Thursday, July 28The second trip to the west. After talking for years, the Glacier trip last year started us expecting that we would go somewhere in the summer, instead of wondering when we might ever do it. This time we started planning much earlier. After considering the North Cascades as a destination, we settled (?) on Yellowstone. Once again, Rick and I had been there and Greg had not—but neither of us had spent any real time in the backcountry. And this time we had another companion: Greg’s dad, Jack, wanted to go out and explore Yellowstone while we were in the woods. Jack would serve as our chauffeur, dropping us off at the trailhead and picking us up where we came out.
After reviewing trail guides, we requested a trip in the south central part of the park: a hike into Heart Lake, a day hike up Mt. Sheridan, and then heading along the Snake River valley, coming out at the South Entrance. The trip would again be seven days and 6 nights, but with less mileage than we faced last year in Glacier. We got confirmation of our route in early April, and all was set!
The trip out started in the early afternoon: Delta to Salt Lake and then SkyWest to West Yellowstone. The flight to West Yellowstone was overbooked; apparently there are severe weight limits in warm weather. Five passengers would have to take other flights. We had no interest in going to Jackson, and fortunately other volunteers came forward.
West Yellowstone airport was a small as we expected. No hassle getting our stuff and getting on the road—in a red Ford Expedition for GM lover and Georgia Tech grad Jack! A short trip to West Yellowstone itself and we checked into the Alpine Motel. Managed by Nancy Meeks who had moved out here with her husband from the Atlanta area some four years ago. This time we had two rooms: Rick and me, and Greg and Jack. This would prove to be the preferred arrangement (see “tent cabins,” later!).
Nancy had some Coleman fuel left by previous guests, so Greg’s fuel was covered. Rick and I still had to get canisters and look for bear spray at Eagle’s Store, which we were able to do. Dinner at the micro-brewery was thwarted by an early closure, and we substituted a decent dinner at a diner with a great jukebox. Fairly early to bed, as we would go into the woods in the morning!
Friday, July 29An early start and the traditional pre-hike breakfast next door. All is well. We head to the trailhead—probably 50 plus miles, so it’ll take a while. We pass a group of elk lying down just off the road, then make a brief stop in the Old Faithful area. We reach Yellowstone Lake at Grant Village and head south. Good start for the Moron Campers: we miss the trailhead and go down to the foot of Lewis Lake before turning around and finding it from the other direction.
A quick change to boots and load the packs and we’re off. Only about ¼ mile in and we’re already inundated by mosquitoes, so we need to stop for the first application of DEET. We’ve go about 8 ½ miles to go with full packs, but the trail is pretty level, with a net elevation loss. I manage to have the front housing of my camera fall off, but can still take photos by holding it on. The suggestion is to pull out the duct tape when we get to camp.
By lunch we reach a spot with both a view of Heart Lake and our first thermals. Good place to stop and rest. Witch Creek comes in with a number of small thermals pretty much all the way down to the lake. Factory Hill is on our right, and Mt. Sheridan looms behind it further south. We’re passed by two women college students working in the park this summer taking various scientific readings, carrying some odd equipment on their packs. We reach the lake right at a ranger patrol cabin. He comes out to check that we’re legitimate, and offers the welcome news that we’re only about ten minutes from our camp site.
We walk around the shore of Heart Lake, cross a pretty tricky log “bridge,” and reach campsite 8H6 in short order. The campsites in Yellowstone are quite different than in Glacier: here each campsite is just for one group, so we’ve got good privacy. Our tent area is well off the trail, and this is the only site with a privy. We set up, wander a bit over to the Rustic Geyser area, and then make dinner. Mt. Sheridan awaits in the morning ……….
Saturday, July 30Mt. Sheridan looms—literally—above our campsite on Heart Lake. The peak of Sheridan is almost exactly 3,000 feet above where we’re camped. We do, however, get to hike it with day packs, not the 45 pound + monsters we’re carrying every day. The guidebooks strongly suggest what we’re doing: two nights along the lake, with one day reserved for the hike up Sheridan. The view’s supposed to be worth it, and we’re hoping for a decent weather day.
The Moron Campers start off in fine form. We (somehow) had decided that the main trail ran just west of our campsite, right near the privy. So we headed out that way, which took us right back to the lake shore near the next campsite. Running into to deadfall, we ended up on the “beach,” wondering why they’d have the main trail in such condition. Nearby campers pointed out the way out, which we took and headed south in search of the Mt. Sheridan trail intersection.
