SnoWest's Readers Rate Montana's Snowmobile Trails Among the TOPS!

For the 10th year in a row, SnoWest Magazine polled nearly 2,000 readers to determine the top 15 snowmobile trails in the west. And, once again, West Yellowstone, Montana, came out on top while Island Park, Idaho, moved a spot closer to number one.

The survey asked SnoWest's readers to rate the trails they ride in nine specific areas:

  1. Scenery
  2. Grooming
  3. Snow Quality
  4. Signage
  5. Map
  6. Off-Trail
  7. Crowds
  8. Terrain
  9. Services

Combining the results from all of the above, SnoWest compiled the 'overall' top fifteen places to snowmobile in the west. Of course, it came as no surprise to the snowmobilers who flock to Island Park, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana, each winter that their favorite trails were near the top. In fact, they were in the top five for five of the categories (see SnoWest Magazine's SnoWest Western Guide 2006 - Volume 33, Number 7 for the full results).

Why do these areas consistently land in the top five? A brief look at their offerings and reputation shed a lot of light.

West Yellowstone, Montana, didn't earn the title "Snowmobile Capital of the World" for nothing. One of the few places in the west where the snowmobile actually rules - in West Yellowstone snowmobiles become a primary form of winter transportation, even to traveling the streets like cars. West Yellowstone, Montana obviously goes all out to welcome snowmobilers.

Weather plays a role too. A typical winter sees the countryside around West Yellowstone, Montana, draped in a heavy robe of white. With the Teton Mountains and the Centennial Mountains funneling most of the winter weather over the top of Island Park, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana, the area couldn't expect otherwise.

Of course, lots of snow doesn't a snowmobile capital make. But, that's not all. There's the terrain. With over 400 miles of groomed trails, snowmobilers can reach the heights of Lionhead - at 10,000 feet - or enjoy more moderate rides along the Madison River or around Horse Butte. And, the scenery - whether from the heights or the more modest peaks - alone is worth the trip.

Then, of course, West Yellowstone is gateway to the nation's oldest national Park - West Yellowstone National Park. Although things have changed mightily in the last few years, the Park is still open to snowmobilers. The entrance requirements are stiffer - special sleds and a guide - but according to some, that has only made the experience better.

Island Park, Idaho, offers over 500 miles of groomed trails and many more ungroomed. Of course, without snow, it would all be for naught. But, the same topography which sends the snow clouds scuttling over West Yellowstone, also forces them to pass over Island Park. This accounts for the area's normal annual snowfall of 200 inches or more.

Anyone mildly interested in the area has probably heard about its 'explosive' past. However, few seem to be aware that Island Park, Idaho, sits smack inside a large caldera. In fact, this particular caldera is about 18 miles long by 23 mile wide making it a really big bowl to play in! And, when you're tired of playing on the flats, Island Park offers mountains to climb. Two substantial peaks include Sawtelle (at 9,866 feet) and Jefferson (at 10,203 feet).

One positive aspect of Island Park - at least in my opinion - is it doesn't offer the city feel of West Yellowstone. Boasting the longest main street in America, Island Park, Idaho, is spread along many miles of Highway 20. It is this spread out aspect of Island Park which allows it to offer a fairly substantial support and service network without 'feeling' like it does. This is one of the things which, I think, makes Island Park, Idaho, more desirable than West Yellowstone, Montana. However, since they sit next door to each other, pick your favorite and enjoy them both.

With all this said, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to find neither Island Park nor West Yellowstone were in the tops for crowds (or the lack of). As any visitor to either area knows, these 'meca' spots for snowmobilers can get pretty crowded come mid to late January. If the snow holds, the crush of people can remain through the first weekend (or so) of March. And, of course, West Yellowstone's annual World Snowmobile Expo only make matters worse for those weekends in March.

On the flip side, I guess it's only to be expected people will feel the 'press' of the crowds if they never venture off the groomed trails and only visit the 'tourist' spots. Any place with snow of such quality and quantity, an extensive trail system, and a solid network of services can expect to draw crowds. But, as SnoWest covers in their three-part issue on Island Park, there is absolutely no reason visitors to the area shouldn't experience the sheer 'quietness' and 'vastness' which are really the hallmark of the area's backcountry.

With roughly 5,000 square miles riding area (that's just the Island Park, Idaho, area folks!) to explore, any rider willing to get off the beaten track a bit can spend the day in a world all alone - or at least alone enough you wonder if there's anyone else really out there. And, with businesses like Elk Lake Resort providing sustenance and a 'real' backcountry winter adventure - for snowmobilers and snowmobiles alike - there really is no reason not to!

To read the actual article, check out SnoWest's SnoWest Western Guide 2006 - Volume 33, Number 7. You can reach SnoWest via phone: (800) 638-0135 or check out their website.