Winter in Alaska: snowmobiling with Glacier City, cheating death all the while (video)

In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.



A helmet cam view of snowmobiling in Girdwood, Alaska


When it comes to winter sports, you’ve got skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey — you know, the usual. And then, there’s snowmobiling. Or “snowmachining” as it’s known in The Last Frontier. Whatever you call it, there’s no question that it’s a rush of epic proportions, and while you can most certainly do it in the lower 48, doing in the one that borders Canada and and Russia* provides an entirely different perspective. I’ve snowmobiled through Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and in Olney, Montana, and while those were both unique and extraordinary experiences in and of themselves, ripping it up through the Chugach mountains is a can’t-miss episode for daredevils. Read on to find out how Glacier City Snowmobile Tours got my adrenaline pumping, or press play on the video above to catch a helmet-cam view of the entire thing!

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snowmobile in alaska

Girdwood feels a lot further than 45 miles from Alaska’s largest city (yeah, Anchorage), and it’s home to both Alyeska Ski Resort & Hotel as well as Glacier City Snowmobile Tours. These guys are tucked within the Great Alaskan Tourist Trap shop, connected with the Tesoro fuel station. Tough to find, but well worth discovering. You’ll have two main tour options — the 5.5 hour Real Deal Blue Ice Tour (where you’ll spot glaciers) — and the 3.5 hour Gold Mine Tour. Those run you $250 and $200 apiece, respectively, and include fuel, gear, a campfire lunch (complete with Reindeer hot dogs and Russian Hot Tea) and a guide. The “guide” part is what really makes it — we had Matthew Moscoso (shown above), an Alaskan of five years and consummate professional on the sled. He was both comical and informative, and frankly, it makes me wish my US history teacher of yesteryear had a shred of his genes. I also got to ride with Chanc Deschamps-Prescott, an award-winning skier (and Girdwood native) who is but 15 years of age, and has his sights firmly set on entering the next Winter Olympics. I can’t promise that you too will get the sled with a local hero, but hey, crazier things have happened in Alaska.

snowmobile in alaska

I embarked on the Gold Mine Tour, and couldn’t have possibly had more fun. The trails were definitely the most challenging I’d seen in my three major treks out, but that also adds to the thrill and excitement. We were able to stop for plenty of astounding photo opportunities of the surrounding mountains (as you can see in the gallery here), and the lunch really was something special. Delicious, and thought provoking. How often does that happen?

snowmobile in alaska

As with pretty much everything in Alaska, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about doing everyday activities here. Snowmobiling is no different. Glacier City is the only tour outfit that gets to cruise on the trails that we cruised on, so you’re literally surrounded with nothing but nature. It’s you, your group, your sled, and some of the most intense scenery your brain will ever have to digest. I could go on, but I’ll let a bit of helmet cam footage from my journey handle whatever convincing is still required.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Winter in Whitefish, Montana: where extreme snow sports and radical serenity meet

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Northwestern Montana just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When most tourists ponder Big Sky Country, they think of big lakes, outback hunting and skiing at Big Sky Resort. Truth is, all of those things are most definitely found in the Treasure State, but there’s a slice of this place that manages to package a raft of winter sporting activities with a slice of natural beauty that’ll burn a collection of lasting memories into your brain.

The place is Whitefish, Montana, and the vibe is simply unforgettable. Sitting just an hour south of British Columbia and light years away from that nuisance known as “hustle and / or bustle,” this cozy town of 5,000 or so acts as a perfect base for your idyllic winter getaway. Most folks head to a ski town to hit a few good runs, a few decent bars and a few overpriced merchandise stores. But if you’re flying into FCA this winter, I’d recommend bringing an entirely different set of expectations. Read on to find out why.

%Gallery-114796%No question about it: the star of Whitefish is Big Mountain, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort (and this rediculous mansion situated near lift 3). Unlike the vast majority of ski towns in the U.S., this town was actually a thriving place prior to 1947, the year it was turned into a ski destination. That simple fact has led to locals being almost universally emphatic about its existence — during a quick jaunt to Moose’s Saloon in downtown Kalispell, I was greeted by three residents who could tell by my garb that I’d been on the hill earlier. “How were the conditions up there today? Good I hope!” That’s the kind of attitude that permeates through the greater Whitefish region, and it makes the entire place remarkably hospitable to outsiders like myself.

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I spent a couple of solid days at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and it’s definitely the gem of the northwest. Lift lines were practically nonexistent, conditions were stellar, powder was abundant, and even the amenities onsite were downright impressive. The 3.3-mile Hellride is just the tip of the iceberg; unlike many mountains, riders can soar down both sides of Big Mountain, giving you a nearly endless array of trails to choose from. Even advanced skiiers and snowboarders could spend a solid week here and barely have time to test out all of the routes.

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Whitefish has also done a commendable job in making sure there’s plenty to do all day; you’ll find top-notch eateries at both the Village and the Base Lodge (Ed & Mully’s had some of the best resort grub these chompers have ever sunk into), as well as numerous shops (with fair pricing!), a gaggle of lodging options and a view to die for. Oh, and did we mention that a single day lift ticket ($64) is 21 percent cheaper here than at Big Sky ($81)? It is.