Almost ¾ of a mile later we decided something didn’t feel right. I thought the Sheridan trail was closer than this, so we brought out the GPS receiver for the first “real” time. Guess what, we were almost that ¾ mile south of the Sheridan trail. We had totally misunderstood the main trail and, in fact, had come out south of the Sheridan trail when we exited the campsite area! So we backtracked …..
Finding the trailhead (kinda where it was supposed to be ….) we head up. It starts fairly gradually, then starts to get steeper. There are a fair number of switchbacks on the lower approach, but as we gain altitude it starts to get steeper. Often we can see the building at the top, but it continues to seem quite far away. By the time we’ve gained 1,800 feet, we decide to stop for something to eat. Energy would be a good thing to continue to the top. The GPS is helping keep us straight, not on the trail, but with respect to how high we’ve climbed.
We start to get concerned about the storm clouds passing to the northwest. It looks like it will pass us by, but we’re heading up to the ridgeline and would somewhat prefer not being exposed to lightning. Greg and I head up, with Rick behind. We move on up in one “burst,” without stopping much again for food, water or rest. But about halfway up the remainder, a big thunderclap shakes us up a bit. Too close to feel real good. We check out places to hunker down, but it quiets again and we decide to keep moving. We hit the ridgeline and push for the peak. Pretty exposed but it stays quiet. The ridgeline is pretty rocky and the trail is quite narrow, but we make it fine.
The building at the top turns out to be an observation post manned full-time. The guy who’s there has been doing this for 11 years! Quite a social guy. He has pet plants outside, and lightning rods are grounded in several directions. The building is maybe 16 feet square. There’s a picnic table just off the peak for the hikers that arrive; no invitation is forthcoming into his “home,” even when it starts to rain. I had remembered to bring my cell phone in the hopes that I could get a signal that far up – but then forgot to even try it from the top.
We wander around taking pictures. I ask the “ranger” if he would take a team photo of us. He agrees, but asks us a favor as well: get off the mountain soon. He’s obviously not impressed that we decided to come up with lightning in the area. We tell him of our remaining plans, and he points out the area to which we’ll be heading. It’s hard to pick out details, but he’s encouraging about our route. Mentions that wolf was sighted around the Basin Creek campsite, where we’ll be heading next.
The view is great, even with clouds around. Heart Lake is right below us, including our campsite area. Yellowstone Lake is off in the distance, and you can get a sense of how large it is. We head down after maybe 40 minutes at the peak. Within half a mile it starts to rain, then sleet and hail. Interesting. We catch up with the Asian guys we passed on the way up. One is carrying an umbrella on the trail. Again, interesting.
We go down this time in one burst, led by Rick. It turns out that he feels like crap and is just interested in getting to the bottom and rest. We reach the bottom in probably one-third the time it took us to climb the peak. Rick really doesn’t eat dinner, but crashes for about 15 hours. Greg and I have our normal dinner, but we get pushed as the rain starts as we’re almost finished. Greg crashes, and then I read for an hour or so by the lake shore.
Overall a good day. Even with the storm, we got to see what we’d hope from Sheridan. Except – it turns out that neither Rick nor I had looked directly south and missed the Tetons. Greg—who had never seen the Tetons—did see them but didn’t say anything, nor did he take a picture. He just assumed we saw them as well. Morons ……
Sunday, July 31The loons on the lake are making their very distinctive call. Rick is still sleeping in in the morning. We finally get him up but he’s still feeling pretty crappy. I’m worried about our match supply. Because of baggage restrictions, we only have about 2 match boxes each, and some are old/defective and/or have gotten somewhat wet in the rain we’ve had. I see the couple we passed yesterday, heading back on the Heart Lake trail. Since they’re going out, I figure I can safely ask them for some of their matches. They are more than willing to help, and fork over a couple of clean, full boxes. I breathe a little more easily.
We get going somewhere around 10:00 AM, heading to Basin Creek. The first half of the trek is along the western shore of Heart Lake; it’s always there on our left. I can’t keep from looking at Mt. Sheridan on our right. The trail keeps going up and down and is somewhat more challenging than we expected, especially after yesterday’s climb. The weather is good and clear, but almost hot.
