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Travel

You're in the middle of the mountains, miles from anywhere, checking out herds of bison and elk as geyser steam explodes into the freezing air. It's Yellowstone in winter, and you're there courtesy of a shiny new snowmobile. What's more, you're warm and energized, with miles of wildlife sightings to go before you spend the night in an historic inn with its own hot springs.

Not a bad way to experience winter. Ease and mobility are two reasons snowmobiling has become a crossover activity for an ever increasing number of skiers looking for a change of pace during their winter vacations.

"It's a chance to go out and see country that they wouldn't typically see," says Don Fink, co-owner of Rock Maple Power & Sport, a snowmobile outfitter in Wilmington, Vt. "Sure, a few people come out because they like the power of the machine and the feeling of independence, but most people want a quiet ride through the woods. And they're surprised by how quiet it really is."

While many would disagree with Fink's claim of a hushed ride, most would concur that snowmobiling can provide an adrenaline rush similar to that in skiing and that it's an efficient way to get off the beaten path into some spectacular country.

"People are looking for more to do," says Mike Bertie of Sunday River, Maine, a resort that has seen a marked increase in skiers and snowboarders interested in trying the motorized sport. Sunday River may offer it in the near future, which means that the rest of the American Skiing Company resorts can't be far behind.

In recent years, the lingering cultural gap between skiers and snowmobilers has been closing. Vail began offering snowmobiling last season at Adventure Ridge, primarily as an après-ski activity for the curious. And more recently, representatives from ski and snowmobiling groups joined the Vail Pass Task Force to make that wilderness area available to both sports while avoiding friction on the trails.

Accessing remote areas by snowmobile is easier than ever these days, thanks to powerful and reliable machines and Global Positioning Systems to tell you where you are. It's a far cry from 1922, when a 16-year-old French-Canadian named Joseph-Armand Bombardier began experimenting with over-the-snow vehicles. Bombardier's first machine, a ski-mounted chassis propelled by a Ford Model-T engine, was the backyard prototype. A man obsessed, Bombardier continued to develop his designs and in 1959 began mass-producing snowmobiles under his company's name, Ski-Doo. Today, Ski-Doo, along with Polaris, Arctic Cat and Yamaha, build more than a quarter-million snowmobiles each year. In 1996, close to 170,000 were sold in the United States, bringing the current national total to 1.8 million registered machines.

Ski-Doo manufactures close to 40 models, as does each of its competitors. There are touring sleds made for negotiating the estimated 220,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in North America. There are "muscle sleds" made expressly for ripping it up and powder sleds designed for tackling the deepest drifts in Wyoming or Utah.

But specialized equipment doesn't fully explain why snowmobiling has become so popular. Backcountry access and comfort are probably the two primary reasons more people than ever before are taking to snowmobiles. As the number of extreme skiers and snowboarders increases, so does the number of people using snowmobiles. At $6,000 a pop, investing in a snowmobile can seem an inexpensive way to buy fresh tracks. The fact is that snowmobiles are sensitive machines that require a fair amount of upkeep.

Increased comfort may be the leading reason the masses are taking to snowmobiles. With the new breed of machines, snowmobiling is no longer an exercise in fending off frostbite. Engine heat is more effectively utilized than ever before to keep your feet warm. Hand warmers do their job, and aerodynamic windshields provide increased visibility and wind protection.

Virtually everski resort can refer you to an operator at or near the slopes that offers snowmobile rentals and instruction. If you've never driven a snowmobile, your first few rides should be guided tours. Count on spending at least $50 per hour. If you double up, the second rider gets a reduced rate. Plan on wearing your ski clothes and ski goggles, but note that some outfitters will supply full snowmobile suits and boots. Helmets are required by some, not all, companies, but are always a good idea. Certain outfits will let kids as young as 12 drive their own machine, while others impose higher age limits.

If you've never been on a snowmobile, note that they're surprisingly simple to operate. They have automatic transmissions, a throttle lever on the right handlebar and a brake lever on the left handlebar. Turn the handlebars to steer, and you've just passed Snowmobiling 101.

Your earliest efforts will likely be on groomed trails that allow you to get a feel for steering the machine. When you become a better and more aggressive rider, accustomed to the snowmobile's weight and strength, you can move off trail into powder.

Outside the resorts, Western dude ranches have long been savvy to snowmobiling. A classic operation is the T-Lazy Seven Ranch, a few miles outside Aspen, which has offered snowmobile tours since 1968. The T-Lazy Seven, which sits on 250 acres, operates under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service in the White River National Forest that provides access to an additional quarter-million acres in the surrounding area.

"We get everyone from famous stars to little kids," says co-owner Landon Deane. "For most people, it's the first time that they've seen a snowmobile."

At the T-Lazy Seven, you can take a new Yamaha or Arctic Cat on a 2 1/2 hour guided tour up to Maroon Bells and enjoy lunch in a cabin tucked into the woods. The price is $120. For a four-hour lunch tour up to the Independence Ghost Town, you pay $160.

When you're ready to go farther afield, call American Wilderness Experience (AWE), the only national company that offers snowmobile trips in the West. Their most popular trip is to Yellowstone National Park, the Holy Grail for many snowmobilers. AWE's tour is fully escorted and takes in all the major attractions, from Old Faithful to the Norris Geyser Basins. But it's not for those infatuated by the power of snowmobiles. You'll be traveling on the graded park-road system, your speed monitored by park officers. On the other hand, the Yellowstone trip offers the best wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities of any of AWE's trips. Accommodations include the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge and Pahaska Teepee, the site of Buffalo Bill's hunting lodge. The price of the three-day trip starts at $905 per person, and includes all meals, accommodations, snowmobiles and guides, as well as use of insulated boots, jacket and helmet. (Fact: Snowmobile tours are the primary reason that Yellowstone has become as popular in winter as it is in summer.)

AWE also offers three other tours: The Wild Idaho Backcountry Tour (powder-busters can explore a 6,000-acre ranch surrounded by 100,000 acres of BLM land); the Colorado Crossborder Tour (a four-day lodge-based trip along the Colorado and Wyoming border); and the Continental Divide Trail Tour (a lodge-to-lodge adventure in Wyoming's backcountry).

Most ski-resort central reservations offices can steer you in the direction of a reputable local outfitter. What follows is a selection of snowmobile tour operators at some major resorts across the country to get you started.

Climb Aboard

American Wilderness Experience
(800) 444-0099
Aspen/T-Lazy Seven Ranch
(970) 925-4614
Breckenridge/Tiger Run Tours
(970) 453-2231
Killington/Killington Snowmobiles
(802) 422-2121
Mt. Snow/Rock Maple Power & Sport
(802) 464-3284
Okemo/C&B Guided Snowmobile Tours
(802) 259-2666
Park City/Snowest Snowmobile Tours
(800) 499-7660
Steamboat/Steamboat Lake Outfitters
(970) 879-4404
Stowe/Nichols Snowmobile Rentals
(802) 253-7239
Sunday River/Sun Valley Sports
(207) 824-7533
Telluride/Telluride Outside
(800) 831-6230
Vail/Adventure Ridge at Eagle's Nest
(970) 476-9090rs
(802) 259-2666
Park City/Snowest Snowmobile Tours
(800) 499-7660
Steamboat/Steamboat Lake Outfitters
(970) 879-4404
Stowe/Nichols Snowmobile Rentals
(802) 253-7239
Sunday River/Sun Valley Sports
(207) 824-7533
Telluride/Telluride Outside
(800) 831-6230
Vail/Adventure Ridge at Eagle's Nest
(970) 476-9090