are “mountain sleds” designed for deep-powder snow, conditions we won’t likely encounter on this initial, acclimating day.

My Ski-Doo is summarily nicknamed Scooby, while its gleaming black stablemate shall hereby be known as Darth. The one with tangerine accents? Orange Whip, of course.

Snowmobiles have grown steadily more powerful, capable and technically engineered over the last decade, and the first skill we must master is managing the responsive thumb throttles, especially as we navigate tight bridges and asphalt crossings on our shortcut to more remote surroundings. During winter, however, even these areas are patterned with hundreds of miles of well-established snowmobile trails. Mountain sleds are prone to overheating on such hardpack, so Jenkins demonstrates a neat trick of churning his machine’s track until it sinks into a trailside drift to cool the engine.

Shortly after we depart the waterfall, our little convoy eschews the groomed routes and veers off-piste into rolling forest, the snowmobiles’ engines keening like eager chainsaws. I mimic Jenkins’ weaving, improvised route through stands of fir and spruce. The sizable local population of grizzly and black bears is in hibernation, but I half expect to flush some elk, moose, or even wolves known to reside here. Instead, I glimpse only a plump skunk scampering for deeper brush. As we continue our cross-country maneuvering, it seems that the gaps between tree trunks are getting narrower, but I manage to match Jenkins’ pace if not his finesse. Until I fucking don’t, that is, poorly executing the lean needed for a tight turn and tucking straight into a sturdy lodgepole pine. The Summit’s bumper rail performs its job admirably, not passing the jolt on to me, but Scooby’s nose is no longer factory pristine.

“No big deal as long as you’re OK,” assures Martin as we dislodge the sled enough that it can continue forward. “All you did was ding the Tupperware.” (Apparently, that’s more snowmobiler lingo for any part of a machine that isn’t mechanical.) I thank him for the hand and for not acknowledging that I’m a klutz. My trip companions, on the other hand, won’t be so kind.

Men standing around a crashed snowmobile next to a tree.
Chuck Thompson

Once clear of the woods, we circle around for a breather at Pond’s Lodge’s bustling cantina. (At some point in riding nearly 50 miles we crossed the Continental Divide, and that deserves to be celebrated.) Seated near the entrance, we draw a steady stream of hirsute, wind-chapped dudes who chat up our guides with inside jokes and rundowns of riding conditions in various locales. Indeed, Jenkins and Martin are hailed so often that we’re compelled to do a little Googling. Our reward is a trove of clips of them pulling off mountainside climbs and leaps that rival the extreme videos playing in a loop on the big screen above the bar.

Jenkins is a renowned backcountry rider who has ridden not only just about every peak and valley in this gorgeously rugged tristate area, but in 2019 was part of the first team ever known to explore remote parts of Greenland on snowmobiles. And that was soon after he survived a massive Rockies avalanche that tossed him through old-growth forest like a rag doll and totaled his sled. Martin arrives at guiding from a somewhat different discipline. He’s an X Games medalist and former snowcross racer, and in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s like short-track motocross, except with snowmobiles—frankly, it looks nuts.

It’s fine that you’ve never heard of these guys. Snowmobiling ranks pretty far down the list of preferred powersports in the United States, with about 1.3 million registered sleds. (Ownership is highest in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.) Compare that to about 1 million boats. No surprise, really, given that most of the country doesn’t experience the prerequisite of consistent, heavy snowfall. For people who live or recreate in wintry lands, however, snowmobiling can become a way of life. Hell, in this Yellowstone-adjacent area, it’s practically a cult. Snowmobiles are parked outside every beer joint, some lodges are reached only by snowmobile until spring, and riders discuss the fine points of sled models the way that big-city tuners regard rival Nissans and Mazdas. At one point during the day’s ride, we even zoomed past a family outing of two vintage snowmobiles casually towing children in tubes, one cradling a tiny dog that appeared to be asleep.

Yellowstone Park itself can be accessed only by rental group tours and a restricted number of permitted personal snowmobiles per day. Bordering Forest Service lands are more accessible, offering hundreds of miles of trails and uncrowded backcountry riding. Astoundingly, there’s even a well-blazed 360-mile trail that stretches along the Absaroka and Wind River mountain ranges from Lander, WY, up to West Yellowstone, MT. (You might want to pack a thermos of hot cocoa for that trip.) All in all, the combination of riding conditions, a long season and stunning scenery compels some folks to claim this region as the snowmobiling capital of the world. Those might be fighting words in other winter wonderlands, but when you crest a high-elevation ridge in Big Sky Country throwing a rooster tail of powder, it’s hard to imagine better. Warmer, yes. Better, no.

