#tbt Trip Report: Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park, August 2015

Trip report originally published in August 2015 by Jimmy Jin.

Day 1 – “Back to Life on the Trail”

After a great trip in the Tetons, saying goodbye to Will, picking up our Yellowstone permit, and a day of needed rest in Yellowstone’s Canyon Village, we found ourselves stuffing our backpacks full of food once more as we were now on our way out to tackle the 76 miles of Yellowstone’s backcountry.

Thanks to a great friend and another DC ULer, Jen DeBoer (whom was living in YS for the summer) was awaiting us with her car at the Nine Mile Trail Head (ending point) so that we can set up the shuttle hike for the trip. We got there a bit late not really anticipating the Bison/Grizzly bear caused traffic, but we got there to meet her just after 9am. Once there we packed into her car and we were off to our starting point at the Howard Eaton Trail Head located just south of the Old Faithful area.

By around 10:30 we were all packed and ready to start walking. To our delight, Jen had decided to hike ~10 miles with us to come check out the Shoshone Geyser Basin. As we starting hiking, I immediately noticed that this was going to be a very different trip than the Grand Tetons. Where were the epic glacier filled mountains, the cool refreshing air, the endless amounts of cascading waterfalls, and the fields of wildflowers?! I couldn’t help but think these questions in my head as the terrain around us seem bland with just a bunch of young pines mixed in with a bunch of dead ones. No views to really speak of and no towering peaks to look at. Plus the trail was dusty and dry, and the weather brought intense heat. Well, on the positive side, at least there weren’t any ass kicking climbs that we had to tackle as the trail was relatively flat.

The Howard Eaton Trail heads southbound for about 2.9 miles before joining up with the Shoshone Lake Trail. Again, much of the trail was dry & dusty and not very scenic. Every so often the trail would run through open meadows exposing hot springs and some small geysers. Being that it was the first time for us visiting YS, it was a bit strange to see boiling, bubbling water coming from the ground while hiking. Pretty weird to see but it also reminded us that we were hiking on top of a dormant super volcano! Yikes!

After a couple miles later, we spotted a couple park rangers w/ their horses checking backpacker permits. We got our permits checked with no issue and were off in our final approach to Shoshone Lake and the Shoshone Geyser Basin. Just after passing the North Shore Shoshone Lake Trail, we turned left onto a spur trail that headed out to the shore of the Lake. Expecting to fill up on water here, I planned for this to be the lunch spot. To my dismay however, the Lake water was somewhat stagnant, dirty, and a bit warm from the hot springs that were near. It wasn’t too enticing to cache up on water here. With the hot afternoon heat, and our empty water bottles, we only spent a brief time here to check out the views.

Shoshone Lake

Back onto the main trail, we were now hastily walking through the trail in hopes to run into a water source. According to the map, there were several creeks nearby, however, all of these creeks were tainted with the hot springs of the Shoshone Geyser Basin emptying into them. With the strong sulfur smells and the warm water, it wasn’t too inviting to get water here nor was it probably safe to drink from. As we kept walking, we now found ourselves deep into the Geyser Basin. The terrain here was unlike anything I’d ever seen as it was barren, hot, and steamy with thick smells of sulfur. It was filled with several crazy looking bubbling geysers. Anyways, with the promise of Cold Mountain Creek approaching in the next half mile, we didn’t really stop too long to take in this unusual scenery.

Walking through the Shoshone Geyser Basin.

After passing the geyser basin, the trail suddenly became very swampy and marshy. It had looked like the park service had made attempts long ago to place boards on the trail to make it easier going but it seemed like a failed attempt. It was inevitable that we had to walk in ankle deep muddy, wet marshland. We finally reached the creek, however, it wasn’t exactly the creek I had envisioned. It was more of moving current of water within the marsh we were walking in. It was better than nothing and we filled up our empty bottles here. After filling up, we said our goodbyes to Jen as she was heading back to the car.

The marshlands.

