Backcountry Skiing at the Edge of Yellowstone National Park
WORDS • DREW PETERSEN
PHOTOS • GABE ROVICK (unless otherwise noted)
Editors’ Note: This project was filmed and written in January 2020. If you’re planning a visit to any of these amazing locations in Montana, first read these travel & safety tips.
In the winter, Cooke City is the end of the road—the only way to reach this wild little hamlet is by driving through the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. In the summer, you can pass through and keep driving east over the famous Beartooth Highway; but, in wintertime, Main Street dead-ends at a mountain of plowed snow.
When we drove in, the wind howled and it was obvious our timing was amidst a brewing snowstorm. We awoke to the nearby weather station reporting 10 inches of new snow, but once we got out into the mountains, there must have been two feet of fresh snow blanketing the ground. Breaking trail and setting the skin track proved to be a formidable task, but the skiing was marvelous. The snow was billowing up my chest, enveloping me and slowly parting to welcome my entrance, turn after turn.
The next day we ski toured above town on the north side, an area fittingly referred to as Town Hill. Here in Cooke City, we linked up with Beau Fredlund, a local skier who is showing us around. Beau embodies the spirit of Cooke City in his rugged, humble nature and exceptional ability and experience in the mountains. He’s a passionate skier who has lived here for 11 years and works as a backcountry ski guide, a photographer and a wilderness hiking, backpacking and rafting guide in the Beartooth Mountains and in Yellowstone National Park in the summer.
Beau’s intimate knowledge of the mountains shines throughout our time skiing together. His dedicated approach to safety and humility, as well as his respect for the mountains and the new snowfall, is wise and worthy to learn from. On the skin track, we chat about life, skiing and, more than anything, the mountains that are so accessible here. “These are whitebark pines. They’re incredibly resilient, but also serve as an important piece of the ecosystem because their cones provide nutrients to the animals throughout winter.”
“There is a fox den up near where we’ll ski today,” adds Beau, as we follow fox prints, guiding us as we set the skin track. “The burn area is from a wildfire in 1988.” All day long, Beau continues to share facts and pieces of area history from the mining heritage of the town of Cooke City to his friend’s ecological research of the animal populations in the Greater Yellowstone area.
Beau shares a deep connection to these mountains, built over countless long days on skis in the backcountry and running and climbing through the peaks of the Beartooth Mountains in the summer, exploring the area’s skiable terrain without the snow cover. Atop our ski run, which we skinned to directly from our back door, he guides the way to a cave, the entrance underneath a beautiful, contoured wind drift at the top of the hill. Inside, we are offered a respite from the wind and snow, and Beau continues to share stories and explains the intrigue of this zone for skiers. Part of the forest that’s regrown since the fire, the zone provides wide-open tree skiing, bountiful fresh snow and can be easily hot-lapped for multiple runs in a single afternoon. Beau continues to share stories and explains the intrigue of this zone for skiers.
As we ski down, Beau’s connection to the mountains shines through again, in his graceful, sweeping powder turns, in which he patiently arcs from one turn to the next, allowing the intricate contours of the snow to guide his dance. It’s a beautiful opportunity to follow and mirror his tracks.
The powder is certainly plentiful, and the only tracks or signs of humans we encounter all day long are from Beau’s friend Amanda.
At the end of a ski day in Cooke City, not only do you ski to the edge of town, you ski right into the heart of it. Right before Main Street lies the only evidence that this is a road – there’s a wooden sign that reads, “Welcome to Cooke City: The Coolest Small Town in America.”
We ski directly down the very middle of Main Street, packed down with snow, and exchange waves with snowmobiles that share the roadway with us. We ski straight to the Miner’s Saloon, the local watering hole, to grab a beer. As we click back into our skis to head home after our après beer, we pass by the General Store. Parked outside is an old Chevy pickup with a white and turquoise paint job, covered in the recent two feet of snow. Something about the scene resonates as timeless.
Life here in Cooke City is off the beaten path and a welcome idyll, entirely removed from the buzz of modern life. For those who make the trip, the allure is overwhelming, highlighted by incredible access to the Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. Just getting a taste of the backcountry skiing potential here and a glimpse into the mountains has me excited to come back. After all, there’s skiing right out the back door—and the front door as well.