“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 the least usage of all the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s 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.
Instead, go for a long day hike deep into the real wilderness or strap on a backpack and go even deeper or more thoroughly. My experience from a base camp at Jerome Rock Lakes in 2000 was unforgettable and even defining—I had more or less accidentally discovered the wonders of the off-trail summit world the year before in the Sierra Nevada, and my morning wanderings on the ridges above the highest of the Jerome Rock Lakes reinforced the previous year’s lessons and made climbing an indelible part of me, further and irrevocably cemented a few days later when I camped at and hiked from Pine Creek Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Salt River and Wyoming Ranges
These parallel ranges south of Alpine, Wyoming are the last outpost of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They are the least-known ranges as well, and although they lack grizzly bears and wolves, have no designated wilderness areas, and are not as pristine as the other ranges are, they are so lightly used compared to most of the others that they feel at least as wild. The Grey’s River Road (see the West Side route for Wyoming Peak) is the best way to see this area, and it is one of America’s most beautiful backcountry byways. It is also, for its scenery, peace and quiet, and big wildlife, America’s most satisfying, I think. Forget about the absence of grizzlies and wolves—this area feels and looks like the romantic ideal of Wyoming. Spending a night car camping out here may be one of the most pleasurable things you ever do, and there are so many mountains and so much room to roam that you may feel as if you have this mountainous world all to yourself.
Snake River Range
This range is in Idaho and Wyoming between the Tetons and the Salt River/Wyoming Ranges, and it connects those two systems. It is also called the Palisades backcountry.
Since I know very little about this range besides the fact that it is there and that I have caught some glimpses of it from roads, I cannot write about it with much real authority. Also, I have no personal photos of the area. I have, however, included the SP page for the range under this object's Children.
What I do know is that the area is very rugged and steep and lightly used, one of the most lightly used ranges in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is not as long, broad, high, or alpine as the other ranges in the system are, but it is an important link in it. It is an excellent place for those who seek solitude and adventure in a real wilderness setting.
No one could ever win the argument of what America’s most beautiful mountain range is, but the Teton Range of western Wyoming almost astraddle the Idaho line would surely garner many votes in its favor. The eastern face of the Tetons is one of the country’s most impressive sights; with almost nothing for intervening foothills, the mountains rise nearly 7000’ above the valley of Jackson Hole (and Jackson Hole is the name of the valley, not the nearby town, as many people who visit the area and sport those ridiculous JH stickers on their cars seem to think). The peaks, especially those in the Cathedral Group, sport the classic, steep, pyramid-like form that young children draw in art classes. Actually, the Grand Teton and Mount Owen are so steep that they resemble spires more than they do pyramids.
It took me many years to give the Tetons a chance. The crowds in the park, the overuse of certain images, and the pretentiousness of the Jackson area had me tired of the Tetons before I ever went into them (I could tell almost the same story about Colorado’s Maroon Bells). That finally changed in 2001 when I decided that I couldn’t keep bypassing these mountains trip after trip without seeing what they were really like, and I did day hikes to Static Peak Divide (and completed the short Class 2 ascent of Static Peak) and of the Cascade-Paintbrush Canyons loop.
The loop was my first hike, and I was pleased but not awed by the scenery through Cascade Canyon and up its north fork to Lake Solitude (where I actually found its namesake for about 15 minutes), but the climb from there to Paintbrush Divide changed everything I had thought about these mountains and smashingly surpassed my expectations of them. Subsequent years had me exploring Alaska Basin and South Fork Cascade Canyon. I doubt I will ever climb the Grand Teton although I would like to and know I can—the access issues are too troublesome just to climb an overused, albeit spectacular, mountain—but my forays into the Tetons and rocky rambles from their trails have convinced me that they truly are a world-class range.
