In an automobile, you’re insulated from the environment. You can roll up the windows, turn up the tunes and peer out the windows in reclining seats and simply enjoy the park’s landscapes and wildlife like a movie with a soundtrack. But on a snowmobile, you’re one with a terrain — in some cases several feet above paved roads, a snow-packed path above retaining walls and guardrails that’s ever-changing in howling winds. You feel every bump and if you fail to use your weight as the path moves off-camber, you’ll find yourself in the snow and in need of help to right your ship.
“It’s just amazing up here. At times it’s nerve-wracking, but it gives you exciting stories you can come back and tell your friends and family,” said Jordan Harney, an in-flight supervisor from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, after a recent trip. “In the winter, you’re not surrounded by 1,000 people. It’s a whole different ballgame. It’s so much nicer being tucked into nature.”
Each year, about 4 million visitors come to northwest Wyoming to visit the nation’s premiere national park. But if you want to see the park in winter, there are few options. Only about 50,000 visitors come to see the park through the winter months, generally by snowmobile or snowcoach. The only way through the East Gate and into the park is by sled.
Business has been up and down. In the last 25 years, those investing in providing snowmobile tours through the East Gate, west of Cody, have fought efforts to close the entrance during the winter and anti-snowmobile sentiment leading to litigation of the park’s program. The limits on the type of over-snow machines which can run through the park is stringent — only two manufacturers produce snowmobiles that meet the National Park Services’ Best Available Technology (BAT) requirements.
Only one tour company has weathered the storm. Gary and Dede Fales, owners of Gary Fales Outfitting and the Rimrock Dude Ranch, have led snowmobile tours through the East Gate for more than two decades.
“When the park issued the first permits to take guided tours, we applied and got one in about the mid ’90s,” Dede Fales recalled. “We had been taking horseback pack-trips into the park for years, and a park ranger, who knew us from the summer pack-tripping, suggested that we apply for the snowmobile permit.”
In the most recent go-round, the Fales were the only locals to apply to lead commercial trips through the East Entrance. They’re in the fourth year of the new permit process.
As the park has implemented a new non-commercially guided access program, the Fales have been renting its snowmobiles for what are effectively self-guided tours.
Only one noncommercial, self-guided tour is allowed through the East Entrance per day.
“It’s new to us to rent snowmobiles,” Fales said. “There’s a short list of [snowmobiles] allowed in the park and it’s been very good for our
Beyond needed Park Service-approved sleds, those seeking to snowmobile into Yellowstone need to get a
license through online training and wait for an open date.
Sledders must also stay on groomed roads. Violators face a fine of up to $5,000 per operator and up to six months in jail as well as forfeiture of their snowmobiles. They can also be responsible to pay restitution for damages to natural resources.
There is a group of people, mostly local, with a great deal of over-snow vehicle experience who would rather take self-guided tours, Fales said. Harney has been coming to the East Entrance for years on self-guided tours with her father, Gary Harney, of Cody. The guided tour was her 30th birthday present and became her favorite. Terry Dolan served as the guide for Harney’s trip.
“He was really great. His knowledge of the park’s natural history was awesome. He pointed out things I would have never known,” she said.
Dolan has been guiding trips in the park with the Fales for over 20 years.
“He absolutely loves the park and it shows in his enthusiasm during the trips,” Fales said.
Dede runs the business while Gary claims to be “mostly” retired (though, at 73, he still is part of a team roping rodeo duo).
“I’ll still do trips if one of our guides gets sick or there’s an emergency,” he said.
The Fales have a staff of guides ready for outings that range from day trips, to multi-day trips with overnight stays in the park.
Visitors from around the globe have used their service. Dede Fales said they’ve had clients from Australia, Scotland, China, and all over the U.S. this year. Harney flew in from Dubai with friends to meet her father, a retired airline pilot. Her flight from the Middle East was 28 hours, not including the drive from Billings, but it was all worth it to share winter in Yellowstone with her friends and to reunite with her father on snowmobiles.
“We don’t get to see each other often, but when we do we try to make it count,” Gary Harney said. “I prefer Yellowstone in the winter. The park feels more alive.”
Winter shows off the park’s sheer cliffs, giving them a menacing appearance, he said. Even fire scarred slopes down to Yellowstone Lake look more alive — areas some speed past in the summer.