Yellowstone, a walk in the park

Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world, a famous haven of geysers and grizzly bears. Just a day walk can deliver lakes, mountains, hot springs and loads of local wildlife.
By Lance Richardson November 12, 2014 Reading Time: 10 Minutes

THE LEAD STORY for the Jackson Hole News & Guide on September 21, 2011, was hardly news to anybody who lives in that quiet corner of Wyoming.

“Report: Grizzly reacted to yells”, it declared, before going on to recount the details of a fatal attack earlier that year in nearby Yellowstone National Park.

A man and woman, the Matayoshis, had gone hiking on the Wapiti Lake trail and stumbled across a grizzly bear.

“What possibly began as an attempt by the bear to assess the Matayoshis’ activities became a sustained pursuit of them,” the article said, quoting an official incident report compiled by bear experts from the area.

The bear chased, then mauled and killed Brian Matayoshi. The cause of this pursuit? Residents would have collectively rolled their eyes.

“A possible contributing factor to the chase was that the victims ran from the bear while screaming and yelling.”     

There was no trace of irony in the article, but its repetitive nature adds up to a message of forehead-slapping obviousness. In a place as wild and unpredictable as Yellowstone, survival lore is not a guide – it’s a rulebook.

When confronted by the dangers of a place that is, in many ways, barely colonised by humans, local knowledge must be so familiar as to come reflexively, the new gut instinct. Do not run from bears. Do not yell at bears. Do not arouse their curiosity or surprise them on a trail.

“Many visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks enter the gates with a false sense of security,” writes Lee Whittlesey in Death in Yellowstone (Roberts Rinehart). “These persons wrongly believe that the animals are tame, and that the place surely is a lot like a city park.”

Living like a local in Yellowstone

As an outsider entering this environment, your first requirement is to shake this preconception. My friend and I arrive at the tail end of summer, intending to hike the Thorofare Trail, a famous backcountry track that hugs the eastern side of Yellowstone Lake, then branches deep into the wilderness to an isolated cabin (“There is no occupied dwelling in the contiguous US farther from a road,” according to National Geographic).

However, standing in Lake Village and looking out across the water, we find the opposite shore punctuated by plumes of black smoke. The Signal Hills are smouldering, and with them about a 3km stretch of the Thorofare near its beginning.

Our instinct is to circumvent the damaged section like a car driving around a pothole. But this is Yellowstone: hikers have been evacuated by water taxi; the winds are infamously mercurial. The ranger in charge of the track shakes his head solemnly. “It could be months before the fire is out,” he tells us.

So here we have a confrontation of a different sort. Do we follow our instinct and reroute over Eagle Pass, joining the Thorofare well below the damage by climbing to almost 3000m through dense bear country? Do we go running and screaming back to Jackson and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar? Or do we swallow our impulses and listen to locals, heed their advice and make their learned instincts our own?

We turn to the ranger, holding up the map. “Forget the Thorofare,” he says. “How long have you got?”

Time for three spectacular day walks, it turns out. He points to a small cluster of lines near Shoshone Lake, south of the legendary Old Faithful: “Go here.” Another lake, shaped like a heart at the base of Mt Sheridan: “Go here.” A third trail, just past Fishing Bridge in the Pelican Valley: “Go here for wolves.”

Shoshone Geyser Basin

Unsurprisingly, a national park perched above a supervolcano comes with some pretty strange attractions. Rivers gurgle and steam. Mud is so sulphuric in places that your hand would dissolve if you plunged it in.

There is a boiling lake shaped like an exploding star, a mountain of volcanic glass and petrified trees. And certain cliffs formed from ancient ash debris are deceptively perilous for climbers.

Yellowstone contains more weirdness in its boundaries than many other national parks combined. Yet the most celebrated attraction is a single geyser that erupts like clockwork and has been given the moniker ‘Old Faithful’.

It’s surrounded by several hotels and a new visitor centre, with tourists clamouring for the best view every 45 minutes or so, when water shoots 32m to 56m into the air. This natural wonder has been packaged as digestible entertainment, with circus seating and a gift shop just off the safety boardwalk. It is neither Yellowstone’s most frequent nor largest geyser, and yet, due to infrastructure, it is the one visitors are most likely to see.

The Old Faithful area also features an extended thermal basin, with hot springs so superheated that bacterial life is terminated, leaving the waters a deadly blue and absolutely still, like glass. It’s possible to wander away from the tourist fray and find solitude here, but you’ll still be in the epicentre of RVs and cafeteria food.

Here’s an insider tip, courtesy of the Thorofare ranger: due to the rigidity of the road system, organised like a figure eight across the park, an equally spectacular thermal basin lies hidden to the south – and hardly anybody goes there. “Most visitors to Yellowstone never see more than a mile off the asphalt,” is a mantra echoed by several members of staff.

The Shoshone Geyser Basin is 12km off the road network and can be approached directly from Old Faithful Village (via the Howard Eaton Trail) or just outside it from a waterfall called the Kepler Cascades, our starting point.