We come across a rider from Idaho coming up the trail, with three other horses behind him. It turns out that he’s out with a couple of fisherman buddies. He dropped them off with their equipment at the lake, while he went riding and camping. The anglers had some type of folded-up pontoon boats that could be carried on horseback and then assembled at the lake. Kind of like Meriwether Lewis’ failed attempt with the Corps of Discovery.
As we leave Heart Lake we move into a heavily forested area. Quite different than what we’ve been in. We pass Sheridan Lake, and then come up on Basin Creek. We see the sign for the campsite but can’t figure out just where to camp—or to eat for that matter. Before the Moron Campers decide to set up the tents right on the trail, we see a faint trail leading into the brush. Guess what; about ¼ mile off the trail is a great campsite, right after the food area. We avoid embarrassment (this time). On the trail are some moose prints (we think), but no sign of the big guys in person.
Because we’ve made camp pretty early, Greg and I decide to take a day hike down to Basin Creek Lake. A nice hike (especially without any weight). Several open meadows with lots of wild flowers. The lake is nice, but there’s no good place to sit down and relax. Plus the mosquitoes are glad to make our acquaintance. We stay a little while, and head back up toward camp. At a trail intersection maybe a half mile from the campsite we run into Rick. He had decided to try and fish and then see if he could follow us. He had caught two small cutthroat, and saw the trail we headed south on, but wasn’t sure that’s where we’d headed. At any rate, he’s feeling somewhat better, which is a relief to us all.
We all take sponge baths in the creek. It’s amazing how good it can feel just to wash off, even without soap. We get some sprinkles in camp, but no deluge this time.
Monday, August 1It’s time to head to the Snake River. One of the attractions of this route was the opportunity to combine a large lake (Heart), with a big mountain (Sheridan), and one of the most famous rivers of the west. The source of the Snake is in Yellowstone and it flows from there, ultimately into the Columbia. It was once known as Lewis River, after Meriwether.
The trek today is relatively short: 5+ miles. We head out through meadows overlooking Basin Creek. We still have no luck seeing any game. Crossing Basin Creek on some deadfall I almost become deadfall myself. I don’t know what I’d do without my poles. At the intersection with the Heart Lake Trail we run into two hikers heading the other way. They’ve been up on the east side of Heart Lake and have nothing good to say either about the fishing or the deer flies. We reach the Snake itself after first being unsure if the river we crossed was the Snake or Basin Creek. Heading through the woods we run into a ptarmigan or grouse and her brood. The largest animal we’ve seen to this point!
Approaching our camp site we simply lose the trail; it effectively disappears in the meadow. Again the GPS proves its worth. I “acquire satellites” and it suggests we are walking somewhere between the river and the trail. And so we head west and voila′, we find the trail. It leads to our campsite, just off the trail. The tent sites are so-so, but the eating area is right by the river. There’s also a conveniently placed downed tree, where we can hang our laundry after washing things out in the river (ourselves included). Life is good.
We wash off and wash out, and are able to get some clothes back in decent condition. Rick tries some fishing while Greg and I pull our chairs out on the rock “beach,” where we can gaze once again at Mt. Sheridan in the background—probably 8+ miles away. Rick has no luck with the fish (see the report, above). I “hike” down the river to check out the ford we’re supposed to make in the morning. Looks too quick to me, and I suggest we ford right at the camp area and hike a short ways downstream on the other side to pick up the trail. Our camp area looks ideal for watching wildlife: overlooking the river with a gentle slope heading up on the other side. But, through dusk, alas and alack, no game ….
Tuesday, August 2I get up at 6:00 AM or so to check out the wildlife (that’s not there) and take some pictures. Soon the sky looks rather ominous and by 7:15 I check back into the tent. The rains come. Rick stirs at 8:30 or so, but the rain comes in again. We hang out in the tents far after normal breakfast time. Finally we get out (somewhere about 9:30), eat, and break camp. When the sun breaks out the day looks good and it warms up quickly. But we don’t head out until after noon.
We ford the Snake right by the camp site as planned. Good decision. We bushwhack to the trail, and it’s pretty easy. The trail heading away from the river, though, is pretty tough. Rather straight up for quite a while, mostly in a pretty dense forest. We’re back into the “hike for 5-10 minutes and then break” mode. We finally reach the crest of this part and start to head down toward the Harebell Patrol Cabin. That’s our destination for a late lunch.