At this point in the day, we had about 3.5 miles left to reach camp. It was also at this point where Joe was slowly losing his mind… in a funny way of course. After being so hyped up from the Grand Tetons, and being filled with more hype by our permit issuing park ranger (Ranger Applebee!!) the trail so far seemed a little disappointing. I guess Joe was missing the beautiful Teton Range and the pleasant trail walking as compared what we were currently walking, the hot muddy marsh with no real scenery to speak of. Genevieve and I too felt this way but it was nothing like Joe voicing his opinion of the trail. For usually being such a positive guy, it was quite funny and amusing to witness!!

Now that we had our water bottles filled, it was time for a quick lunch. A perfect spot right on the beach of the lake was offered to us just about a half mile from the creek. It was a nice a refreshing break, but feeling anxious about getting to camp, we were back on the trail after not too long. In the last couple miles before camp, the trail climbs up 300 or so feet. For whatever reason, this kicked our ass. I guess we all weren’t there with our hiking minds that day. After the climb the trail flattens out again and runs through a thick pine forrest. As I realized earlier that day, the water sources didn’t appear that often which made me worry about our water source for the night. We passed through several dry creek beds which made me worry further. To my relief, once we got to camp, a large flowing Moose Creek just down the hill behind the site.

This being our first night in Yellowstone, it was the first time seeing these established camp areas. Our site (and all of the others) had nice flat tent areas, a fire pit with seating around it, and a structure for hanging food. It was kind of nice. After doing our camp thing and having dinner, we were all ready for bed. Just before climbing into our shelters, we had discussed our strategy for shooting with our bear spray just in case a Grizzly decided to come check us out. It sounds ridiculous, but it was a legit concern at the time.

Our bear hang at camp.

Day 2 – “Dusty Hotness and Mosquito Torment”

The next morning we woke to some chilly temperatures. I made a quick little fire for breakfast and sat around it to discuss the day’s plans. It was a daunting 21 mile day we had planned, but we all felt a ton better than the day before as our minds were now back on the trail. We were ready! After breaking camp, we got back on the trail and continued along the South Shore Shoshone Lake Trail eastbound. This trail is also synonymous with the Continental Divide Trail as were reminded of that fact when we passed some thru hikers. Kudos to them! One solo thru hiker stopped and talked to us just to warn us about the upcoming water sources. There really weren’t any… great! It wasn’t as bad as we thought however, as he came from the Dogshed Trail where it was all dry. Our plans were to deviate a little from the CDT and hike the Lewis Channel Trail where we would have water access along the channel and Lewis lake. After saying our goodbyes to the thru hiker, we quickly found ourselves in mosquito hell. There had been mosquitos on the trail to this point, but they were manageable. It wasn’t until about a half a mile from the Lewis Channel where we found mosquito breeding grounds. The only way I got them from making me completely nuts were to put on my hardshell (despite the heat) and hike at four miles an hour. I swear, if a swarm of mosquitos were chasing me during the “Four State Challenge”, I’d set all sorts of records!

Finally through the worst of them, we were at the Lewis River Channel. After fording this channel, we turned off the CDT and hiked along side the Lewis Channel Trail. It was a pleasant walk as the trail meanders back and forth running parallel with the channel. We saw several folks with canoes walking their boats north up the channel to Shoshone Lake. After about five miles of walking this trail, we found a spot just along the shore of Lewis Lake. We took this time to get lunch and to tape up our feet.

Crossing the Lewis Channel.

After a good resting lunch break, we were back on the trail. This time fully cached up with water as the next eight miles would be completely dry. A half mile later, we found ourselves crossing the park road to reconnect with the CDT at the Heart Lake Trail Head. The next several miles were pretty uneventful and sort of boring. Again, the trail was dusty, hot, and didn’t offer much in terms of scenery. Nothing much to mention here.

Seven miles later, we approached another geyser area. At this point the terrain opened up a bit offering grand views of Heart Lake and the surrounding Red Mountain range. This was also the point where we saw a large group of day hikers. Joe did them a favor by taking their group photo, however, and oddly enough, he was repaid with a recruiting effort to their christian hiking thingy… There’s a time and a place folks!

Our first view into Heart Lake.

