I wish I could claim that Cooke City was on my radar for years, but that would be a lie. The first time I heard the name Cooke City was in a January email from Garrett titled “RIP Canada -> Cooke City”. The infamous Canada hut trip Garrett planned every year had been canceled due to Covid and in its place he had dreamed up a smaller trip (both in the number of households partaking and in the number of international borders needing to be crossed) and booked an airbnb in Cooke City for a week in March.
For the sheer radness of the destination, information on Cooke City is scarce. A Google search for almost any of the lines annotated in this amazing caltopo map returns no beta or trip reports. There are a couple videos floating around, but in general I felt like I was going into this trip largely blind.
Leading up to the trip, the main source of debate amongst our group of 10 was what to do about snowmobiles. While the terrain south of the town is off-limit to sleds, Cooke City is considered one of the premier sledneck destinations in the US and we wanted in on the experience. Renting fancy snowmobiles in Bozeman or Cooke City for the full week seemed too expensive, so we were all psyched when Cam reported he had found four sleds to rent for cheap in SLC.
Our trip thus began early Saturday morning with Cam rolling up to the house towing a comically long trailer. We gleefully peeked under the covers, admiring the retro paint jobs. After an hour of organizing, we managed to fit all of our stuff into the three cars and we hit the road.
I was lucky enough to have Aspen in my car, and the drive flew by with her curled up asleep in my lap. We made a quick pit stop in Bozeman to pick up a few essentials which we haphazardly lashed on top of our existing pile of gear, and continued on towards Cooke City.
One of the charms of skiing in Cooke City is that, during the winter, it is only accessible from the west, through Yellowstone National Park. I had never been to Yellowstone before, and it was a joy to drive through the park without the summertime crowds I have heard so much about. It really does feel almost like a zoo, with bison and elk routinely blocking traffic. Aspen took great pleasure at trying to make friends with passing bison through the rolled down window. They seemed less interested in her friendship.
The terrain for most of the drive through Yellowstone was expansive; beautiful but definitely not a dream ski destination. This all changed as we approached Cooke City. As the sun set, the mountains grew steeper and the rolling hills were replaced with steep, intimidating looking terrain. It was dark by the time we pulled up to the house, but I could already tell there was going to be some fun to be had. We unpacked, changed into our best denim as an offering to the snowmobile gods, and kicked off a week of vacation.
The next day started far earlier than expected with some loud knocking at the door. I groggily stumbled to the door. At it was someone saying they needed to get into the garage. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, at the end of a steep and windy driveway. The previous night we had driven the trailer down the driveway and, without enough room to turn it around, had been unable to figure out what to do with it. We had pulled it off to the side, figuring it would be easier to deal with in the daylight. Instead we got to deal with it at 5:30 in the morning, hungover and still in the dark. We tried backing it up the driveway but couldn’t figure out the angles around a tight corner. Eventually we made room for the car to pull out of the garage, doing our best impression of the game Rush Hour, and stumbled back into the house.
After a few more hours of poor sleep and some breakfast we found ourselves back out in the driveway once again scratching our heads on how to get the trailer out. We debated unhooking the trailer and turning it independent of the car but, at 2000 pounds, we were dubious of our ability to manage it on the steep driveway. Eventually we realized that we could use our youthful lower backs to make up for what we lacked in common sense and spatial awareness and we all teamed up to drag the rear of the trailer inch by inch around tight corners as Cam backed it up the driveway. By 10am we had the trailer relocated to the snowpark downtown.
Now it was time to turn our attention to the snowmobiles. Ideally we wanted to also leave them at the snowpark downtown as the trails could be accessed easily from there. Unfortunately, we had been warned that our sleds would overheat if driven on paved roads as they needed a fresh flow of snow against the heat exchanger to keep the coolant cold. There was no way we were bringing the trailer back down to the sleds, so our only option was to drive them the quarter mile to the snowmobile trail behind the house. “How hard can that be?” we reassured ourselves. Turns out, pretty hard. The weather was in the mid 40s and the snow was completely isothermic and rotten. The sleds repeatedly sunk waist-deep into the snow and no amount of reeving would get them out. We resorted to having one sled driver while the rest of us ran around on our skis, pulling sleds out. We should have given an offering to the deadlift gods the night before instead. Finally, after two or three hours, we had all the sleds onto the packed snowmobile trail and a couple people drove them the mile to the snowpark.
Having spent all morning lifting and moving things that were supposed to lift and move us, we were all excited to actually start our day and get skiing. We assembled in the snowpark (which we all started affectionately calling the Field of Cream after the snow-covered baseball park with the same name located next to where we parked the sleds), and set up to tow. We decided to go up Miller Creek, towards Crown Butte, because it was a short approach and it was already early afternoon. We set off, but as we wrapped around the north side of town the sled towing me sputtered and died. Nate, Mike and I hopped off and took turns pulling the start cord, our snowmobile knowledge pretty much limited to that and the throttle. The engine turned over but refused to start. We scratched our heads. Suddenly a window on a nearby house slid open and a man poked his head out:
“Yeah it just suddenly died on us”
“Where’d you get them?”
“We rented them down in Salt Lake City”
“That’s y0ur first mistake. How many of you?”
“One man, one machine”
The man shook his head and withdrew back into his house. Our shame was amplified by the two kids on a little toy snowmobile circling up and down the road past us. Cam returned and knew enough to help us try changing the spark plugs. When that didn’t work we decided to stash the sled and just make three work. Finally, at 2:30 pm we made it out of town and started towing up towards skiing.
It was an absolute blast being towed. After so many hours of shenanigans, it felt great to sit back and finally be able to appreciate the mountains. Index and Pilot Peak loomed large to the south of town and the views in the other 270 degrees hinted at a vastness of terrain that was unlike anywhere I had skied before. New peaks, filled with enticing lines, seemed to appear around every corner.
We eventually reached a clearing in the snowmobile trail we were following and we stashed our sleds and put on skins. It was a short skin up to the ridge known as Mineral Shoulder which runs north to Miller Mountain. We split into two groups and headed along the ridge. Finding a nice face with spaced trees, we dug a quick pit, found no signs of instability, and dropped in. Even though it was only a ~400 foot shot, it felt amazing to finally be skiing. The snow was dense and creamy, but we were psyched that the northeast facing aspect didn’t seem too sun affected from the long dry spell and the days heat. We stopped at a small bench and then continued down another short shot and made our way back to the sleds.
Three people were happy to bring the sleds back so the rest of us headed back up to the ridge and then followed it back down to the snowmobile road and skied it back to town. It was a very short tour and the snow was definitively average, but ripping down towards town as the sun began to set was the perfect end to a long day.