Snowcoach passengers, snowmobilers, each tout their park experience

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) -- On a frosty morning as the mercury dipped below zero, 10 visitors to Yellowstone National Park filed into a warm snowcoach at Flagg Ranch.

As they settled into the van, more people passed the snowcoach on the way to a snowmobile fleet. Dressed in black insulated snowmobile suits and bubble-shaped helmets, the snowmobilers shook their hands and stomped their feet as if to keep blood flowing.

The two groups of tourists represent a microcosm of winter use in Yellowstone. Yet if a National Park Service ban on snowmobiles remains in effect, in two years the only hand shaking and foot stomping taking place will be as people walk to the heated vans.

The Park Service ban, announced in December, calls for prohibiting the polluting, two-stroke sleds by 2003-2004.

Snowcoaches will be the only authorized winter transportation into the park, and concessionaires are expected to offer a plethora of different tour options via snowcoach.

An all-day snowcoach trip from Flagg Ranch to Old Faithful currently costs $100 per person. That is $40 less than the daily rental rate for a snowmobile. With lunch provided, guided tours and photo opportunities, snowcoaches provide an intimate way to see Yellowstone in the winter, said snowcoach guide Chris Flaherty.

''I like the idea of being able to talk to people along the way and make it an interpretive trip,'' Flaherty said. ''In a snowcoach, people can converse along the way.''

Snowcoaches look like vans on bulldozer treads. To build snowcoaches, manufacturers remove wheels from vans and place the body on thick tread that grips the snow. The inside of the van has a driver and passenger seat, as well as four benches in the back that seat up to three people each.

Park Service officials speculate that future snowcoaches will be retrofitted with more comfortable seats, better shock absorbers and more windows to afford better views.

The snowcoach interior is very warm. Drivers keep the heat blasted so that windows do not fog. On one recent trip, every passenger stripped down to their base layer of clothing to avoid overheating.

Despite the warmth, or perhaps because of it, the motley crew of Americans and foreigners unanimously said they preferred a snowcoach ride to renting sleds.

''It is warm in the snowcoach and you can see a lot better,'' said Carol Bocker of Wilson. ''It's quite nice, lovely really. It would be cold on a snowmobile.''

Compared to its louder snowmobile counterpart, the snowcoach engine hummed as it headed north to Yellowstone.

Passengers Kim and Steve Ledford of Atlanta smiled with relief as snowmobiles whizzed by. The two newlyweds said snowmobiles were ''not even an option.''

''Snowcoaches are not as noisy,'' Steve Ledford said. ''Besides, the idea of sitting on a vibrating thing for eight hours did not sound appealing.''

Furthermore, snowcoaches allow people to concentrate on looking for wildlife and checking out the park instead of focusing on driving, said Geanne Kennedy, also of Atlanta.

''I love the snow because it is such a purifying and refreshing experience,'' Kennedy said. ''From the snowcoach I can view things more completely. I can see the park in the winter.''

Inside the warm van, a sense of smugness prevailed as snowmobilers continued to pass.

''I would not want to be out there on a snowmobile on a day like today,'' Kim Ledford said. ''They don't know what they are missing.''

Many snowmobilers, however, do not see snowcoaches as a missed opportunity. Rather, they see the upcoming ban as a mistake.

At the Old Faithful boardwalk, the majority of tourists were dressed in snowmobile garb. Only a few people wore jeans and sweaters, a sure sign that they were either staying in the park at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge or rode in on a snowcoach.

As Old Faithful erupted and shot steam and water into the air, the buzz of snowmobile engines in the parking lot remained audible. That noise was welcomed by a group of four Alabama visitors who staunchly declared that they would not visit the park if they were forced to ride a snowcoach with strangers.

''I cannot see that snowmobiling -- if you stay on the roads and go the speed limit -- causes damage,'' said Bob Wood of Scottsboro, Ala.

Tom Gibson was more emphatic.

''It would be a tragedy not to use the highway for access for snowmobiles,'' he said. ''People get great pleasure out of coming up here.''

All four men proudly said they voted for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and appear confident that the new administration will keep the Park Service ban from being enforced.

''Dick Cheney will not let them close it down,'' said Bill Traylor. ''It would be a real blow to the economy.''

Not all snowmobilers were as adamant as the Alabama contingent. Tony Sanchez, a young man in his late 20s from Washington, D.C., said he would not repeat the experience of riding a snowmobile through the park.

''I don't see the need to have motors in here,'' he said. ''No wonder we didn't see any wildlife along the way. These snowmobiles are so damn loud.''

In contrast, the snowcoach tour guided by Flaherty saw moose, elk, birds and deer during the trip from Flagg Ranch.

Still, the promise of seeing more wildlife via the mass-transit option did little to convince Phil Pometto of San Diego that snowcoaches are an acceptable way to see Yellowstone in the winter.

''This park is huge, it is big enough for snowmobiles and wildlife,'' Pometto said. ''A snowcoach would have made me claustrophobic. I never would have done it.''

The ride from Flagg Ranch to Old Faithful takes about three hours, including stops for viewing wildlife and other natural wonders as well as lunch at the landmark geyser. Park Service spokeswoman Marsha Karle has said future snowcoach trips could expand into multiday guided tours and theme tours.

For now the trip remains straightforward: Flaherty stopped at the Snake River, Lewis Falls, West Thumb geyser basin and along the road so people could watch moose and elk.

Kim Ledford said she enjoyed being able to talk to her husband, rather than trying to shout over the din of a snowmobile engine.

''Snowmobiles are a good tool, but you should be able to experience Yellowstone without hearing that loud, constant buzz,'' she said.

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