Let me start off by giving some info on a couple good beers. I’m currently in Bozeman and ate last night at Montana Ale Works. They have an outstanding selection of microbrews and two recommendations I have are Moosedrool Ale and Bitter Root Nut Brown Ale.
Bison roaming freely on the plains and even the roads; wolves and a grizzly out looking for food; smoke billowing everywhere from the countless geysers; Old Faithful faithfully shooting water and steam 100 ft+ into the air;
powerful rivers and waterfalls snaking every which way and plunging into deep canyons; lakes white with snow against a backdrop of lofty snow-capped mountains. These are all the amazing sites I saw driving around Yellowstone in just 24 hours. The park service has done a phenomenal job here making all the main attractions easily seen from your car or within a short walk of a parking area. But if you truly want to experience Yellowstone, DO THE BACKCOUNTRY. Amazingly, over 95% of Yellowstone is backcountry, yet the vast majority of visitors never make the effort to experience it.
My plan coming in was to do one night in the backcountry, but it took one minute of thought for me to add a night though that’s still not nearly enough. All overnight backcountry users must secure a permit (free) and watch a short video covering topics like “leave no trace” and “bear safety.” Being spring, bears are very active. Much of the bear safety stuff I’d heard before, but I picked up a couple new tips. Though unlikely, if a bear does charge you, stand your ground cause it’s often a bluff charge and it’ll veer off or stop. Though that’s the correct thing to do, can you imagine how f-ing scary that would be? I’d be so tempted to run even though that’s the worst thing to do. Secondly, sing, clap, or make noise in general as you approach blind spots to avoid surprising a bear. The ranger put it best saying that he sometimes feels like an idiot constantly yelling, but he’d rather sound like an idiot than “not have a face.”
The itinerary was to enter and exit at points 20 miles apart by car, so I decided to leave my car at the Visitor’s Center, which was a good midpoint. Plus, it’d be easier to hitch a ride from here with all the visitors coming through. Sure enough, it took less than 5 minutes for a nice couple to stop. They were traveling musicians who play folk and Celtic music and TOTAL hippies.
Their van had a fold out bed, peace necklaces, and lots of bumper stickers. They’ve been on the road for 13 years with 5 weeks being the longest they’d stayed in one place! Wow! (Their group’s name is Four Shillings Short if you’re into folk and Celtic music). They were wonderful people, but we arrived at the trailhead and it was time for me to go.
Before I could even set one foot on the trail, two bison came walking out. Though they are quite docile, they can charge and at 2,000 pounds with speeds upwards of 30 mph, that’d be like getting hit by eight Ray Lewises with much faster speed. I stepped a good ways to the side and gave the beasts their room. After they passed, I was off. But 15 minutes later, I had to let another bison pass (was forced to is more accurate).
This would be a recurring situation. Often they would just be chilling in the way of the trail and I would have to make this wide loop around them. Most didn’t care for me but a few would stare me down as I went around, which was a bit nerve-racking. I did consider running at them like a game of chicken figuring they might move, but if they weren’t chicken…I’d be a pancake. Sometimes I’d stop and watch them appreciating how awesome it was to be so close to these animals in the wild.
My campsite the first night was only 4 miles in and I was within 1/2 mile going over these rocks when something caught my eye. In front of me was the carcass of an animal that had been picked completely clean. The rangers warn you to get far away from fresh carcasses cause it can likely mean predators like bears are close by or even watching. Luckily, this one was already picked clean so it was unlikely any predators were still around. I think it was some sort of deer.
After setting up my camp which was next to Hellroaring Creek, I made my way down to the creek. With the spring runoff, all the creeks might as well have been rivers as they were all full of water and flowing fast. I spent the rest of the day hopping along the creek and loving every minute of it.
Having forgotten to bring any time telling device, I headed back to camp as the sun started to set. With animals more active at night, I did not want to be out late. Though it took me forever, I finally succeeded in securing my food high and away from a tree branch. As I crawled into my tent, I thought how incredible it is that a thin piece of fabric makes me feel so much more secure.
The second day involved a 9.5 mile hike to my next campground. Like the first day, the scenery was beautiful and the bison roadblock and picked clean carcasses made their appearance every now and then. My campsite this night was along the Yellowstone River and with it being warmer, I slept far better than the night before. I woke up eager to complete the final 9 miles of my journey. These 9 picturesque miles would follow the Yellowstone River the whole way taking you into Black Canyon. A few miles in, I hit this very muddy area and completely lost the trail. Knowing I’d just have to follow the river and would eventually pick it up, I scrambled down this rockslide towards the river. As I landed on the sand, I looked down and “Shit!” (Yes, I did in fact yell it out). Five feet from my foot was an untouched carcass of a mule deer.
Instinctively, I scrambled away from it looking for bear tracks. Not seeing any, I took a deep breath and hurried by it – but not before stopping for a sec to take a picture 🙂 I wonder what happened to it. Finding the trail again, I hiked the rest of the way without incident to my end destination – the town of Gardiner, MT, which is actually just outside the park. (Interestingly, the route I took was right along the Wyoming/Montana border so I went back and forth between the states a couple times on the hike). What a wonderful time!
I caught a ride back to the Visitor’s Center from a park ranger who stopped in town to grab lunch. Back at my car, I unpacked then grabbed my wallet and made a straight line for the Mammoth Hotel next door, which offers showers for $3.25. After eight consecutive days of camping/hiking, it was arguably the most worthwhile $3.25 I’d ever spent.
Revising my itinerary, I decided to pass on the Crazy Mountains in Montana. There’d be too much snow, but I wanted a couple days to relax anyway. I’ve come to Bozeman instead, which is a fun place with a young college crowd (Montana State). And after all the hiking detours the bison caused, it was only appropriate to have a bison burger washed down with the aforementioned delicious ale.
Random thought: topo maps and iodine tablets are two of the best inventions ever.
Final comment: Whether you drive around, do the backcountry, both or whatever, GO TO YELLOWSTONE! It’s truly one of the world’s most special places.