6.03.2016

A Late Spring Ski Tour in America's First National Park

Over most Memorial Day weekends, you can find me skiing on Beartooth Pass (BTP). Between the abundance of road side skiing, challenging terrain, the camaraderie among skiers, and the chance to take an early season drive through Yellowstone National Park, it is always a great weekend. Mike and I headed down there this past weekend and took Lukas along for the adventure. While we did ski BTP, an unexpected, temporary closure of the pass on our drive over allowed us to explore the ski possibilities near Dunraven Pass in the park.

While there are many reasons to visit Yellowstone National Park, backcountry skiing is not one of the reasons that often make the top of the list. Winter brings long approaches and by the time the roads open in the spring, many people have moved on to other activities. Those willing to wait to for the spring road openings will be rewarded with some nice, uncrowded ski touring options. I had long wanted to ski in the Dunraven Pass area and the unexpected closure of BTP gave us the chance to do just that.

At 8,859 feet above sea level, Dunraven Pass is the highest road in Yellowstone. During my Jackson Hole days we would pass by there each Memorial Day weekend on the way to BTP and were always impressed with how much snow lingered late into May. The snow usually came right down to the road leaving us to wonder about the ski touring possibilities. In all those years, we never stopped to go explore. This was my first time back to the Duraven area since moving to Montana in 2005 and I eagerly anticipated what we might find.

The area offers the chance to summit three peaks - Dunraven, Hedges and Mt. Washburn. We opted for Mt. Washburn.  On our drive up, we spotted an appealing north facing line off of Washburn and the peak had an obvious approach on a marked trail. Given that we'd still have a few more hours of driving after skiing it was good to go with the shorter, more known-route.

The trail to Mt. Washburn is actually an old road bed. It meanders for 3.2 miles and almost 1,400 vertical feet to the summit. The snowline came within feet of the trailhead and it was nice to skin almost the entire way. There were a few muddy patches where we had to take skis off and the divide/trail junction shortly before the summit was completely melted out but that was all we spent off of our skis. Not bad for May 28!

A lookout tower is found on the summit and included bathrooms and an enclosed viewing area. These were nice luxuries as the day was cool and mostly cloudy. The sky spit snow from time to time, and the wind picked up for short bursts so it was nice to have inside space to have a snack and enjoy the 360 degree views. Unfortunately, we didn't see any of the big horn sheep that are known to frequent the area.
Backcountry Skiing in Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone National Park
Our desitnation
Throughout the day we spotted several groups of hikers and a pair of bikers who approached the peak from the alternate route up Chittenden Road. The hikers didn't appear to be post-holing, the bikers didn't have an excessive amount of mud on their bikes, and we had solid coverage for skinning. I can't think of too many days in the mountains where conditions are good for skiing, hiking and biking. Someone is usually suffering but on this day at Mt. Washburn all modes of transportation worked equally as well.
Backcountry Skiing in Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone National Park
Skiers & bikers converge near the divide

Mt. Washburn backcountry Ski Tour, Yellowstone National Park
Skinning out of the natural half-pipe
As for the ski, it was a delight. From the divide, we skied north. The run started off wide, open and mellow before rolling over into a section of steeper turns that were followed by a natural half-pipe. From there, we made a short traverse through the trees for a few more turns. This was a consistent and straightforward run of about 1,000 vertical feet and other than a few sticky turns near the end conditions we stellar. Adding to our luck was the fact that we were the only skiers out on Mt. Washburn.

The day was one of great company, new terrain and excellent ski conditions. And when you think about it, what more can you hope for in late spring ski outing?
Stoked to Ski Bearthoot Pass!
Our theme for the weekend