The trail begins along a service road hugging Spring Creek, but almost immediately this small stab at intrepidness is rewarded by one of Yellowstone’s largest geyser cones. Lone Star, three air miles from Old Faithful, looks like a smoking termites’ nest surrounded by a strange mat of bacterial growth.

It erupts in three-hour cycles (much as it did when discovered in 1872), and the angled water column can reach heights of up to 12m, though it then dissipates into noisy steam. Witnessing this spectacle, like most thermal features in Yellowstone, is largely a matter of good luck.

Lone Star is quiet as we trudge past, heading south; when we return in the late afternoon it is spluttering and hissing, settling down to brood after just having performed its purge.   

From this point on, which functions as something of a fork in the road, the trail becomes more rugged, though occasional boardwalks lift a hiker above thermal minefields, where small holes emit noxious gases and the surface crust can change overnight. We wander past tall pines and through open grassland, with dragonflies brushing our faces as we navigate across a ground churned up by bison hooves.

We are relatively close to Old Faithful, yet a sense of remoteness quickly sets in, providing a good introduction to the Yellowstone backcountry. It takes about three and a half hours to reach the main activity of Shoshone Geyser Basin, and by that time a hiker has been given a thorough overview of the sorts of terrain found across the park.

The strange thermal landscapes of Yellowstone NP

The basin itself, perched in a waterlogged clearing where all the trees have died, gives the impression you’ve stepped onto another planet. The ground is warm to the touch, covered in strange mosses, or stripped bare. The trail snakes up to the edges of hot springs, which vary from orange and red to bright blue, with strange, fleshy protrusions and deep vents.

Though the water is hypnotic, we navigate carefully: recklessness comes with a higher price than wet clothes. In 1981, for example, a man dove headfirst into a Yellowstone hot spring to rescue his dog. “One witness describes it as a flying, swimming-pool-type dive,” notes Whittlesey in his book. He had third-degree burns all over, his skin peeled and he died the next morning. Rangers later found two large pieces of skin in the shape of human hands near the spring.

Even here, in Shoshone, a member of park staff reputedly once tried the water. He also died.

So we settle down for lunch and keep an eye on everything, lest a sandwich sink into the ground and disappear forever, or a wayward foot break through shallow crust into superheated steam. There are many treasures in this 8983sq.km national park – this is one you can find and be back in time for dinner.

Camping in Yellowstone

Spend more than a day in Yellowstone and accommodation becomes a concern.

There are numerous options on offer, but many sell out in advance or close early, meaning there can be slim pickings at the tail end of a season, particularly if you want to camp. Aborting our original plan means we are at the mercy of fate.

One night we drive endlessly around the park, looking in vain for a vacant space (we end up back in Jackson, two hours away).

Another night we accept a space in Madison Campground, a site as enormous as it is charmless and cluttered with RVs.

“I’m amazed,” we overhear one woman saying to the gate attendant from her car. “How can every site in the entire park be full? We just came to see Yellowstone.”

We quickly learn that if you want to see the real Yellowstone there are hundreds of places to stay and all of them free – you just have to be willing to walk.

A backcountry map is covered with markers for legal sites. All require a permit, and all offer an authentic, isolated experience of Yellowstone at its best. Campgrounds such as Madison should be reserved for exceptional circumstances.

Our second day hike is thus expanded into an overnight one.

Yellowstone’s Heart Lake

We select a secluded camp on the eastern shore of Heart Lake (8J6 on the map), which is a 19km walk from South Entrance Road.

Our plan is to hike there at a leisurely pace, pausing at a warm river the ranger has assured us is safe for bathing and then again at the point where the trail meets the lake.

From there it is 7.2km to the camp, which means we’ll arrive with plenty of time to organise precautions. This is bear country and it’s the end of their grazing season. Bears are hungry.

In a physical sense, Heart Lake Trail is no more difficult than the trail to the Shoshone Basin, though it involves steeper gradients and is more exposed to the sun. The challenge is primarily psychological.

We plunge almost immediately into dense pine forest, which lasts for nearly all of the first 8km.

It’s high and thick enough to cut visibility of the surrounding landscape and the trail becomes a thread through a labyrinth; all progress seems illusory. Breaking out onto a shelf above Heart Lake is an immense relief. We stumble down into a grassy valley, with hot springs framing the trail and Factory Hill to the right stained blood-red from lichen.

Lunch by the lake stretches out for hours, silence ringing around the high summit of Mt Sheridan (3139m). Our final stretch – arcing away from the water through shorter forest showing evidence of a recent fire – is only slightly easier, though all punishment becomes irrelevant once we reach the camp site.

Built right by the shore, with a fire pit and drop toilet, the site is the fantasy location of a thousand American camp dreams, with the requisite bogey monster thrown in.

A high beam between two trees is intended for our packs, though its efficacy is immediately suspect. Deep claw marks in the trunks reveal the presence of bears, lured by the smells of a previous camper.

