YELLOWSTONE BACKPACKING TRIP PART 1:
MOUNTAINS AND MEADOWS
Christy had wanted to visit Yellowstone for several years, so this summer we made it a priority. I was eager to see the sights and visit the typical tourist destinations, but I knew we'd have to do some backpacking, too. It would be a crime to visit a park with as much wilderness as Yellowstone without exploring the backcountry. My first task was to decide where to go.
This proved to be much more difficult than it had been for past trips. Yellowstone is huge. The park offers a wide range of possibilities for backpackers. I borrowed enough guidebooks and maps from two extremely helpful friends to start a small library. Then I spent several months researching the various possibilities.
Here's how my thought process worked. I wanted to see the features of Yellowstone that make it unique. Yellowstone has some pretty mountains, but we've hiked scenic peaks many times before. I was looking for something different. So what is Yellowstone known for? Geysers, of course, and wildlife. I expected that we'd see wildlife anywhere we went, but geysers would be more difficult. In fact, there are only two significant geyser basins in the Yellowstone backcountry. There aren't many roads in the park, but those that do exist were strategically routed past most of the interesting thermal features. That has left only the Shoshone Geyser Basin, near Shoshone Lake, and the Heart Lake Geyser Basin out of reach of tourists. The idea of visiting an unspoiled thermal area, without fences or boardwalks or signs or crowds, was very appealing.
So I had the trip narrowed down to two areas. The Heart Lake area was intriguing. Mount Sheridan looms over the lake and climbing it would make a nice side trip. Combining Heart Lake with the vast Thorofare Wilderness in the southeast corner of the park would be quite an adventure. However, any sort of loop trip covering that territory would probably be 100 miles or more. We had to limit the trip to 8 days, so that would be pushing it.
The other possibility, Shoshone Lake, also offered a lot of options. The lake itself sounded nice, and the Bechler River Canyon, with its many waterfalls, is nearby. However, a trip from Shoshone Lake to the southwest corner of the park would've created a logistical nightmare. We only had one car, and arranging a shuttle would be complicated and expensive. I researched further, and noticed a trail running from the Bechler River east all the way to the South Entrance Road. Then I fell in love with a connecting route through the meadows of the Pitchstone Plateau. According to the guidebook, that path starts 8 miles south of the trail from Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake. That would make the logistics manageable. The route would include alpine lakes, backcountry geysers, hot springs, a canyon, waterfalls, swimming holes, and meadows with scenic vistas. Beyond the obvious attractions, the route promised a true adventure. It appeared to be around 70 miles, which would be reasonable over 8 days. I was sold, and it wasn't hard to convince Christy.
The final route went backwards (i.e. clockwise) for various reasons. On the first day we'd leave the car at the trailhead north of Lewis Lake. We'd hitchhike or walk the 8 miles to the Pitchstone Plateau Trail. Then we'd hike 5 miles or so to a campsite on the plateau. On day 2 we'd descend from the plateau to the Falls River to camp. The third day to Mountain Ash Creek would be short and easy, to allow us plenty of time to visit Union Falls. Day 4 would take us west to the Bechler River. Next we'd hike up the canyon past several waterfalls. The 6th day would find us climbing out of the canyon and continuing to Shoshone Lake. On day 7 we'd continue to the east side of the lake. The final day would be a short, easy walk out to the car at Lewis Lake. We'd never hiked a route this long before, but the terrain looked pretty easy. I sent in my reservation request for backcountry campsites at the earliest possible time, around the 1st of April. We received our confirmation a couple of weeks later.
THE PHANTOM AND THE SINGING FOREST
Friday finally arrived. I'd enjoyed our days of car camping and sightseeing, but I'd had enough. I was ready for the wilderness. We packed up and somehow managed to get everything back in the car. Luckily the missing bear spray showed up. I also made one fateful decision. We had a bottle and a spray can of bug repellant. However, we hadn't seen any mosquitoes all week. Our packs were heavy with 8 days worth of food and gear, so I left the spray can behind.
We drove from Madison past Old Faithful and continued south beyond Grant Village. We drove past our takeout point at Lewis Lake and headed for the trailhead. Originally we had planned on parking at Lewis Lake and hitchhiking. However, Christy was worried about that, so we changed plans. I agreed to drop her and the gear off at the trailhead. Then I'd drive the car to Lewis Lake and walk back. It would be 8 miserable miles, but I figured I'd be able to knock it out in a couple of hours.
We almost missed the trailhead because we reached it after only 6 miles, rather than the 8 that the book suggested. Things were looking up already. Somehow 6 miles sounded much shorter than 8, and my outlook on it immediately improved. I dropped Christy and the packs off and returned to Lewis Lake.
My improved outlook didn't last long. It was a lousy walk. There was no shoulder to speak of, so it was dangerous as well. In fact, there are very few things in life that I'm certain of, but here's one: Hitchhiking would've been much safer. The driving in Yellowstone is scary enough when you're inside your own car. Walking along the edge of the road, with oversized RV's flying past every few seconds, was terrifying.
