Snowmobiling the Continental Divide

Learning to snowmobile along the Idhao/Montana border at the gateway to Yellowstone

The only thought that registered I flew off the edge of the snowcliff was that the little bush over which I was sailing was actually the tiptop of a 40-foot spruce tree.

Luckily, the drop to the snowbank on the other side was only about five feet. As I plowed into it I gunned my engine, shot right through the bank in a huge plume of powder, and went roaring off along the ridge line that marks the Continental Divide.

I brought my snowmobile to a puttering stop alongside my guide, Jeff, who was keeping an eye on the rest of our group as they buzzed more sedately around the open snowfield. As I brushed the snowdrift off my dashboard, Jeff shot me a sideways grin and said, "I saw that."

I grinned broadly and began dusting off the thick frosting of snow caked to my clothes and helmet. "OK, I admit it. This is really fun."

Uneasy Rider

I had been of two minds about the whole recreational snowmobiling concept.

On the one hand, I'm an avid hiker and camper, and had always pictured snowmobiles as pollution-spewing, fantastically noisy machines that would completely spoil any walk in the winter woods by filling the air with acrid smoke and a buzzing engine drone.

I had no problem with snowmobiles as a means of transportation for people who live in snowy climes, but as a recreational pursuit they seemed little more than expensive toys for people who didn't know how to appreciate the hallowed quiet of nature in wintertime.

On the other hand, I'm a guy, snowmobiles have big engines, and they go really fast.

So I couldn't resist saddling into an Arctic Cat T660 sled in the Montana town of West Yellowstone and taking a 35-mile spin through the surrounding Gallatin National Forest, nipping back and forth over the Idaho border.

The first thing I discovered is that a snowmobile handles like an oil-slicked water buffalo careening down a Slip 'N Slide at 40 m.p.h.

Since I hadn't yet figured out that breathing though my mouth only fogged the helmet visor, I also had no idea where I was going.

This was just as well since the handlebars, heated grips and all, turned out to be less a means for me to suggest which way to go as a handy device to hold onto for dear life as the machine bounced and jiggered down the trail of its own accord.

We stopped just inside the forest to defrost our visors by tucking them under the hoods on the engines and to watch the morning mist burn off Black Sand Spring. A family of ducks beat hasty V's of retreat through the water as I approached.

Back on the sled, I soon learned the trick to steering was to relax, loosen my spine, and absorb all the minor lateral jouncing the road was throwing at me while concentrating instead on influencing the overall arc of direction.

I also discovered one must slow waaay down to get the necessary traction to execute sharp turns (not that throwing the handlebars sideways at high speed and ending up tilted over on one ski, flying along sideways and throwing a roostertail of snow in the air, wasn't terrifyingly thrilling).

Winter Wonderland

The twisting trail up into the mountains was narrow and I found myself frequently ducking under snow-laden branches and bent-double trees that hung akimbo across the trail, turning the ride into a kind of sword of Damocles obstacle course since you never knew when one might dump its snow load without warning.

We cruised along the South Fork of the Madison River, then wound our way uphill through a cathedral of lodgepole pines filtering orange and yellow shafts of stained glass sunlight that reflected off the snow in gold, slate blue, and diamond white.

As we crested Two Top, a 8,400-foot peak along the Continental Divide between Montana and Idaho, we began passing snow ghosts: weirdly twisted snow sculptures on armatures of trees crafted by the fierce ridge winds.

The view from the peak was magnificent: a crystalline panorama over the Henrys and Madison Mountains and across Idaho's Targhee National Forest to Wyoming and the Tetons peeking up in the distance beyond Yellowstone.

When You Go...

Tiny West Yellowstone (406-646-7701, is at the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, a 90-minute drive south of Bozeman, MT.

Where to stay in West Yellowstone

Even though town's only eight blocks by four blocks, there are about 50 places to stay. Mike and Gayle Gavagan's restored log cabin at Bar N Ranch is one for the more atmospheric places to stay around town (406-646-0300,; $126–$227 in the main lodge, $181–$330 cabins). Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort has a pool, hot tub, free WiFi, and snowmobile rentals (800-646-7365,; from $119).

Where to eat in West Yellowstone

Breakfast with the townies at Running Bear Pancake House (406-646-7703). The Gusher (406-646-9050) does good pizza and burgers. Refined rustic is the dining and décor theme at the Bar N Ranch.

Where to rent a snowmobile in West Yellowstone

To rent a sled (from $154 a day, including gear) and a snowmobile guide (from $175 for up to three participants), contact Ace Powder Guides (800-624-5291, or Two Top Snowmobile Rental (800-522-7802,, which also offers lodging packages—two nights and a day of snowmobiling—from $181 per person if two share the room (share a sled as well and its $136 per person).

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.