Moving on we approached the Heart Lake Ranger Station where a ranger was waiting to check our permits. Just after clearing us good to go, he mentioned that we were about to walk into the most dense Grizzly Bear population in the entire park. Sweet! After he bid us good luck, we were back to hiking and yelling every five minutes, announcing our presence to any nearby bears. At this point the trail followed the north shore of Heart Lake. It was beautiful in terms of scenery but man was this part of the trail a giant pain in the ass. For about a half mile, the trail was infested with mosquitos and the loose gravely sand made it for very difficult walking. I was not too happy at this point in time, especially that being the 19 mile mark of the day. Not too long after, the trail ascended away from the lake and soon we were finally met with our campsite sign for the night, 8J1!! It was a sight for sore eyes after the day we had. At the sign however, we had to follow a spur trail leading back towards the lake that was seemingly never ending at the time. I think it amounted to another .75miles of walking.

After finally reaching camp, we all set up our shelters, set our bear lines, and collected firewood. We were beat up from the day, but after eating our dinners around the campfire, our energies were renewed. It turned out to be a gorgeous late afternoon and evening with the sunset and the cool weather. Plus the mosquitos were somewhat at bay! On top of this, we had to celebrate Joe’s BDAY with some brownies that his wife had made and some shots of scotch/whiskey! As we all turned in for the night, Genevieve and I were convinced that a bear was grunting in the background. In the end we think it was Joe’s snoring, but it definitely kept us on edge the entire night.

Sunset views from Heart Lake.

 

Day 3 – “Feeling the Trail Blues”

Again, we woke to a very chilly morning so I had decided to make another morning fire to warm us back up. With all the bear stories and Joe’s snoring (thinking it was a bear), I don’t think Genevieve and I slept much at all. After eating breakfast and breaking camp, and also walking the ridiculous distance back to the main trail, we were back on the CDT again. I was thankful at this point that the sun was hidden away by the clouds as it made for cooler temps. This was probably the only positive thought I had in my head that morning. I don’t know what it was, but I think we all woke up with the trail blues. The once again mundane scenery and the dry/dusty trail didn’t help. It was then where we noticed a trend in the scenery that we had faced every day: Walk through mundane scenery filled with young and dead trees – walk through dry and dusty trail – walk through a open meadow with nothing but dead trees and foul smelling geysers – end at some Lake where it would be our rest/camp spot and water source (since all the creeks were tainted by hot springs). As you can tell from my writing here, I still vividly remember my mood and the mood of the others.

Not to make things worse, once we got off the CDT and onto the Trail Creek Trail, the trail became somewhat nonexistent or barely there (remember, I’m spoiled by the well groomed AT!). The trail was a herd path at most. Imagine the trails in Dolly Sods or Roaring plains but five times more overgrown. It became very hard to follow at points, especially at creek crossings. Also the scenery started to change as it had now felt like we were in a post apocalyptic world with so many dead trees everywhere.

So many dead trees!

A couple mental breakdowns later, we arrived at Grouse Creek, just above Outlet Lake, and stopped there for lunch. Before we headed out back on the trail, I imposed a rule on the group in which everyone happily agreed to: Nobody was allowed to say anything negative. Only positive words or no talking at all! It was a good rule and I think it helped out the group a lot.

There is a trail there… 

After about two miles or so, we approached the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake. At this point however, we had entered into mosquito hell again and clouds above us were darkening. Trending with the rest of the day it made for a lackluster hike all the way towards the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake. We passed by another ranger station except this time there was no ranger checking for permits. The trail then follows along the shoreline of the lake but instead of walking on gravely sand, we were on a proper trail this time. About a mile later, we reached our camp for the night which was right on the lake. As storms were approaching around us, we hastily set up our shelters. Luckily the storms were holding off and missing us just to our east. After setting up, Joe and I got water from a creek .75 miles away as the lake water was not looking good. While doing so, Genevieve had kept our fire going.

As we were around the fire cooking dinner, an inevitable storm hit bringing lightening and hail. Luckily, it didn’t last long at all and we we back to hanging out by the fire in a short time. We were all talking about the day and how mentally challenging it was then when we realized that we were out walking an adventure in the woods and what we were doing was pretty badass. We were grateful. As another storm approached, we threw our food in a bear locker, which this site offered, and headed for bed. We were out by 8 that night.

