I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park 5 times in my life (including the team Oily Rag/Vintagent Cannonball Rally), and until last week, every time had been on a vintage motorcycle. Wyoming winter weather precludes two-wheel transport, so if you’d like to see Yellowstone in all it’s snowy magnificence, you’ll arrive snug inside some kind of tracked vehicle. The best option by far -from Oily Rag’s point of view- is to enter via Jackson, WY, as the few visitors who brave winter’s chill are herded from the southern park entrance to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in magnificent vintage yellow Bombardier B12 Snowcats.
In continuous use by Yellowstone Park since new, their fleet of 21 Snowcats is the world’s largest, and their drivers a dedicated and enthusiastic lot. They love their machines, which are still about the swiftest people-carriers on snow, and the grooviest by a long shot. The earliest Snowcat in their fleet is believed late 1950s, with most built between 1965 and 1974. They use a Chevrolet 350cu” motor, with dual high-rise exhaust stacks, giving a ‘hotrod’ sound which, while not especially loud, gives a thrill to anyone with a touch of Gearhead in the soul. Fuel mileage is thirsty at ~3mpg, but the little yellow bugs are darned fast over the unplowed roads of Yellowstone, even when speed-governed to 35mph…they are clearly capable of more!
While in the wilds of the Park, the primary goal is seeking wildlife (wolves, coyotes, foxes, river otters, trumpeter swans, elk, and bison were spotted at close range on my visit), enjoying the thermal features which pump steam columns skyward, and the many icy waterfalls and snowy vistas; still, catching sight of a Snowcat flying past is also a thrill! Better yet, catching a ride via Snowcat to view distant geysers or to a remote spot for cross-country skiing adds a certain panache to the experience; everyone loves them.
Joseph-Armand Bombardier, born in 1907, was obsessed with making winter travel as easy as summertime, and while he had no engineering training, invented and built his first snowmobile (propeller powered!) in the early 1920s. By 1937, the first Snowcat was built, the B7 half-track with room for 6 passengers and a driver; this type of Snowcat was their first commercial proposition, introduced just before WW2, as a way to get children to school, and to keep essential services mobile in the far north of Canada. Prior to tracked snow vehicles, horses and sleighs were the vehicle of choice, well into the 1940s. In 1942, Bombardier’s business was incorporated as L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, which began producing a larger Snowcat, the B12, as seen in these photos.
The postwar world brought modernization to the world’s roads, and a commitment from most Northern cities and towns to plow the roads free of snow in winters. While this impacted Bombardier’s business, there were still obviously many areas which were too remote for frequent plowing, and the Snowcats were produced until the mid-1970s; around 3000 were built.
If you’re interested in visiting Yellowstone Park in Winter, you’ll have to make all the arrangements beforehand, as there’s only one hotel, with 102 rooms, and access is via a once-daily Snowcat ride from the South entrance. Plan on two days to get to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge from wherever you are; one day to get to Jackson Wyoming, and another day to catch the Snowcat. My stay was 4nights, which seemed about perfect; we fit in a full day of snowshoeing independently, a half day showshoe tour of wildlife spots, a 105-mile snowmobile tour (amazing!), and some night-time stargazing and geyser-visiting. This was an ‘always wanted to’ holiday for me, and it fulfilled my expectations 100%. The landscape is breathtaking in any season, but Winter is the only time you’re ever going to watch Old Faithful with your sweetie, some bison…and nobody else!
- Paul d’Orléans