Yurts in Yellowstone
On the trail of the elusive three dog day
BY JEANNETTE BONER
We’re at the summit of Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone National Park. Mount Washburn towers to the east and the snow is so deep that only the bright-red top of a stop sign tells us we’re standing six feet above the roadway.
We made the easy trek up the pass on Nordic skis, gliding along a sunlit path. I’ve been over Dunraven Pass before, but only in my car, and usually with my hands gripping the steering wheel, hoping not to hit a gaggle of tourists ogling a herd of deer.
But here it is early March, not a car in sight, and the only tourists are myself and the group of eight I’m with. We stand, mouths agape, marveling at the quiet, untouched beauty of rolling hills and sharp peaks rising out of the wintery landscape. I feel like I’m seeing Yellowstone for the first time—and, in fact, several in our group are.
Admittedly, before signing up for this adventure I would never have considered a weeklong trip to Yellowstone in early March staying indoors at night, let alone while holing up in a primitive yurt. Usually when this time of year rolls around in the Tetons, I’m looking for a reprieve from winter, having already spent months on skis. But there we were, jumping into a snow coach in West Yellowstone, Montana. We would soon be heading into the park for our adventure with Yellowstone Expeditions, based out of their Cross Country Skiers Yurt Camp.
As the drivers fired up the snow coaches, guides helped load our skis and gear bags. A few hours later, our snowcoach rolled into the yurt camp, revealing rows of the private tent cabins Yellowstone Expeditions refers to as “yurtlets.” They stood neatly positioned in front of the two main yurts, which held a common area, dining room, and kitchen. The yurtlets varied in size and space; ours was small but amazingly comfortable and warm, with its own propane heater, double bed lined with fleece, and plenty of wall pegs for hanging and drying ski clothes and gloves. I was happy to learn that I could either cocoon in the privacy of the yurtlet or hang out in the common area with others.
That first night, Arden Bailey took all of us, some with ski gear rented from Yellowstone Expeditions and others with their own, and gave us a little ski test as we headed to the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Arden, outfitted in gaiters, had first worked to get us strapped in, showing some of our group the finer points of ski touring.
Easing into the week, I couldn’t help but contract the contagious mood of the staff: easy, happy, and relaxed. This would be the last week of their season at the camp, yet I was made to feel like I was their first special guest of the winter.
As our group of fifteen sat around the family dining table that evening, we shared story after story from the day’s adventures. What animals did we see, what hot springs had we toured, what mountains had we crested? As Arden and his staff served plates of potatoes, grilled steak, salad, and mushrooms, his eyes danced from guest to guest; he listened attentively, as if it were his own first time to see a coyote or feel as light as air striding through untracked snowfields.
“This place is special,” Arden told me the next morning. We were sitting in the kitchen yurt drinking hot coffee, waiting for the others to filter in for the start of another day. “If people feel that connection, we’ve done something right. … To [offer] a personal experience in Yellowstone has been the driving force of the business since its beginning.”
On that and subsequent mornings, breakfast was served hot, and we made our own lunches, brown-bag style, for the daily ski trips. As we put together our lunches, Arden and his staff would line out the day ahead. With various guides, we had the choice of touring different parts of the park on outings tailored to our ability level and confidence on skis, or based on what we wanted to see that day.
Arden has owned and operated this outfit in the north-central region of Yellowstone for more than thirty years. Along with a dedicated staff and his longtime partner, Erica Hutchings, he has attracted the curious, the retired, the young, and the adventurous; those looking to squeeze a little more out of life. Our group included a couple from the U.K. who had never been on Nordic skis, let alone trekked through Yellowstone in winter; a retired couple from the Midwest; several couples from the San Francisco Bay Area; and an elderly couple, she close to ninety.
As a team, Arden, a research geologist, and Erica, a ranger-naturalist in Yellowstone during the summer, represent a deep pool of knowledge. Together, they provided a wealth of information about this curious and wonderful place.
Yellowstone Expeditions is a unique find in the wilds of Yellowstone, offering an adventure unlike any trip I’ve taken. I wasn’t simply staying in a two-person yurt, I was a guest in Arden and Erica’s home, welcomed with a sense of familiarity that was immediate and enduring. To put it quite pointedly, we had so much fun. We laughed, made homemade ice cream, fell down in the powder and made snow angels, ate lunch next to a hot spring, and saw coyotes and bald eagles and bison and elk. We viewed Artist Point and watched the steam rise from geysers against the cold, bright-blue March sky. Arden told tales of days and adventures gone by; he even let us in on what constitutes a really good day on a Yellowstone Expeditions trip: the rare “three dog day,” when you glimpse a wolf, coyote, and red fox all in one twenty-four hour period.
For us, despite never achieving that goal, each day brought new discoveries—and seemed better than the day before.