Apr 21, 2015

Yellowstone’s East Gate sees snowmobile revival

Relaxed rules for winter visits to Yellowstone National Park Proved something of a boon for the park’s eastern gate.

A total of 269 snowmobilers ventured through the park’s East Entrance between Dec. 22 and March 1. That’s up by more than 100 people from the previous winter and represents the highest number of snowmobile visits through the gate since 2006.

“It’s very encouraging for us, because we’ve been just been holding on by the skin of our teeth, waiting for things to change to make our business a little more viable in there,” said Dede Fales.

Snowmobilers are pictured along the Firehole River in Midway Geyser Basin during a guided snowmobile tour in January. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Fales co-owns Gary Fales Outfitting of Wapiti with her husband, and they’ve long been the only outfit providing guided snowmobile trips through Yellowstone’s East Entrance. But Fales said the difference-maker this season was that the National Park Service also allowed some visitors to head into Yellowstone without a paid guide.

That change actually boosted the Fales' business, as it brought in a different group of customers who didn't want to hire a guide, but did need to rent the Fales' specialized machines. (Snowmobiles in the park have to generally be cleaner-burning and quieter than everyday sleds, and they can only be used for six years.)

“It felt like the guided trips basically stayed about the same, but we had all the additional business with people that went in without a guide — which was great,” Fales said, adding later that, “I think we’ve reached a good (level). We’re able to take care of the people that want to go in.”

No one can confuse the past season’s uptick with the East Entrance’s long-gone heyday: back during the winter of 2001-2002, for example, more than 4,000 snowmobilers ventured into the park.

“It’s very encouraging for us, because we’ve been just been holding on by the skin of our teeth, waiting for things to change to make our business a little more viable in there,” Fales said.

Since then, the Park Service implemented limits on the number of snow machines that can enter the park to answer concerns about pollution and impacts to wildlife. Under the current rules, which took effect in December, no more than 25 snowmobiles (20 led by a commercial guide and five not) can pass through the East Entrance on a given day.

“You can’t really build up a very big rental business because you can never rent more than five sleds (to a non-commercial group) a day,” Fales said. “It’s tough, and maybe a lot of days you’re going to have only one or two (rentals). But still, to have it in addition to our guided business, it’s better. Definitely better.”

In addition to the 269 snowmobilers, 273 skiers ventured through the East Entrance this winter, making for a total of 542 local winter visitors. There were 437 total visitors last year.

No snowcoach services are offered through the east gate.

With 269 snowmobilers visiting Yellowstone through the east entrance this winter, it was the local gate's best season for snowmobiling in nearly a decade.

Across all of Yellowstone’s entrances, a total of 45,024 people visited Yellowstone by snowmobile, snowcoach or ski this winter. That was a roughly 4 percent decline from the year before. The dip appears to have been largely due to some poor snow conditions, said Yellowstone park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett.

Warmer temperatures and a lack of snow made some portions of the groomed road between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful get all the way down to pavement in February — and that forced park managers to temporarily prohibit snowmobiles and snowcoaches with skis from traveling the popular route.

Bartlett said the visitation numbers indicate the restrictions are what drove overall snowmobile trips down by about 22 percent from the season before.

“It wasn’t a reflection of the winter use policy or anything like that,” she said.

This was the first time since 2003 that snowmobilers were allowed to enter the park without a paid guide. Bartlett said a group will review the season to see if any changes to the non-commercially guided program are needed.

In addition to having to use machines that meet the park’s “Best Available Technology” requirements, all drivers (including one designated as the non-commercial guide) had to take an online certification course.

Even with the improved numbers, the winter season is barely a blip on the radar compared to the visitors seen during the summer season.

While local officials fought hard to preserve winter access to Yellowstone through the East Entrance and its avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass, even the improved numbers for the winter season are a blip compared to the summer season. Last summer, the East Gate welcomed 465,151 visitors — meaning that more people passed through the gate during a couple busy hours in July than did this whole winter.

Park-wide, snowcoach riders, snowmobilers and skiers represent just more than 1 percent of annual visits to Yellowstone.


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