Cooke City, Montana: The Perfect Yellowstone National Park Winter Experience

Most people have heard of Yellowstone National Park, and a majority consider the park to be a summer destination. However, Yellowstone offers a truly unique winter experience that is entirely different from what visitors see …

Most people have heard of Yellowstone National Park, and a majority consider the park to be a summer destination. However, Yellowstone offers a truly unique winter experience that is entirely different from what visitors see during the summer months. In winter, the park is blanketed in sparkling, powdery snow, and the fresh mountain air is cold and pure. The cold air provides a perfect setting of contrast with the hot steam that rises from the park’s countless geysers, mud pots, and steam vents. Yellowstone winter scenes provide legendary opportunities for artists, photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts who seek a truly unique experience.

Without doubt, Yellowstone National Park offers visitors a one-of-a-kind vacation experience during the winter season. Nowhere else on Earth will you find a landscape as unique, awe-inspiring, and mysterious as Yellowstone in the winter. Winter visitors will certainly want to visit Old Faithful Village, where they can observe and photograph the world-famous Old Faithful Geyser as it’s boiling hot waters are forced high into the cold mountain air. In addition, the Old Faithful area is home to numerous other geysers and hot springs, and the landscape is like no other with the contrast of rising steam in the cold air.

The most popular attractions for winter visitors include the Old Faithful area, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at Canyon Village. Winter transportation in most of the park is limited to over-the-snow vehicles such as snowmobiles and snowcoaches. However, visitors can drive an automobile across the northern portion of the park from Mammoth Hot Springs (the north entrance) to Cooke City (the northeast entrance). This point of information is significant, because Cooke City is one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Unless you have your own snowmobile, there is only one way to access Cooke City during the winter season.

Those visitors who do not bring their own snowmobiles (which is the majority) must access Cooke City by entering Yellowstone National Park through the north entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs. To do so, visitors must travel onto Interstate 90 in Montana, exit the interstate at Livingston, Montana, and drive south on Highway 89 to the park’s north entrance. Once visitors enter the park, they drive into Mammoth Hot Springs, a major attraction, and then turn east onto the park’s only road open to automobiles during the winter. They then follow the road all the way to the northeast entrance, where they exit the park and drive about four miles to the end of the road at Cooke City, Montana.

As previously stated, Cooke City is one of the best-kept secrets around Yellowstone National Park. Each year, countless visitors miss out on this spectacular place simple because they do not know that it exists. Although Cooke City is absolutely beautiful in both summer and winter, it is best known as an incredible winter destination. There are three primary things that draw visitors to Cooke City during the winter: wolf-viewing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.

Some of the best wolf-viewing opportunities in Yellowstone National Park are available in Lamar Valley during the winter season. Lamar Valley is located just a short drive from Cooke City; and in fact, it is closer to Cooke City than any other community inside the park. Each winter, photographers, wildlife viewers, and outdoor enthusiasts journey to Lamar Valley to watch the wolves as they hunt and socially interact. Lamar Valley is vast and open country, and the wolves are generally easier to spot in the winter as their bodies contrast with the pure white snow. Wolves come in all sorts of colors from white to brown to black, but in most cases, they are easy to see in the winter landscape. Cooke City offers a close, convenient, and beautiful location from which to base a winter wolf-viewing vacation.

Another popular attraction of Cooke City during the winter season is its countless miles of perfect terrain for backcountry cross-country skiing. In fact, all land south of Highway 212 is dedicated solely for cross-country skiers, and no snowmobiling is allowed in that zone. In addition, there are untold miles of ski trails inside the park just a few miles from Cooke City, and skiers can explore millions or acres of pristine Yellowstone wilderness.

Finally, the number one attraction of Cooke City in the winter is backcountry snowmobiling. While off-road snowmobiling is illegal inside Yellowstone National Park, Cooke City is located four miles outside of the park surrounded by millions and millions of acres of wilderness. Located at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Cooke City is famous as a mecca for backcountry snowmobiling with countless acres of roadless terrain to explore. Winter visitors can literally snowmobile right out of the hotel or lodge parking lots, and head into the rugged backcountry. For those less experienced snowmobilers, there are miles and miles of groomed and well-signed trails that wind throughout the forested mountains and open meadows. Beginners can follow the groomed trails, explore the scenic backcountry, and venture off-trail on any of the numerous open meadows along the way.

For the more experienced snowmobiler, Cooke City offers one of the world’s best locations for challenging, backcountry snowmobiling. Steep chutes, mountainsides, open meadows, winding ravines, snow cornices, creek bottoms, and lakes are all present in the area. To experienced riders, Cooke City is known as the steep and deep with its rugged mountain terrain and powdery “cold smoke” snow. With an average of 500 inches of snow per year, Cooke City has plenty of “cold smoke” to offer. Whether a visitor is interested in easy trail riding or challenging experiences such as high-marking or tree-riding, Cooke City has it.

