Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Greater Yellowstone Loop

Yellowstone National Park is iconic. Tourists pour in by the busload to catch a glimpse of  bison munching grass in a meadow, watch Old Faithful erupt, or fish in the crystal-clear waters that flow through the park. Yellowstone is classic Americana.

But for the backcountry wanderer, Yellowstone really isn't that great. When I hiked through the park in 2018 on the Continental Divide Trail, I observed that most of the route was either burnt (remnants of the disastrous wildfires of 1988 and more recent burns) or crawling with tourists. I know I'm not the only CDT hiker to have been disappointed by Yellowstone. Even the areas of the park well away from the CDT aren't particularly great backpacking destinations.

But what if we expanded our view of Yellowstone? The park itself is large - 2.2 million acres - but it's dwarfed by the huge complex of National Forest land that surrounds it. The park therefore is merely the centerpiece of a vast ecosystem that's almost entirely wild. For my money, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the largest chunk of mostly-protected land in the Lower 48. 

The park itself isn't very mountainous - that darned supervolcano keeps blowing them up every million years or so - but it's ringed by jawdropping ranges. Some of these mountains are well-known, like the Tetons or the Beartooths. Others, like the Wyomings or Absarokas, are more obscure. Regardless of popularity though, the ranges of the Greater Yellowstone are all magnificently beautiful. In the summer of 2020, I combined them all into an 800-mile Greater Yellowstone Loop (GYL).

Fast Facts:
  • Miles: 800
  • States: 3
  • National Parks: 2
  • National Forests: 5
  • Wilderness Areas: 9
  • Wilderness Study Areas: 2
  • Backpackers seen: 5 (excluding National Parks)
  • Bears seen: 7
  • Backpackers attacked by: 0
  • Bears attacked by: 1
  • Days: 61
  • Zero-days: 19 (all bear-related)

History of the Route

I spent a week or two backpacking in the Greater Yellowstone each summer from 2014-2017. In 2017, while searching for information on an extremely remote corner of the Absaroka Range, I came across a book by Phillip Knight, Into Deepest Yellowstone. Knight and his wife Alaina are the first hikers on record to walk a loop of the Greater Yellowstone, having completed a 640-mile trek in 1991.

In 2018, my pal Pepperflake set out to do a Greater Yellowstone Loop. His route meandered a bit more than Knight's, visited more mountain ranges, and included a huge amount of scrambling, peakbagging, and rugged travel. His route clocked in at over 1,000 miles.

As with any iconic landscape, there have been many other Greater Yellowstone routes proposed in recent years, many of them conforming to the current "High Route" backpacking trend. None of those point-to-point routes grabbed my interest though. I wanted to do a full loop of the Greater Yellowstone for two reasons:

1) To illustrate the underlying unity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - to walk all the way through the mountains that almost completely encircle the park
2) To avoid the need to arrange transportation to the termini - I could simply park my car and walk in a circle, ending back at my car. 

As May turned to June and it became clear that my planned Pacific Crest Trail hike simply wasn't possible in the midst of a pandemic, I contacted Pepperflake, who graciously shared the maps from his 2018 hike. I spent a few weeks familiarizing myself with the maps and updating the route to fit my own preferences. The result was an 800-mile loop, starting and ending near West Yellowstone, MT. While much of the route was on-trail (at least in theory), a significant minority of the mileage (at least 30% was off-trail, usually along ridges and over peaks. I planned for slow travel due to snowpack, bushwhacking, and off-trail navigation.

I was not the only hiker on the GYL in 2020. About a week after I finished, a group of three hikers (Stargate, The Darkness, Jukebox) finished their own loop, also having riffed off of Pepperflake's route.

Coronavirus Considerations

For me, COVID-19 required a significant re-thinking of what a thru-hike looks like. While hiking itself (being outdoors and away from other people) is very low-risk, all the ancillary parts of a of a thru-hike aren't quite so simple. I was unwilling to put myself or others at risk of infection just for the sake of a vacation. I identified solutions to three problematic parts of a thru-hike - where social distancing is impossible or unrealistic:

1) Transportation to/from the termini: This one was easy. I'd simply drive to the trailhead (a fairly quick trip from my home base in Salt Lake) and hike a loop back to my car. I contacted a local private landowner, who graciously allowed me to park my car for a couple months.

