yellowstone national park.
As we headed home from The Grand Canyon last November, the Ginger and I had already decided our next adventure would be backpacking through Yellowstone National Park. It wasn't a hard decision for me because I was addicted, still am, and even as I write this, I want to be back in the woods... go figure. So the months of planning began... I started my google searches around January of this year (2018), and we ultimately came to the decision of the trail we would do from a blog (you can read that, HERE).
A little backstory of Yellowstone National Park is that it's actually the world's FIRST national park. It holds a place for many buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places and also many Historical and National landmarks. With so much history and culture within the park, I haven't even begun to describe the animals, diverse ecosystems, and the fact that the 3,500 square mile area sits atop a volcanic hot spot. Let's just say planning a trip to Yellowstone was huge, and we did everything we could to be prepared before we headed into the backcountry.
With the area of Yellowstone spanning three different states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho - we would find ourselves in only Wyoming during our visit to the southern part of the park.
Off to Jackson Hole, Wyoming we went...
It was early August, hot as hell in North Carolina, two bags packed per each of us later, and we were seeing the Teton mountain range as the plane made its decent into Jackson Hole.
Grand Teton National Park has an elevation of 13,775 ft. and is in close proximity to Yellowstone, so these mountains provided a wonderful backdrop as we made our way around Wyoming over the next 10-days. The airport is relatively small and easy to get around in, so we quickly found a cab and headed into town...
A little well-known fact that I have failed to mention as of yet is that in Yellowstone: WE WOULD BE DEALING WITH BEARS.
And a lot of them, big ones, grizzly's, and I won't even go into how many different stories, movies, documentaries, and articles I read, ON FREAKING BEARS.
Needless to say while planning the trip, we knew we would need some extra bodies to make a lot of noise while we were hiking. That meant no one better to call than our good friends: Staton and Tammy. They started making the drive from Seattle a few days before, and drove about 13 hours to meet us on this lovely Friday afternoon.
Soon we were all hugging, cheering beers, grabbing a bite to eat, discussing Bear Spray, the weather, and everything else in between at the local brewery in Jackson Hole: Snake River Brewing.
The weather for the week was looking amazing, as we had planned this part specifically and did a lot of research on the best times to visit. August it was, as this is the prime summer month for Yellowstone. Most of the snow usually melts by now, the bears have enough to eat so they won't eat the people, and the wildflowers are in peak bloom. So there you have it.
After catching up and going over all of our fears for the trip, we hopped in Staton's badass Toyota Tacoma, and headed to our hotel for the night so we could pack our gear and prepare for DAY #1.
DAY #1 - Saturday, August 11, 2018 (Garmin Activity Map Day 1) I was nervous, shaking, and felt like I could puke all morning. We drove about an hour from Jackson Hole, through Grand Teton National Park, and finally arrived at the South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park a little after 9am.
It's $35 per vehicle entry into EACH park. This gives you a permit valid for 7-days of entry. Paying our dues, and once entering Yellowstone, we made our way immediately to the right where the South Entrance Ranger Station is located.
Reservations for backcountry permits can be reserved in advance during the time periods of January to the end of October each year. If your permit is received by March 31st, it will be processed in random order. Submitting before then is suggested if you want to get your "first pick" of backcountry campsites. To reserve in advance costs $25. Once accepted, you receive an email with a confirmation notice that you will then bring to the Ranger Station to obtain your actual permit before heading out. Then, it's $3 per person, per night, to stay in the backcountry.
They make you watch a short 20-minute video about safety and BEARS before you head out. The rangers differ in knowledge, as some of them can actually issue your permit, and some of them can't. Some of them know the area you are heading out into... and some of them don't. Do your research and have plenty of MAPS with you. Trust me on this.
The actual trail-head is right behind the Ranger Station in the Snake River Picnic Area. The trail is the South Boundary Trail.
For this trip I packed extremely light. Weighing my pack in at the lowest it has ever been: 32 pounds. I had clothes, a few dried meals, light snacks (cliff bars), and my camera. I also brought a toothbrush and baking soda, an unscented chap-stick and deodorant, a small bottle of unscented sunscreen, unscented bug spray, a hat, bug net, first aid kit, flashlights, headlamps. There were no maybe's in our packs, all we brought were things we knew we would need.
