Montana’s Yellowstone Country has more backcountry terrain than you can shake an adjustable ski pole at. If you’re packing proper avalanche safety gear (probe/shovel/beacon at a minimum), capable partners and some know-how (Avalanche 1 certification recommended), then your opportunities will be limitless.
A little hesitant on any of these points? Beartooth Powder Guides can get you to the goods; or take home some serious knowledge from a course with America’s foremost avi educators at Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
Earning your turns means putting in a little extra effort; but reliable snow, big scenery, variety of terrain and uncrowded trails make the quad-burn well worth it.
Sidecountry is Backcountry
If you’re just getting into backcountry skiing, you might try skiing “sidecountry” first. Sidecountry is unpatrolled, ungroomed, unmarked avalanche country, either lift-served or almost-lift-served, like Bridger Bowl’s Ridge and Slushman’s area, or Big Sky’s Headwaters. Please note: sidecountry requires all the same precautions as backcountry skiing; it’s simply easier to access because a lift takes you all or partway there.
Sidecountry offers a great way to practice digging avalanche pits and get the hang of skiing with a pack on never-groomed snow, without schooling your legs on the full haul uphill. Watch for special events when the resorts host sidecountry tours or hire a guide to show you around.
Yellowstone Country’s Backcountry Hot (Cold?) Spots
That splitboarder at the trailhead routing through the hatch of her rusting Subaru in a jacket that costs as much as your mortgage payment? Yeah, she’s sponsored and has climbed Everest and K2. But she’s probably the same lady that will spread out a map on the hood of your car, share some of her bison jerky and give you some solid advice. Take it. A thirty minute drive from Bozeman, respectable terrain and reliable snow make Hyalite the go-to location for local skinners.
Start your day by rubbing shoulders with them in Bozeman’s quaint downtown. Coffee? Choose the closest steamed-up door on Main Street. Save the breakfast joints for your rest day, because some of them are so good that it can take the morning to get a table on weekends. One-stop-shop for to-go breakfast and trail snacks at the Bozeman Food Coop, either downtown or on 9th and Main. Chalet Sports can give you dialed in directions to Hyalite Canyon (but basically, head south on 19th and turn south at the sign for Hyalite). Sample the 30ish degree slopes east of the Moser parking area; or the flanks of Mount Blackmore west of its trailhead’s parking area.
Yellowstone isn’t just geysers and big mammals. It can yield high altitude powder that is light, dry and plentiful. Start your day at Freeheel and Wheel for unparalleled coffee, breakfast burritos and—most importantly—skin track beta. Point north on Highway 191 and take your pick from low angle/low risk powder at Tele Meadows (west side of US191 near mile marker 18); ridge laps at Specimen Creek — keep skinning, the goods are back there on the south side of the drainage (east side of 191 near mile marker 27); or take a chance on any number of skin tracks that sprout from the woods.
Scoffing at all the slopeside convenience of the resort? Leave the high-speed quads behind in favor of the quads below your hips. Start the day in Town Center at Blue Moon Bakery. Grab an egg sandwich and a seven-layer bar (to stash in your pack for later—you’re welcome) and walk across the parking lot to Grizzly Outfitters. They’ll point you 20 minutes west to Beehive Basin’s gorgeous alpine cirque and wide-open let-’er-rip turns; or 20 minutes south to Bacon Rind’s sheltered trees and meadows.
Access is not Cooke’s strongpoint: only one winter entry point, two hours from the interstate and landlocked by Yellowstone National Park. Some say remote, we say pow-duh. So if your priorities lean toward a place with as many dogs as people, 700 inches of fluff every winter (and by winter we mean October to April) and massive alpine terrain, then step into the Snow Globe. Tolerance for (or even affection of) snowmobiles will go a long way. You’ll be sharing, and if you’re lucky you might even get a tow toward, Daisy Pass. Set up base camp at Soda Butte Lodge for good rooms and great burgers. You might want to order two because tomorrow is going to be a big day.
Yellowstone Country’s winter terrain will keep you fully engaged with everything from mellow powder turns to fully committed couloir drop-ins; the locals will point your compass in the right direction and keep you well fed; and it’s almost a sure bet that the big sky will bring you powder mornings or bluebird afternoons.