2) Hitchhiking into town for supplies: Rather than hitching, I spent a few days before my hike driving to various trailheads and caching supplies. I placed everything inside odor-proof bags, closed them up in bear-proof containers, and buried them underground. I cached not only food, but other supplies as well: replacement shoes and socks, DEET, headlamp batteries, toothpaste, toilet paper, first aid supplies, etc - in short, everything I needed for two months in the backcountry.

On a few occasions, I contacted guest ranches that were directly on my route, and they were happy to hold packages for me - where I could mask up, walk in, grab my package, thank the owner, and walk out - all in thirty seconds. These maildrops worked well and seemed very low-risk from a COVID standpoint, but in retrospect I would have preferred to just place caches there instead. In addition to marginal COVID risk reduction, I could have left myself more niceties instead of jamming the essentials into a USPS flat-rate box.

3) Hanging out in towns: Hikers love to loiter in towns - spend a few hours in the laundromat, get a hotel room, drink 17 cups of coffee at the local diner, etc. I figured that the only way that I could resist these temptations was to avoid town entirely. Instead, I was careful to leave "Town-in-a-Box" in my caches. 
  • Restaurant: I cached a couple thousand calories of heavy, impractical, yummy food (pop, canned fruit, pudding cups, etc) - things that were shelf-stable but not my normal lightweight backpacking food. I could eat that food right there at my cache.
  • Laundromat: I left myself extra gallon-sized zip-lock bags and little tiny vials of Dr. Bronner's soap to wash my filthy clothes in the backcountry (well away from the water source, mind you!).
  • Post office: I used my cache boxes to swap out clothing and gear. Anything I no longer needed I simply reburied in my cache and picked it up at the end of the hike.
  • Grocery store: I intentionally cached a little extra food so I could "shop" in my box as my tastes changed over the course of the hike. In retrospect, I wish I had done even more of this.
There was one town I had to pass through - Mammoth Hot Springs, WY - only because that section of route was in the National Park itself, which prohibits food caches. But Mammoth Hot Springs is a crappy nothing-town, with not much more than a post office (in-and-out in thirty seconds!) and a to-go short-order grill where I phoned in an order outside the building. 

All in all, my preparations for the Greater Yellowstone Loop were more akin to a polar expedition than a backpacking trip. I tailored both the route itself and my hiking style to be compliant with every conceivable social distancing guideline or best-practice.

An Important Caveat

As most readers of this blog already know, I was attacked by a bear at about the midpoint of the hike. This resulted in a trip to the hospital, and nearly three weeks of recovery before I could resume my trek. During that interregnum, I let my social-distancing standards slip a bit. Part of that was unavoidable - I had to rely on the generosity of folks to get a ride to the hospital, find a place to mend up, etc - but part of that was me just getting a little sloppy with my choices. 

Even though a bear attack is a literal one-in-a-million event, the experience showed me just how easy it is to backslide when it comes to rigorous social-distancing austerity measures. Even for the best-intentioned, most iron-willed folks, it's somewhat likely that we'll let our guard down if given the opportunity. Given this experience, I'm not sure whether or not I'd try another austerity-style hike during the pandemic. While my experiment was largely successful while I was on-trail, that off-trail interregnum does gnaw at my conscience a little bit. 

Section 1: The Tetons

After parking my car near a manure spreader on a ranch near West Yellowstone, I hopped on my old friend, the Continental Divide Trail for a few days. These days were spent walking over largely featureless plateau, one of only two gaps in the mountains on the entire GYL. I had timed my start strategically, starting in a lowlands environments to give the snowpack a few extra days to melt before I entered the Tetons themselves. 