At the end of this, I'll provide all of the products we brought with us specifically for bear country. The most important thing to note on everything we brought is how it significantly lowered our backpacks weights, yet was also unscented and/or kept things unscented. For the mileage we were about to endure over the course of 4-days, we wanted to be as light as possible. Oh, yeah, and WE DIDN'T WANT THE BEARS TO SMELL US.
We suited up, prepared for the immediate river crossing at the Snake River below, got our Bear Spray and air horns in order, and we were off...
We were to do 9-miles on this first day staying on the South Boundary Trail, and reaching campsite 8C2 for night #1. This first river crossing at the Snake River is LONG, but maybe only knee deep at most. This would be the only river crossing today.
Back on the trail, we found that it was easy-walking the entire time with the elevation gain being so minimal that you wouldn't even notice it. The first few miles are in the woods, and they provide great shade as the sun was beaming down. About 2-3 miles in, we became bombarded by bugs... I mean these things were biting us through our clothes. Mosquitoes, horse flies, other weird flies, things with wings, you name it. The bug spray helps, but if you don't cover every single inch of your body with it, you'll get bit there. I had bumps for about a week after this trip, so be advised. The good news is the bugs are only bad in certain areas, so you won't have to deal with this the entire time.
After about another mile, the trail opened up to a meadow with the Snake River flowing through it. Be sure to take some time to check out the thermal features here. The water is a strange green color, but the more obvious foul smell will let you know where to find these.
Seeing these vast, open meadows was not only the most beautiful thing, it was also pretty hot. However, we enjoyed goofing off, seeing the wildflowers, and the scenery just kept changing into something more beautiful as we clocked down more miles.
The bugs finally became bearable and we were able to take our nets off. We began seeing animal bones, antlers, paw prints, poop, and trees lined in scrapes with sap leaking out of them. Everything seemed like it was right out of a science textbook and it was pretty magical.
Stopping for a break about 2 miles from camp, we encountered some Rangers riding horses through with some gear. One of them, a man, hopped down from his horse and chatted with us for a bit. He asked for our permit, and told us we were close to camp.
Continuing on a little farther, we arrived into a large open meadow. Spotting the Rangers and their horses, they yelled over to us that this was camp! Not having a real defined path to this site, be sure to lookout for the big brown bear lockers as a sign.
This campsite was absolutely amazing. Sitting on a hill right above the Snake River, with a big open meadow in the background, we began to make ourselves at home for the night. We grabbed some water from the river, set up tents, cooked dinner, and watched the sun set itself behind the mountains in the distance behind us.
I didn't sleep at all. Tossing and turning, worrying about a bear attacking the tent, and excitement, were all things that filled my restless mind. Before I knew it morning had come and we were eating breakfast while preparing for the big day of river crossings.
Day #2 - Sunday, August 12, 2018 (Garmin Activity Map Day 2) Today we would cover roughly 13 miles with many river crossings. This would bring us to Heart Lake, and camping at backcountry site 8J6.
Heart Lake is, you guessed it, shaped like a heart. It's a huge destination for fly-fishing, and offers views of the beautiful Mt. Sheridan that reaches 10,313 feet above. But before we were to witness this beauty, we had a long day ahead of us...
Immediately crossing the Snake River like the first day, we then made our way up a huge hill. The trail is kind of hard to find here... we bushwhacked for a bit until we made our way back to it. Coming in and out of open meadows, we hiked and hiked, and hiked some more.
We would eventually make our way from being on the South Boundary Trail, onto the Snake River Cutoff Trail, and then onto the Snake River Canyon Trail.
Taking breaks as needed, the hike was easy-going just as it was the prior day. The few hills we did climb, were moderate in difficulty.
Very quickly, we started coming to river crossings more and more. A quote from the blog we shadowed says: "We would cross the Snake River 2 more times, and then cross the Heart River twice. In between were a few smaller stream crossings as well. All of the crossings were eating up time, as both of the guys had to change boots each time we crossed, taking breaks on both sides of the river."