We therefore follow local advice to the letter. My companion prepares food a few hundred metres away wearing clothes designated for the task. Our tent is erected elsewhere, deeper in the forest, because we’ve been told bears dwell around the shore at night. Before going to sleep every single scrap is collected and bagged, then hoisted on a rope into the canopy.

This includes our shoes. Nothing goes in the fire. Not a crumb.

Despite these precautions, it’s impossible to stop thinking about bears. That night a log splits in the fire, but sounds like a groan and we are momentarily paralysed.

A twig snaps in the undergrowth and my hand goes to the mace. Sleep comes fitfully, the tent suddenly seeming woefully thin. Didn’t a woman get eaten in Yellowstone? The rangers found her lips.

By morning we have sweated so profusely that it’s raining inside, drops of condensation slapping our faces.

In retrospect, our fears seems like a gross overreaction. But out there on the trail to Heart Lake the dangers are as palpable as they are darkly exciting.

The American writer Ian Frazier puts it best when he writes that “a woods with a bear in it is real to a man walking through it in a way that a woods with no bear is not … Bears are one of the places in the world where big mysteries run close to the surface”.

Yellowstone’s elusive grey wolf

Yellowstone is famed for its bears, but in recent years another resident has taken a share of the spotlight thanks to its controversial breeding program.

Before 1995, a grey wolf had not been seen in the park for nearly 70 years. So effectively had predator control programs and landowner hunting curtailed grey wolf numbers that they were an extinct species in the Rocky Mountain states.

With wolves gone, species such as elk bred uncontrollably, which led to lobbying for the reintroduction of wolves. This finally found traction in the 1990s; wolves from Canada’s Jasper National Park were relocated to Yellowstone and released, though not without considerable debate.

The result today is a significantly altered ecosystem – fewer elk, more foxes and beavers – and public demand for greater hunting quotas. The wolf issue is like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other.  

The first wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley on the northern loop. Over time, however, packs have spread across the park. The Thorofare ranger says an active pack can sometimes be sighted in Pelican Valley, just past Fishing Bridge and remarkably close to where the Thorofare begins.

Like bears, grey wolves are incredibly elusive, particularly when you’re actively trying to locate them. But we take the ranger’s advice in the hope that we’ll get lucky and leave our car in a small grove of pines near a man grooming horses for a group ride to Turbid Lake (5.8km).

The Pelican Trail begins in a wide grassland where a bison herd grazes quietly in the distance. It is the easiest of our three walks, providing a good introduction or a soft finish to a week of Yellowstone exploration.

After grassland the path meanders into dense forest with an atmosphere of loaded tension. A sign at the beginning of the trail warns against night hikes – this is a “bear frequenting area”, with copious scat backing up that promise – and wolves would be formidable opponents in their own right.

Thick braids of brown lichen hang from trunks and branches, looking suspiciously like hair. Scratch marks cover fallen trees and standing trunks. During the day we pass unassailed, though a thin howl rings out – possibly a wolf cub.

In the subsequent silence, we reason that it may also have been an aural hallucination.

After 4.5km the trail forks in three directions: 13.2km to White Lake along Astringent Creek; 6.1km to a ranger cabin at Pelican Spring; or 11.6km through a thermal area to Pelican Cone, which features an overlook at 2939m.

The point here is that a single location in Yellowstone can offer a microcosm of the entire park. Exploring this one area gives you access to lakes, mountains, thermal features and the infamous wildlife – and it’s barely a smudge on the overall map. The opportunities here are immense.

We don’t see any wolves, though not for want of trying. We do, however, meet ‘wolf watchers’ – obsessive fanatics, like trainspotters, who can expound on the history of a pack as if they are recounting the details of a soap opera.

We also meet ‘geyser gazers’, who have their own radio frequency to monitor thermal activity. Perhaps, finally, this is the biggest surprise of Yellowstone National Park: that despite all the flights of fancy nature can conjure here, the strangest thing of all is undoubtably your fellow man.   

The essentials

Getting there: Yellowstone has five park entrances across three states. The entrance fee is $25 per private vehicle; this lasts for seven days and includes access to nearby Grand Teton NP.   

When to go: May-June, or mid to late September. July and August are diabolically busy.Things begin to shut down in September, though good pre-planning can make this the best month for hiking in solitude.

Staying there: For a national park, Yellowstone’s accommodation offerings are comprehensive. The lodges, hotels and camp sites on the road network are maintained by Xanterra (www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com)

Off-road camp sites are arranged through the Backcountry Office (+1 307 344 2160; www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm), which issues the compulsory permits, available seven days a week in the park.

Their online backcountry guide is essential reading.

The trails: The trail to Shoshone Geyser Basin begins in Old Faithful Village or at nearby Kepler Cascades. The way to Heart Lake is on the road to the South Entrance, just before Lewis Lake.

Pelican Valley can be found on the opposite side of Yellowstone Lake, near the entrance to the Thorofare Trail.

Consult the Backcountry Office for trail closures.

The trails: www.nps.gov/yell; www.wyomingtourism.org