This is part of our week long cross country ski trip to Yellowstone.
Geysers are fun, but we had also come to Yellowstone for the deep powder snow. We signed up for the early snow coach up to the top of Spring Creek trail, almost at the continental divide. It started snowing overnight. By morning, the air was full of thick flakes. Tyson felt dreadfully ill, so my parents and I left him in the cabin.
Immediately upon seeing us with a pulk, the snow coach driver became concerned. “Spring Creek trail is a backcountry trail. It’s really steep in places and you’ll be breaking trail the whole way.” This sounded good to us. We weren’t dissuaded. Our route for the day was 10 miles, descending from 8,100′ to 7,400′. We felt prepared. There were three other passengers on the snow coach. A couple, clearly less prepared than us, out for a pleasant jaunt on the Lone Star Geyser trail. And a lodge employee headed to the top of the continental divide on his day off.
Check out the official trail description for Spring Creek Trail.
For these short skier shuttles, Yellowstone still uses the historic Bombardier snow buses. They used to take kids to school in Canada. You have to duck your head to enter. Inside, there are two bucket seats up front; a U shaped bench in the back tucked under the sloping rear roof; and a hump down the middle for the drive shaft. The whole interior was painted black. The Bombardier has rear wheel drive with treads in the back and skis up front. On sharp corners, it drifted around the turn. Even at full speed we didn’t go fast. The GPS readout projected onto the lower wind screen never reached 20mph.
The snow coach driver filled the ride with advice on where to go and how to find the trails. A proper tour guide. We got off at the last stop along with the off duty employee. This was the driver’s final chance to convince us to turn around. We rattled off all the safety gear we were carrying, still confident in our skills. Resigned, the driver left with a parting admonishment “Check in at the desk when you get back so we know you are safe.” Then it was just us, three adults a kid and a pulk, and the tracks of the employee skier heading uphill in a flurry of snow.
According to the map (link to NPS static map, link to NPS interactive map), we needed to follow the Divide Trail across the creek and a short way up the other side. Then we would turn downhill on Spring Creek Trail. The only tracks in the fresh snow were from the skier ahead of us heading up the Divide trail. We climbed up the far hill without spotting the Spring Creek Trail turn off. Dad, who was pulling Isaac in the pulk, stopped to rest. “Haven’t we climbed more hill than we should have?” he complained. Indeed, the map showed a minimal climb. Had we missed the turn?
I sprinted ahead to see if the junction was just around the corner. Nope, not even when I skied even farther. So we all slid back down towards the stream. Not a trace of a trail off to the left, not even if we imagined really hard. We even tried looking back on the parking lot side of the stream. Nothing there either. Now we were starting to feel ridiculous given how confidently we had told the driver we knew what we were doing. At this point our options were to bushwhack down along the stream until we found the trail, or search farther up the hill. We decided to send me up the hill to search one more time. I was to turn around in 10 minutes and whistle if I found the trail so the others could catch up. I set off as fast as I could. I was racing the clock climb back to where I stopped my previous search. I remember it stopped snowing as I climbed and the sun peaked out a little. Up, up went the trail. The forest floor was open with lovely powdery snow tucked between occasional evergreens. Higher it changed into wide open aspen or birch groves. The minutes ticked by. At nine minutes, I saw a sign through the trees. Sure enough, “Spring Creek Trail” with an obvious well maintained passage headed back down the hill. I whistled and then backtracked to find the rest of the family in case they hadn’t heard.
Once on the Spring Creek Trail, Isaac got out of the pulk to ski by himself. He loved the deep snow, the little downhill drops, and the way the trail meandered here and there through the woods. It started snowing again, beautiful fat flakes. The trail was easy to follow. The blazes on the trees were well spaced and fresh. No branches grew into the trail. And there was a faint depression from prior skiers. The fresh snow helped Isaac control his speed, but also tired him out. He got back in the pulk to snack and rest.
The yellow pulk we rented had a flat sled bottom like a gear sled. The top was fully enclosed with a thick fabric shell with a flexible window supported by a metal frame. Two rigid poles ran forward from the sled to whomever was pulling it so it couldn’t catch up to the skier. Unlike our pulk at home, this one did not have cross bracing between the poles. As a result, it relied on the groves in the sled bottom to run straight. The pulk was twice as wide as a ski track, so it drug through untracked snow on either side of the track. We took turns up front where one person broke trail a normal width. The next person broke trail to either side. And then the pulk puller at the rear.
At the middle Spring Creek trailhead, I stepped out of my skis to use the pit toilet and sank down to my waist. Snow! The entrance to the toilet was four feet down. Thankfully the park kept the entrance shoveled open. Afterward, I had to climb back up to my skis.
We found fresh ski tracks joining the Spring Creek trail at this trailhead. Now both people up front could concentrate on breaking trail wide enough for the pulk.
On this section, Spring Creek dug a deep V shaped ravine through the hills. The left bank was too steep for a trail. We skied the right bank. At times there was a narrow flood plane at the bottom. Here two people skied ahead to break trail. In other places, the ravine walls descended steeply down to the creek. Us adults were fine skiing the side hill, but Isaac and his pulk kept sliding downhill off the trail and toppling over. He alerted us to each fall with a loud scream of protest. Isaac didn’t enjoy tipping over, and it was slowing us down, so we stopped to replan. Back when my parents skied with a pulk in the Rockies, they had drilled holes in the back of their pulk to attach a rope. The person skiing behind the pulk would help control the pulk with the rope. We couldn’t drill a hole through the rental pulk. Instead, we found we could lace our emergency parachute cord through the frame holding the canvas top. It was structural enough for what we needed. Now everyone had a full time job. Person up front breaking a second trail for the pulk to pass through. Second person hauling the pulk. And third person belaying the back of the pulk on hills and maneuvering it up in tight spots. It worked, but we were all too busy to take photos. I wish we had. Frozen waterfalls cascaded down from the hills. Large rocks and boulders jutted out into the ravine giving it a rugged look. The stream was mostly frozen over. In a narrow spot, the trail crisscrossed the stream on snow bridges yards above the water surface.
Eventually, the ravine opened out into the wide valley made by the Firehole River. Here the trail was was less technical, but we were all glad when we crossed the bridge over the Firehole river. The map said we were almost to the groomed Lone Star Geyser trail. Up a steep hill and we found it. What a relief, no more breaking trail with the pulk. We had 3 miles left to go and a dinner reservation at 5PM. I was also eager to get back and check on Tyson.
We paused at Kepler cascades. The map indicates the trail stays on the west side of the road, but the blazes and tracks were on the east. The Kepler Cascade trail was not groomed, but had many skiers had tramped it down. The final descent wasn’t very scenic, but it efficiently delivered us down to the Old Faithful summer parking lot. We found Tyson still sick. He had not left the cabin for anything, even breakfast or lunch. We revived him and quickly changed our clothes. We arrived at dinner with 5 minutes to spare.
The Spring Creek Trail was fun. It was definitely tough with the pulk. It’s well blazed and easy to follow, but the map is misleading in places. With a group of strong adults, it would have been fun to start with the spur trail up the continental divide.
Sorry, no GPS track. Tyson wasn’t awake enough to bug me to bring my phone.