This couldn't be more true... as stopping a lot was eating our daylight very quickly. The water isn't deep at all, knee deep if that. Eventually I decided to keep my water shoes on while hiking in between the crossings -- although later I would come to regret this decision indefinitely.
We passed through extremely thick willows, open meadows, and tall hardwood forests. It was crazy how many different landscapes we saw over the course of a mile. I enjoyed looking up to see where we were headed next. It was a constant change, which made for a kind of pleasure, as we pushed on in the heat of the day, tired and out of breath.
The bugs were still out, but after some point you become used to them. Used to scratching, used to swatting. We crossed a few more rivers, did some more hiking, more complaining, snack eating, and laughing before finally reaching the Heart River Trail.
We had finally made it to camp. There's a somewhat lengthy trail until you actually get down to the campsite, but the site is absolutely breathtaking once you arrive.
It's very secluded, peaceful, and I could have sat here and stared at the water for hours. When setting up your tent, you'll notice that you're going to be relatively close to the water. We tried to get as far back as possible in the trees.
A great feature about this camp besides the view, is the pit toilet. Take the trail, following the orange markers, and enjoy. Don't be alarmed though, when you get your butt bit -- the bugs are bad around the toilet. ;)
We thoroughly enjoyed this campsite. It was my favorite site from the whole trip... and honestly, maybe my favorite campsite EVER.
We bathed in the lake, made a nice fire, had dinner, and popped our blisters... my lesson is now learned about hiking in those water shoes... Tammy feels the same.
There weren't any bear lockers this time, so we had to use the pole to hang our bags. We hung pretty much everything we had.
FYI on Night #2, I slept great.
Day #3 - Monday, August 13, 2018 (Garmin Activity Day 3) We took our time this morning, made breakfast, and finally left around 10am.
From the words of our shadow blog again: "Our destination for this day was to make it back to the South Boundary Trail, and camp at backcountry campsite 8C1 near Snake Hot Springs. We weren't exactly sure how to do it at first."
Basically, we winged it this day. We were supposed to do around 9-10 miles. The guys from the blog crossed the Heart Lake and moved along the shoreline for some time until reaching the Heart Lake Trail. This meant using game trails, which in our case, didn't look so great. We ended up backtracking onto the Heart River Trail, attempted to find the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, that leads to the Heart Lake Trail, that would then pop us back to the South Boundary Trail and to campsite 8C1.
We had succeeded so far in NOT crossing a river because of our blisters, until, you guessed it, a river crossing.
And then another river crossing, and then another river crossing...
Sometimes you just have to cuss a little and bite your lip. We would go on to cross many rivers this day.
It is, what it is.
After give or take 5-miles of hiking, we had soon reached a junction with a sign stating the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail would be in a certain direction. As we started down this trail, we noticed a lot of fallen trees blocking the pathway, and eventually the trail completely disappeared. Finding ourselves now on a game trail, we were then led into the middle of an open meadow with no other trail in sight.
This wasn't fun for me at all. I felt lost, absolutely terrified, and fearsome of running up on a bear. We were close to the trail according to our GPS, but it was the getting to the trail part, that was seemingly difficult. We ran into some thermal rivers that were smoking and we could actually feel the ground getting hot beneath us. We ran through thick forest, open fields, and what felt like around, and around, in a big circle before finally making it to the Heart Lake Trail, skipping the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, altogether.
Being completely honest, I have no idea what trail we were on. It's a big loop on the map, and the names of the trails are different on the map, than they are on the signs. All I know is, I was relieved to finally be back on a trail of any kind. Even more thankful for the guys having brought a compass and actually knowing how to read them.
This put us out a few more miles than intended. Looking down at my watch, we had already done almost 10-miles. We now needed to pick up the pace in order to beat sundown, and we had a long way to go.
Hiking up and over more ridges, through more rivers, and open meadows, we hiked our little hearts out on this day.
A sight that made us all "oo-ahh", was seeing the Basin Creek Lake. This is a backcountry lake and provides a sense of relief in knowing there's water out in the middle of nowhere. We found small seashells here that I found pretty interesting, along with lots of red wild-berries.