There is no easy introduction to the high country here. If you are a strong hiker and are willing to start before dawn, try the Cascade-Paintbrush loop to find unforgettable scenery. This loop is almost 23 miles and requires over 4000’ of elevation gain, and since weather can turn very bad very quickly in the Tetons, I emphasize that advice to start before dawn. Doing so will also almost certainly ensure a quiet hike for at least half of the way. And if you apply for and receive a camping permit early enough and can live with not climbing one of the crowded signature peaks of the range, backpack in and take on any of the numerous walls and towers that offer challenge, solitude, and unrivaled views of the grand peaks in this area.
Wind River Range
If the Absarokas are the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s greatest wilderness range, the Winds are its greatest alpine range. The Tetons may get most of the attention because of their marvelous profile and for their location in one famous national park and proximity to a nearby, even more famous one, but the Winds are higher, wilder, longer, wider, and more remote. There are very crowded areas, two in particular, but there are many more areas that see relatively little use yet still feature million-dollar scenery. The mountains range from massive rubble piles to clean granite spires and towers that attract climbers from all over the world. The Winds also hold the southernmost real glaciers in the U.S., and many of them dwarf those of the Beartooths and Glacier National Park farther north. And now that grizzlies have definitely returned to the Wind River Range, these mountains truly deserve their inclusion in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Winds stretch from Union Pass, where they meet the Absaroka Range, to South Pass, where they meet the spectacular and vast Great Divide Basin, a desert wilderness of badlands, buttes, sand dunes, and wild rock formations, and the Continental Divide comprises the Winds’ spine. Three federally designated wilderness areas—Bridger, Fitzpatrick, and Popo Agie—protect much of these mountains, and the Wind River Roadless Area, controlled by Native Americans, includes much of the rest of the range. The Bridger is the largest wilderness area and lies entirely west of the Divide; it is also the easiest to access and offers a long but vertically painless approach to the crest of the range (from Elkhart Park near Pinedale). The Fitzpatrick and Popo Agie are east of the Divide. The Fitzpatrick covers the northeastern portion of the range and boasts the Glacier Trail, which leads over 20 miles to the Dinwoody Glacier against the Great Divide and which some people use to access Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest mountain, and other high peaks in its vicinity. The Popo Agie, covering much of the southeastern Winds, features long approaches to wonderlands of lakes, meadows, and, of course, mountains. There is no short and easy access to the crest of the range except for the trail from very popular Big Sandy; that trail reaches the Divide and the Cirque of the Towers in about 7.5 easy-to-moderately strenuous miles.
The two headline-grabbing areas are Titcomb Basin in the Bridger Wilderness and the aforementioned Cirque of the Towers in the Popo Agie. For wilderness areas that require significant effort to reach, these places attract massive crowds. I have read about there being dozens of camps in Titcomb Basin at times. For me, no thank you. Such crowds ruin my wilderness experience and make climbing more dangerous for all out there, but if you absolutely must climb in these spectacular settings, you will find ample information about them here on SP. For an intimate experience with the Winds that involves deep wilderness and exciting hiking and climbing, my advice is to take the Bear’s Ears Trail from Dickinson Park to the South Fork Little Wind River in the Popo Agie and make camp there—this is an approach of about 13 miles. From there, you can hike over Washakie and Hailey Passes (both on the Divide), climb Mount Washakie or Bernard Peak (Class 3 and 2, respectively) from the former and Pyramid Peak (Class 3) from the latter, find and hike the scant trail to beautiful Baptiste Lake beneath Mount Hooker (great wall here) and the Continental Divide on the edge of the Wind River Roadless Area, explore off-trail to windswept South Fork Lakes, or try any of the many lesser, sometimes-unnamed peaks all around. Unfortunately, access to this trail has become an issue in recent years, but you can also reach the area via busy Big Sandy.
The Winds, unfortunately, are under pressure. Overuse impacts some areas, the killing effects of acid rain still linger in some of the highest, most remote lakes, and climate change, whatever the actual cause is, is melting the glaciers. Since the political will to do something about that last problem is almost nonexistent at the levels where such a will could make a real impact, it is advisable to go to the Winds and other places like them before they change irrevocably. Some projections have these changes occurring during many of our lifetimes. You can do your little part by proactively practicing sound conservation habits and setting that example for others without turning them off by beating them over their heads with it. Every little bit helps.
