The Absarokas don't get a lot of love. To the south lies the magnificent Wind River Range. To the north, the Beartooths. And to the west, Yellowstone National Park.Although the largest single range in the Rockies, the Absarokas often are overlooked, even by people "in the know".
Over the course of three summers, 2015-2017, I explored the Winds, the Beartooths, and the Absarokas in turn. Each trip was a largely off-trail adventure in the very best scenery that the respective ranges offered. Each time, something derailed my plans. In 2015, it was injury. In 2016, it was weather. And in 2017, it was a hungry grizzly. But we'll get to that later.
The plan was straightforward: Drive to the northern terminus of my trip, in Cooke City MT. Hitchhike down to the southern terminus, at Togwotee Pass, Wy. Hike back to my car. I had two weeks off from work to complete the trip, and although I suspected I wouldn't need the full two weeks to do 170 miles, I played it safe. Very little information exists on the Absarokas. I was fairly confident that my route would be impossible at some point - I just didn't know when or where. So to allow for the likelihood of re-routes, mishaps, and weather, I padded my schedule with several extra days.
First things first. I had driven to Cooke City the night before, where I would leave my car. I snagged a ride with a 70 year old who lives in an RV, a Danish couple, a couple returning from backpacking Glacier, and a pair of hippies from California. The hitching was generally easy, and by 1:30 in the afternoon, I had arrived at the top of Togwotee Pass (pronounced "TOGA-tee"). I followed a dirt road for a few miles and passed a dude ranch. After following a trail for a couple miles, I split off and began the big climb up to the Continental Divide.
The Divide in the southern Absarokas follows a high, undulating ridge between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. While there's some elevation change, it generally comes just a few hundred feet at a time. The climb up, however, was nasty. The underbrush was rather thick and scratchy, and streams carved deep gorges into the landscape. Steep, loose, and brushy sidehilling is not exactly fun. But no matter, I gained about a thousand feet and made camp on a tiny flat spot just before sunset.
I got up early and immediately started climbing again. Although steep, the footing wasn't a problem and before long, I topped out at about 11,300 feet. A thick, smoky haze hung over the landscape, obscuring what would have otherwise been million-dollar views. I followed the Divide eastward, then northward. The ridge in this area took the form of a wide, gently undulating plateau, offering easy walking. Patches of snow and a couple small ponds dotted the landscape. The Absaroka Fun Route was certainly living up to its potential.
Smoke notwithstanding, the sun shone intensely overhead and a relentless wind swept over the wide-open landscape. I sipped water constantly, yet found myself dehydrated all the same. But with views like these, it was impossible to wipe the smile off my face. Midway through the afternoon, I took a small detour to climb Crescent Peak, an 11,300-foot peak whose stark black volcanic rock contrasted sharply with the browns and grays of the surrounding topography. That volcanic rock made a curious sound when stepped on - a resonant ring rather than the expected thunk. I've never seen anything like it.
After my diversion up Crescent Mountain, I continued along the ridge, following the Continental Divide as it twisted and turned its way generally northward. There were a couple of steep spots, but nothing that a little creative routefinding couldn't solve.
A half hour before sunset, I found a little spot protected from the wind at about 10,200 feet. I set up my tent and at supper. As I tied my Ursacks (bite-proof Kevlar food bags) to a tree for the night, I noticed that the OpSaks (odor-proof plastic liner bags) were already starting to fail. I could smell my food, which means that the rest of the animal kingdom could too. I made sure to tie them up a good distance from my shelter and collapsed in bed. A long day, but a great one.
The day started off with more ridge-walking along the Divide. I didn't have much time to dally - I had to get to a good place to view the solar eclipse. The AFR was about to coincide with the 2017 eclipse's path of totality.
I went nowhere all morning. Well, I went somewhere, but my route formed a big horseshoe, heading east, then north, then west, all to avoid a deep drainage. After several hours of hiking, I was still within eyeshot of where I had camped the previous night. The scenery continued to impress, though, and I didn't mind taking a roundabout route. Like the previous day, the hiking consisted of fairly level plateaus punctuated by the top end of canyons that I needed to cross. Around 11:00, I topped out on a high ridge with a view to the Tetons to the west. I sat down and waited for the eclipse.
I was initially disappointed. Although the moon was beginning to cover the sun, nothing was happening. Aside from getting really chilly, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. As the coverage of the sun increased, though, a strange twilight fell across the landscape. All of the sudden, the Tetons disappeared from view, and I knew that totality was imminent.
