Yellowstone: Trekking Through the Heart of Beauty & Isolation

For an audio version of the following illustrated print account of the Yellowstone trek, see this link:

Day 1:  September 8

Start Time: ~ 4:15 PM MST 

End Time: ~ 6:30 PM

Total Miles:  6.0

Campsite:  5E9

We were 9 one-hundredths of a mile into our five day backpacking journey.  Suddenly, I heard John and Andrew hushing everyone behind us.  Just minutes earlier, our loquacious driver, Shanna, had dropped us off at Nine Mile trailhead at the north terminus of the renowned Thorofare Trail.  Three of us, Jordan, myself, and Andrew, had flown into Bozeman, Montana, that morning from Indianapolis in route to meeting Shanna and John, the fourth member of our expedition, at the airport.  We had driven through the fabled north entrance of the park, stopping briefly at the iconic stone entrance in which the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” welcomed all visitors.  Shortly after, we made a quick stop in the Mammoth Springs Visitor center before briefly doing a side venture to view the Lower Yellowstone Falls.  From there, we drove around the northern part of Yellowstone Lake before arriving at the trailhead right around 4 PM MST.  Along the way, we saw bison, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and even a lone badger and coyote.

After organizing our supplies and securing our packs, with bear spray for each of us in tow (for the first time ever), Shanna took a quick group picture.  We said goodbye as we took off down a section of the forest burned in 2003, adjacent to the massive, majestic Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7,000 feet in the United States.  At 7,773 feet above sea level and 139 square miles in size, it is a prominent feature of the Yellowstone region.  On our way out of the parking lot, signs warned us that we were entering bear country, where we were responsible for our own safety. 

Minutes later, our trek came to halt.  Fifty or so yards in front of us, a grizzly mother and her grown cub were walking towards the trail from near the lake shore.  Stunned that we hadn’t even gone a tenth of a mile before seeing our first grizzly, one thing was clear.  We were no longer the king of the jungle (or wilderness).  Per all the advice provided prior to the trip, we stood quietly and unassumingly as the majestic animals slowly ambled to the trail, briefly looked towards us, and continued upon their way up the hill and out of site.  Once gone, we slowly began to follow the trail, in awe of this encounter. 

As the miles continued, the burnt sections of the forest eventually gave way to dense pine woods, where various streams and brooks emerged, although not large in size.  At times, the lake was hidden by the rolling forestland, only then to emerge from high on the hillside with the pristine waters to our right.  Relatively free of roots and rocks, as we would experience for much of the trail (except in more mountainous sections), our familiar beast of burdens, the horses, had left a trail of their own all over the pathways. 

After just over two hours, we arrived at the sign for our first campsite.  A brief walk through the forest, and suddenly the landscape opened to Park Point and Lake Yellowstone covered the horizon to our east.  It was early evening.  Although the smoke from the forest fires out west obstructed our view slightly (which would improve from this day forward), we were treated to our own picturesque palette of this massive body of water lapping against the rocky shores below.  Like the rest of our campsites to come, it would be ours alone that night.  Off in the distance, we could see the shorelines and outer details of Frank Island (peak elevation of 7,810).  More than any other of our stops, bear scat and scrapings were all over the site.  It was a further reminder that we would be adhering to all the regulations regarding bear safety, and even foregoing cooking any food so as to not elicit any further enticing aromas. 

The sun slowly began to set.  We went about the routines of eating, water filtration, tent setup, clean up and stowing of food, and other habits by which our next five days would be framed.  As we settled into our tents, we could hear the sounds of the water lapping against the shore with birds, maybe loons, in the distance.  The skies blackened.  Suddenly we were alone in this vast wilderness.  Like ladies headed to the powder room, for safety purposes, we had decided that our bathroom trips at night would not be alone.  At one point early in the morning, Jordan and I returned to the tent after such a trip, only to minutes later hear the sounds of an animal scratching at a log just where we had been.  With our heart rates elevated, and bear spray at hand, we listened intently.  Similar sounds continued for a few minutes, but gradually gave way to the cool air and the nearby waves.  It was night one in Yellowstone.  We had entered into a new place, a timeless place, a wild place, all of its own.   

