By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

LIVINGSTON – Set your first tracks in Yellowstone this year on one of several trails within an hour’s drive of Big Sky. You could catch sight of wintering elk and other wildlife, and you’ll see firsthand how the landscape is transformed into a winter wonderland.

Dramatically fewer visitors explore Yellowstone in the wintertime, and those that do are most often guided on snowmobile, snowcat or ski. While the majority of park roads remain closed until Dec. 15, when permitted snowmobiles and snowcoaches are allowed to make tracks on the snow-covered roads, trails along Yellowstone’s western boundary remain open to skiing as snow conditions allow.

Many of these trails are accessible along Highway 191 between Big Sky and West Yellowstone, with parking available at designated trailheads. Typically, the trails start easy and get more challenging the farther you go, making for a great season-long experience.

The majority of Yellowstone’s western trails are not groomed and anyone venturing out should be prepared for changing weather conditions, avalanches, deep snow and open streams. Remember that these trails are within the Yellowstone National Park boundary and require a park pass. Passes are available online at yourpassnow.com.

Below is a selection of ski trails in Yellowstone’s western range. Most years, as snow accumulation develops, ski conditions improve drastically by the end of November and beginning of December.

1. Trail: Black Butte

Distance: 14 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Difficult
Restrictions: Within Yellowstone National Park, no pets
Directions: 18 miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191
Description: Following Black Butte Creek, this trail includes a number of short, steep sections. Between the trailhead and Daly Creek Cutoff (2 miles), it gains 769 feet in elevation before climbing an additional 4 miles to Bighorn Peak. The last 2 miles of trail are extremely steep and exposed.

2. Trail: Specimen Creek

Distance: 8 miles one-way
Difficulty: Easy to difficult
Restrictions: Within Yellowstone National Park, no pets
Directions: 21.5 miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191
Description: This popular trail follows Specimen Creek through rolling forests for 2 miles to the Sportsman Lake Trail junction (Sportsman Lake Trail is not recommended). Specimen Creek Trail continues along the north fork of Specimen Creek, ascending for 4 miles to the Shelf Lake/Crescent Lake Y. Shelf Lake is 2 miles north and Crescent Lake is 2 miles east, with avalanche danger more likely on the Shelf Lake portion.

3. Trail: Fawn and Bighorn passes

Distance: Up to 11 miles one-way
Difficulty: Easy to difficult
Restrictions: Within Yellowstone National Park, no pets
Directions: Fawn Pass, 26 miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191; Bighorn Pass, 28 miles south
Description: The paralleling trails to Fawn and Bighorn passes provide a variety of skiing options. With a cutoff trail connecting the two after about 5 relatively easy miles on either trail, a skier can make a loop from either trailhead, or continue up climbing 6 miles to Fawn Pass or Bighorn Pass.

4. Trail: Gneiss Creek

Distance: 14 miles one-way
Difficulty: Easy to difficult
Restrictions: Within Yellowstone National Park, no pets
Directions: 38 miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191
Description: Gneiss Creek is a lightly-used trail that runs across rolling meadows and open forest. The trail crosses several creeks. You can return the same way you came, or ski back 7 miles along Highway 191 from Seven Mile Bridge to West Yellowstone.

5. Trail: Riverside

Distance: Up to 7 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Restrictions: Within Yellowstone National Park, no pets
Directions: 48 miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191, trailhead is in West Yellowstone
Description: With two loops that follow the Madison River, Riverside Trail provides several easy ski options where you can enjoy views of the Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges. The trailhead is located on the east side of Boundary Street. The first mile extends through forest and a Y will take you on either the downriver or upriver loops. The first 2 miles of this trail are occasionally groomed.

Yellowstone offers many more miles of trails accessible from Gardiner or via several ski shuttles. Guided trips are also available. Visit nps.gov to learn more.