Yellowstone Gallatin Skyline Trail
The second week-long trip to Yellowstone for the Moron Hikers, following up on our trip to Heart Lake and along the Snake in 2005. This one promises to be tougher: in the high country in the northwest part of the park, visiting three mountain lakes and reaching the Sky Rim Trail on either side of Bighorn Peak.
As usual, we explored the details and agreed we could do it – even in our increasingly advanced moronic years. We’d have to be in reasonable shape, which we all agreed to work on. Come mid-August, we met at my house for the traditional bison burger meal and business meeting; the trip was on …
Wednesday, August 24
Greg made it to our house by 7:30 AM for the trip to the airport. Elissa would be our chauffeur, and we’d meet Rick at Hartsfield/Jackson. E-Concourse wasn’t very crowded on a Wednesday morning, and Rick beat us there by a few minutes. The flight to Salt Lake was OK, after we finally made our way to the runways away from the terminal. We had a lengthy layover in SLC, with an opportunity for lunch and then awaiting the word that someone would probably be bumped going to West Yellowstone. But we all made it successfully on the Brazilian prop plane. We’re on the wrong side of the plane to see the Tetons well, but a good view of West as we are banking in.
We knew we had a challenge picking up our backcountry permit, since the office would (surprisingly) be closed in Thursdays. As soon as we landed I called the Backcountry Office and reached Carole, whom I’d spoken with earlier. She helped us a lot, agreeing to start the permit process before we go there, and we’d call the ranger-on-duty when we got to “downtown” West. But, unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out how to get to West from the airport! No cabs or other alternatives awaited us. A fellow passenger said his son was picking him up, but he was yet to be found. Then the Yellowstone Road Runner van appeared, looking for a fare that had called for an airport pickup. This was the company I’d arranged for our shuttle to the entry trailhead and pick up at the end of our trip. Denise, the driver, agreed graciously to take us by our motel and to the Backcountry Office.
Carole was still there when we got to town. We watched the mandatory safety video and then Ranger Bonnie Whitman arrived. A wealth of knowledge; we’d see Bonnie twice more on our trip. Bonnie issued our permit, answered some important questions, and we were “empowered” for the trip. We stopped by Eagle’s Store for bear spray and camping gas, hit Wild West Pizza for dinner and all was well. We did most of our packing when we got back to the motel, and were about ready for the morning.
Thursday, August 25
I had called Wayne, the proprietor of Yellowstone Road Runner, last night to confirm we were in town and to set up a 9:30 pick-up time. A brief rain made us wonder about the weather report, and we hit the Running Bear Pancake House for a so-so breakfast. (Can’t anyone make good coffee?)
Wayne was there on the button and we headed out from our home-away-from-home at the Pine Shadows Motel. A generally uneventful trip to the trailhead, first along the Madison River and then up toward Mammoth. Passed one bison walking along the road and hoped it was a harbinger of mammals to come.
The trailhead kind of snuck up on us, with limited signage. As we were gathering our stuff, a former resident of the area, Jim, who had moved to Arkansas, stopped by to chat. He and Wayne were comparing notes about day hikes. Good info, but we wanted to hit the trail, now that it was after 11:00 AM. Finally, to the footpaths ….
The Glen Creek Trail starts out in generally open meadow, with periodic views of Electric Peak. An easy hike, but we’re still getting used to carrying our ~45 pounds. Near the Snow Pass junction it started to rain; didn’t want to dig out the gear this early, but we needed to. Turned out to be a fairly brief shower, and we were able to ditch the rain gear. Along the way we passed two groups on horseback. The first told us to keep an eye out for moose along the creek and, sure enough, we came upon mama and calf. We enjoyed watching them down off the trail for a while and, again, hoped this was a good sign for other large wildlife we’d see over the next week.
The trail headed in and out of trees and remained fairly easy. But the weight of the packs, as always, took some getting used to. The first day’s route was about six miles, our typical limit before getting tired. As, as we approached the end, tired we were becoming. First we passed the side trail to Cache Lake and then the spur trail to Electric Peak. We knew we were about there and the trail dropped down to the Upper Gardner River. It was just deep enough that we had to remove our boots. Our campsite was off to the right, in a nice setting with the food area overlooking the meadow. It turns out so was a tent area, but we missed that one and set up uphill from the cooking area.
We had our first experience with the “5:00 PM rains.” Bonnie had indicated they had been getting storms about that time each day and, sure enough, here ours came. Greg and Rick had stuffed down their food but I just made it through my soup before we had to head up to our tents. After less than an hour, I made my way back down to finish my dinner alone. But with my bear spray …..
Electric Peak Dayhike
Friday, August 26
The plan is to day hike up Electric Peak. I’m down to breakfast about 6:30, followed by Rick instead of Greg. The normal order of things has been broken, as Greg has been in his tent for more than 12 hours!
The sign at the spur trail indicates it is about four miles to Electric Peak, one-way. Easy trail and little weight with just the day packs. Views of the mountain come in and out along the way, and the ascent is pretty gentle for most of the way. We stir up a ptarmigan along the trail, and keep our eyes open for bears; Bonnie had suggested the slopes of Electric Peak would be a good viewing opportunity.
