“Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even one grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it. They know that when a bear dies, something sacred in every living thing interconnected with that realm…also dies.”
“Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.”
Like the towers of a great castle wall or, perhaps more accurately, like sentinels guarding a secret, Edenic land, the mountain ranges of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem shelter, define, and complement the world’s oldest and, to some, its most spectacular, national park. To those who know it and love it, Yellowstone is not so much a place as it is a concept—it is a bastion of wilderness and a beautiful, sometimes frightening, reminder of all that once was pristine, bold, and untamed. The introduction to a David Muench book celebrating America’s natural beauty contains the quote “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Building on that idea, I submit that in the beginning, all America was Wyoming, and all Wyoming was Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone Ecosystem, like the Bob Marshall-Glacier National Park system to its north (see Related Items), contains true, pure wilderness. What defines pure, true wilderness can be subjective, but any real time spent deep in Yellowstone, Bob Marshall, or Glacier country is bound to change one’s impression of it and make those places the standards by which one measures real wilderness value. It is big country, the kind of place where one can reach a snowy ridgetop or peak and see nothing but more snowy ridgetops and peaks in all directions as far as his or her eye can see. It offers remoteness and solitude that give the traveler a sense of discovery, experiencing the pulse of the very heart of the wild, ancient world. It is Jack London-type country, where wolves howl and grizzly bears roam and other big game such as moose and elk range over roadless expanses of a magnitude that exists almost nowhere else in America anymore. Here I mean America as in the Lower 48 states; Yellowstone, Bob Marshall, and Glacier country are like displaced slices of the far Canadian Rockies and Alaska themselves. In fact, these areas are parts of the Y2Y concept—Yellowstone to Yukon—a continuous, interconnected corridor for the great wildlife of the Northern Rockies. The Bitterroot-Wilderness Rivers complex of Montana and Idaho, and Montana's Mission Range, are also parts of Y2Y.
Yellowstone was the last haven for the grizzly bear in the Lower 48 after they had been exterminated just about everywhere else (a few, mostly Canadian in origin, still inhabited the Glacier National Park area, too). Probably its remoteness and its special status in American culture are what made Yellowstone such a sanctuary. Today, the bears are numerous and are being delisted from the Endangered Species lists. How they will fare under new management plans remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that the recovery of grizzlies in the Yellowstone area is a major and rare wildlife success story these days, as is that of the gray wolf—too politically charged a topic for this page, though.
This page introduces the ten great mountain ranges surrounding Yellowstone—Absaroka, Beartooth, Gallatin, Gros Ventre, Madison, Salt River and Wyoming, Snake River, Teton, and Wind River—and lists the pages for those ranges as children, from which the interested can seek information about the numerous mountains SP members have added to the lists. Consider this page a base of operations for research and for visitors to SP and Yellowstone Country to see these different ranges as part of one great system. Not in ten lifetimes can one see and experience all of this country, but in just one lifetime one can see and experience enough to love it and be spiritually richer for it.
Stretching from around Livingston, Montana south into Wyoming (and making up much of eastern Yellowstone National Park), where the range broadens, rises, and changes in both character and appearance, the Absarokas may be Yellowstone Country’s greatest wilderness range. The North Absaroka Wilderness of Wyoming, for example, may be the country’s most difficult to explore by foot or horseback. The forests are thick, the streams are rumored to be so fierce that even horses can have trouble crossing them when they can cross at all, and the distances to high-country destinations tend to be almost epic—20 miles or more is not uncommon. The Crandall area of this wilderness has been the place where troublesome Yellowstone Park bears were relocated—any place serving as a relocation area for dangerous bears is unquestionably wild.
The Washakie Wilderness to the south is a little friendlier to visit, but it is still rugged and thick with bears, and approaches to the high country still tend to be long. One notable exception, however, is at the Kirwin Trailhead west of Meeteetse. A high-clearance vehicle is necessary to reach the trailhead, but the long trip is worth the rocks and the bumps. The trailhead gives access to three high passes—Bear Creek, East Fork, and Greybull, the last of which has the shortest and steepest hike but is the highest and most spectacular.
The high Absarokas are easily approachable from the Dubois area. Beautiful Brooks Lake serves as a starting point for points to high lakes and passes, and the high trailhead elevation and many meadows make hiking out there a delight. If any Wyoming Absaroka location is likely to be crowded, this is it, but compared to Grand Teton National Park, just an hour away by car, this place is empty.