Approaching the cabin we see some horses. A party of three has stopped there, heading up on another trail. We have lunch and use the cabin as a shelter in a brief rain storm. At least somewhat refreshed we head south again. Along this stretch we’ve left the Snake, but will join up with it again near our camp site for the evening. We head down to the South Boundary Trail; mostly downhill as we keep our eyes on a storm off to the east. We reach Collier Creek and an unexpected but easy ford. Then a mile or a little more, mostly through meadows, to our campsite. The food pole is very visible as we approach. I try the GPS again and it’s interesting to see that we have 300 feet, then 200, etc. before we’re supposed to reach our camp site—which is in sight!
The camp site is right on the Snake. Some great tent sites … EXCEPT for all the horse s_ _t! I am really pissed. Parties with stock are either supposed to keep them out of the tent areas or scatter all the “patties” out in the meadow. Our recent “friends” decided that wasn’t necessary. I play golf for quite a while, trying to get the stuff out of the camp sites. I’m so annoyed I keep my pack on for at least 40 minutes after we reach camp. Finally I agree that one area is satisfactory for a tent, although it’s far from as scenic as some of the contaminated ones.
Greg’s been set up for a while, but Rick and I don’t get the tent up until about 6:00 PM – right before a storm is about to hit. We dive into the tent and read and doze for a while. It’s almost 9:00 PM until it lets up enough to get out. Greg’s gone for the night, after having grabbed a quick dinner before the sky dumped. Rick and I eat late, and rather quickly, since the skies still look questionable. It's 10:00 PM before we head to bed—much later than usual.
Wednesday, August 3I wake up before my companions but don’t like what I see out of the tent: i.e. I can’t see! Fog and very low visibility. Is the rain here to stay? I haul out of the tent and start to see signs of improvement. I get Greg out to join me and breakfast is in the works. The fog slowly starts to lift and it gradually becomes a great morning. I take photos of the diminishing fog and several turn out pretty well. Rick makes his appearance and, after food, heads out to the fishing hole. Greg and I work on our tans, sunbathing in our chairs on the “beach.”
After 45 minutes or so we are ready to start breaking camp. We get maybe halfway there and still no sign of the fisherman. So I head upstream to find him or see if he has broken a leg, slipped in the rocks, etc. Maybe half a mile upstream I see him casting in the river. My bear imitation is pretty lame and he tells of his cutthroat catch as well as his interaction with the river otter. And he has pictures to prove both!
We break camp kind of late again and head along the Snake instead of on the official trail. A better walk for close to a mile before we merge back into the trail. We see where the cut-off trail comes in, but shortly we head away from the Snake for most of the day. The hike has some short ups and downs, and is the shortest mileage of any of our days. As we approach our camp site we again cross some meadows. We see a campsite we weren’t expecting, which turns out to be a stock-only site. Ours is maybe a quarter mile further down. This one is rated only “3 stars” by the trail guide, but we kind of like it. Good access to the Snake, and great access to our new friends, the marmots.
Yes, we are camping in the midst of a marmot colony. They are everywhere. Especially in the rocks near the river. Our camp site is nice, in the trees but near the river, and so is the eating area. After making friends with several of the marmots and agreeing to snap their photos while posing, we get the tents set up. Rick confirms that he’s been having problems with his camera’s memory cards and, in fact, can no longer read either of the two mega-cards he’s brought with him. We all try and research from his camera manual, but no luck. Since Greg only brought a small card with his camera, mine is now the primary camera “of record.” Pressure, especially after the duct tape rescue.
We clean up once again in the river. I love sponge baths! We note that a party on horseback has, in fact, occupied the nearby stock site. After dinner we sit out trying once again to see some animals in what appears to be a great setting: near water, some boggy areas for moose, etc. Our “neighbors” from the horse group don’t help with their loud calls as they wander around, but we figure we jinxed the area anyway. Tomorrow we head out. Look out animals, here we come …..
Thursday, August 4We get a reasonably early start on our last day on the trail. We’ve told Jack that we expect to come out sometime between noon and 1 PM, and have 5 miles to go. We break camp before 10:00 AM and take a team photo looking over the Snake. The trail takes us by the hot springs and then moves away from the Snake. And into horse dung and slop land.
