East Entrance opens to winter travelers

Posted 12/24/09

“We're going to be as busy we can possibly be (this season),” said Fales. “There's plenty of people who want to go in, but I've had to turn a lot of people away.”

She said the guiding operation is limited by the number of …

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East Entrance opens to winter travelers


Conditions tough on lone operatorYellowstone's East Entrance opened to winter travel on Tuesday.Four visitors from Tennessee entered the park on snowmobile on opening day, guided by Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch.Interest in snowmobile tours remains high, said Dede Fales, who owns the business with her husband, Gary.

“We're going to be as busy we can possibly be (this season),” said Fales. “There's plenty of people who want to go in, but I've had to turn a lot of people away.”

She said the guiding operation is limited by the number of snowmobiles it owns.

Ten of the snow machines the Fales' used last year — 2003 models — had to be put out of commission this season, due to park service regulations barring machines more than six years old from entering Yellowstone, she said. That leaves the Faleses with one snowmobile for a guide and three double-seated sleds for guests.

Dede Fales said it's been hard to justify investing in new $10,000 machines when their permit to operate in the park is only good for this season and next.

“From year to year, we just never know what's going to happen,” she said.

Because of the high amount of legal controversy and varying court decisions blocking and unblocking snowmobile access to the park, Yellowstone's permits snowmobile operators for only two years at a time.

Snowcoach operators — which do not draw the same level controversy — receive 10-year permits.

Gary Fales Outfitting is currently the only licensed snowmobile operator for the East Entrance.

“We'll continue to do this until they (Park Service officials) tell us we can't be in there anymore,” said Fales.

Commercially-guided snowmobiles and snowcoaches are allowed to travel between Pahaska Tepee and Fishing Bridge Junction over Sylvan Pass when weather and avalanche conditions permit.

Fales said her operation has had to pull back on out-of-area marketing because of the inconsistent status of the East Entrance. Because of avalanche danger on Sylvan Pass, the entrance was affected by full or partial safety closures about one out of every four days last season. The up-in-the-air status led Pahaska Tepee to stop offering snowmobile tours in 2007.

The Park Service shuts down the pass when avalanche danger is high, and uses either howitzer- or helicopter-deployed explosives to trigger avalanches and reduce the danger. The howitzer was used on Dec. 17 and Dec. 21 to prepare Sylvan Pass for Tuesday's opening.

Under the Park Service's new temporary winter use rules, up to 20 commercially-guided snowmobiles and two guided snowcoaches may enter through the east gate each day. That's 20 sleds fewer than last season's limit, but it is unlikely that use will approach even the new lower cap. With their reduced snowmobile fleet, Gary Fales Outfitting can only take six people into the park at a time, and there may be no operators providing snowcoach access.

High Country Adventures, the only East Entrance snowcoach operator, did not operate last year, and Fales said it was her understanding that it would not operate this season either. Attempts to contact High Country Adventures were unsuccessful as of press time.

With the east gate's opening, all winter roads and visitor facilities are open in Yellowstone, though the path from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Junction remains temporarily limited to rubber-tracked snowcoaches due to low snow.

The East Entrance is kept open on a two-week shorter season as part of an agreement reached between the Park Service and local government officals, in part to reduce high management costs; the West and South Entrances opened to oversnow travel last week.