A snow-goer’s guide to Cooke City & Silver Gate.
When the mercury drops and you’re itching to play in the snow, nothing can stop you—except lack of snow, that is. We know how hard it can be—weeks go by in mid-winter without so much as a flurry in Bozeman. What can you do but lament? Winter just isn’t the same amidst a dry spell.
Don’t worry, there’s hope, and it comes in the form of a three-hour road-trip to the tiny mountain hamlets of Cooke City and Silver Gate. Nestled between the high-elevation Beartooth and Absaroka ranges, it’s a great place to bide your time while awaiting the next blizzard in the Bozone.
If you haven’t skied around Cooke City yet, good for you—a magical discovery awaits.
But planning a trip to the “End of the Road” can be daunting. Is there anywhere to stay? Do they have electricity and running water? Will I need to cook my own meals? Is there cell service? (Spoiler: nope.) Fret not, winter traveler—we’ve got you covered.
If you haven’t skied around Cooke City yet, good for you—a magical discovery awaits. It’s hard to find words for the quality of skiing in this place, but expect snow, and lots of it. Light, fluffy powder stacks up by the yard, getting deeper and deeper as you ascend in elevation.
For ski touring without a snowmobile, Republic Mountain and Woody Ridge are the most accessible locales. These areas lie within the North Absaroka Wilderness, so access is human-powered only. The Sheep Creek drainage is also a reasonable approach sans-sled, but snowmobiles are allowed here, so be prepared to share the trail.
Snowmobile access opens up a whole ‘nother realm of skiing. There’s too much to describe here, but pull out a map and find “Daisy Pass,” “Lulu Pass,” and “Goose Lake” to orient yourself.
For more specific backcountry-skiing beta, ask around town or stop by the Sinclair gas station. Beartooth Powder Guides, a local operation, also offers guided backcountry skiing and avalanche safety courses based out of their network of ski-in huts.
But there’s more to skiing around Cooke City than bottomless powder. For Nordic enthusiasts, check out the Bannock Trail starting right in Silver Gate, which takes you into Yellowstone Park. The Barronette Trail starts just inside the Park’s northeast entrance, and the Tower Junction trails are a 30-mile drive down the road. These trails will take you through towering conifers and open meadows, with spectacular mountain views and wildlife-watching opportunities.
Cooke City has a reputation as a snowmobiling oasis. Every winter, hundreds of Midwesterners make the long journey with massive trailers trundling down the icy roads through Yellowstone Park.
They come as early as November, but this out-of-state visitation seems to taper off throughout the season, and the town is pretty quiet come February—when conditions are usually best. Nonetheless, these hardy travelers come for a reason—north of town lies a staggering amount of terrain, much of it with established snowmobile trails, so riders of all levels can find something to suit their fancy. Several businesses in Cooke City rent snowmobiles if you don’t have your own.
Eat & Drink
The nearest grocery store is in Gardiner (1.5 hours away), so plan accordingly. A couple gas stations in town have beer and snacks. But despite the diminutive size of Cooke City’s main drag, there are some great options for eating and drinking—both before and after a day playing out in the snow.
For breakfast, Cooke City Coffee and Bearclaw Bakery serve up delectable pastries and hearty sandwiches. Another cozy breakfast option is Antlers Lodge, where you can nestle up to a massive wood-burning fireplace with a savory plate of biscuits and gravy.
For après and dinner, the Miners Saloon is center-stage. They’ve got a friendly bar with draft beer and stiff cocktails, pool tables, arcade games, juicy burgers, and pizza that tastes like it’s imported straight from Brooklyn. Seriously, their food is really good, and the atmosphere is on point. There are a few other dinner options in town if “the Miner” is too busy.
The cheapest option is camping at “the Dump,” which is nicer than it sounds. A large parking lot at the end of Republic St., which just happens to be adjacent to the town’s garbage-compacting facility, is a haven for winter recreationists on a budget. You’ll find trucks, trailers, and converted school busses—sometimes snowed-in for the winter—with a friendly crowd for company. The trails to Republic Mountain and Woody Ridge leave from here. There’s a 24-hour public restroom right across the street at the Chamber of Commerce.
For something more comfortable, there are plenty of motels in Cooke City and Silver Gate that vary in price and amenities. If you’re snowmobiling, Cooke City is more convenient, because you can park the sled right outside your door. But Silver Gate offers a welcome respite from the constant whine of engines, which is particularly nice for those engaged in non-motorized activities. Silver Gate Lodging has motel rooms and private cabins to accommodate any type of trip. There are also a handful of other motels and cabins available to rent—both privately-owned and business-operated.
For a unique overnight experience, Beartooth Powder Guides operates two backcountry huts in the area: Woody Creek Cabin and the Mt. Zimmer Yurt. The former is in the North Absaroka Wilderness and accessed by a three-mile skintrack; the latter is in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and accessed by a six-mile snowmobile trail. The huts open to booking a year in advance, so plan ahead for next season to get your preferred dates.
As with all of Montana’s ranges, avalanches are a serious danger in the mountains around Cooke City. The area’s snowpack can vary drastically from that of the Bozeman area, so do your research and analyze before diving in head-first. Last winter, three people died in avalanches near Cooke City—all caused by the victims themselves. Don’t let it happen to you. Know how to identify avalanche terrain, assess snowpack stability, and conduct a rescue, or else stay on the maintained trails.