The Wyoming Absarokas, volcanic in origin, are quite colorful in places and rugged throughout. In Montana, they adhere more to the “classic” idea of high mountains and seem like a different range. Although the Montana mountains are not as wild as the Wyoming ones are, they are no less beautiful. An excellent but strenuous way to meet these mountains is to hike to Pine Creek Lake, which makes a great day hike but can also serve as an overnight base camp for climbing nearby ridges as well as Black Mountain (there is an SP page for that peak).
In addition to its thriving bear population, the Absaroka Range is where gray wolves were returned to Yellowstone in 1988, making it not only one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the country but also one of the most ecologically complete.
These mountains, east-northeast of Yellowstone, cross the Montana-Wyoming border, but they mostly lie within Montana, where the core of the range is protected by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. After the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness has a greater area of alpine tundra than any other wilderness area in the United States does. Although the highest Absaroka peak, Francs Peak, is higher than Granite Peak, the highest in the Beartooths, the Beartooths are higher on average and are more classically alpine, containing several real glaciers, the most well-known of which is Grasshopper Glacier. The mountains tend not to be as rugged or sharp in profile as the Absaroka Range is, and they are not as wild, but they are still home to grizzlies and moose in abundance.
The Beartooth Highway, arguably America’s most scenic paved road, in good weather provides an unforgettable introduction to the Beartooths. Several trails leave the highway for the high country, and the whole area is a museum of alpine lakes and wildflowers. The East Rosebud Trail, near Red Lodge, is the classic route through the Beartooths, but the trail to and over Sundance Pass, closer to Beartooth Pass, is somewhat less crowded and delivers gorgeous scenery while offering numerous side trips and climbing opportunities.
Expect long approaches for most peaks. Many of the mountains sport technical routes.
These dark mountains are the lowest major ones of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, not topping 11,000’, but they are nothing to dismiss. For one thing, they are home to grizzly bears; the portion of the range that marches through northwestern Yellowstone Park, for example, is such excellent habitat for the great bears that it is a specially designated protection area accompanied by seasonal use restrictions and special considerations. That corner of Yellowstone is one of the park’s least-visited areas, and wilderness opportunities abound. The range runs from the Bozeman, Montana area (NW of Yellowstone) into northwestern Yellowstone.
A good way to access the Gallatins without too much pain is to drive south from Bozeman past Hyalite Reservoir to the trailheads for Hyalite Basin and Emerald and Heather Lakes. The Hyalite trail is a classic mountain journey—it climbs moderately steeply for about 5.5 miles to subalpine Hyalite Lake, where there are excellent views of surrounding peaks and cliffs, and passes at least five waterfalls along the way. From the lake, a moderate trail climbs about 1.5 miles to Hyalite Peak, not the highest in the range (Electric Peak in Yellowstone claims that title) but one of the highest in the area. Take trekking poles to help with the snowbank you will probably have to cross to attain the summit ridge, but an ice axe shouldn’t be necessary, at least not in the summer and early fall.
Gros Ventre Range
Wear long pants if you go hiking through the high meadows of this range; the open areas below timberline in these lightly visited mountains are an ocean of waist-high or higher wildflowers, even along the maintained trails. I learned this firsthand, but not regrettably, when I camped and explored in the Shoal Creek area back in 2002.
I like to think of the Gros Ventres, southeast of Yellowstone, as the gentler cousins of the Absarokas—a little lower and a little more rolling (though there are some technical routes out there), the Gros Ventres are, like the Absarokas, wild and remote. They see light usage compared to most of the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s other big ranges, probably because they lie between the Tetons and the Wind River Range and don’t offer easy access to their secrets. But do not miss this range. After the Absarokas, it is my favorite in the region—it offers stunning scenery, yes, but it also offers solitude and deep wilderness that the other ranges besides the Absarokas just cannot. These mountains are the very essence of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
A fine way to meet these mountains is to drive up the Granite Creek Road. This road is between Bondurant and Hoback Junction, slightly closer to the latter. The dirt road, passable to most passenger cars, leads to the commercialized Granite Hot Springs at its end but first passes through flower-filled meadows with views of high peaks and provides starts for three major trails into the wilderness. Another nice way to see the Gros Ventres is to drive out of Grand Teton National Park along the Gros Ventre Road, which becomes dirt and leads deeper and deeper into the “real” Wyoming. Just minutes from one of the world’s most famous national parks, you will be in a quiet world that seems almost forgotten.