Getting ThereThe region is so vast that this section could be either amazingly simple or impossible to complete. I will take the simple way—get out a map, find Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming’s northwest corner, and plan from there—and then modify the section to identify major gateway communities.
The communities, in roughly clockwise order from the north, are as follows:
Livingston and Gardiner, Montana
Red Lodge, Montana
Cooke City, Montana
West Yellowstone, Montana
Some of these towns are touristy, tacky, pretentious, or all three. I won’t pass negative judgment on them here lest I offend respectable residents or lovers of these places. My favorite, though, is Dubois because it is quiet and small and set very close to major access points for the northern Winds and the southern Absarokas. It is also only about an hour’s drive from the Tetons. Dubois does, unfortunately, suffer a bit from the blight of summer trophy homes, but it is not nearly as bad as in many other scenic Western communities, and the town still has a measure of old-time, down-to-earth charm. You may meet real cowboys in town, not vacationing professionals wearing Stetsons.
Red TapeIt would be an enormous undertaking to list here all the special regulations for an area that includes two national parks, at least ten wilderness areas, and five national forests. Check with the pertinent local agencies. If you plan to pass through Yellowstone Park, plan on paying the $25 entrance fee. There are currently no permit or quota systems for usage of the wilderness areas, but many of them have restrictions or bans on campfires. Backpacking in the national parks requires a permit that can and should be reserved well in advance. Grand Teton, for example, allows summer permit requests beginning January 1 of the same calendar year. Reserve early, as in the first two weeks of the open period, or forget about any chance of getting a permit for the most popular areas.
Remember that you are in bear country. Pepper spray is a good idea; proper food storage is even better. Bear-proof canisters, although bulky, are excellent to help protect you and the bears from untimely demises. Know how to behave when encountering a bear, and don’t underestimate black bears—they are more numerous than grizzlies are, more curious about and less afraid of people than grizzlies are, and, although they are smaller and less-celebrated than grizzlies are, they are still much larger, stronger, and faster than you are. In grizzly country, the worst bear problems often involve the “cute” black bears, not the often-maligned grizzly. People tend to forget that.
And be careful of the moose. They look slow and gentle, but I've seen them crash through brush with astonishing speed, and they are enormously powerful creatures. I've had local residents tell me that they fear a moose cow with her calf more than they fear any grizzly. And no one in his right mind wants to get within charging distance of a bull moose during rutting season. Moose have killed people, too; it's not just the big predators that can do that.
CampingBackpacking opportunities are limitless. Forest Service campgrounds are abundant. Park Service campgrounds are popular and fill early; sites at some can be reserved. For a more enjoyable experience in almost every respect, camp in a national forest or go backpacking and avoid the crowded, noisy campgrounds in the national parks—bear problems are also more prevalent at national park campgrounds than they are elsewhere, not because the Park Service fails to do its job but because so many people visiting national parks think they’re more like amusement parks and act accordingly.
Related AreasSome maps and guidebooks include places such as the Bridger Mountains, north of Bozeman; the Crazy Mountains, northeast of Bozeman; Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, west of Yellowstone in Montana’s Centennial Valley; and even Utah’s Bear River Range as parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for their geologic similarities and connection to its wildlife corridors. I do not have the definitive answer to the question of which, if any, of these places belong, but they are worthy destinations themselves.
Books, Maps, etc.Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone by Thomas Turiano may be the definitive climbing guide to the area, much like the Edwards guide for Glacier and the Roach guides for Colorado.
Falcon Publishing offers several excellent hiking guides for the following areas: Wyoming in general, Yellowstone Park, Grand Teton National Park, the Wind River Range, the Beartooths, and the Teton and Washakie Wilderness Areas. They may publish other area-specific guides, but I know these definitely exist.
Earthwalk Press makes excellent topographic maps for the Tetons and the Winds. There is also one for Yellowstone itself, but that map is not as good for backcountry travel as it is for general research and trip planning.