Thursday, September 29, 2011

Yellowstone Back Country

As I mentioned, Yellowstone was nice, but a bit disappointing. This applied to my back country hikes as well as the overcrowded front country, but for different reasons. I went on two backpacks and two long day hikes while I was there (not counting the first night's "emergency" hike that was the only way to get a campsite), and none of them really went how I hoped.

Speaking of that first night's hike, here's what I found when I arrived at the campsite:

"Keep all food odors away from campsites" ...
The bones-at-the-campsite theme was consistent; weird and kind of dangerous given the bears and all, but sort of cool. Elk antlers are HEAVY. I don't know how the bucks hold their heads up.

Sevenmile Hole

My first hike was a one-nighter at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, at a spot called Sevenmile Hole. (The joke is that it got the name "Sevenmile" because it's a five-mile hike down into the canyon that feels like seven miles up out again.) After getting lost in the strip-mall-like village near the trail head, I finally got into the woods. It was a generally unremarkable walk through the forest, with occasional views of the dramatic Grand Canyon.

I've decided to stop going out of my way to photograph waterfalls, since they never really look like anything.
There was also this ghostly dormant geyser cone, just sitting among the trees. If you take away all the people and infrastructure, you get a sense of just how weird the Yellowstone Caldera really is.

Then I descended the steep sides of the canyon, passing through a thermal area on the way. Unlike in the front country, there are no walkways or hilarious illustrations to warn you away from them. This thermal area was just, like, in the trail. I walked feet from active steam vents, past geyser cones, and even had to step over the outflow of some hot springs. A little stream just past the thermal area was bathwater-warm.

The campsite was at the bottom of the canyon. But when I got there, the site was again ill-kept; it was confusingly labeled, in gloomy trees well above the river, had no view, and was a precarious descent to get water. Yet right next to the river was a little shelf by a tributary stream, with a rock to make a headboard and some stately trees forming a shading shelter for the tent. I know it was VERY BAD of me, but I made camp there, outside the designated site.

The ground is a lot more level than it looks; my rain fly covers the tent at an angle.
A lower shelf extended out to the river, to make a nice cooking and lookout spot.

Looking upriver

Looking downriver
I only noticed after descending to the river to get water that a hot spring/steam vent was coming right out of the edge of the cooking shelf. You can see the strange stains and seeps leaking out of the rock on the left side of the photo above. It made for a smelly campsite.

It was an uneventful overnight, other than thunderheads making a lovely sunset and a waxing moon.

 Either the guidebook was exaggerating the "seven miles up," or I'm getting in great shape, because the hike out was also nothing special. I also saw zero wildlife, despite constant warnings about bears in the area. And once again, I was absolutely alone.

This does not count. 
So yeah, kind of nice, but kind of meh. I really wanted to see more of Yellowstone's famed wildlife, so I tried to get a backcountry trip up a river valley that the guidebook promised was positively teeming. It was also positively teeming with fishermen, who had booked all the backcountry sites for my entire time in the park. So I walked the valley on a day hike, out and back as far as I felt like.

Around every single bend, I thought to myself, "Right around here will be a majestic herd of bison." "The next overlook will be of a majestic herd of bison." "Where the hell is my majestic herd of bison?"

Finally, I went around a corner and saw this:

One bison. Luckily, he was photogenically placed.

That was about it for wildlife on that trip. The next hike was a long backpack around Heart Lake in the southern part of the park, with a side trip up Mount Sheridan, my first ascent above 10,000 feet.


I bought a tiny nonstick skillet, just big enough for one egg.

My egg-frying technique remains perfect, even outdoors.
Heart Lake

On the whole, the scenery in Yellowstone isn't as spectacular as Glacier or the North Cascades, because the mountains aren't as high. There's also the fact that a huge area of the park burned in 1989, leaving a landscape that reminds me of the devastation around Mount St. Helens, even all these years later. 

The area around Heart Lake burned especially thoroughly. If I wasn't walking through dead trees or standing snags whistling mournfully in the constant wind, I was walking through hyper-dense stands of seedling lodgepoles, all about 10 feet tall. That is exactly tall enough to block your view, but not to provide shade or wildlife habitat.

There was some color, though; mostly in groundcover, and I passed a couple of neat thermal areas on the way to the campsite.

The hot springs are almost always aquamarine, and often surprisingly deep.
And Heart Lake itself is very pretty.

Dawn from my tent. The sky in Yellowstone was always beautiful, bad weather or no.