Finally, we really started to climb and the footing became somewhat more difficult, with increasing amounts of scree. We were perhaps more concerned about coming down than going up! We reached the knob below the final approach to the peak – and couldn’t figure out how to go from there! The trail was no longer visible and it looked like we’d need to scramble from here, totally on rocks. We made the non-moronic decision to stop there, and enjoy the views for a while. Good look down to Cache Lake and Sepulcher Mountain, as well as views to the northwest where we’d be heading next. We also had a couple of views of the Tetons in the far distance to the south.
Coming down wasn’t as difficult as we thought it might be, and the trip back to the campsite went pretty quickly. No bears – yet. At camp I took advantage of the creek/river to wash up and clean up a couple of clothes items. Started my trip notes and went for an early dinner to beat the rain. Sure enough, here it came and we headed up to the tents again. This time we had a pretty decent hail storm.
To Sportsman Lake
Saturday, August 27
We’re up and out by 9:30 AM. We face a steady uphill to Electric Divide, with a gain of 2,000 feet over approximately four miles. Most of the trail is through trees, with meadows interspersed there. Rick has awakened with a headache and hasn’t eaten much – not a good combination as he tires on the climb. At a break point he lies down for a while, and Greg and I take some of his equipment to reduce the weight.
Climbing further we break out of the trees and “enjoy” the sunshine through the meadows and rocks. Stopping just short of the final climb up to Electric Divide, we encourage Rick to eat something. He lies down again, and Greg and I head up; the climb was somewhat shorter and easier than we expected. I reached the top, dropped the pack, and wandered around and up taking photos of the view in pretty much all directions. Great vistas. Rick was still passed out down below.
Finally, we saw him stir, put on his pack, and start the climb. When he reached the top, he indicated he had actually slept some and the headache had gone away! Not that he felt great, but better. I was burning up in the open sun, and needed to start down toward Sportsman Lake. The trail was a steady decline, just the reverse of the first part of the day. Shortly we had a view of Sportsman Lake – which sure seemed pretty far away!
Most of this trail was in the shade after getting off the Divide area. Greg and I were ahead of Rick, and he indicated he went most of the way with the bear spray out of its holster, ready to use if needed. (But, no bears ……)
We were getting to be tired puppies by the time we reached the meadow fronting Sportsman Lake. Our camp site, WD3, was off to the right, near the lake, with a great view of the meadow and lake. It had been a long day, and sitting down for dinner was a reward.
To High Lake
Sunday, August 28
We were up at 6:00 and on the trail by 9:00 AM – probably our best start. The agenda was to reach High Lake tonight. We crossed the meadow and what appeared to be a recently refurbished ranger cabin. Then up the hill to the west, stopping frequently to sample some of the few berry bushes (mostly hucks) we found along the way. The climb was steady, but manageable.
After the climb, we dropped mostly down for about three miles to Upper Fan Creek, where Greg and I waited for Rick. After a break we had an easy 1.3 miles to the intersection with the High Lake Trail. At that point we were surprised (and pleased) to see we had only 3.4 miles to go. The route up to High Lake was a mix of forest and meadows, with one particularly long one shortly before reaching the lake. The climb was pretty manageable and after the last ½ mile we were at our site on the lake. Great setting once again.
To Shelf Lake
Monday, August 29
We had rain overnight, plus we all were awakened by several “yelps” from either a coyote or wolf. (Ranger Bonnie said later it could have been a wolf, so wolf it was!) It was eerie to hear the sound in the darkness, whatever it was. We had a return of moronic behavior, as we couldn’t find the trail out from High Lake, finally seeing a sign up on the ridge. There was no obvious trail! Up on the ridge the views started to be great, but then we were back in the forest, mostly dropping down to Crescent Lake. At Crescent we met three folks who had been visited by a bear at their campsite along Specimen Creek the night before. One of them had left a tea bag in a metal mug – the evidence of the mug with many tooth holes was rather sobering.
We left Crescent for an easy and quick 1.3 miles down to the intersection with Specimen Creek, and then faced the two mile climb up to Shelf Lake, with an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet. The sky was pretty threatening, so we put on our pack covers, I buried my cameras, and we started up. The rain began soon, but was generally pretty light and actually made the climb a bit more bearable (no pun intended). We’d slog a bit up, stop for a breather, and go on again. At one point we surprised the Partridge Family—didn’t know we were so threatening! The slog look less than the two hours I expected as we crested the hill just past one of the best wildflower displays we would see all week. We also saw a double rainbow near the top as the rain stopped. That was a good sign!
Then the great view of Shelf Lake. Three folks were already there at the other site, along with two horsemen and their dog who had come up from the north. Greg and I found our site along the SE corner of the lake and I went back to wait for Rick. He made it up in decent shape. Both the sleeping and cooking areas were great, with nice views of the lake through the trees. Truly a magical place. The rangers had suggested there were bears all over the area near Shelf Lake, but—no bears ….