At least the scenery was nice. Lewis Lake is pretty. Beyond it, I passed Lewis Falls and followed the peaceful meandering of the Lewis River. Out in the river I spotted an Osprey perched on a rock. Christy and I both carry Osprey brand backpacks, so I took this as a good omen.
I reached the trailhead in less than 2 hours without getting run over or falling down the embankment. It was a relief having the two most dangerous parts of the trip out of the way (the other being the drive to the trailhead). We had lunch next to the parking area in an ultimately futile attempt to reduce the weight of our packs. We had three large stuff sacks full of food for our 8 day trip. Otherwise we packed fairly light, bringing the minimum in clothing and utilizing our sleeping bag and a half system.
The benefits of packing light weren't readily apparent as we started up the first steep hill. Sherpa Andy's pack was stuffed to capacity and probably weighed a bit more than it did on the Colorado trip. Christy's weighed significantly more too, as she had to carry a food bag as well.
We climbed the first hill under a blazing sun. It was steep but thankfully short. Once we reached the top we found ourselves on the Pitchstone Plateau, which promised more gentle terrain. We had already signed in at the register, where we were pleased to discover that the trail is relatively unused. We were the 6th group to hike the trail so far in July. That works out to only a couple of groups per week. We were less than a mile from the road, and already the promise of solitude beckoned us.
The trail led across the plateau through burned forest. Most of the trees had fallen, but there were many standing dead. Underneath, the next generation of Lodgepole Pine was maybe 6' tall and growing thickly. At times it seemed like we were walking through a Christmas Tree farm, aside from all of the dead trees that were around.
That afternoon we were treated to a pleasant breeze, which had an interesting affect. As it blew through the dead trees it made a bizarre whistling sound. It was almost exactly unlike the sound you get when you blow across the top of a glass coke bottle. Rather, it was like the forest was singing. It was a haunting song though. It seemed sad, yet hopeful. More than anything though, it was spooky. I was glad that it was a bright, sunny day and that we'd be camping far from the singing forest.
We left the singing forest behind as we walked into unburned timber. As we hiked we began to see many signs of ancient volcanic activity. Frequently we'd cross what looked like dry streambeds. This was odd though, as we were on the top of a plateau. Actually they weren't streams at all. They were the remains of old lava flows from Yellowstone's volcanic past. These areas were full of Obsidian - shiny black rocks that almost look like coal.
The smell of sulfur alerted us to the presence of a thermal feature. We left the woods behind and arrived at the Phantom Fumarole. A fumarole is like a geyser, except that it ejects only steam, not water. It was smoking pretty heavily as we approached it. The entire area surrounding it looked like a parched wasteland of rock and dust. In fact, the whole place looked like the top of a volcano, which I suppose it is, after a fashion.
We explored the Phantom for a bit before continuing on. We walked through the woods for another mile and finally came out in a huge meadow. The broad grassland was broken by the occasional clump of spruce trees. In the distance was a grand view of the snowy Tetons. We were thrilled to find our designated campsite here. Even better, it was only mid-afternoon, so we'd have plenty of time to relax and enjoy it.
We decided to cook in a group of trees near the pole used for hanging food. The obvious tenting area is about 20' away, which is a major violation of one of the biggest rules when camping in grizzly country. The park recommends tenting at least 100 yards from the cooking area. After all, the last thing you need is a grizzly sniffing around your tent at night. Complying with this rule turned out to be a challenge throughout the trip. At every campsite the likely tenting area is much less than 100 yards from the cooking area. We did our best though. For the first night, I found a suitable spot in a separate spruce grove. This worked out well, though it was a long walk between the tent and the kitchen. We could have camped in the meadow, but the ground was lumpy and would've been uncomfortable.
The campsite turned out to be uncomfortable anyway. Shortly after we arrived, we discovered why we hadn't seen any mosquitoes in Yellowstone. This was because every bug in the park was hanging out on the Pitchstone Plateau. Adjacent to the campsite was a small marshy stream, which provided us water as well as a breeding ground for the mosquitoes. Our meadow was probably 10 acres, and every single blade of grass must've been home to a hundred of the little devils. Word of our arrival spread quickly. We tried using the 20% Deet repellant. This proved to be inadequate, as it seemed to only slow them down a bit. To make matters worse, the pests quickly found that they could bite directly through a single layer of clothing. It was still sunny and hot, so wearing two layers wasn't much of an option. We endured the swarms for a while, but eventually gave up and hid in the tent for the remainder of the afternoon. It was hard to rest though, with the incessant buzzing from the little buggers as they swarmed around the nylon.
We waited until well into the evening before leaving the protection of the tent. We were hoping that the cool evening air would disperse the bugs, but apparently they had nowhere better to be. They were like a fat kid at an all you can eat buffet - they kept coming back for more. A campfire would've helped, but it hadn't rained in a month and the park wasn't allowing them. Fortunately it was cool enough to wear two layers of clothing. That was the only thing that would stop them. Even with that protection, it was a battle to keep them out of our ears and faces.