The next day started bright and clear. It was time to climb Mount Sheridan. The way up was also fully burned, leaving lots and lots of huckleberry bushes. Huckleberries are so delicious. They're like sweeter, more deeply flavored blueberries. Bears love them. I saw lots of bear scat on this trail, but no bears.

By the time I got to the top of Mount Sheridan, clouds were starting to thicken, and with the elevation and constant wind, it was damn cold. The view, though, was absolutely astounding; photographs come nowhere near capturing it. I could see what felt like thousands of miles, with mountain peaks receding in all directions.

Heart Lake. My campsite is right on the shore. Makes me wish for a zipline right about now.

The Tetons. Makes me wish I were in the Tetons right about now.

The wind didn't quit on my way back down, and the clouds continued to grow heavy. I'd kept my campsite rain-tight, though, so I stopped to check out a thermal area just up from the lake, not far from my campsite.

It included a large and beautiful hot spring/thermal pool. I visited this spot several times while I stayed at Heart Lake. I think it might have been my favorite spot in the park. And yeah, I know it was VERY VERY BAD of me, but I had to dip a finger in the thermal pool. It was about as hot as your kitchen tap turned all the way to the left; too hot to hold your hand in for more than a moment, but not hot enough to scald.

Next to the pool was a little geyser. It erupted almost exactly every half-hour, to about seven or eight feet high. The timing was precise enough for me to get a video of the whole thing.

CHECK HERE FOR UPDATES. Grand Teton's Jackson Lodge wifi doesn't allow uploading something that large...

Next to it was another geyser that erupted inconsistently. It was a twin spout, though not as high as the half-hour one.

After two nights on the west side of the lake, I was supposed to spend the next two nights backpacking around Heart Lake. The trail extended way far south of the lake before returning to the eastern shore. But after two days of vicious wind, cold, and intermittent rain, I wasn't up for a lot more backpacking. I considered simply hiking back out that day, but the next morning seemed clearer and warmer, so I decided to loop the lake as a long day hike. Then I would spend one extra night at my same campsite and still hike out a day early. It is, of course, VERY, VERY, VERY BAD of me to stay at a campsite beyond the length of my permit. But the back country permit ranger had told me with chipper astonishment that I was the only one scheduled on the entire Heart Lake Loop that week, so no one would be waiting for my campsite. Again, I was completely by myself the whole trip, though by this point I was getting used to it.

The loop was about 17 miles. It passed through some pretty country, and included my first river fords of the wilderness trip.

The Fivefinger shoes really show their worth in the water; they have excellent grip, complete flexibility, and the ability to feel your footing. Plus they dry quickly.
On the trail around the lake, I saw plenty of bear tracks, and, thrillingly, wolf tracks.

Bear-Wolf Junction, apparently.

But I saw no bears, no wolves. I saw a deer, and at night I heard coyotes. But as I mentioned to my parents, if I wanted to see deer and coyotes, I could have gone to Connecticut.

That evening, a passing cloud actually dumped a spattering of sleet on my tent. But then it crossed the lake and did this:

And then, a Prince song.
The next morning, the water had iced over on my rain fly. I was pretty happy to hike out.

Escape From the Lamar River

I still felt like I hadn't seen the majestic herds of bison that were my due. So I planned one more two-night trip down the Lamar River valley, way up in the north side of the park. Where the Lamar River Valley crosses the road, it's a wide, golden plain, and there are often bison right by the highway. It's also where I saw the lame wolf. So I had high hopes for vistas of wildlife. But it turns out that once you hit the trail, the valley narrows way in. It becomes forested with more of those damn lodgepole saplings that make you feel like you're walking in an empty green hallway. The campsite was another gloomy, view-free spot, with litter that included someone's discarded underwear.

(It is disturbingly common to find discarded underwear when hiking. The first time I saw a pair of underwear on a hike, I poked it with a stick, wondering what would possess someone to leave behind their underwear. It turned out that the underwear had been irrevocably soiled. I have not checked again to find out whether this is a pattern. TREAT YOUR WATER, PEOPLE!)

Even though I'd backpacked five miles in with two days' worth of food, I was sick of being disappointed with Yellowstone. I ate a quick lunch, strapped on my pack, and hiked back out again. I drove all the way down to the south side of the park (an animal-jam-packed ordeal, as usual), and got one last campground that put me in a convenient spot to escape to Grand Teton, where I've rented a "cabin" (really, just a freestanding motel room) as a break before heading into the back country again.

I hope things go better here!

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