Day 2:  September 9

Start Time: ~ 7:30 AM   

End Time: ~ 2:30 PM

Total Miles:  14.14

Campsite:  6B2

We awoke to misty skies.  Overnight, the temperatures had dropped into the high 20’s after reaching around 80 the day before.  As we slowly made our way out of our tents and into camp, we could see the fuzzy outline of Frank Island in the distance.  Jordan and I retrieved our bear canisters.  As we began eating, he suddenly noticed three large creatures running along the rocky beach to the distant south.  After snagging binoculars from Andrew, it was determined that they were elk frolicking in and out of the water, quickly moving away from us.  Just minutes prior, a mule deer had walked into camp, seemingly unconcerned about our presence. 

As we headed out of camp that morning, we re-entered the hardwood forests and wove our way through small meadows and over gurgling streams.  Mild climbs and descents coupled with clear trails with only minimal roots made for a brisk pace, and we soon found ourselves approaching the southeastern section of Lake Yellowstone, taking a brief break at the eight mile mark.  As the fields grew larger, we found ourselves repeatedly surrounded by thousands and thousands of sage plants.  It was this point we were officially entering the Thorofare area, a place roughly the size of Delaware.  Although the air was not permeated with this spice, a simple handful placed under the nose evoked an undeniable aromatic experience.  In one particular field, we strolled just next to a rounded cliff line, and with the Absoroka Mountain range to our left, the lake and all of its wonder seemed almost beneath us, yet also spanning far into the distance.  Below us lie Terrace Point, and the large expanse of the southeast arm of the Lake that watered much of the flora and fauna in this area.  Again, we re-entered the confines of the conifers, but upon just emerging into a place where a large hill with rock formations towered above, Andrew shouted in delight.  We all looked upward, just in time to see a moderately sized grizzly rambling up and over the hill.  Little did we know this would be the last one we would see. 

As we said goodbye to the lake, after roughly 14.3 miles weaving in and out of its shores, a majestic landscape framed by the ever weaving Yellowstone River opened in front of us, flowing northward into the lake with mountains on every side framing its course.  As the longest undammed river in the United States (692 miles), its meandering course was constantly a source of curiosity.  For most of the rest of the day, to our immediate left were the mountain slopes, including curious shaped knobs, while to our right lay the river basin with towering mountains framing it in the distance.  Striking yellow, gold, and orange hues sprung from the meadows as each turn of the trail brought a new perspective on this natural canvas;  throughout the trip, the variations of ground cover were endless in type and color.

As the early afternoon approached, we quickly closed in on the trails by which we would ford the Yellowstone River into our camp for that night.  After a confusing navigation that took us past the Cabin Creek patrol cabin and then back on the main trail, we finally discovered the pathway that took us through a small pasture into a dense portion of shrubs to the stony banks of the Yellowstone.  As was the case for many of our other river crossings, signs marked the recommended point to cross the river, which at this juncture was no more than knee deep and maybe thirty yards across.  Only passable at the end of July and later (due to snow and its melt), the rocky rivers still demanded careful foot placement and a patient approach.  Scrambling up on the bank, and onto a couple of side trails, we finally located our camp for the night although the path back was congested with fallen trees. 

After navigating these obstacles, we were treated to a glorious site.  The campfire ring, and the logs that framed it, were no more than 10 feet from muddy banks that dropped off into the river bed.  Staring across the waterway, to the left was a massive (natural) dam, which had forced the river into a right turn only to then head north again.  In its wake, this dam had created a natural pool at least 15 feet deep, and shallower side pools nearest our camp, while the rest of the river flowed freely.  Later that day, Andrew and Jordan would climb hundreds of feet above the riverbank on the opposite side, with views that reached as far north as Yellowstone Lake and to vast meadows to the south; to the east, the river wound its way in the basin and in the distance, they could see “Forbidden Lake”, which had been termed this early in our trip due to it being off limits given frequent bear activity.  On their way back, shed elk antlers were retrieved from the river bed and carried back to camp.  Meanwhile, I indulged in a brisk, river swim as John hung out in camp.  Three times that afternoon and evening, we would filter water from this iconic river.  Euchre ensued along with all sorts of inane banter.  As the fire began and we set up our tents just off the trail to the south, we settled in for what would be our biggest day on the trail.  That night, we heard the wolves (from the delta pack) for the first time.  Although large bear tracks could be seen in the mud just below our fire, this night would remain a (relatively) quiet and warm one.  Day 2 on the Thorofare was done.