Still moving quickly, we found ourselves on top of a ridge giving us the best scenery of the entire trip. It felt like we could see on forever. Here we found cicadas, wolf prints, and grasshoppers everywhere. It was nice even though we didn't have much time to take it all in.
We finally made it back to the South Boundary Trail, the sun started setting, and we found our campsite... 16-miles later.
We set up camp and quickly got the fire going. This campsite sat right on the Snake River Hot Springs.
Enjoying dinner and a nice fire, this campsite was wonderful except for the smell of the hot springs, therefore making the bugs a nuisance here as well. We went to bed not long after eating, and all slept like rocks.
Day #4 - Tuesday, August 14, 2018 (Garmin Activity Day 4) We slept in. Only having around 5-miles to hike out we figured, why not after yesterday's hell hike? We cooked breakfast, observed some yellow-bellied Marmots basking in the sun, and I wandered around looking at berries and taking everything in before we had to head out.
Around noon, we had finally packed up and began the trek out.
Today was a day of excitement, yet it was also extremely bittersweet. We were hiking out with a confidence that we didn't have, upon entering this land. Yelling and making plenty of noise the whole way out, we now laughed at how much noise we actually made the entire time because we hadn't saw a bear...
We literally sang songs, the Ginger pulled out his marine voice, we marched like soldiers, and clapped our hands THE ENTIRE FOUR DAYS. We ran into maybe 7-people the entire time. They all commented on hearing us, prior to seeing us. We weren't playing with those bears, we wanted to be heard.
There are many things that you can do in order to be prepared for bears. You may think I'm being ridiculous about it all, as I know I was. The thing is, I don't care what you think. "The grizzly bear population within the Yellowstone ecosystem is estimated to be approximately 280-610 bears. The current estimate of the black bear population is 500-650 bears."
At almost 1,000 bears in Yellowstone alone, I'm taking precautions. And no, bears are not my friends.
We were hiking out, the same exact way we had hiked in, on the South Boundary Trail. Heading through some pretty thick forest, with small rivers/streams flowing through... I was leading the group, briskly coming around a switchback, heading towards one of those small streams.
That's when I heard the three words I never wanted to hear.
"Bear. Bear. Bear."
It was spoken calmly, and in a manner that I knew was serious. I immediately stopped dead in my tracks. Reached for the bear spray on my hip. Staton preceded to make noise and clap his hiking poles together. I finally made my way to a space where I could kind of see, and all that's left is a cloud of dust in the air.
Just like that, gone.
I never saw a bear, but everyone else saw him. He was a black bear, and he was scared. Even though we were making a lot of noise, he was headed towards the stream to get a drink of water, bent down, and that's when he actually heard us and took off. We waited for a period of time before moving along, we were about 2-miles from the trail head. Go figure, the last day in the backcountry, the last few miles left, we would see a bear.
I'm thankful to walk away being able to say: I NEVER SAW A BEAR. But in a sense, I kind of wish I could have. What an interesting thing to read, coming from someone who freaked out about every little detail. There's still something majestic about them, something so fascinating.
Just like that we hiked the last bit of miles, crossed the Snake River, got in the truck, and welcomed the real world back into our lives. Close to 45-miles in 4-days meant something to us, that nobody would ever understand. We saw each other as the only people in the world. We saw each other raw, unfiltered, mad, angry, happy, sad, hurt. We knew going in that we wouldn't come out the same, and as we drove away that day, we each reflected on the experience in our own way.
Night #4 we got a hotel in Jackson Hole, after grabbing some dinner at a local restaurant: Sidewinders.
Over the course of the next 3-days, we chose to be tourists. Snagging a campsite for the next few days at the Lewis Lake Campground, we drove through the park and saw everything we could see. My advice: just grab a Yellowstone Park map and GO.
Wherever you want, just drive. It takes roughly 3-4 hours to drive straight through the entire park. Add the stopping, traffic, and lots of people in the mix, and you have a full day ahead of you.
The campsites fill up FAST, so be sure to get them ASAP.
We drove until the sun dipped below the horizon before making our way back to the tent at the campground. This was our last night together as 4-people. We drank, laughed, cooked dinner, and stayed up way too late. This was ultimately one of my favorite nights of the trip.
