Imagine flying through Yellowstone just inches about the ground. You zoom past lodgepole pines and along rivers not yet full with spring flows. Elk watch from the ecotones and ermine leap out of your way. Rolling meadows are covered in a smooth, sexy blanket that reflects the sun like diamonds. It’s effortless. It’s crust cruising.
Crust cruising is skate skiing along the top crust of deep layers of snow. The snow is heated by spring sunshine during the day and then refrozen overnight, causing the snow crystals to bond to each other. The result is a crusty surface strong enough to allow skiers to venture on top of the snowy ice in fast, long strides. This springtime phenomenon allows skate skiers to travel quickly and easily over large open areas on top of the snow. It’s travel without trails… and it’s addictive.
We don’t have a traditional spring in Montana. Not the kind your Facebook friends are talking about—the daffodils and cherry blossoms flourishing under the March sun. Instead, our spring is all about finding the fun in between resort skiing and backpacking. Crust cruising is our springtime fun. You won’t see a lot of flowers, but wolves off in the distance and shimmering snow make up for that.
Spring mornings after a day without snow are a good bet. It needs to be warm enough to slightly melt the top layer of snow and the thermometer must drop below freezing overnight. The crust cruising season is short and erratic, but it generally runs from late March through May depending on the winter. Knowing exactly when to go can require a bit of a gamble. Ask your friends, your favorite Nordic shop, or Gallatin Alpine Sports in Big Sky what they’ve heard, then head out and give it a shot.
Plan to be skating at first light to take advantage of the frozen crust. More importantly, know when to turn around. Skiers who wait too long to return to the trailhead will end up postholing through the slush.
Look for wide-open areas with lots of sun exposure. Some of the best places to crust cruise are in Yellowstone between Big Sky and West Yellowstone. Fawn Pass and Big Horn Pass are popular among the crust cruising crowd. Additionally, the meadows near the Rendezvous Ski Trails in West Yellowstone and around Hebgen Lake offer good opportunities. Some diehards ski the 40-mile round trip from Highway 191, over Fawn Pass to Mammoth, and back in one morning.
One of the fun things about this kind of skiing is that you can go anywhere you want. Tour around meadows, climb a pass, search out otters in a creek, listen for birds—it’s up to you. Avoid the shady spots (soft snow) and the world is yours to explore.
Photo by Michael Schallinger