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‘Unguided’ snowmobiles return to Yellowstone

A paid guide led this group of snowmobilers near Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin in February. Starting this winter, certain park visitors won’t have to hire a guide — but they will have to follow a set of park rules. A paid guide led this group of snowmobilers near Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin in February. Starting this winter, certain park visitors won’t have to hire a guide — but they will have to follow a set of park rules. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Beginning next month — for the first time in a decade — snowmobilers will be allowed to enter Yellowstone National Park without a paid guide.

However, no one will confuse the National Park Service’s new “Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program” with the more free-wheeling days of yesteryear.

Visitors can drive their own snowmobiles into Yellowstone only if their sleds meet the detailed “Best Available Technology” requirements that the Park Service applies to commercial operators and all drivers (including one designated as the non-commercial guide) must first take an online certification course. It’s also a fairly limited opportunity: only one non-commercial group of up to five snowmobiles is allowed to enter a given entrance each day.

But it’s an opportunity nonetheless.

“I think that everything has come out the best that we can to make everybody happy,” said Wyoming State Snowmobile Association President Bert Miller of Cody. “The resources of Yellowstone (are) very important and as snowmobilers across the United States, we want to protect the resources of Yellowstone and want to do it right. So hopefully this will help everybody.”

That snowmobilers will be given another chance to enter the park without a professional guide seemed unlikely a few years ago, when environmental groups — opposed by industry, the state of Wyoming and Park County government — were fighting more than a decade-long legal battle over the winter use policies.

For years, environmental groups pushed to get snowmobiles banned from the park in favor of snow coaches. When Yellowstone administrators began requiring all snowmobilers to be led by a commercial guide and ride cleaner-burning machines in December 2004, it was part of their response to environmentalists’ concerns about sled pollution and drivers who weren’t obeying the rules.

Meanwhile, Wyoming leaders countered that not only was a snowmobile ban unacceptable, so were the limits put into place by park officials capping their use to fewer than 720 sleds a day.

The Park Service finalized its fourth try at a winter use plan last year and, in a dramatic turnaround, it received accolades from all sides. While it theoretically allows as many as 500 snowmobiles on a given day, it eschews the strict focus on the number of machines in favor of a focus on the actual impacts. The new rule looks mostly at “transportation events” — that is, each disturbance caused to Yellowstone’s wildlife and quiet — instead of whether it’s being caused by a group of snowmobiles or a snow coach. Park officials say the approach will reduce environmental impacts while potentially allowing more use than recent years.

It also offers more flexibility that’s intended to respond to the transportation choices made by park visitors, including allowing the non-commercial guiding.

New program launches

This will be the plan’s first year in effect.

Gary and Dede Fales, the owners of Gary Fales Outfitting in the Wapiti Valley, have long offered only guided trips into Yellowstone’s East Entrance, but the Park Service’s new plan has them now renting out machines to “unguided” riders.

“Now we’ve kind of pushed into a business we don’t really know a whole lot about,” Dede Fales laughed. “So I guess this will be our learning curve.”

She’s seen interest.

“There’s a lot of people calling who used to go in and just quit once the guided trips started and now want to go again (under the new program). So it’s good,” Fales said. “We’ve had calls from all over the Big Horn Basin.”

The most frequently cited benefit of non-commercial trips is a lower cost.

Fales said renting a two-person sled from Gary Fales Outfitting will likely cost around $225; taking such a sled on a guided trip costs $350.

She’s not concerned about the non-commercial trips unduly eating into the guiding business, noting there was demand for both types of trips back when Pahaska Tepee was renting out dozens of snowmobiles a day to East Entrance travelers.

“We’re just happy for any way the business comes to us,” Fales said. “We think it will be good for everybody.”