Day 4 – “A Pleasant Walk in the Wild!”

A golden eagle.

 

The next morning, we woke up to some light rain but luckily for us, by the time we all broke camp, it was only just slightly misting. After quickly sorting our things and eating breakfast, we were soon back on the trail. After hiking in a couple miles, we noticed that the scenery was becoming different. Instead of feeling secluded within a grove of pines, it felt like we were in big wilderness, as if we were hiking in Alaska’s backcountry. Golden Eagles found perched on top of trees, sweeping views of the mountains surrounding us to the east, and the majestic view of Yellowstone Lake just off to the north really made it feel like we were out there exploring true wilderness. Heck, the trail was really only a herd path that entire time.

After another couple of miles, we found ourselves to the second big creek crossing of the trip. Just before crossing, we spotted some very fresh Grizzly Bear tracks that could not have been more that a couple hours old. Yikes! Not wanting to stay here too long to find out if a bear was nearby we quickly continued on to get over on to the other side of the creek. We all crossed the creek without incident, however, it was definitely trickier than I would have liked. It could have been a lot worse had it not been so dry in the past. Once past it, the lovely Trail Creek Trail once again gets lost, and we had to spend some time to find it again.

Dicey crossing.

Once we found the trail, after about a half a mile, we were at a junction where we met the Thorofare Trail. What a lovely sight it was!! This trail unlike the previous trail actually looked like a hiking trail! This made for some awesome walking. With our spirits back up, a nice trail to walk on, and the weather clearing gave us the chance to truly enjoy and take in what was around us. It was all so beautiful.

In about another couple miles, we crossed Beaverdam Creek and found a nice shaded spot for lunch. It was very relaxing and it was probably the first time in the trip that we were all truly enjoying ourselves. Not too long after, we continued hiking and we were just amazed at the ever changing scenery. As the trail starts to run along the east side of Yellowstone Lake, we were found walking along it’s cliff sides and rocky shores. It sort of reminded me of my recent visit to Torrey Pines and the shores along the Pacific Ocean just north of San Diego. The rest of the hike leading up to the campsite was all pretty much like this.

As we neared the campsite area, we noticed that in the far distance, a large storm was brewing. The winds were starting to pick up and the clouds were starting to darken. We didn’t waste too much time as we all set up our shelters NASCAR pit crew style. Just after setting up, the winds picked up even more as I’d say the sustained wind speeds were probably in the 40-50mph range. It felt like I was on the summit of Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks. This had a crazy affect on the lake as it looked more like an ocean at this point. There were 4-6 feet waves breaking on the shore! As the rain and winds intensified, we all hunkered down in our shelters. We all thought we were in for another rough night. These winds were so strong that it actually threatened to bring down a live tree not too far from Joe’s shelter. He wasn’t too pleased to say the least.

Luckily for us, this intense storm only last for about 40 minutes. Once it cleared, it gave way to beautiful dramatic skies and made for a pleasant evening around camp. Feeling lucky that we were actually going to have dinner that night, we were all in great moods! After dinner, we all took in the awesome sunset over the lake and just hung out by the fire talking. It was one of my favorite nights out on the trail. We all had gone through a lot to this point (including the Tetons) and to be out doing what we were doing felt amazing.

Day 5 – “We Did It!”

After having a great night, we all woke up and started to break camp for the last time. It was a surreal feeling that we were all about to go back to civilization that day. With only six miles left, we were feeling anxious and hit the trail running. Once on the main trail, we were greeted with another section of mosquito hell. I guess in hind sight this made the six miles go by quicker as we were all walking a pretty swift pace to get away from them. As the trail headed further north, we found ourselves in an area where there must of been a fire not too long ago. Everything around us was charred making the dirt very dark in color. It had a neat effect however, as the wildflowers growing around the area made for some interesting contrast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we were in our last mile, we started to see the nearby road and passing cars. At this time, the clouds once again started to darken and was threatening to storm once more. We hastened our pace and soon enough, we were back to the cars! With good timing I might add as it starting to rain.

The End!!!

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