The difference between 99% coverage and 100% coverage is the difference between between night and day - literally. Although totality lasted only about a minute where I was, it was surreal. Stars came out. A brilliant orange twilight occupied the horizon in all directions. And I watched the Sun's corona with fascination. My photos turned out terribly. I like it that way. It's a memory that I'll never, ever, lose.
Thoroughly chilled to the bone, I hoisted my pack and continued onward. I skirted another 11,300 foot peak and noticed, to my surprise, three people near the summit. I crossed yet another high plateau, filled with snowfields and dropped into a small canyon.. After lunch, I ran into the three guys I had seen earlier. They were veteran Absaroka hikers and offered a couple of helpful route tips. I hadn't expected to see anybody out here, but were three guys in their sixties, doing a week-long trip in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48. If I'm half that cool in thirty years, I'll be a happy man.
Here the terrain changed dramatically. I left behind the wide-open plateaus and the Continental Divide and entered higher, steeper, and more glaciated terrain. I followed a trail briefly over Marston Pass and entered the South Fork of the Yellowstone drainage. Above me towered Younts Peak and the Thorofare, the two most remote mountains in the Lower 48 as measured by distance from a road. As I climbed up to the saddle between the two peaks, I noticed grizzly bear prints everywhere. Bears head up to talus-covered slopes in the late summer and autumn in order to feed on army cutworms, a species of moth that hides in talus and scree.
To my surprise, I found a decent trail at the top of the pass and followed it down the North Fork of the Yellowstone. The only suitable campsite in the area was right next to the raging river, and I endured a very damp and drippy night.
After following the North Fork for a mile, I headed up a side drainage, paralleling a deep, rocky gorge. After a short 200-foot climb over a 10,600-foot saddle, I dropped steeply down a narrow, snow-filled canyon into the upper Thorofare drainage. Supposedly there's a decent outfitter trail around there somewhere, but I couldn't find it and endured a fairly horrendous bushwhack down a side stream until I eventually found the trail where the stream joined the main Thorofare drainage.
A trail! I'd only had a couple miles of it the entire trip, and it was refreshing to shut the brain off and cruise for a while. I noticed a large yellow tent in the bushes in the upper drainage, but other than that, saw nobody.After a couple of hours, I left the Thorofare and headed north on-trail toward Butte Creek. The trail sees heavy horse traffic and was well-marked, if a bit uneven underfoot. The two thousand foot climb sapped me of the last bit of energy I had. As soon as I got down into Butte Creek, I started looking for campsites.
And presto! An outfitter camp. The Absarokas see heavy visitation from hunters in the fall, and dozens of outfitters cater to the hunters. They set up camps in the backcountry with tents, meals, and whatever else a trophy hunter from Connecticut might need. It's a big business. I came upon a camp not currently in use. It was a clear and level piece of ground and had convenient stumps to sit on. This would be my campsite for the evening. I hung my food bags a few hundred yards away and went to bed, exhausted.
Around midnight I woke up to pee, and heard something out there. A bit nervous, I grabbed my bear spray and headlamp and clambered out of my tent. I yelled a couple times, shone my headlamp around. No sound. Probably an elk or something. I'd had several elk and deer walk by my campsites on this trip.
I woke up ravenously hungry. After four days on trail, my body had started to protest the calorie deficit it was running. I had been too tired to eat much the night before, and I needed food NOW. I sauntered over to get my Ursacks...
...and something was definitely wrong.
Ursacks are normally white. But mine were brown. And wet and smelly. The tree they were tied to was denuded of bark. And sure enough, the weave had separated in tooth-like patterns.
That animal I'd heard last night? A grizzly.
Ursack should really hire me as a spokesman. I had two Ursacks, and both of them survived a grizzly encounter. I cannot say the same for my food however. I opened the Ursacks to find all of my food completely mangled and saturated with bear slobber. Completely inedible. Ursacks, you see, protect bears from your food. They don't protect your food from a bear. That was the OpSak's job - the OpSaks that had failed on Day 2.
As I sorted through my drippy food to look for anything salvagable, I kicked myself. I should have known better than to camp in an established campsite that had probably hosted delicious cooking smells regularly for years. I should have noticed the bear claw marks on several trees in this camp. I should have picked an out-of-the-way spot to sleep. I knew exactly why I hadn't, of course - I was tired last night and off my game. I hadn't been in any danger - I had stored my food away from where I was sleeping - but still, I never should have camped here in the first place. And the worst part - I still hadn't ever seen a dang bear!
I sat down to evaluate my options. I had no edible food. Forty of the toughest miles separated me and the resupply box I'd mailed myself. Bailout time.