This trail was not much fun. Not terribly scenic, with many areas full of mud and horse crap. A good bit of the time we walked off the official trail to avoid the stuff. We cover the 5 miles in only about two hours. Approaching the end we can hear cars and finally start to see them. We pass one last thermal area, cross one last meadow, and reach the Snake again. This ford is easier than I expected; although wider here, the river was fairly shallow and not running too fast.
Jack is waiting for us at the top of the bluff. It’s kind of strange ending the hike in sandals, but there’s no reason to change back into the boots with such a short climb remaining. Jack delivers with the promised beer – Heineken! We relax and take some celebratory photos. Jack’s had a great trip as well, and we exchange stories.
We head to the Tetons ……
It’s great seeing Greg see these incredible mountains for the first time as we come upon Jackson Lake. We make it to Colter Bay pretty quickly and grab some food before finding the tent cabins. They are as rustic as advertised. Very spartan. We pile our stuff in, and agree on bunks. (I take the top, ‘cause I don’t want Rick dropping on me in the middle of the night). Then a short trip to the showers to clean off the grime and de-DEET. Felt great!
We drive down the western road to help the Orr’s get oriented. We try Moose-Wilson Road to try and find some moose but you get the story. Not us …. We have dinner at the Dornan’s pizza place we ate at in 1998. Then continued the fruitless animal hunt in the car. But on our way to the Gros Ventre campground Rick has stayed at, we see a herd of bison. Even we can’t scare them off, although they are heading away from us up the hill. No moose around Gros Ventre, though, and we make our way back to the luxurious tent in the dusk.
The night is rather restless. Having both Orr’s in the same cabin with us may have been a mistake. A veritable symphony of snoring. Greg claims that he’s been awake since 2:00 AM. Rick and I assure him that he wasn’t; we heard too many sawed logs over that time!
Friday, August 5Breakfast at Colter Bay. Kathie is our waitress – a real trip. She points out the rest rooms in case we experience “bodily turbulence”!
The boys take the ferry across Jenny Lake while Jack decides to just wander around in the area. We take the hike up into Cascade Canyon that the Koehl’s had taken during the Great Trip. Amazingly, about ¼ mile into the trek we hear cries of “bear.” Sure enough, on probably the most crowded trail we’ll be on during the entire trip, we see a yellowish black bear grazing just off the trail. We make our way up to Inspiration Point and get a photo taken in the same vista as our 1998 Christmas card photo. I reach Elissa by cell phone as she remembers the shot.
We make our way up the trail, probably a bit further than I did in ’98. Very nice hike, although it continued to be pretty crowded. We continue to consider the possibilities of taking a week in the Tetons, with much of the hike on the Teton Crest Trail in front of us. The way out is quick, and we meet up with Jack in the parking lot.
Lunch is at Signal Mountain, where the Koehl’s camped in ’98. Great lunch, and we manage to make our way back there again. We drive up the real Signal Mountain, but are unable to find Mt. Sheridan from the peak. Another bear was sighted on the way up. After that I take the crew to visit Cunningham’s Cabin. Vestiges of the late 1800’s. Then another shower (as a “family”) and dinner back at Signal Mountain. We head to Oxbow Bend, and there is a crowd observing a moose at the bridge near Jackson Lake Lodge. At the bend there is a moose a good bit away, but we can’t get a good photo of him.
This night was better in the cabin. We all got at least some sleep…… Jack and Rick had rented blankets that helped them get more comfortable. Sleep is good ……
Saturday, August 6The day home. Breakfast for one last time at Signal Mountain. Then back to Yellowstone. Our primary objective is to show Greg some of the park he’s not been able to see on the trail. We visit West Thumb and all its thermals, which I’ve never seen. Then on to Old Faithful. We luck out and get there within 10 minutes or so of the scheduled eruption. It’s a bit late, but who cares?
Then to Firehole Lake and the Fountain Paint Pots, which I’ve seen twice before. But still quite interesting.
Out of the park back to West Yellowstone. We stop at the Alpine and drop off the gas and bear spray with Nancy. Hope someone can use it in the future. Then to the big airport. No problem this time with the weight and number of passengers. We get back to Atlanta somewhat behind schedule, and the airport is a strange zoo on a Saturday night. But we get there.
A great trip once again. Our thoughts are for Sequoia next year. Research awaits!