Day 3:  September 10

Start Time: 6:56 AM   

End Time: ~ 5:45 PM

Total Miles:  21.14

Campsite:  6M4

We awoke on day 3 to the sounds of silence.  Temperatures were slightly warmer than before, although still hovering in the low 30’s.  We began moving before 6 AM, as we were eager to get out of camp early with the longest day of the trip ahead of us.  With the moon overhead, and the river framed in the early morning twilight, we “yip-yipped” and “helloed” our way over to the bear canister next to camp overlooking the muddy banks on the east side of the Yellowstone River.  As with most of our movements, claps and exclamations became part of the habit so as to not surprise the megafauna on and near the trail.  Yet staring out over the waterway, not a sound or movement could be detected.  All was still.

After breaking camp, we were immediately treated to a subfreezing ford of the river as the Thorofare Trail was just across.  After a vertical scramble of 100 yards or so over a steep embankment, we found ourselves back on the familiar trail, once again headed due south.  In the distance, we could gradually see a number of different distinct knobs rising high on the mountainside.  It was a beautiful, cool crisp morning, and having shed all but my mittens, I could feel the cool, dry air against my skin as we moved briskly down the trail. 

Not long after our initial fording, we once again came upon one of the many large streams, all of which demanded a discerning response about just what was the best way to cross it.  Would we try to hop the rocks (unsuccessfully at times, saturating a shoe or two), or cross in barefeet, or were water shoes needed given a particularly precarious arrangement of submerged stones?  While each water feature was uniquely beautiful and allowed us to carry limited hydration (as we had many opportunities to filter), it quickly became one of the challenges of the trail given the significant number that existed.  While the time required on dry, worn trails were relatively easy to predict, each stream, creek, or river provided an added challenge and an uncertain degree of time to our trek.  For the four of us, the volume of these crossings was more than we had ever encountered before. 

As the morning lengthened, we continued to head south on the Thorofare Trail, hoping to log 12 miles by the time the sun was directly overhead.  Meanwhile, I had noticed that a blister or two on my feet had started to form and reveal its painful self, only to later realize that the fine dust from the trail had worn a hole in my socks.  For the rest of the trip, these blisters would only widen and worsen, testing my capacity to manage pain and not miss out on the beauty.  It also reminded me (and others who take on these longer backpacking trips) about the critical nature of foot care, as this is certainly something that can create significant challenge (and even derail) an otherwise well-conceived trip. 

At a little before noon, we reached a juncture by which we would leave the iconic Thorofare Trail and head east to the South Boundary trail via the Two Ocean Plateau Trail.  It had been a little more than 31 miles since we had taken off at Nine Mile Trailhead on Wednesday afternoon.  As we made our way into a vast meadow through thick grasses, the hoof prints from a prior muddy march made each (often hidden) step particularly awkward.  In the distance, we could see signs of the Yellowstone River, which had curled across the prairie after the early morning ford.  With the map promising a nearby stream where we could stop to refill and soak our feet, we kept plodding away, each of us feeling the toil of the morning and much in need of calories.  Finally, after a little over 13 miles, the grasses parted and there lay our promised stream.  We were all alone.