Before I bailed, though, I scampered up the next pass on my planned route. I was pleased to see that it was in fact passable, and that a faint trail led around some cliff bands down the north side. Dejected, I headed back down to the trail, crested Deer Creek Pass, and headed down the east side, away from the crest of the range, my intended route, where I should be. The trail was okay - still horse-impacted, but very obvious and well-graded. I made quick miles, the oppressive heat notwithstanding.
For the first time on the trip, it clouded up in the afternoon. A little thunder started to rumble. The wind picked up and sprayed misted around. It had been so hot that the cooldown felt wonderful. I reached a stream crossing and paused for a moment, trying to find a crossing that would keep my feet dry.
"The HEEEEEL are YOU doing?"
I turned to find a horsepacker who had caught up to me. He was an older guy - 72 years old, he proudly told me. I'd seen his tent a few days prior in the Thorofare, along with one of his six horses. Why somebody needs six horses to head into the backcountry, I'll never understand. He was a funny guy, full of personality. We chitchatted for a few minutes and I tried to yogi a ride from him once he got to the trailhead. No luck - he didn't take the bait. My new friend Bill wished me luck and rode ahead.
Waiting for a hitch down a dead-end dirt road in a thunderstorm is not my idea of fun. So I put on my "shoppers walk", as my mother would put it, and busted down the trail at 3.5 miles an hour. If I got lucky, perhaps Bill would still be packing up his stuff when I got to the trailhead.
I nearly kept up with him, arriving at the trailhead maybe 15 minutes after he did. He seemed surprised to see me and remarked that if he knew I was going to be so close behind him, he would have offered me a ride to town. Success! So I helped him pack all his stuff into the truck and hopped in.
The horses, of course, didn't take well to being shoved in his trailer, and promptly started fighting. So out the horses came. One of them had been kicked and was bleeding fairly substantially. I grabbed his first aid kit and bandaged up the horse with a little gauze, duct tape, and triple antibiotic. That's my first and hopefully last time moonlighting as a veterinarian.
Bill is a really swell guy. He moved out to Cody forty years ago, from Howell, MI, and never found a reason to move back. It was a long ride into Cody, but time passed quickly, and he kindly dropped me off right in front of the outfitter.
After hitting the outfitter and the Pizza Hut buffet, I wandered town, looking for a place to spend the night. The dumpy motor lodge was full, the Super-8 was going for $189/night, and the campground's office had closed a few minutes before I arrived. So I wandered the campground for a few minutes, found a happy drunk couple and made friends. Soon enough I was tenting on their site and sipping a couple Budweisers - all in exchange for entertaining them with tales of adventure. I took the opportunity to wash my stuff (including the nasty Ursacks) and went to bed, full, happy, and very blessed. Tomorrow I needed to get out of town, hitch to the dude ranch where I had mailed my resupply box, and get back on-trail.
I rolled out of bed early, left a nice note for Happy Drunk Couple, and headed up to Walmart to buy a couple things. It was a decent walk to Wally World, and I snagged a couple of Five Dollar Footlongs at the in-house Subway. I'm sure the employee there didn't expect to make a pair of Chicken Teryakis at 6am, but oh well. After another long roadwalk, I finally reached the outskirts of town and found an ideal hitching spot. There was a nice paved pull-off there and plenty of traffic so I figured it wouldn't take long to get a ride.
Boy, was I wrong! I got there at 8:00 and hung out my thumb. Nine o'clock rolled around and nobody stopped. Ten o'clock... still nothing. I waited until 11:00, a solid three hours, before a nice couple gave me a pity hitch. Future thru-hikers - don't stop in Cody. It's a black hole whose event horizon you simply can't escape.
I swung by the dude ranch and grabbed my resupply box. The owner is an absolute sweetheart. She held my box, offered me lemonade and lunch, and told me to make myself comfortable for as long as I liked. For a deep wilderness trip, this journey had certainly involved a lot of wonderful human interaction! I packed up all my food, slid her a few bucks as a thank-you and took off around 1:00.
I stopped by a different dude ranch and asked about trail conditions up my intended route, Gunbarrel Creek. The owner informed me that the trail no longer existed and that the entire area had burned badly a couple years ago, rendering the terrain impassible. I had suspected that Gunbarrel might not be doable. So I hitched a couple miles up the road and started hiking up Grinnell Creek.
The trail proved excellent - well-marked, smooth, flat, and fast. I made good progress all afternoon and set up camp on the only clear piece of ground I could find. A brief rainstorm pitter-pattered me to sleep.
Turns out that hiking a quarter mile farther would have been a good idea. A few minutes after breaking camp, I stumbled across another unoccupied outfitter camp. This one, though, had a metal bear box to store food in. Could have saved myself the hassle of bear bagging last night! Oh well, onward.