This turned out to be a horrible miscalculation. In early July, those lowlands were swarming with the worst mosquitoes I've ever seen. At one point, right after I fording the Bechler River in the southwestern corner of Yellowstone, I killed seventeen bugs with a single handclap in front of my face. I covered up from head to toe - long pants, long shirt, headnet, and even rain mitts for my hands - and sweltered in the hot July sun. I am not exaggerating a bit here: I had to keep waving my hand in front of my face just so I could see through the cloud of bugs trying to land on my headnet. It was that bad.

After a few days though, I climbed into the Tetons, where the bugs and the views improved dramatically. I walked along the crest, at points walking a knife's edge with spectacular scenery all around. After a few days of storms, including decent-sized hail, the weather improved and I wouldn't see another drop of rain for weeks. 

The snowpack was burly in the Tetons and progress was slow. I was prepared for the snow with ice axe and microspikes, but I still couldn't make quick progress, particularly once the snow softened up each afternoon. It was so beautiful though that I didn't care how slow I was going. After more than a week in the backcountry, I popped out at Teton Pass and dug up my first cache, tired, but confident I could tackle what lay ahead.

Section 2: The Snake River and Wyoming Ranges

This section contained a pair of often-overlooked ranges south and east of the town of Jackson. I didn't find the Snake River Range to be particularly enthralling, though I took a sub-par route after correctly deducing that Pep's route followed a trail that was in horrible shape/didn't exist at all. Still, I cruised plenty of ridgelines and glided through ridiculous fields of wildflowers. On most other trails, this section would have been a highlight, but by GYL standards, it was pretty humdrum.

By contrast, the Wyoming Range was magnificent. I followed a  circuitous route through the area, but it was unquestionably worth it. I walked a sharp ridge that was two-toned in color - gray and orange - with spectacular views of the Tetons, Snakes, Gros Ventres, and even the Winds to the east. While this section of the Wyomings doesn't carry any special Wilderness protection, it was one of the most wild sections of a hike that had no shortage of them. I also glimpsed massive numbers of elk - so numerous in fact that they seemed to be damaging sensitive alpine areas with overgrazing. So if you happen to draw a Wyoming elk tag, maybe help a brother out and hunt there please!

The section concluded with the nastiest bushwhack on the GYL - a 4,000-foot trail-less descent down a ridiculous steep ridge with ridiculously thick vegetation, ending at the Hoback River, which divides the Wyomings from the Gros Ventres to the north.

Section 3: The Gros Ventres

The Gros Ventres flank the town of Jackson to the east, opposite the Tetons. Because they're not the Tetons though, they're obscure and seldom-visited. In my opinion though, they're nearly as spectacular - but without the people and the red tape associated with National Parks. The ridgewalk along the crest of the range, followed by some more off-trail travel on incredible "shelves" just below a series of jagged peaks, proved to be one of the highlights of the entire trip. I cruised through recently-glaciated terrain, across lingering snowpack.

I was  reluctant to leave the heights of the Gros Ventres, but all good things must come to an end. The last two days of the section involved the longest roadwalk on the entire route, followed by a few miles on the CDT through relatively low terrain. I've long held that the CDT through the Greater Yellowstone takes the worst of all possible routes; the Divide itself just isn't very scenic. The GYE bore this out: the least interesting parts of the route were where it joined the CDT in Sections 1 & 3. 

Section 4: Absarokas South

The Absaroka Range is the largest single sub-range of the Rocky Mountains, stretching from west-central Wyoming all the way into southern Montana. They're beautiful mountains, almost entirely protected by designated Wilderness areas, and a wanderer's paradise. It therefore seems strange that the Absarokas are so obscure that nobody can pronounce them correctly (the "o" is silent). As befits a huge range, I spent several sections there. 

The section began with an incredible walk along the Continental Divide on the expansive Buffalo Plateau, an expansive tabletop above treeline, cut by deep glacial valleys. On day 3, I left the Buffalo Plateau behind, climbing Thorofare Peak, the most remote peak in the Lower 48 (as measured by distance from a road). Atop the peak, I peaked at my phone and - yep, I had a bar of 4G. Thanks Verizon... I guess. Needless to say, I put that contraption back in airplane mode. No need to spoil a wilderness moment with technological intrusion. 