We hurried through a dinner of ham and mac & cheese. We endured the continuing assault long enough to enjoy the pink sky over the Tetons at sunset. Then we conceded defeat and headed for the relative shelter of the tent. Of course, actually getting in the tent was an adventure. First we'd throw our clothes in, followed by our bodies, before closing the zipper as quickly as possible. As the trip progressed we got faster and faster at this. However, we still had to spend several minutes killing all the mosquitoes that had come in with us.
THE ITCHY AND SCRATCHY SHOW
We got up early, and the mosquitoes picked up right where they left off the night before. On the upside, they did add a little protein to our normally bland oatmeal. We packed up quickly, reasoning that the onslaught would subside once we got out in the sun.
Wrong again. If anything, the bugs were worse while we were hiking. This was a new experience for me. I'd experienced what I thought were horrible mosquitoes in Minnesota and the Rockies, but this was on another level. On all of those trips, the bugs were bad in the mornings and evenings, but relented during the day. They'd be annoying around camp, but absent on the trail itself. In Yellowstone though, they delighted in attacking as we struggled along under our heavy loads. Repellant and the 90+ degree heat failed to deter them. They particularly liked to land on my back, where they were out of reach, and bite through my shirt.
This torment took away from what otherwise would've been a fantastic hike. We wandered along through vast meadows, with only the occasional interruption by clumps of spruce trees. All the while we were treated to fabulous views of the Tetons. In the first spruce grove beyond our campsite we discovered a huge pile of fresh bear scat. This was an eye opener. All of a sudden, every stand of trees threatened to harbor a vicious, granola bar obsessed grizzly. I remembered the ranger's recommendation to sing while on the trail. Singing allegedly makes you safer by alerting the bears to your presence. Christy immediately burst into song.
"One million bottles of beer on the wall, one million bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around, Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall! Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of beer, take one down…….."
And so on. We figured that song would be long enough to last another 60 miles or so.
So there we were, hiking along, scanning the trees for bears, and trying to defend ourselves from the mosquitoes. We must've looked like inmates on weekend leave from the local mental institution as we walked and hopped and skipped and slapped and cursed and sang. If anyone had seen us, they wouldn't have known whether they were supposed to call the men in the white coats or steal second base.
We went for 3 hours almost non-stop. Conditions weren't getting any better, but the mosquitoes hadn't been bad in the forest the previous day. Our only hope was that they'd leave as alone once we got out of their grass. Making good time was difficult though. The ground was uneven, which made for difficult footing. There was no real trail through the meadows, though the route was marked fairly well with cairns. Still, we spent a fair amount of time searching for the next marker on several occasions. Every time we stopped to get our bearings, it allowed the cloud of mosquitoes an opportunity to catch up to us.
Finally we began to descend from the plateau. We reached the shady woods, and miraculously the mosquitoes disappeared. We took advantage of the opportunity for a long rest and lunch. Then we continued on a decent trail through more forest. This reprieve was pleasant, but it didn't last long. Eventually we reached burned forest again and found more mosquitoes waiting for us.
The final descent was lousy. The path was rough and hard to follow, and the burned forest provided no shade. It was hot despite abundant clouds. Distant thunder promised rain that never came. The bugs were hardly comparable to those on the plateau, but still a nuisance.
Finally we crossed Proposition Creek and climbed a small but annoying hill. Then we descended to the Falls River. Here we found a pleasant mature forest and a beautiful stream. We also located our campsite, which was on a nice spot just above the river. Best of all, there weren't any mosquitoes around.
I found fetching water to be a challenge. The river was only about 50' away below an embankment. Unfortunately, getting to it required walking through an overgrown marshy area. I took a few steps and noticed that I was stirring up mosquitoes. That was the last thing I wanted to do, so I backed away. Instead I walked downstream about 5 minutes until I reached the ford for the trail to Grassy Lake. I used this path to access the water.
After setting up camp I went off to do a little exploring. Terraced Falls is located only a short distance downstream from our campsite. Unfortunately, there's no trail to it. Bushwhacking in the southwest part of Yellowstone is harder than one would imagine. The Lodgepole Pine Forest is thick, with a surprising amount of undergrowth. I decided to give it a try anyway. I followed the trail downstream, but up and away from the river. Then I headed down, following the map and my instincts to try to get to a viewpoint of the falls. Unfortunately I came down too far upstream. There are numerous cascades above the falls, and I mistook them for the waterfall. It was getting late, and I was hot and tired from our 12-mile day. I returned to camp, where Christy was preparing a dinner of Chinese food. She said that she'd see a group of horseback riders on the far side of the river. That had been the first people we'd seen since we'd left the South Entrance Road the previous day. Our hike had been a little slice of hell, but at least it had been a slice of hell that we'd had all to ourselves.Continue reading about our trip as we visit the waterfalls of the Bechler River Canyon.
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