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If you’ve managed to place an undue burden on your knees and twist your back in ways they should never be twisted, there’s a perfect midweek escape just a half-hour away. And it’s one that’ll require a shockingly small amount of physical exertion to enjoy. The destination is Glacier National Park, and a ride through in the winter is certainly an ideal way to find R&R during a otherwise revved-up week of vacation. Glacier just recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and she’s as gorgeous as ever at 101. Only ~12.5 miles of roadways are cleared during the winter season, but it’s enough.

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Crowds are unheard of when visiting this beaut in the off-season — in fact, I only spotted three other humans during an entire afternoon there last week. I’ve always been a huge proponent of visiting National Parks in the off-season, and the images below capture my explanation of ‘why’ perfectly. Guests can cruise the entire length of Lake McDonald (the largest in the park), and there are numerous opportunities to pull off and take a stroll down to the shoreline. If you catch it on a particularly foggy day, you’ll be hard pressed to believe you’re not somewhere in Iceland.

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If faced with good visibility, and one more extreme itch to scratch, I’d recommend making a beeline to Olney, MT. 20 or so minutes up Highway 93 North puts you at Winter Wonderland Sports, otherwise known as The Time of Your Life. These folks have a vast network of snowmobile trails right in their backyard, and at just $135 for the day, there’s hardly a better way to get your adrenaline boosted to near-unhealthy levels. The trails here are well maintained and chock full of astounding views — it’s an argonaut’s paradise, doused in untouched powder and surrounded by peaks and lakes that have been immune to commercialization. Wondering what kind of universe exists atop a mountain in the backcoutry of northwestern Montana? Have a gander below.

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For snow-loving adventurists, you’ve got too many options to count. But if you’re looking for a delicate mix of serenity and insanity, Whitefish is one of the few places that really nails it. Toss in a community’s worth of friendly locals, too many stellar eateries to count (Piggyback Barbeque gets a special nod, though) and world-class skiing, and you’ve finally got a reason to embrace Old Man Winter. If you find yourself here in Whitefish or the surrounding area, check out a few recommended day trips that I’ve compiled below…

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Ten great things to do in Yellowstone during the winter

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkAs many travelers know, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the entire world. It deftly blends beautiful landscapes, fascinating geothermal activity, and an amazing abundance of wildlife to give a unique experience that has to be seen to be believed. During the summer months, the park is warm, lush, and green but overrun with tourists. Last year the park set a number of attendance records, which can, at times, bring traffic jams and crowded accommodations to Yellowstone. But in winter, the park is a whole different place, and for those adventurous enough to visit, it delivers a whole new level of adventure and fun. Here are ten great things to do in Yellowstone in the winter.

Enjoy the Wide Open Spaces
Yellowstone averages about 3 million visitors per year, but most of them arrive during the summer months. In fact, the winter only sees about 100,000 visitors in total, which means it is far easier to find a place to stay and you won’t have to battle long lines while taking in the sights. The place is so quiet that you might set out on a trail and not see anyone else all day long, which is likely to only happen during the quiet days of winter.

Go Snowshoeing in the Geyser Basin
in terms of winter sports, snowshoeing is one of the easiest to pick up. If you can walk, you can probably snowshoe. Strap a pair of snowshoes to your feet and head out for a hike through Yellowstone’s famous Upper Geyser Basin, where you’ll not only be treated to eruptions by Old Faithful, but a number of other fantastic geothermal anomalies. This region of the park has the highest concentration of geysers and hotsprings, and even during the winter they spew steam and water from the ground. Besides Old Faithful, you’ll also find the Castle, Daisy, Grand, and Riverside Geysers, all of which have fairly predictable intervals to their eruptions. Snowshoes help you to navigate through the deep winter powder and allow you to get up close and personal to these amazing hot spots.Witness a Winter Eruption of Old Faithful
You don’t have to go snowshoeing to enjoy Old Faithful in the winter. It is an easy walk from the new visitor center that opened late last year. The building is an excellent place to stay warm, and learn about the geysers, while you wait for the next eruption, which occurs every 91 minutes, give or take ten. During the summer, it is not uncommon to have huge crowds gathered around the boardwalk to witness the old girl go off, but in the winter, the crowds are sparse at best. For a truly isolated Old Faithful experience, wander out after dark. I did this on a recent trip, and there were just eight of us on hand to watch.

Spend the Night at the Snow Lodge
Yellowstone’s Snow Lodge, located near Old Faithful, is one of just two hotels that are open for the winter months. What makes the Snow Lodge unique however is that it can only be reached aboard a snow mobile or a snowcoach, which is a touring van converted to tank treads that enable it to travel through deep snow. Completed in 1999, the Snow Lodge is a modern, comfortable inn that pays homage to the old school “park-itecture” that is prevalent around Yellowstone, while creating its own identity at the same time. The Snow Lodge is a perfect base of operations for visitors who want to spend a few days in the park enjoying the snowy playground to its fullest.