Following my ascent of Thorofare, I dropped down into a series of large valleys, connected by vague scraps of trail-like substance. After a while I joined good trail briefly before veering off onto a nifty elk trail beneath some cliffs on an off-trail pass. I'd previously scouted this area in person a few years ago and knew the elk trail to exist. I was surprised, though, that Pepperflake was able to find it (presumably on satellite) and knew to route himself that way. 

On that elk trail, I turned a corner and met an unhappy grizzly. I was stitched up by the fine folks at the hospital in Cody. I had to take about three weeks off before I could carry a backpack comfortably enough to continue hiking. After healing up, I resumed my trek at the beginning of Section 5. I missed the last 40 miles of Section 4, but I think a bear attack qualifies as a pretty good excuse. I really do want to go back and do those 40 miles at some point though; the scenery looks outstanding and it's the very quintessence of "big wilderness". Someday, hopefully. 

Section 5: Absarokas North

In truth, this section was a bit of a dud. The first half of the section was in nice montane terrain, but much of it was burnt and nasty. I must say, though, that a brief walk along the eastern border of Yellowstone was fantastic. A nice trail follows the crest of the Absarokas for a few miles before the route dropped east off the main ridge through a huge burn area and down into some unremarkable lowlands. 

The latter half of the section entailed a circuitous detour down the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River. The Clark Fork is a marvelous canyon that cuts deeply through the Beartooth Plateau, but for the most part, the trail I was on stayed out of the inner gorge and just wasn't that scenic. When it finally dropped down to river level, the mosquitoes were so hellacious (Bechler River-bad!) that I couldn't really slow down and enjoy the scenery. If I did this route again, I'd probably stay up on the Absaroka crest. While I had off the ridge due to "sketch factor" a few years prior, I think I'd probably give it another go in the future in a better mental state. 

Section 6: The Beartooths

This section was probably the most beautiful section of the entire hike - and considering the competition, that's high praise indeed.

Pepperflake's original route through the Beartooths was rugged, demanding, and doubtlessly incredible. It conformed pretty well to a route that I've been itching to do for several years now. But it involved some class III scrambling and a "horrible bushwhack from hell", and given that I still couldn't lift my arm above my shoulder, that was obviously a no-go. 

Instead, I opted for a lower, mostly on-trail route across the Beartooth Plateau, a mostly above-treeline plateau dotted with hundreds of fantastic lakes. I got a little carried away through here though, and ended up going off-trail and doing some light scrambling. I just couldn't help myself! It was too enticing! Trails themselves are pretty vague in the Beartooths, and just about everything is passable. Navigating the landscape off-trail is like a maze - but it's a maze where nearly every path is a winner, and every winner is uniquely beautiful. I met a kindly gentleman who's spent 25 years exploring the plateau and he still hasn't been everywhere yet. 

I planned to traverse a glacier, but it was far too melted out, revealing a 20-foot sheer drop that I just couldn't traverse. This involved a major re-route, and I was glad that I had a large map corridor on my phone. 

Section 7: Beartooths West

This is a complete misnomer, as this section is actually back in the Absarokas - the northernmost Absarokas, but too many Absaroka names get confusing, so I'll follow Pepperflake's convention and stick with "Beartooths West". 

No matter what you want to call it, this was an alright section. I'm intentionally damning it with faint praise here, but for good reason. Pepperflake ran into huge issues with blowdowns and torturously slow travel through burnt areas, so I re-routed the entire section onto trails that actually exist. The scenery was good but not great, especially as compared to the majesty of the Beartooths that I had seen in Section 6. Near the end of the section, I entered Yellowstone. I'd been on its peripheries twice before on the hike - both for less than a day, but this marked the only time I'd spend any significant amount of time in the park.