Man riding a ride snowmobile.
Chuck Thompson

We saddle up the next morning under bluebird skies at Red Canyon, just north of Hebgen Lake in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. As the kinks are worked out of stiff back and shoulder muscles, it becomes obvious that our guides are electing to make this day more challenging, aiming us at deeper snow that clings to the sides of much steeper inclines.

 

Just days before our arrival, local media reported that snowmobile accidents are on the rise, mostly owing to inexperienced riders who have taken up the pastime during the pandemic. Most incidents don’t involve avalanches, but in these environs, it’s a real and present danger. So despite already being mummified by gear, we add phone-size beacons that can locate a buried victim to within inches, and airbag-deploying backpacks that reduce the risk of trauma and asphyxiation common to avalanches.

We’re accompanied today by Bret Rasmussen, a backcountry old hand who knows this area like the back of his own, given that he was born on a nearby farm. Known as “The Professor,” he’s something of a legend in competitive snowmobiling, having won the annual World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb in Jackson Hole six times. (Check out some videos if you like gnarly wipeouts.) Indeed, he helped invent the type of deep-snow tracks currently propelling us up the mountain.

Gaining elevation quickly, we follow the line of a hiking trail through a thick belt of evergreens, sometimes veering off on our own zigzaggy paths, using our whole bodies to wrest the sleds through turns. It doesn’t help that this zone is studded with mounded “whoops” that require a butts-up stance to absorb the roll. This is technical, deceptively cardio-cranking work, jacking my body temperature so quickly my goggles fog.

If anything, a large clearing that continues to rise above us is more intimidating, as in-the-moment focus is replaced by the question of what the hell to do next. The answer is to ascend via a relatively level, switchbacking route. Even so, sharp turns on inclines must be executed to keep progressing upward, which requires the technique of driving while standing with both feet on the uphill running board in order not to flip. “The key to control is balancing the sled on either its right or left edge,” Rasmussen shouts, “carving like a skier would.” Easier said than done, but we all somehow make it through.

OK, there may have been one ungainly tump-over. Or two.

Man standing with arms raised on a snowmobile on top of a mountain plateau
Chuck Thompson

Once we crest into a relatively flat, open meadow, the 8,500-foot elevation granting stellar views of other alpine peaks and the valley floor, we test other vital maneuvers, including rocking and gunning a sled to unstick it from several feet of powder. We’re feeling pretty accomplished until we request a few tricks from Jenkins and Martin, then sit back in awe as they roar over bumps that launch them over our heads, only to drift back to earth in smooth landings.

As we descend the mountain to beat the dusk, we realize we’ve done things and seen things that two days ago seemed unlikely—and we realize just how tired we are. Tired and hungry. Chimney smoke curling from the Bar N Ranch is a most welcome sight. Inside the main lodge, under the taxidermied gaze of an enormous bison, five blazing fireplaces defrost our hands—once we can pry off our riding gloves.

There is bourbon and tequila to be poured, and soon after, dinner arrives—roasted potatoes, venison osso buco and a life-affirming huckleberry barbecue sauce. We dig in greedily, and might be content to refuel in silence. But there are too many moments to relive before the immediacy of novel experience can melt away. It’s almost a shame that we haven’t planned to ride tomorrow. Then again, the forecast does call for fresh snow.

Other Prime Destinations for Backcountry Snowmobiling

1. Camp Hale

Colorado

If this former U.S. Army base was good enough for training the 10th Mountain Division for winter combat, it’s good enough for you. Trails access the landscapes of Eagle River Valley, while even guided tours attain panoramic views of the Rockies. Rentals: Nova Guide

2. West Dover

Vermont

Boasting an annual 158 inches of snow, the aptly named Mount Snow resort launches snowmobile rides into the Green Mountains. A trail system that combines pine woods and frozen Lake Whitingham appeals even to experienced sledders. Rentals: Snowmobile Vermont

3. Katahdin

Maine

Maine’s Interconnected Trail System links more snowmobile trails than any other northeastern state; the Katahdin region alone offers a 400-mile network that delivers dramatic views of its namesake peak. Just watch out for moose! Rentals: New England Outdoor Center

4. Upper Peninsula

Michigan

Home to the International 500 Snow- mobile Race, the sparsely populated U.P. is latticed by 3,000 miles of trails through state forests and along two Great Lakes. The state tourism web- site updates riding conditions. Rentals: Munising Snowmobile Rentals

5. St. Germain / Eagle River

Wisconsin

St. Germain’s BoBoen Club maintains hundreds of miles of trails that cross old-growth forests and frozen lakes and connect to an equally sprawling system at Eagle River, home to the World Champion- ship Snowmobile Derby. Rentals: St. Germain Rentals

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