A Winter Ski Trip to Yellowstone’s Tower Fall

A Saturday afternoon in the park in winter? A great time to ski up to Tower Fall.

Cross-country skiing in Yellowstone National Park just makes a great park even better. The snow is reliable and deep and once the gray days of December and January have passed, February and March offer up bluebird days –- bright and sunny. And as an added bonus, the longer days since the solstice are getting long enough to be noticeable.

There are several good ski trails on the park’s Northern Range, which is accessible by car through the North Entrance at Gardiner.

A technically easy ski and not very long is the trail from Tower Junction to Tower Fall, which is about 2.5 miles one-way. Before you leave Mammoth Hot Springs, stop in at the Xanterra Parks & Resorts ski shop, where the friendly staff will have current trail and weather conditions and other timely information.

After a scenic drive from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Junction, the road continues on through Lamar Valley to Cooke City, where the deep snow and backcountry roads lure avid snowmobilers.

But at Tower Junction, you can park your car and set off up the road toward Tower Fall and beyond. The trail follows the paved summer road, but it’s snow-covered this time of year and closed to both wheeled and over-the-snow vehicles. The road is groomed by park staff, packing it down for skiers, snowshoers and even hikers often find the surface hardpacked enough for walking.

The trail is popular with visitors and locals alike, including many year-round park employees based at Mammoth Hot Springs. Don’t be shy about chatting with other skiers. You might stumble upon a long-time park employee with unique insights and information to share.

You’ll want to carry lunch or snacks and plenty of water. But be forewarned: the vault toilet at Tower Junction is the last one for a while. The trail is mostly wide open to the falls and lady skiers will be hard-pressed to find a private tree to relieve herself behind. So make sure you’re hydrated, but not TOO hydrated.

As you start up the trail, you’ll get a whiff of sulfur from some hot spring activity off to your left. As you continue up the road, you’ll notice that you’ve never noticed the road is mostly all uphill heading out of Tower. But it’s a gradual uphill, and on skis, what goes up must eventually come down.

Look at the snow for animal tracks, and keep an eye out for bison. Wildlife will use that hard-packed, groomed road because it’s easier than slogging through deep snow. Coyote and wolf tracks are a possibility.

You’ll come to the Calcite Springs Overlook, which provides a nice view down into the Yellowstone River. This is a great spot in summer to watch for osprey soaring above the river. Soon you’ll come to the dramatic rock formation to your right and overhead, a large outcropping of columnar basalt. The columnar basalt is a relic of active volcanism in Yellowstone’s geologic past.

The road continues upward and eventually rewards the skier with a short downhill to the parking lot of the Tower General Store. The store is closed in winter, but a few picnic tables are set up, covered by a high roof adjacent to the store. The afternoon sun hits the store walls, making a warm spot for a well-deserved lunch break.

Take your skis off and walk down the short trail to the Tower Fall overlook. For some reason, Tower Fall is singular, not “Tower Falls,” as most waterfalls are usually styled. The falls drop 132 feet off Tower Creek. The iconic falls were painted by Thomas Moran, the watercolor artist who accompanied the 1871 Hayden Survey, along with another artist, photographer William Henry Jackson.

Moran’s paintings and sketches and Jackson’s photographs are credited with helping to convince Congress to pass the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

The trail continues up the road, but the store is a great ending point. The track back to your car is mostly downhill, a gentle descent that will require minimal kicking for much of the trip.

When you get back to your car, there will be food and hot beverages and real restrooms available at the Mammoth Terrace Grill.

All in all, a good day.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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