The outfitter camp was significant for another reason, too - beyond the camp, the trail barely existed. It clearly hadn't been maintained in a decade, and the trail was almost impossible to find, much less follow. Sigh. Another bushwhack. I spent the next several hours schwackpacking through dense brush, over downed trees, through marshy areas with knee-deep water. You know, the kind of thing they put on the cover of Backpacker magazine.
Three frustrating hours later, I emerged from the trees and made a beeline for a pass that would dump me a high alpine basin where I knew there would be trail. I climbed the pass relatively quickly, perhaps more quickly than I should have. But when I crested the pass, I looked to my west and saw a million pickup sticks.
The summer of 1988 was a brutal one. Wildfires burnt a third of the Yellowstone area with ferocious intensity. The Park Service had suppressed fires in the park for a century, allowing dense, dead underbrush to accumulate that would have otherwise burned off due to natural wildfire activity. So when the fires of 1988 started, they burned hot. So hot, in fact, that they sterilized the soil in many areas of the park and killed all the seeds that otherwise germinate after fires. Biologists estimate that many of those areas will take a couple hundred years to recover.
All of this to say that the Silvertip Basin was completely torched, thirty years after the fact. Not a single tree was standing; everything was knocked over, gray, and dead. Progress, once again, slowed to a literal crawl.
A couple of tedious miles later, I reached an above-treeline area where the walking became much easiesr. The clouds moved in though, and it began to rain sideways. I headed for the nearest clump of (living) trees, and to my surprise, found another outfitter camp, complete with bearbox and knocked-over mining cabin. I set up my shelter, threw my food in the bear box, and listened to the rain.
After maybe an hour, the rain let up. It was only 5:00 and I considered pressing on. However, the next five miles were all above treeline and very exposed to the elements. Considering the shaky weather, I did not want to get caught above treeline in bad weather, especially at dusk or overnight. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to stay there for the night and catch up on my calorie deficit. The decision to stay in Silvertip Basin turned out to be a wise one for multiple reasons.
I woke up, rolled out of my sleeping bag, and winced. It was back.
Over the course of my hiking career, I've dealt with recurring issues with my left Achilles tendon. It generally complains after I put too much stress on it in a particular day. If caught early, it's fairly manageable - just take it easy for a day or two, walk at one mile an hour all day, and it'll be fine the next day. If I try to ignore it or refuse to baby it, however, it quickly becomes completely unbearable and makes walking impossible. It turns out that crawling over eighteen trillion fallen trees is really hard on an Achilles, and I knew that today was going to be a slow, slow day. I was instantly glad that I hadn't pushed it farther the previous day - if I had, who knows how bad of shape I'd be in today.
I found the trail, an old mining track, and followed it to near a 10,700 foot pass. There was an impediment to travel, however - a gigantic snowbank on a steep slope. I gingerly (on a bad ankle I remind you) climbed up the steep, loose mountainside, around the snowfield, and back down to the track. It proved a bit sketchy and made me really glad to be back on trail. The entire endeavor took about half an hour to go fifty feet. I was glad to be doing it in the morning, rather than racing weather and impending darkness the night before.
I followed the mining track for a couple more miles, over another pass. A little smoke hung over the mountains, but the sun shone brightly. I bumped into a half dozen guys on horseback. They asked if I'd seen any bears - of course I hadn't, but they had. Typical. I took a five minute break every twenty five minutes in order to avoid overworking my bum ankle.
I descended to Sunlight Creek, past a couple dozen ATV'ers. I followed the trail westward, paralleling the creek. The trail was very nearly flat, but dozens of blowdowns blocked forward progress. I gingerly climbed over, under, and around them. At some point I had a Sasquatch encounter. It might have been a bear, but more likely a moose or an elk. It was big and dark and I could barely see it through the trees.
After soaking my feet in the stream for a few minutes, I followed the trail away from the stream and up a side canyon. I had about two thousand feet to climb to get up to the main Absarokas crest. I decided to do a thousand feet tonight, and a thousand feet tomorrow. My Achilles tolerated the climb relatively well, and I settled in to a beautiful campsite just a mile or two from the Yellowstone border.
What a day! I woke up to an ankle that felt nearly 100%. The final thousand feet to the crest passed quickly, and I found myself on the spine of the Absarokas in the early morning light. What a treat! I followed a trail northward along the crest for a few miles.