After a much needed respite, we followed the stream around to the north and a nearby camp.  Here, the route seemed to run dry, as the signs leading back to a camp came to a dead end.  We repeatedly searched for the main trail to no avail, and just as we were about to cross the creek, we spotted the elusive marking through the tall grasses and the willow trees.  And thankfully so, as a crossing right at this juncture would have left us far from our fording point of the Yellowstone River to the northeast.  After pushing through tall reeds, we emerged in the riverbed.  For the third and last time, we traversed this timeless river, and headed toward the mountain pass, where we would eventually climb from just above 7,000 feet to around 9,250 feet before the night would fall. 

As we took on our first big ascent of the trip, the flora quickly changed from wide open prairies to thick, conifer forests interspersed with occasional groves of aspens in their brilliant orange and yellow hues.  At times, we would emerge from these forests into striking alpine meadows only to dive back into the woods.  It was then that our little friends, the chipmunks, would scamper about, almost curiously playing alongside us as we walked along.  More than any other creature, they were our constant companion. 

After stopping to take a break around 8,500 feet, we continued ascending, tired from the days traverse and ready to be in camp for the night.  After trekking through a particularly large, striking mountain meadow, we suddenly caught view of the slender Mariposa Lake to our left.  This had initially been our desired camp spot for the night, but as it had been full, we were forced to go one further, about 1.2 miles away.  Seeing one tent on the edge of the lake, we took a couple of pictures of this alpine gem, and started a descent to our campground, which was right at the intersection of the South Boundary trail and Two Ocean Plateau Trail.  Down we went through the hardwoods, and all of the sudden, there it was.  After one of the longest single-day treks for all of us (and the longest for two), our hiking was done for the day.

The previous two nights, we had camped on the shores of the largest lake above 7,000 feet and the longest undammed river in the country.  Tonight, our fire would be no more than 20 yards away from a beautiful brook, making a u-turn right next to camp.  Adorned with various types of shrubs and interspersed rocks to soak our feet and filter our water, I was most struck by the bright red coloration of the roots of the plants that grew across the creek.  To the west and the south, pine forests covered the undulating land; to the north and northeast lie a field covered in high grasses.  There would be no euchre tonight.  We were ready to get our nightly tasks done and head to bed.  

Day 4:  September 11

Start Time: 7:09 AM   

End Time: ~ 4:00 PM

Total Miles:  17.76

Campsite:  8J6

The sounds of the gurgling stream filtered into camp.  After an owl beckoned us to bed the night before, it had been a relatively quiet night, although at some point I could have sworn that horses plodded by us in the darkness on the trail just yards away.  Feeling the effects of a long day prior, and with another solid day ahead, we broke camp quickly and made our way through the meadow that had framed our campsite the previous night.  It was the 20th anniversary of 911, and we were in one of the few places in this country where news of the original event would not have reached for some time.

As we headed toward the Fox Creek Trail just 4 miles away, I was excited to finally set foot on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) even as duct tape and mole skin provided minimal (albeit appreciated) support for my blistered feet.  Just a few months prior, our family had set out on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, with plans to camp four nights across the Colorado River from the CDT.  Due to some remarkable circumstances, we never made it there, and thus our (my) anticipation in being on two of the three major north-south trails in the US (we had briefly hiked on the Appalachian Trail during a visit to the Smokies in March) would have to wait.  But, almost before the sun officially rose on Day 4, I stepped foot on the CDT just after a friendly backpacking gal waved at us from her camp just off the trail. 

As we crossed over to the CDT, and entered the Snake River basin, the landscape once again opened its arms widely, with fiery, brilliant yellows and muted browns framed by pine green as far as the eye could see.  Wild flowers of various colors were interspersed with the native grasses, as they had been for much of the trip.  After fording the Snake River for the first of two times that day, we began to climb up on the ridgeline to the west.  Rather quickly, we found ourselves looking down at the Snake River below, with not a single doubt about where the river earned its name.  In what Andrew and I would later (both) spontaneously describe as the prettiest mile on the trail, this lazy, wild river serpentined its way through the vast valley floor below.