She thinks it’s unlikely that visitors will bring their own sleds, because the cleaner and quieter four-stroke snowmobiles required in Yellowstone are not the kind a typical “sledhead” might own. (This year’s list of Park Service-approved snowmobiles includes several with the adrenaline-suppressing words “throttle-limited” in the title.) Park rules also require that each machine be replaced every six years.

The Fales’ own nine approved sleds (though five must be replaced next year) and plan to add more if the demand is there.

The non-commercially guided trips were first made available through an online lottery and the slots not claimed are now available on a first-come, first-serve basis for $46. That doesn’t include entrance fees.

A search of www.recreation.gov on Monday showed East Entrance permits still available for 30 of winter season’s 70 days. The entrance’s season is a couple weeks shorter than Yellowstone’s other gates (Dec. 22 to March 1) and access is dependent on Sylvan Pass, located just inside the gate, being open to travel.

“There will be no refunds or rescheduling due to weather or avalanche conditions,” warns Recreation.gov.

The eastern entrance is the park’s least-used winter gate. Just 163 snowmobilers and 274 skiers used it last year. In contrast, the most popular West Entrance ushered in 14,522 snowmobilers, 13,881 snow coach passengers and 166 skiers. All 91 days of non-commercially guided snowmobiling permits for the West Entrance had been snapped up as of last week.

The lower level of usage at the East Entrance is one of the reasons the Faleses aren’t offering snow coach tours; there’s simply not enough business to justify the six-figure investment.

“We’re just not the winter wonderland. If we had hundreds of people coming through Cody for winter activities (we might), but it’s just not,” Fales said. “It’s like an afterthought when you come to Cody. ‘Oh, there’s snowmobiling?’”

Miller, the snowmobile group leader, is personally excited about the new non-commercial option. He hasn’t ridden into the park since the guiding requirement went into effect and is looking forward to taking his now-adult children on a trip.

“It’s just the most wonderful place you could ever go in the middle of winter on a snowmobile,” Miller said of Yellowstone.

Park managers will be monitoring the environmental impacts of the new plan to see if any changes are needed. A final “Winter Use Adaptive Management Program” is scheduled to be in place by March 2016.

One does not simply snowmobile into Yellowstone National Park

You might not have to bring a paid guide to visit Yellowstone by snowmobile anymore, but you still have to follow some rules.

Perhaps the biggest obligation is that each machine has to meet the Park Service’s “Best Available Technology” requirements. They generally have to burn cleaner and run quieter than the average snowmobile. A list of qualifying sleds and other information is available at www.nps.gov/yell/parkmgmt/ngsap.htm.

Each group of non-commercial visitors must designate one of their members as a guide who’s responsible for the actions of the entire group. That means making sure everyone obeys Yellowstone’s 35-mile-an-hour speed limit and stays on park roads, among other obligations.

A person can guide no more than two trips a year and cannot accept any compensation for being the leader.

Most non-commercial permits for the upcoming winter season were claimed in a earlier lottery, but some leftovers remain available at www.recreation.gov. Search for the “Yellowstone Non-Commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program.”

Every snowmobile driver in a non-commercial group must have a valid driver’s license and complete a free online education course. The course was developed with the help of the state of Wyoming and is offered through the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands at Indiana University.

“We think that if they go out on a non-guided (trip) they’ll be used to snowmobiles, but the non-guided course helps them get ready for everything from A to Z,” said Bert Miller, a Cody snowmobiling advocate who provided input on the course.

— CJ Baker

3 comments

  • posted by joe anderson

    August 11, 2017 2:28 pm

    tree huggers need to get a life!

  • posted by Melissa

    January 30, 2016 8:37 am

    This was an amazing opportunity. We rented sleds and stayed at the snow lodge for 2 nights, something you really can't affordably do under the standard regulations. The riding was great, the scenery amazing and the experience is one we will always cherish.

  • posted by Brad Hill

    February 08, 2015 1:03 pm

    We went and it was a joke. Don't waste your time. Go snowmobiling outside the park. Your money will be better well spent.

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