One highlight of this section was running into Stargate, Jukebox, and the Darkness, three hikers who were also doing an adaptation of Pep's route. I'd met them in near Jackson while I was healing up, and seeing them again was a treat.

I walked into my only town on the route, Mammoth Hot Springs. Most of the place was shut up tight as a button anyhow - closed visitors centers, etc - and I wasn't at all bummed about that. It made it very easy to keep my social distance and stay out of enclosed spaces.

Section 8: The Gallatins

This section was entirely on-trail and made for easy cruising along the crest of the Gallatin Range. Despite being up high, I saw almost nothing in this section, owing to thick smoke that had drifted in from fires burning to the west. Everything was tinted with an eerie yellow glow. But the miles came fast and I enjoyed the mental break from the craziness that the GYL occasionally dishes out. 

As I descended out of the range down to the Gallatin River, I came across a huge field of avalanche debris. Fortunately, there was a Forest Service sawyer crew doing some work with an outrageously large chainsaw, so I didn't have to thrash around for long. It's incredible how much force avalanches can generate - snapping thousands of full-grown trees like pencils. It's a useful and sobering reminder for those of us who backcountry ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile.

Section 9: The Madisons

This section was another gorgeous one, but the weather really fell apart on me. I'd had very little bad weather since Day 3, nearly two months earlier, but it finally caught up with me as summer turned to fall. I had a couple of soaking rainstorms, a few days of on-and-off showers, and generally just enough crap to make things a little iffy. That was particularly bad timing, as this section involved quite a bit of very exposed travel over long ridges and steep slopes with no place to hide. On one occasion, I watched several bolts of lightning hit a high peak I was currently detouring around. The weather just wasn't stable enough to allow me to do the route I wanted to do. My lower route ended up being alright, but not the world-class beauty I expected on the higher route. 

On my last morning, I woke up to snow flurries, which quickly turned into a cold, driving rain. I did ten mostly-miserable miles parallel to a highway into the town of West Yellowstone, completing the route. It was an anticlimactic finish to what was the most beautiful route I've ever walked. Nonetheless, I thank God for the opportunity to walk the Greater Yellowstone Loop, and that I didn't become the grizzly's bedtime snack. Some day, I'll go back and do those 40 missing miles in Section 4. For now though, what a journey!

Smokey was on hand to welcome me to West Yellowstone... and to warn me of fire danger in a driving rainstorm.

Overall Impressions

The Greater Yellowstone Loop was absolutely fantastic. It's without a doubt the most beautiful route I've ever walked, and the only thing that comes close is the Hayduke. That comparison came to mind frequently - like the Hayduke, the GYL is an 800-mile, very difficult route through extremely remote country. The route is entirely on public land, visiting iconic National Parks and equally-astounding places far from the beaten path. Nearly every day there's something that will make your jaw drop. Of course, there are maps and a guidebook and secondary literature available for the Hayduke, and absolutely none of that is available for the GYL.

A full loop of the Greater Yellowstone probably isn't in the cards for most folks - it's just too big of a planning challenge and some sections are very arduous. Instead, I recommend that backpackers pick a range or two and research it in great depth. Then go out there for a week and explore! A few bite-sized ideas that come to mind immediately:
  • Hike the Teton Crest Trail, but instead of dipping down into deep canyons at Hurricane Pass, stay on the Jed Smith Wilderness side of the crest and follow trails all the way to the north end of the range
  • Instead of the Beaten Path in the Beartooths, try mapping your own route that wanders around the Beartooth Plateau
  • Hike the Gallatin Crest Trail, traversing the length of the range
  • Do a 3 or 4-night overnighter in the high elevations of the Gros Ventres
  • Make a loop out of the parallel ridges of the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges
Really, there's no way to go wrong in the Greater Yellowstone (unless you get attacked by a bear, in which case, you've gone very wrong. Trust me!). Dig into Caltopo, let your imagination off its leash, and you'll almost certainly reap the rewards.

Update 2/27/2021: I previously understated the length of the Phil and Alaina Knight's 1991 expedition, as well as Alaina's involvement. This has been corrected.