Yellowstone National Park is a popular tourist destination for people around the globe, especially in summer. But in winter, the scenery – and the sounds – are quite different.
Gary and Dede Fales have run a hunting guide business for over 25 years, and part of their operation is renting out – and guiding – snowmobile tours during the winter months; they are the only licensed snowmobile guides in Cody.
The Fales have two guides that work for them and can take up to 13 snowmobiles into the park each day – either to Old Faithful and West Yellowstone for an overnight stay, or for a day trip to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and occasionally up to Chico Hot Springs in Montana. Dede said this year is the busiest ever.
“People are learning about us more, they know they can go in the east entrance, it’s a beautiful way to go in,” she said. “The south entrance and the west entrance, for the most part, there are winter wonderlands over there, and so they have a big winter season for skiing – especially the south entrance. But snowmobiling is really big in West Yellowstone, and they fill up very quickly, they’re sort of hubs for skiing and snowmobiling. So we have people calling, saying … ‘I’m at West Yellowstone, how long does it take to get there to go on a snowmobile trip?’”
Because of the pandemic, outdoor recreation has gained popularity – and both Gary and Dede say that’s been a boost for them this winter.
“They can’t go to Europe very easy, or Mexico, so everybody’s vacationing in the United States,” said Gary. “And there’s a lot of people out here looking around, plus there’s a lot of people wanting to buy property out here, so this is a good experience for them while they’re out looking for land.”
“There are a lot of people in Cody who have come to get away from the city, where they’re locked down,” Dede added. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are in Cody for a month, renting a house, children aren’t in school so they’re learning remotely, and they’re able to work remotely, and they’re looking for things to do outside.”
And Dede pointed out that this year, the winter season has been extended two weeks beyond the closing date that the east entrance has observed for the last 13 years.
Back in 2008, the National Park Service determined that Sylvan Pass, which must be crossed in order to access the park from the east entrance, was too dangerous at certain points in the season due to the possibility of avalanches.
But mitigation efforts have been successful and beginning this year, the Park Service is allowing the east entrance to open one week earlier and close one week later — meaning it is open the same number of days as the other entrances. And that’s a big deal for the Fales’ business.
“So we open the 15th instead of the 22nd of December now, and we get to stay open through the 15th of March, which is huge,” Dede said. That’s really nice. And so many people want to go in the Park in March, and they haven’t been able to from the east entrance. So now they’re able to.”
Dede pointed out that you don’t have to go with a guide, you could just rent a snowmobile from them, but she said that those opportunities are much more limited.
Because park regulations limit snowmobiles in the park to those with the “Best Available Technology” – meaning they must have low emissions, low noise and less impact on the environment – access to Yellowstone in winter is much more restricted than it used to be.
“They have a very short list of the snowmobiles that you’re able to take in the park, and most people don’t own those because they’re just touring machines,” Dede noted. “So now you have to go in with an outfitter, or rent a snowmobile from us that’s allowed in the park.”
For several years, snowmobile access to Yellowstone was limited to guided tours only – but since 2017, permits have become available for unguided snowmobile access, although Park Service regulations state that only one group of up to five snowmobiles can enter the park from each of its four winter entrances per day.
However, Dede said that restriction is actually a bonus for them.
“It has helped our business, because it’s just another group that doesn’t want to go with a guide, that want to go on their own, that’s coming to us to rent snowmobiles,” she said. “You know, it’s nice, because all of these people that want to be in the park, don’t want a guide, can now go on their own.”
Winter in Yellowstone really is a magical experience, and the Fales say that’s what draws people year after year.
“To be on a snowmobile and drive right over the pass and into the park and along the river, right by the animals is a unique experience,” Dede said.
“Yellowstone is a pristine place,” Gary added. “It’s got all the history, and the beautiful country and lakes, and – you know, you get up there in the morning just as the sun’s hitting the top of those mountains and it’s really nice.”