Gradually, the wide valley gave way to a rocky, sharp canyon and we began to climb further upward, with views of the river increasingly vertical from the trail above.  For almost ten miles, we followed the CDT through the Snake River valley, from its lazy beginnings to the sharp chasm below.  In the distance, we could see a bald mountain beckoning a new panorama; we could hear elk bugling to the east of the mountain range. 

Finally, the canyon steadily opened, and we entered what seemed like the largest paddock we had ever seen.  Whereas many of the meadows we encountered had reeds, shrubs, grasses, and small trees that grew tall and uneven, this particular meadow looked almost as if it had been bush hogged recently, with a neat little trail running right through it.  Once again, here we were four lonesome travelers in what seemed like a vast universe.  For a moment, we thought we saw a herd of bison or elk in the distance, but it turned out to be shrubs posing the part.

The groomed meadow came to an end.  With it, came the last river we would encounter on our journey, the Heart River.  Quite a contrast to the Yellowstone River, it is only 4.8 miles long and is contained entirely within Yellowstone National Park.  It serves as a tributary to the Snake River and its headwater streams empty into Heart Lake (elevation 7,455), where we were headed to that night.  After fording the river, we began a slow climb towards the lake, each bend and open area bringing the promise of this large backcountry lake and rest for the weary.  The flora went from field grasses to rolling hills of scrubby plants and small trees and bushes, until we reached the final crossing of the Heart River. 

Entering into our final mile, the lake was still hidden from view until we finally turned at the camp sign and walked to its rocky shore.  We were there.  Well, not quite. An orange sign on the banks indicated that we were to walk 300 yards to the south until reaching the actual camp.  Tired, annoyed comments regarding trail design entered the air as the winds freshened from the lake.  Finally entering into camp, and locating the first official toilet sign of the entire trip, we scoured our surroundings and set forth warming ourselves through fire and our wear given the stiff winds, which would die down as the sun began it slow descent to the west.  Across the lake, we could see where the pine trees seemed to bottleneck into the middle; only the following day, we would discover that our seemingly expansive view was actually the small bulge of an imaginary dumbbell. 

What a 3+ days it had been!  Already 60 miles into our journey, and given my foot issues and an overall consensus of what was preferred by the group, we ultimately made the decision that we would reroute our original plan (which involved 15 miles the next day and 5 miles the following).  Thus, we would hike the 12 miles out to Heart Lake trailhead, and hopefully enjoy one night in the park that did not involve setting up a tent or using an improvisational restroom.  But for now, we were by ourselves at such a beautiful spot; as we all agreed, never had we camped four nights consecutively at such remarkable locations, so richly endowed with wildness and character all their own.  Just before the sunset, we finished off our euchre best of three (Jordan and I narrowly taking the Louisville crew).  With me and Andrew sitting on a bear canister on the lakes’ edge, we filtered water one last time before heading off to bed soon after.

The loons began to hoot in the distance.  Later that evening, as we lay in our tents, a shrieking noise pierced the night air, like a torpedo launching just down the shore.  It was mating season, and the elk were bugling once again.  As this continued on for some time, a wolf pack began howling in the distance, like they were on the brink of a kill.  The cacophony of sounds echoed across the lake; there would be little sleep this night.  These were the sounds of Yellowstone; these were the sounds of a place hardly touched by humankind; in our last night out in the backcountry, we were treated to an ensemble performance of the wild. 

Day 5:  September 12

Start Time: 7:35 AM   

End Time: ~ 12:15 PM

Total Miles:  12.00

Fog hovered above the lake.  As we slowly got out of bed and ambled around camp, we could see Mount Sheridan glowing in the distance.  Rising to 10,305 feet above sea level, its orange shadow shimmered on the lake surface.  Today was our final day in the backcountry, and with anticipation of a clean bed and a warm meal (and maybe even a fuller night’s sleep), we quickly went about our final preparations.   As we walked down the shoreline and headed back toward the main trail, I thought about my family.  It was Sunday morning back home, and Amy and the kids would be headed to church in a few hours and going about their typical Sunday routine with the NFL season starting.  Over the years, in taking on these backpacking endeavors, I often found myself in two places at this juncture.  Part of me was ready to be back with them and with the comforts of civilization; part of me wasn’t quite ready to resume “normal life” as I had been accustomed, and knew that I would miss the basic pleasures that come with having everything you need on your back.  Deep in the wilderness, away from all the schedules and demands of a busy life, I could not help but harken back to a simpler place, a simpler time; not one devoid of serious toil and hardships, but one certainly lived in much greater communion with the land and the seasons. 

