Notes from the Road: Snowmobiling in Cooke City
I have to disclaim here that I’m not a snowmobiler (though it is on my 2014 Bucket List of things to do). So when I noticed that I wasn’t giving Montana’s Yellowstone Country its due on being an unbelievable destination for snowmobiling, I decided to call in the big guns (okay, I called my good friend Max, who is an avid backcountry snowmobiler and skier). He was kind enough to give me a run down of all the things you need to know as a sled head in Yellowstone Country. Below is his recap of a snowmobiling/backcountry skiing trip to Cooke City last year. Hopefully, it inspires you to do some of the same.
Thanks so much for chatting today, Max. First things first: when did you start snowmobiling (aka sledding) and what kind of sled do you ride?
I ride a 2012 Polaris 800 Pro-RMK 163. I first started sledding in high school (Editor’s note: Max is from Idaho. He WOULD sled in high school.), but then didn't ride again until after college, when I had enough money to get a new sled. Braaaap! (Editor’s note: I don’t know what that means, either.)
Okay, so we know that you go to Cooke City a lot and we know that you do a lot of snowmobiling and also backcountry skiing. Tell us about the last time you were there.
The last trip I took to Cooke City was for Corn Fest, a skiing and sledding shenanigans of sorts, during the spring of 2013. (Editor’s note: Corn Fest usually takes place the third weekend in April, or the weekend directly AFTER Big Sky Resort, Bridger Bowl and Red Lodge Mountain shut down their lifts.) Per our usual schedule, we left Bozeman way too late and got to Cooke City at night, in the dark.
This trip consisted of a large group (six of us). We all ended up staying in different places. Some people grabbed hotel rooms, but my friend Kyle and I camped in his camper, in the dump. (Editor’s note: Literally. It’s the town dump.) It's really not bad. A ton of people stay there and Cooke City is cool enough to even bring in firewood for everyone to use. We cooked on a camp stove out of the truck, brought little stoves and snacks to cook in the woods, made some meals at our friend’s cabin and, of course, ended most days at the Miners Saloon.
Why did you bring your sleds on this trip?
We needed the sleds for two reasons: access and fun. To get to the best skiing places, it can be over ten miles into the backcountry. And sleds are just fun to ride; I ski half the time and sled the other half.
How did you choose where to sled and ski once you got to Cooke City?
Typically, we follow the road out of town (on snowmobiles) and take Lulu or Daisy Pass to get into the fun stuff. South of town and in Yellowstone National Park are all good skiing areas, too (no sleds allowed, though).
You can only ride in a certain area north of Cooke. South of town is pretty much skinning/backcountry skiing only. The area south of town is surrounded by wilderness (and Yellowstone National Park) that you can't ride. The gas stations in Cooke City have maps. Grab one when you pull into town and you'll be set.
What kind of gear did you bring on this trip?
Well, if you going to camp at the dump, bring your tent and warm sleeping bag. If you're in a cabin/hotel, bring the typical stuff (mom says bring your toothbrush). Below is my gear list, which doesn’t include what I'll be wearing while riding/skiing (including avalanche beacon).
• avalanche backpack (if you can afford a new sled you don't have an excuse of not having an avy airbag)
• food and water for the day
• first aid kit & lighter
• extra warm layer
• extra pair of dry gloves
• snow saw
Aren’t you scared of avalanches? How do you mitigate the risk of getting caught in one?
Ha, the best way to mitigate avalanche risk is to never be in an area where an avalanche can occur. However, that's not the point of Cooke City's backcountry. So the best option is take an avalanche course and make sure all your friends do, too. Some areas are safe in the morning and death zones later the same day. Not only is having all the essential equipment important, but knowing how to use it will save your lives. And if you aren't familiar, get a guide. People die in Cooke City every year, so being prepared should be top priority. And, hell yes, I'm scared of avalanches. Some days, just low angle powder skiing in the trees is all I need to feel the rush of being out in the backcountry.
Okay, spill it. Any inside info about hanging around in Cooke City?
Inside info? Make friends at the dump and Miners Saloon. People are pretty open to show you around, especially during Corn Fest.
Anything crazy happen on this trip? Sleds getting stuck?
Sleds get stuck all the time, so that's not that exciting. However, trying to tow one of my trip-mate’s broken sleds out of Lulu Pass was. His sled broke and I tried to tow it back to town by going over the pass, but my sled wouldn’t make it, so I turned around before I got stuck. When I circled back around to go down, the towrope broke and the free sled went ripping down the mountain and literally destroyed several large trees. To our surprise, no real damage other than that was done. Super lucky.
Who would you recommend should undertake a trip like this?
The type of person that should go to Cooke City? Someone looking for adventure since Cooke City is literally at the end of the road. (Well not really; the road past Cooke City just turns into a snowmobile trail.) Also, you should have backcountry experience; it's definitely not a beginner’s locale.
Thanks for sharing with us today, Max. Okay, your turn. Got any questions about a sled or sled/ski combo trip in Yellowstone Country? Leave them in the comments below.