Yellowstone Ski Festival

For years I had heard and read about the fall camps and early season skiing in West Yellowstone, Montana. It wasn’t until last November, however, that I finally got to experience it for myself. And aside from kicking myself for not having come to “West” at this time of the season before, my primary other reaction was that this is truly the Nordic happening of the early season in the United States. More than just a series of instructional training camps, the Yellowstone Ski Festival, as it has now become known, is a veritable homecoming of the sport – an annual ritual for many who trek to this corner of Montana at the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Rick Halling of Atomic Skis put it best, “It’s like the Birkie, every day of the week.” Not the competition, perhaps, but certainly the energy, camaraderie and passion for the sport.

The Fall Camps began in the ‘70s when the U. S. Ski Team had to move its training camp to West Yellowstone from Cooke City because they had too much snow. In the early days only the U.S. team and a few university teams were in attendance. Since then the Fall Camps have annually played host to national and factory teams where they often experienced domestic snow for the first time of the season.

In 2004 the event’s name was changed to the Yellowstone Ski Festival to more aptly reflect its character and full scope. And a festival it truly is. The town of West Yellowstone gradually comes alive as skiers from literally across the U.S. and Canada begin arriving to shake out the cobwebs and get their first taste of the glide of the season. A slow crescendo builds as skier numbers mount to near 1,000. By the time the camps take off, the place is completely abuzz with all things Nordic skiing. Last year 3,200 cross country skiers passed through West Yellowstone in the days leading up to and including the Festival week. Many linger after the festival continuing to take advantage of what is often the only skiable snow in the nation.

The Yellowstone Ski Festival is also the first opportunity of the season for all the major ski equipment manufacturers to get in front of their buying public to hawk their wares. Opportunities abound to see and try new gear. Every evening for the entire week of the festival (except Thanksgiving Day), a consumer trade show is held in the Holiday Inn SunSpree Hotel. During the day you can’t get to the core of the Rendezvous Ski Trails without running the gauntlet of manufacturers tents and booths for the Try It and Buy It Gear Demos. It couldn’t be a more perfect environment in which to experience the new equipment – ski out to the site, slap on some demo gear, tool around the trails a bit and come back and try some more. When you’re done, you can just jump back into your own equipment and head out for a day’s skiing.

What truly impressed me the most about the festival, however, was the breadth of skiers there. Without exaggeration, there had to be skiers from every snow state in the U.S. – from New England to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Canada was well represented, too. It was like a meeting of every ski club on the continent. Most exciting were the many young skiers, there with their high school club or team to get some early on-snow time. College ski teams were everywhere doing the same, with many participating in the NorAm SuperTour races at the end of the week.

There’s another plus to make the early season trek to West. While there may be enough snow for skiing, there is not usually sufficient snow for snowmobiling. As such, the onslaught of snow machines that descends on this gateway to the Yellowstone has yet to begin. For once, the Nords are the majority and the town rolls out the red carpet. As it is still relatively early in the grand tourism scheme of things, many establishments are not yet open. But most of the hotels are open as are many restaurants. This influx of Nordic skiers is a tremendous boon to the town at this early time of the season which otherwise would be a quiet picture of desolation. And though hard numbers remain elusive, with over 3,000 people eating, sleeping (mostly) and playing in town for three to five days during a time when there is nothing else happening, the economic impact is significant .

The Rendezvous Trails are the perfect setting for this inaugural skiing experience of the season. Mostly intermediate and easy trails, they wind through the lodgepole pines with good sightlines on the downhills and plenty of interconnected options to short-cut or extend one’s tour. Occasional views of distant peaks round out this mountain skiing experience. Skiing for the first time of the season at 6,600-plus feet can put a damper on one’s enthusiasm, but hey, who’s in shape to go very hard anyhow? After three or four days I began to acclimatize and felt pretty good while skiing the Rendezvous’ 40 kilometers of trails.

All of the trails are groomed wide enough for skating, though for the first few days of my visit, the Windy Ridge Trail was only groomed for classic and was really a treat. I was actually disappointed when, after more snow fell, it was groomed to its full width. Good grooming is the norm in West Yellowstone. Of course it doesn’t hurt that head groomer for the 2002 Olympics, Doug Edgerton, owner of Yellowstone Track Systems, practically lives on the Rendezvous Trails -- his home and business literally abut the trail system.

And there’s much more: wax clinics presented throughout the week by Swix and Toko, yoga classes most mornings by Bodywise Massage and Yoga and, for the kids, the Montana Outdoor Science School offers programs for grades K-6 in everything from snowflakes to winter ecology.

The Yellowstone Ski Festival is also the kick-off to the national competition schedule. In 2006, the first event up was a biathlon sprint race held on the Rendezvous Trails and biathlon range. Friday and Saturday of festival week saw SuperTour Sprint and 10 km classic races as the nation’s elite racers used this first-of-the-season opportunity to evaluate their training and test themselves against their peers.

It may be too early at this time of year to venture very far into Yellowstone National Park on skis, but there are other skiing opportunities close to town. The Riverside Trail is a mellow tour along the Madison River, where it’s not unusual to see bison, elk and geese. But if you’re looking for something a little more on the wild side, with adequate snow cover a couple of fairly easy backcountry tours into the Park include the Fawn Pass and Bighorn Pass trails. Both are also idyllic spring crust skiing routes, but on light touring gear they provide an outstanding diversion from the “crowds” at West Yellowstone.

You may have heard lavish praises of the Yellowstone Ski Festival and early season skiing in West Yellowstone. I’m here to tell you that it is all true. Admittedly, trying to get away during one of the biggest and most revered family holidays of the year can present some inter-relationship challenges. But as I observed, many actually make a family experience out of it. Some, in fact, know of no other way in which to celebrate Thanksgiving than to be in West Yellowstone. Come to think of it, what better way to give thanks, than to be with family, friends and on snow in a beautiful place?

The 2007 Yellowstone Ski Festival will take place November 20-24 with a calendar of events quite similar to the past. For more information about the festival and to keep abreast of snow conditions in the run up to the festival, visit www.yellowstoneskifestival.com.

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