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkGo Wildlife Spotting in Lamar Valley
Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is often called North America’s Serengeti thanks to the large numbers of wildlife that inhabit the region. While many of those creatures are on display during the summer, it is far easier to spot them in the winter, thanks to the copious amounts of snow on the ground. Additionally, many of the creatures that inhabit the mountainous regions of the park move to lower altitudes during the winter in search of food. That means you’re more likely to see elk and big horn sheep in the colder months along with the usual large numbers of bison. Additionally, sharp-eyed travelers may also catch a glimpse of fox, coyotes, and even wolves on the prowl in Lamar Valley. Don’t expect bears however, as most are spending the winter months in a peaceful slumber.

Visit Lower Yellowstone Falls by Snow Mobile
The Lower Yellowstone Falls are truly one of the most beautiful and iconic landmarks in the entire park. During the winter months, the Falls succumb to the cold weather, freezing solid for weeks on end. But even in their frozen state, the Falls are breathtaking to see and worth a visit. One of the best ways to do just that is aboard a snow mobile, which can be rented at both the Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Travel on snow mobiles in Yellowstone is highly regulated and a guide is required at all times, but it also allows you to visit places that are not normally accessible in the winter months. Once hired, the guide will take you through the snowy backcountry, which will reveal a number of spectacular sights along the way to the Falls, which are of course the ultimate prize.

Go Ice Skating!
Visitors to Yellowstone in the winter can take part in some traditional seasonal activities as well. For instance, both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have skating rinks on the premises, which means you can hit the ice without having to wander far from the toasty confines of your lodge. Simply drop by the front desk at either location to pick up your skates. You’ll be pulling triple axles before you know it.

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkLearn to Cross Country Ski
Cross country skiing is one of the best winter activities that a traveler can ever experience, especially when visiting a setting as breathtaking as Yellowstone. There is something extremely sublime about gliding along through a fine, powdery snow with the Rocky Mountains looming high over head. It also happens to be a fantastic workout, but one that can require a little instruction and experience first. Fortunately, you can take a lesson at both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel, and then jump on a groomed trail not far from either location. After a little practice, you’ll be zipping along effortlessly in no time.

Soak in a Hot Spring
After spending a full day of playing in the snow, why not warm up with a dip in a natural hot spring? Yellowstone’s Boiling River, located not far from Mammoth, is one of the few places in the park where you can actually do just that, and while it can be quite crowded at other times of the year, during the winter it is easy to relax in the warm waters. The river is warm enough to keep you comfortable even in the the coldest conditions, just be sure to keep warm, dry clothes on hand for when you climb out. Brrrr!

Enjoy a Warm Drink by a Warm Fire
What’s the best way to cap an active day in the park? Easy! Pull up a comfortable chair and relax by the fire with a good book and a warm drink. Both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have wonderful fire places inside the building, and whether you prefer a hot chocolate or a hot buttered rum, you’ll find sitting by the fire to be a perfect ending to a perfect day in Yellowstone.

If you do visit the park in winter, be sure to pack your cold weather gear and your adventurous spirit. You’ll need both.

Photo of the Day (12.27.10)

photo of the day snowmobile Wyoming

Well, Americans from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic up through New England are still digging themselves out from this weekend’s delightful little flurry of snow. While some people think that snow is nothing but a nuisance, others relish the chance to play in the white stuff. Snow days aren’t just for kids.

Our very own Gadlinger Darren Murph snapped this photo while snowmobiling in Wyoming. Not a bad way to really plow through the snow. Whether you’re snowmobiling, snowshoeing, building a snowman or camping out in an igloo, make the best of these snow days rather than griping about them.

Taken any snowy photos during your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Yellowstone opens for winter season

Yellowstone in WinterOne of America’s premiere national parks, Yellowstone opened for the winter season yesterday, with the South Entrance granting visitors access to the pristine backcountry that already seen plenty of snow this year. The East Entrance and Sylvan Pass will both December 22nd, offering even more access to this winter wonderland.

In recent years, it has become increasingly popular to explore Yellowstone’s stunning landscapes during the winter months, with many visitors taking in such sites as Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. But with so much snow in the region, travel by car is out of the question, which means that most will climb aboard a snowmobile to make the journey to those iconic places. The park puts strict limits on the number of such vehicles that are allowed in the park each day, and all riders must be accompanied by a commerical guide.

In preparation for the winter opening, Yellowstone employees have been very busy grooming roads and trails for winter travel. The park is already covered in various amounts of snow this season, with some areas remaining lightly covered for now, while others have experienced heavy snowfall already. Considering winter doesn’t officially begin for a few days yet, there is already plenty of the white stuff to play in.

For those that would prefer a more eco-friendly approach to visiting Yellowstone in the winter, there are other options besides snowmobiles and coaches. Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are not only great ways to explore the wilderness area, they are an excellent workout as well. The local park rangers also lead a number of great winter programs, which can be found by clicking here.

If you’re planning a winter escape to Yellowstone and would like to travel by snowmobile or snowcoach, you’ll find a complete list of authorized operators in the various regions of the park by clicking here.

Just because winter is about to set in doesn’t mean we have to give up on our outdoor adventures. Check out Gadling’s cold weather gift guide for plenty of winter gear to keep you warm all season long.