We had actually only met Tammy and Staton one time prior to this trip. It was scary preparing for this with them, because we didn't really know them that well. We knew they loved the outdoors, hiking, camping, and real shit. What we didn't know was, that they would actually fit right in beside us, and be the best hiking companions we could have ever asked for.
As they drove off and headed back towards Seattle on Thursday morning, I felt a constant sense of looking back for them because I had gotten so used to looking behind me, and seeing them behind us.
Ginger and I would rent a car for the next 2-days and continue to site-see, staying at the campground one more night, grabbing a hotel on Friday, and then making our way back home on Saturday.
Below are the pictures collected from those few last days.
The trip had come to an end, and it was back to life, back to work, and back to our bed. As I was very much looking forward to getting home, I also wouldn't have minded staying longer.
As I began posting pictures from the trip, people have reached out to me with heartfelt comments...
"Seeing those pictures brought a tear to my eye of a time long ago and almost forgotten. Thanks for sharing."
"I am so envious right now. I used to live near Yellowstone and moved away about four years ago and miss it every day. Your pics brought a tear to my eyes, but I thank you for the memories."
"The single greatest gift you could have shared - thank you for so many pictures."
There is nothing like Yellowstone, anywhere else. Out there it's just nature. Pure, unfiltered, complete and utterly beautiful, nature. Something that should be considered precious territory, and I hope it remains for eternity. What an amazing place to explore, and learn. What an amazing space. What an amazing trip.
Thank you Yellowstone. LINKS
- Our Shadow Blog: https://backcountrypost.com/threads/backpacking-yellowstones-snake-river-heart-lake-and-south-boundary-trail.6027/
- Yellowstone Website: https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm
- Grand Tetons Website: https://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm
- Snake River Brewery: https://www.snakeriverbrewing.com/
- First & Last nights Hotel: https://hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/wyoming/hampton-inn-jackson-hole-JACJHHX/index.html
- Heart Lake/Mt. Sheridan Info: https://www.backpacker.com/trips/yellowstone-national-park-heart-lake-and-mount-sheridan
- My water shoes can be found at REI here: Vasque Lotic Water Shoes. They performed wonderfully against the sharp and slippery rocks, and had great tread on the bottom. My one complaint is that they are a bit heavy, and take a while to dry.
- Bear Resistant Bag: Ursack MAJOR Bear Resistant Sack Bag - absolutely loved this bag. It's rated wonderfully, and tested against bears. Lightweight, and holds a lot of stuff.
- Odorless Storage Bags: LOKSAK - OPKSAK Storage Bag - loved these too. They are completely odorless (tested against my dog with treats). We bought a lot of them for the trip, used for snacks, and for cosmetics/cooking clothes. We would put everything in these, and then put them in the Ursack. The best part about them? They are reusable!
- Odorless Trash Bags: Base CampSource Odor-Barrier Bags - we used these to put our trash in. They are odorless and worked wonderfully. The pack includes 5-bags. We would tie this bag up, and put in the Ursack as well.
- Baby Wipes: Odorless Baby Wipes - odorless, or so it says. They worked great. Everyone's opinion on baby wipes differs, but I like these. Of course we packed them out.
- Poopy Shovel: Backcountry Potty Trowel - extremely lightweight, and worth it.
- Deodorant: Dead Down Wind Antiperspirant - it's unscented and hunters use it in the wild. Doesn't work that great against body odor... wouldn't buy it again, just saying, I'd rather stink.
- Chapstick: Dead Down Wind SPF 30 Lip Balm - the only reason I brought this was because I was absolutely paranoid about bears. Next time I'll skip and just bring Burt's Bees. It'll be okay... I know.
- Compression Dry Bag: Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Dry Sack - used these to put our sleeping bags/pads in. Just in case the river crossings got weary. Worked great, not a drop inside.
- Dry Bags: Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack - used these for other random things to keep dry. Love Sea to Summit.
- Socks: Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Socks - these socks are amazing.
- Energy Snacks: Honey Stinger Energy Waffle & Clif Shot Bloks - TRUST ME.
- Rope - don't forget it, as you'll need it to hang your stuff. I like 550-paracord.
- Anything else you normally backpack with. :)