One of the most popular snowmobile trails is the Daisy Pass Trail, which is accessible off of Highway 212 (you can ride your snowmobile on the road east of Cooke City). The Daisy Pass Trail peels off of Highway 212 to the north just a short ride east of town. Riders can snowmobile all the way up the well-groomed two-lane trail to the top of Daisy Pass. This majestic pass offers panoramic views of the Beartooth Mountains, and it marks the beginning of the more advanced terrain. From the top of Daisy Pass, experienced riders can travel north down the backside of the pass into a wide open area that consists of every type of riding experience imaginable. There are open meadows, patches of forest, ravines, creek bottoms, and steep mountainsides. The area is known as Abundance Valley, and it includes countless miles of diverse terrain. Whether you want to high-mark (climb as high as you can on a mountainside), ride through trees, or simply carve up some tracks in fresh deep powder snow, you can do it on the backside of Daisy Pass.

Another primary Cooke City trail system is the Lulu Pass Trail. Located just a short distance past the Daisy Pass system, Lulu Pass Trail takes off from Highway 212 to the north. Lulu Pass offers access to an entirely different area of backcountry snowmobiling although expert snowmobilers can travel back and forth between the Daisy Pass and Lulu Pass trail systems by traversing mountains and challenging backcountry terrain. However, for beginners, it’s best to access each area by travelling on the groomed trails.

Lulu Pass provides access to both expert and novice riding areas. Beginners and intermediate riders can have an incredible experience by accessing the Round Lake Trail, which peels off of the Lulu Pass Trail. Follow the Round Lake Trail north until it arrives at an ice and snow-covered body of water called Round Lake. There is also a Forest Service cabin located where the trail meets the lake. From the cabin, riders can travel across the lake (it’s safe to ride on during the winter months) to the forest on the other side. On the other side of the lake, there are several ungroomed trails that lead through the forest and come back together at the foot of a steep hillside. The hillside is curved much like an “L” shape. In most cases, there will be snowmobile tracks in the snow that show the way, but even if you’re the first to hit the fresh snow, simply ride up the north slope (it will be the one more to the right). It’s a short climb to the top, and you should come to a stop rather than launching straight off the backside. At the top of the ridge, turn right and follow the knife-ridge down. When the slope levels out, simply turn left and ride through patches of trees into a wide open meadow. The meadow is huge, and you’ll know you’re in the right spot. From this large meadow, riders can access mountain slopes for high-marking, explore rolling hills, climb up short chutes that are plugged full of fresh powder, or just make donuts in the open meadow.

From the meadow, one can also ride further north and reach Star Lake, which offers access to some “secret” spots where few riders ever go. One of my own favorite “secret” spots includes the chute that rises above Star Lake to the west. The chute can be challenging to climb without getting stuck if there is fresh powder, but you can just keep trying until you finally make it to the top. The typical process is to go up full-throttle until the snowmobile is slowing down and then turn back down and return to the bottom. Then, follow your original tracks back up the chute and climb even higher until you’re slowing down, and then turn around and go back down. Rinse and repeat this process until you reach the top of the chute. The awaiting reward will be well worth the effort. Plus, climbing that chute is part of the fun too. At the top of the chute, you’ll find yourself in a network of half-pipe ravines that finger off into different directions. Most times, there are never any tracks up there, and you’ll find yourself breaking fresh, undisturbed powder snow that is so deep that it comes flying over the windshield of your snowmobile. I have enjoyed countless days of snowmobile utopia in that special place above Star Lake. Even on days when most areas were tracked up by previous riders, the region above Star Lake is normally undisturbed simply because most people don’t even know it’s there.

Cooke City is special, because it allows Yellowstone visitors the chance to experience the park’s natural wonders and amazing scenery in winter, but it also gives visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy the thrill and adventure of backcountry snowmobiling as well as other activities such as wolf-watching and cross-country skiing. Remember that it’s illegal to snowmobile off-road inside Yellowstone Park; and consequently, park visitors will not know the true joy of the snowmobile experience unless they shape their vacation to include some riding at a gateway community just outside the park. Many people consider Cooke City as the “Backcountry Snowmobile Capital of the World”. It’s a place where visitors can ride their snowmobiles around town, where they can easily access untold acres of wild mountain terrain in its purest state, and where they can make the kind of memories that last a lifetime. In fact, most visitors that make the effort to visit Cooke City in the winter become hooked on it, and they return again and again.