Cooke City skiing

Taking the slow road to Cooke City.

What comes to mind when thinking of a winter trip to Cooke City? Full-speed, hardcore snow-and-ice itineraries? Snowmobile capital of the West? Gate to the remote Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness?

For me, it’s all of the above, but also an accumulation of smaller moments—those that come from the voyage as a whole, rather than strictly within this winter mecca. Sometimes, just getting there is an adventure in itself—enough to give one the jitters.

The trip often consists of white-knuckle driving while towing a janky snowmobile trailer through the wildlife-crossing gauntlet of Paradise Valley—usually in the dark, too. Then it entails navigating slippery, winding roads from Gardiner to Tower Junction, and weaving through bison jams and tourists not following the rules of the road in the Lamar Valley.

Regardless, it’s always well worth the angst (or maybe I just have a short memory span), as one can pack a plethora of frosty play into a two- or three-day weekend. Last February, instead of approaching Cooke City with my usual full-throttle mentality, I decided to take on more of a half-throttle—er... lollygag—mindset. In fact, it took a full eight hours just to get there.

I departed Bozeman on Friday at daybreak to catch sunrise on the Yellowstone River. A quality soak at Yellowstone Hot Springs was in the cards for the morning, along with a couple short jaunts to view bountiful wildlife in Paradise Valley and Yankee Jim Canyon. Pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and elk were packed onto their winter range, making for close-range viewing opportunities. Further toward Gardiner, the Beattie Gulch bison hunt was in full swing with orange-clad hunters abundant, and copious amounts of gut piles scattered throughout the valley and along the riverbanks. Hordes of scavengers lurked, waiting their turns—Montana entertainment at its finest.

The ensuing drive through the Park was superb. Instead of hastily motoring along with windshield wipers slapping time, the ride consisted of meandering about and stopping at many of the pullouts and bison-jams to snap photos and take in the views. Thermal features steamed beside the road, and crisscrossing lines of animal tracks led endlessly into the horizon. A handful of people were pulled off the highway for hikes, and cross-country skiers gracefully mingled with the landscape.

Arriving in Cooke late afternoon, I had the luxury of unloading the truck sans frozen digits. And, shockingly, the snowmobile fired up on the second pull—something that never happens on the typical negative-double-digit morning. Only problem was that I was still an hour early for the Miner’s Saloon. However, a few raps on the window caught the attention of my bartender amigo who unlocked the door and immediately served up a Montana happy meal—beer and a shot of whiskey, the perfect denouement to the lengthy but blissful commute. I spent the rest of the afternoon snowmobiling groomed roads and mellow slopes off Lulu Pass, finally viewing a vibrant sunset behind the marvelous facade of Barronette Peak. Even though it was only one day, and had yet to involve any skiing or noteworthy exploits, the road-trip and easy cruisin’ on the sled adequately quenched the soul.

Next day, I dove back into my more usual Cooke City routine: up at the crack of dawn with two of my best and most savvy friends, onto the sleds, and out snowmobiling and backcountry touring in the vast Wyoming and Montana mountains. The weather was immaculate and the avalanche conditions were mostly stable, so progression through the weekend led to more enticing objectives, untracked powder, and quality time. Cooke City, while usually perceived as a destination, was now part of the excursion.

Gazing up at peaks and reminiscing about adventures new and old is always a satisfying feeling when leaving Cooke City. This time, however, the lollygag approach helped me find a sense of fulfillment that typically eludes me in the heart of winter. Instead of discerning the scenery with an objective or goal-based bias, the landscape and experiences as a whole felt complete in a soothing type of way—and all only a few hours from home.