Bear Country

The endless backcountry terrain surrounding Cooke City, Mont., is as wild and wily as the town itself. Beartooth Powder Guides attempts to tame it.

In the winter, there’s one road in to Cooke City, Mont. It winds through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park from the north, and you have to drive slowly to avoid hitting bison, or the tourists who are Snapchatting selfies with them. As you get closer to town, the Lamar Valley closes in, and everything you can see from the road looks like a ski line.

Looking at the area with skier’s eyes is a relatively new prospect. For a long time, Cooke was best known as a snowmobiler’s paradise. Sledneckers would trailer in from the Midwest because of the deep snow, high-markable mountains, and Wild West vibe.

Making tracks on the Grasshopper Glacier under Iceberg Peak
Making tracks on the Grasshopper Glacier under Iceberg Peak.

But between the borders of the National Park to the south and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness to the north, there’s only an eight-square-mile motorized zone. That leaves thousands of acres of ski-only access terrain. Guide Ben Zavora came up with the idea of using sleds to get to the boundaries, then skiing from there to access the some of the best untouched skiing in the country. “Most people are taken aback by it,” he says. “It’s a super wild, rugged place.”

A transplanted Californian, Zavora spent 20 years in Bozeman, dreaming about building a backcountry hut. In 2010 he closed his landscaping business in the city and got serious about starting a guiding operation. He’d spent time in Cooke every winter, sleeping in the dump (the standard jump-off point for skiers) and backcountry skiing. He knew the terrain was amazing, but it took him a while to convince the Forest Service to give him a permit for skiing. When he got it, in 2012, Beartooth Powder Guides was born.

Settled in for the night at Woody Creek Cabin.
Settled in for the night at Woody Creek Cabin. 

“I delineated the area by what I could access from town,” he says. “It’s all wilderness, it’s only limited by your own legs.” To give guests’ legs a break, he built the Woody Creek Cabin, 2.5 miles south of town, out of recycled materials and standing dead timber from the property. From there guests can ski in the treed gullies and chutes of the Park. Then he put up the Mt. Zimmer Yurt on the northeast side to provide easy access into the high alpine lines in the jagged, rugged Beartooth Mountains.

The skiing options feel limitless and varied, from the steep chutes in Gallatin National Forest to the Alaska-like big lines in the Beartooths. Zavora and his guides will take you to ski Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, and cook you dinner in the yurt. It’s cowboy territory, so you can explore whatever you can ski.

All smiles on their return.
All smiles on their return. 

Cooke still feels rough and law-less. People drive sleds down Main Street and it’s not uncommon to see one stuck in a snow bank in the middle of town. But Zavora says he’s had good response from sledders about the influx of skiers. Because the town is so remote there’s plenty of terrain to go around. The mountains are vast, and they’re basically empty.

Zavora is also building a shop so he doesn’t have to run the business out of his living room anymore, and he says he’s working on opening it up to more skiers. “In the long term I want to bring in more skiing, and even the playing field with snowmobilers.”


Getting there Beartooth Powder Guides is located in Cooke City in south central Montana, near Yellowstone’s northeast entrance. The closest airport is Bozeman Yellowstone International. 

Stay Beartooth skiers have the option of staying at Woody Creek Cabin, which sleeps 10, or Mt. Zimmer Yurt, which sleeps six. 

Cost Rates for a full day of guided skiing start at $450 per person for one skier and drop with added skiers (five people reduces it to $140 per person). Rates for staying at Woody Creek or Mt. Zimmer start at $285 per person, per day, and that includes guided skiing and meals.