Sky Rim Trail
Tuesday, August 30
No rain overnight, which was a good sign as we faced much of today along the ridge line of the Sky Rim Trail. It had started to get pretty cool last evening, but this morning wasn’t as cool as I expected it to be. Overall, the temps on the trip were a bit warmer than anticipated (or wanted), but frequent breezes kept things pretty comfortable.
We left Shelf Lake with a climb to the west, bringing some peaks into view – surely we’re not going there? But yes, we had sighted Bighorn Peak. We faced three up-and-down climbs before the last ascent of Bighorn. The views along this stretch are outstanding. Back to Sheep Mountain above Shelf Lake, extensive views of the Gallatins and Absarokas to the north, and views of the park to the south. Reaching Bighorn, the footing got rather iffy, especially going down to the knife edge section we had seen on the YouTube video. That wasn’t very difficult, but we were glad to have seen it; looked scarier on the video.
We made our way up to the next knob (Wireless Knob) immediately to the west, where we had seen several sign posts. A couple of posts signified the park boundary, plus the beginning of the Black Butte Trail. It was now 2:00 PM and, although the weather was still good, we were concerned about staying on the Sky Rim, and what camp site opportunities we might have. We knew there was no water along the Rim, and had stocked up at Shelf Lake (yes, water is heavy). We also knew for sure we wouldn’t reach our reserved site along the Daly Creek Trail. After a Morons business meeting I was able to reach the Backcountry Office in West on my cell. Determining that camp site WF1 along the Black Butte Trail was available, we switched our route and headed down. The views further to the west along the Sky Rim couldn’t be any better than we already had seen, and we decided to be somewhat smart for a change.
I had figured about a four mile descent to the camp site, but it turned out to be about five. Nice trail, but we were getting tired after the climbs up to Bighorn. Shortly before the site we heard voices—it was Ranger Bonnie and an associate bringing some horses back down. They had gone up with several other rangers who were going to patrol the Rim during the sheep hunt that would start just north of the park on Thursday. Bonnie told us of the latest fatality from a bear in the Hayden Valley. Sad …..
WF1 had rather crummy tent pads, but was otherwise a nice site. Good water access and a nice setting with a blend of forest and meadow views. Even had a privy, the first of the trip—I guess because it is only about two miles from 191.
Wednesday, August 31
Thunder and lightning, mostly to the north, in the early morning. This kind of cemented our decision not to have camped along the Rim—would have made for a slow start, waiting out the storm, if we had camped somewhere up there last night. Overall, I had by far my best night’s sleep. We stayed in the tents until after 8:00 AM and had a very leisurely morning. We had only somewhere between four and five miles to go out, and we weren’t scheduled to be picked up by Wayne until 4:00 PM. I enjoyed the proverbial and literal second cup of coffee ….
We had a short (2.1 mile) hike across the cut-off trail to Daly Creek, and then just 1.9 miles out. At the intersection with the Daly Creek Trail we met Ranger Tom Schwartz and his associate. They were headed up to the Rim to “show the flag” a bit for the hunt. Tom gave us an idea for another Yellowstone hike, to the Hoodoos and along the Lamar River in the northeastern part of the park. More trip planning awaits. They were aware of us and our change of plans yesterday—somewhat comforting that the ranger corps knows who’s out there.
It was bittersweet when Highway 191 and vehicles came into view. We reached the trailhead just about 3:00 and had hopes that Wayne might be early—perhaps with some brewskis. A solo hiker pulled into the parking lot and headed in—told Greg he wasn’t sure where he was going and had no visible bear spray. Real smart ….
By 4:00 we were ready for Wayne to show up. Then 4:15, 4:30, 4:45. We were getting concerned, knowing we needed to get back to West before the motel gave our room away and knowing full well we had a flight home in the morning. Without a cell signal we couldn’t try and reach Wayne and decided we needed to try and hitch a ride. Fortunately, with 15 minutes or so we got a ride with the owner of the Dairy Queen franchise in West. We were a good 25 miles north of town at that point.
Reaching town, I called home and then tried to reach Wayne, only getting his voice mail. Dinner again at the Wild West was in order, then a visit to the Dairy Queen for dessert and in thanks for our ride.
Thursday, September 1
One more visit to the Running Bear for breakfast. Then we stopped by Eagle’s Store and were able to return the bear spray that Rick had kept the packaging. We then went by the Backcountry Office to return the other bear spray and the remaining gas canisters. Both Rick and I had some left from our originals, plus the two “extras” we didn’t need. Note to selves: probably only need one extra canister next time. Ranger Bonnie was there once again and we debriefed, plus she had a bit more information about the day hiker fatality.
We got a ride to the airport from our friends at the Pine Shadows. Delta again misjudged weight or something, and one passenger had to be removed from the plane before we could leave West Yellowstone. A good view of the Tetons before we entered the clouds. We had a very short layover in Salt Lake but made it fine, and an uneventful trip home. Denise and Sonja met us at the airport, and trip west #7 was in the books.
Probably Glacier next year, but we’ll see ……