The annual cross country ski festival in West Yellowstone, Montana wrapped up this weekend. The week-long event, which draws thousands of people from across the U.S., provides an economic boost to a community largely dependent on summer tourism.
At a trailhead near West Yellowstone, world class athletes, college teams and families get out of sprinter vans and put on their cross country skis. They glide over sparkling snow and disappear into the forest.
For people like Nicol Kramer, this is their new Thanksgiving tradition.
"We’ve been coming here for four years," Kramer says. "It’s a great time to get away for us as a family."
Kramer says they drove eight hours from Casper, Wyoming to attend the Yellowstone Ski Festival. She says there’s a lot to do even when they’re not on the trails.
“The kids love the trade show, and they also love the fashion show. We like going to the raffle and all the different talks, the waxing clinics," Kramer says.
Events like these have helped transform what used to be an early season training camp for the U.S. Nordic Ski Team in the 1970s into a week-long festival that draws in the whole spectrum of skiers, ranging from people who are just learning to professional athletes preparing for the Olympics.
Melissa Alder says the influx of visitors also benefits many of the hotels, restaurants and shops during the slower fall season.
She’s the chairwoman of the West Yellowstone Cross Country Ski Committee and co-owner of Freeheel & Wheel, a cross country ski and bike shop.
“Most businesses in town are very seasonal, and we wanted to provide more of a year-round economy for our community. So by having the ski festival this time of the year when there’s nothing else going on, we’re bringing anywhere from 1,000-4,000 people to West Yellowstone during this week,” Alder says.
Marysue Costello, CEO and President of West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, says local businesses depend on recreation-driven tourism. As the busiest gateway to Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone’s population of less than 2,000 swells to 10,000 with overnight visitors in the summer.
“It may appear that in the summertime, ‘Boy, this town is really raking it.’ The reality always is, you have to make enough money to carry yourself from season to season,” Costello says.
Most businesses here close when tourists are scarce between the end of the park’s summer season in October and before the beginning of the winter season in December.
But some business owners, like Ramona Stubblefield, find it worth their while to re-open specifically for this week every November.
“If the ski festival was not here, we would not be open," Stubblefield says.
She owns two restaurants, including Serenity Bistro, which served dinner to skiers last week.
“I do have a bigger family in town so they help out with this week because it’s very hard to find employees during the winter time,” Stubblefield says.
Trying to run a business in the shoulder season can be a gamble when there’s a labor shortage, according to Costello with the chamber of commerce.
“There are restaurants who have told us for many years, ‘That’s just not something we are capable of doing is opening for this event because we don’t have staff that live here year-round,’” Costello says.
Melissa Alder with the ski committee adds businesses also need nature to cooperate. More people come when they can ski straight from their hotels to the trails rather than shuttling to higher elevations with snow.
“We used to always have snow early, and more and more so we’re kind of biting our nails last minute to get the snow,” Alder says.
Workers and weather considered, businesses and the chamber of commerce are always looking for ways to draw more people to West Yellowstone in the shoulder and winter seasons. Costello says Kids N’ Snow, a community program, is one of them. The family-friendly event offers activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling and skating four weekends throughout the winter.
The first Kids ‘N’ Snow this season is December 14. It will align with the West Yellowstone Rodeo Run Sled Dog Races and the opening of Yellowstone National Park’s west gate to limited snowmobile and snow coach travel on December 15.