As we headed through the pine forests, on our way to wrapping around the eastern and northern side of the lake, I was struck with how hidden Heart Lake was.  Except for the view from our campsite, we could hardly see this massive backcountry pond until we finally approached the northwest corner.  There, as the trail got within less than 10 yards of the lake, a beautiful scene emerged.  Off in the distance, the first geyser we had seen on the trail spewed steam into the sky, framed by the lakeshore.  It is named Rustic Geyser.

The trail followed the waterline for about a half mile, and taking the easiest course on the edge of the beach, we couldn’t help but admire this natural wonder.  We passed by a small sailboat (without a sail) sitting on the shore, seemingly ready for use at any point.  Upon exiting the lakeshore, we quickly came up on the Heart Lake patrol cabin, where clothes hanging outside made it clear that it was occupied.  As we started to walk by, our first ranger of the entire trail emerged.  He asked us about where we had been and camped overnight, and told us that in the previous mornings, both a wolf and grizzly had come to rest on a mound just off the trail. 

After a few minutes, we said goodbye and gradually made our last major ascent on the trail.  As we did, we passed a couple lounging in swimwear in the stream next to the trail, apparently enjoying the warmer waters coming from the thermal features above.  We laughed at their selected place of soaking.  As the trail wound further up on the mountain, we could better see the geyser on the left, and hot, calcified springs to the east.  But the real treat were hot springs that suddenly emerged next to the trail.  Unique of all their own, the first thermal feature we encountered looked almost otherworldly, as if it contained a subterranean mountain range covered by yellowish and greenish liquid. 

Further up the trail, we encountered a boiling stream, called Witch Creek, where little pools of superheated water fed into another, only to flow down the hill.  Having been from the Midwest, and never encountered anything like this before, these thermal features were the perfect capstone to our wild trip.  We continued further up the mountain, with about 700 feet of climbing to go before we would finally leave Heart Lake basin.  Looking back, we came to understand how much of the lake had been hidden by the bottleneck that we saw from our campsite. 

With just miles left in our journey, we once again wove through the timeless forests, with the wind freshening overhead.  All the while, we strained to hear cars from the road adjacent to the Heart Lake trailhead.  Gradually, with the sounds clearly mechanical in nature, we grew closer and closer until finally, down the trail, I could see a parking lot with vehicles lined next to the trailhead sign.  Although the next two days would bring challenges in phone reception, revised transportation, overnight accommodations, and even a cancelled plane flight, the final few steps brought us the end of this particular trek.  Seventy-two miles and less than 4 full days after we had begun, the trail ended here.  But the journey continued on. 

Throughout this journey, beyond all of my family and friends, there was one particular individual on my mind.  Rarely an hour went by without thinking about her.  It was Paula Mayfield.  A few days before leaving on this trip, my wife and I visited with Paula and her family at her home.  For the past decade or so, through countless treatments and periods of remission, Paula had battled breast cancer, which spread to other areas of her body.  In the process, she had remained remarkably positive and vibrant, and retained an authenticity that was widely recognized by those of us who knew and loved her.  As Paula often said, “She was living a dream.” But in the week prior, the decision had been made to call hospice into her home and halt any further treatment.  As we visited with Paula, it was clear that she was in her final days, and I sensed that I would not see her again.  I would later find out that Paula passed away the morning that we came out of the Yellowstone wilderness; as her husband noted just before the funeral Mass, Yellowstone was the next family trip on their list. 

Paula, this trip was for you.  I hope you enjoyed the trek as much as I did.  Eternal rest grant your soul. And let perpetual light shine upon you. May you rest in peace. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

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