Gliding Through Geysers

 Nordic skiing in Yellowstone National Park.

One winter morning, after spending the night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the middle of Yellowstone Park, I woke early for a short solo ski tour. The boardwalks around the Upper Geyser Basin were still covered in a thin layer of snow. No one was around. I swished past an erupting Old Faithful, skied around other gurgling hot springs, and spotted fresh wolf tracks just off the boardwalk. A bison blocked any farther progress along the trail, its steamy breath freezing in the morning air. That’s how everyone should experience Yellowstone.

Built around the iconic Yellowstone geyser, the Old Faithful area is home to wintering wildlife, a thermally heated river, three geyser basins (Upper, Middle, and Lower), a winter hotel, and great skiing. The Park is home to the majority of the world’s geysers, and most of Yellowstone’s geysers are in the Old Faithful area.

Bison and elk live here year round, taking advantage of the warm ground and thin snow around the thermal features. Wolf and coyote tracks are often spotted just off the boardwalk. And in spring, black and grizzly bears frequent the area to feast on the carcasses of animals that did not survive Yellowstone’s harsh winter.

And did I mention the skiing? Cross-country ski trails, both groomed and backcountry, flat and challenging, crisscross the area. They lead to hot springs, geysers, frozen lakes, waterfalls, and scenic views. There are a million reasons to visit Old Faithful during the winter—here are some trails and tips.

Mallard Lake Trail
: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 760 feet
Maps: USGS: Old Faithful
Trail Report: a stout climb to a 32-acre lake takes you into the backcountry of Yellowstone. Folks just getting started in cross-country skiing should pick a different tour and work their way up to this one.
Skiing: cross the road on the north side of the Snow Lodge and ski east on the Mallard Lake Trail. The trail parallels the road toward the Old Faithful Lodge and then heads down a couple small hills to the Firehole River and crosses it on a footbridge.

The trail then splits. Head to the left and begin the long climb to Mallard Lake. A mile in, you get a nice view of Old Faithful Geyser as you continue climbing to a small divide 2.5 miles from the trailhead. The trail then levels and climbs gently to the junction with the Mallard Creek Trail at 3.2 miles. Stay to the right and drop into Mallard Lake.

Take a break and cinch the drawstrings on your jacket before heading back the way you came down the very fast trail to the trailhead. (Use extra caution if it’s icy.) 

Lone Star Geyser Trail
Distance: 9 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 240 feet
Maps: USGS: Old Faithful
Trail Report: a fairly mellow trail that follows the Firehole River much of the way to Lone Star Geyser.
Skiing: follow the Mallard Lake directions until the trail split, then head to the right on an old road, paralleling the snow road again. The trail keeps climbing until you are about 1.5 miles from the lodge—this is the steepest part of the trail. After a short descent, the trail crosses the Snow Vehicle Road at 1.75 miles.

Continue on the old service road following the Firehole River upstream all the way to Lone Star Geyser Basin. This is my usual turnaround spot, but a loop can be made by skiing back to the lodge on the Howard Eaton Trail. 

Spring Creek Trail
Distance: 8 miles one way
Elevation Loss: 740 feet
Maps: USGS: Old Faithful, Craig Pass
Trail Report: this lovely tour follows Spring Creek and then the Firehole River downhill from near the Continental Divide to the Old Faithful area.
Skiing: to get there, you’ll take a shuttle from the Snow Lodge to the Spring Creek/Divide trailhead. From the south side of the Snow Vehicle Road, drop down to Spring Creek and then climb 0.3 miles to where the trail splits at a signed junction. Go right—this is where the fun begins. The trail rolls downhill becoming pretty fast in places. Since it undulates, it seems that just when you might get out of control, the trail mellows out.

The trail crosses many footbridges—which are likely to be icy—and follows a gorge for several miles. After crossing the Firehole River on a bridge, you’ll join the Lone Star Geyser Trail at 4.5 miles. Lone Star Geyser is 0.75 miles to the left. Otherwise, ski to the right, following the Lone Star Geyser Trail back to the lodge.

Melynda Harrison is the author of Ski Trails of Southwest Montana.