Just south of Hoodoo Peak, the trail took a turn to the west and headed down a canyon into the park. I, on the other hand, continued along the ridge. The climb up to Hoodoo Peak proved rather interesting. Soft sedimentary formations, reminiscent of southern Utah, dotted the landscape and formed steep draws that were a pain to clamber in and out of. It took a little poking around, but eventually I found a flank of the mountain that offered a doable path to the summit. I arrived at the 10,400-foot summit around mid-morning. Continuing northward, I climbed a few other bumps in the ridge before dropping quickly to Bootjack Gap.
After a quick lunch, I climbed north out of Bootjack Gap, still following the crest up an unnamed 10,200-foot peak. I had been fearing this climb for a while, and it turned out to be as sketchy as I'd thought it'd be. Perhaps I just wasn't in a good mental place, but the terrain made me very cautious about steep-and-loose volcanic crap for the rest of the trip. The rest of the afternoon proved fairly easy - cruising the gentle ridge to Canoe Lake. I watered up at Canoe Lake, walked a hundred yards to the east (to ensure I was camping on Forest Service land, rather than on National Park land), and fell into bed.
Another beautiful morning. I rolled out of camp a little late and resumed the ridgewalk. As I journeyed northward, the ridge took on a more alpine characteristic. It was narrower, steeper, and each little bump was higher than the previous one. Many peaks looked impossible, but up-close, I found ways to skirt or summit all of them. I paused for a few minutes to watch a huge herd of elk pass. Each time I saw elk, they always ran westward, into the National Park. You wouldn't expect wild animals to understand the nuances of American land management policy, but here they were, running to where they knew they'd be safe from hunters.
The size of my smile increased with the elevation. Here I was, way off-trail, way above Yellowstone, on the crest of the mighty Absarokas, and I was having a blast. I had studied my maps carefully and had made note of each potential bailout point, should the ridge prove impassible. I had heard whispers that somebody, years before, might have actually hiked the entire ridge, but it was just a rumor.
Perhaps the rumor is true. Perhaps the entire ridge is hikable. But I came across a very small bump on the ridge - perhaps 30 feet tall, too insignificant to even show up on a topo map. But there was no easy way around. I tried going right over the top - cliffy. I tried the west side - steep and loose. I tried the east side - doable, but very high consequences on terrain that wasn't exactly rock-solid.
The east side was passable. I felt confident that I could do it. And I knew that, should the ridge farther north prove impassible, I could always reverse my route safely.
And yet I turned around.
I know that hiking involves risk. Hiking alone involves more risk. Hiking alone, off-trail - doubly so. And I made a promise to my family and to myself, years ago, that I would never do something that I couldn't tell them about with a clean conscience. This thirty-foot section, though doable, represented an escalation of commitment that would be inconsistent with that promise I had previously made. It wasn't even a question - I had decided my level of risk tolerance before this trip. And now, in the moment, as much as I wanted to push on, I knew what the right thing to do was.
So I backtracked a half mile. I descended a very steep two thousand feet into an unnamed drainage. And I encountered the worst burn area yet.
Nothing was alive. Nothing was upright. A fire had obviously swept through here years before and killed everything. Trees lay scattered everywhere. Seven miles of tedium lay between me and the nearest trail. I picked my way slowly downstream, searching in vain for a suitable campsite. I finally found a meadow that wasn't covered in downed trees and set up camp in a grove of stinging nettles. Not ideal, but I had no good options.
I got an early start and immediately returned to the full-contact hiking I'd been doing the previous day. The going was slow but by late morning I had reached an honest-to-goodness trail, my first in several days. It's amazing how fast a trail feels after having been off-trail for so long. I made good time as clouds periodically dropped a few sprinkles. I climbed Republic Pass, the last of the trip. At the top of the pass, I paused for a few minutes and looked over the mountains stretching endlessly to the south. I gazed north at the Beartooths, where I had been the previous year.
The trail north of the pass was beautiful. The fire had obviously burned the south side of the pass, but not the north side. I walked through a wonderful green forest over more easy trail. The six miles to Cooke City seemed to take forever. I reached my car around 6pm, got some good food and drink, and celebrated another terrific hike.
In some ways, the Absarokas Fun Route was a disappointment. For the third straight year, I took an ambitious trip into the trailless environs of the greater Yellowstone. For the third straight year, I was unable to complete my intended route.
But a trip like this never goes as planned, for one reason or another. I spent a week and a half in some of the wildest, most remote, most beautiful country in the lower 48. I experienced the kindness of strangers and hopefully showed a little of my own. I watched a total solar eclipse - a once-in-a-lifetime event, in a once-in-a-lifetime place. I saw grizzly tracks, glaciers, distant vistas, bubbling stream, and crystal-clear tarns. I pioneered a route that holds great promise for the enterprising hiker. If that's failure, I'll take it.