My boyfriend, Jake, and I decided that this year we wanted to go to Yellowstone to see the sights but also do some backcountry hikes, because I mean, why not, right? I try to always face my fears and not be held back by what could happen, because that is no way to live life. Yeah, that is sure great in theory but when push comes to shove…I don’t want to get eaten by a bear! So, we decided to “wing it” on this trip and just fly by the seat of our pants. There was just too much to see and do to try and plan it all out. Thank God we didn’t plan everything otherwise it would have been super stressful.
We started our trip by leaving the Black Hills on Thursday evening, July 28th. We drove through Billings, MT instead of through Cody, WY because my dad said getting through the Big Horn Mountains at night would be really dangerous with all the animals along the road and of course the curviness of the road. He was very much right BUT there were a ton and I mean a TON of deer on the side of the road as we drove to Billings. There were quite a few trophy bucks which were pretty cool to see! Sure glad we didn’t hit any! We didn’t get to Billings until about 1:30am and at that point, as we stopped at the only gas station that was available after our 5 hour drive and wasn’t sketchy, we debated if we should just power through to Red Lodge, MT. My boyfriend, who is a very manly man, and of course would never stop to ask for directions and tries to push the limits for all he does, said we should just drive that last hour so we are at a good resting stop to finish the last leg of our journey.
Pulling into the trailhead of the national forest just outside of Red Lodge at 3:00am, we decided to sleep in the back of his ’05 Ford Escape because I saw a baby black bear about a ½ mile from the trailhead. Once we parked, we moved all our gear from the back into the front two seats and piled it high. We then set out our sleeping pads and bags and were ready to get some shut eye before we conquered the Beartooth Mountain Pass. Luckily we like to snuggle because holy buckets that is a bit tight for leg room and I am only 5’5”! Jake is such a good sport though and when I said we like to snuggle, I of course mean I like to snuggle! He was definitely ready to stretch his legs in the morning!
Friday morning, day two of our adventure began with a full body stretch as we got out of the very cramped SUV! We could see the gorgeous Beartooth Mountains all around us and we were super pumped to start the next leg of our journey! We drove into Red Lodge, MT for a yummy breakfast at Red Lodge Café & Lounge, the local diner, and took a look around town. I would suggest checking out this adorable candy store called Montana Candy Emporium that has barrels of candy that you can buy by the pound! The other must stop is the outdoor store called Rocky Mountain Market. They have a great selection of gear and accessories to buy that you might have forgotten for your trip. AND they have pasties! I learned from the owner that the mining villages used to always have pasties while they worked in the mine! It reminded me of our trip from last fall to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan! The Yopper!!
We left Red Lodge with the anticipation of the drive on the Beartooth Highway but nothing could have prepared us for the beauty that we saw! That place is by far the most awe inspiring I’ve seen in my life to date! Between the massive mountains to the crystal clear lakes and peaceful valleys, it is completely indescribable. Jake and I kept on saying that pictures just can’t do it justice. If you are looking for a place to go on your next outdoor adventure I highly recommend checking out this region!
As we made our way out of the Beartooth Mountains we didn’t have too much farther to go until we entered Yellowstone National Park! I was super, duper excited and was really hoping to start the vacation off right by seeing some wildlife. Well, the park didn’t let us down. We didn’t get too far in before we saw hundreds of buffalo and little babies too, they were just too cute! We saw a couple rough-housing and they were kicking up dust, adorable! As we went further on we saw an osprey nest. They were too far away, even with binoculars to really see them. But it was still pretty cool!
We had hoped to get our backcountry permits on Friday but by the time we got to the ranger station they were closed. Thus we had another adventure in the vehicle. We found this trailhead off the beaten path of the main road. We had quite the ingenious idea to put up mosquito netting on the open windows so we could get some air but not the bugs! It worked like a charm! We woke up to the sound of a couple young backpackers coming in from the trail. We asked how the hike was and they said they came across a bear while hiking to their campsite the night before. The guy thought it was a grizzly and they both looked pretty freaked out. Also at that trailhead there was a posting for a missing 23 year old boy who had been out backpacking by himself. Stuff like that really puts things into perspective, that we can be easily taken out by so many things. The vastness of the wilderness and ruggedness of it all is pretty intimidating.
So our Saturday started with being very thankful that we slept in the vehicle! We decided to head to the town of Mammoth Springs first off so we could get our backcountry permits all set and ready to go for the next two nights. We decided to have a couple nice smaller trips into the backcountry rather than doing a 10 or 15 mile loop. It was really for my peace of mind if anything did happen with the bears or other animals that we were only about 3 miles from the vehicle rather than 10! We picked two great spots and then headed out to enjoy Mammoth Hot Springs. The springs themselves were pretty cool but my favorite part of the whole trip was enjoying a swimming hole where the Boiling River and Grainer River met, Boiling River Trail. To get there from the trailhead it’s only about a half mile and oh let me tell you it is SO worth it! Like hottub water! And after not having showered for a couple days it felt great to get some of the grime off. Though they don’t allow any soap, even if it’s biodegradable, so that wasn’t ideal for the hair situation.
After that we enjoyed a nice lunch and got our gear ready to start our hike at the Lava Creek Trailhead. We started out on a clear trail but then as we continued on, the book we had said to go one way which we ended up finding out was the wrong way. We had about a ½ mile detour and realized that the book had us entering at a different trailhead. Also, there were quite a few wide, well worn trails which made it confusing about which way to go. Our detour was pretty cool though because it took us through neck high sage bushes where we saw a handful of elk about 20 yards away. I was surprised to see how small the elk where in Yellowstone. The ones I saw when I was elk hunting in New Mexico were huge.
I was pretty nervous about our first hike in the backcountry and made sure we made lots of noise between the bells and having music playing as we were walking. The wind was so strong that the noise didn’t carry very far so I would yell out every now and then “hey bear.” It was so very remote where we were and it is super intimidating going into the backcountry where you only have yourself and your hiking buddy for rescue if anything happens. We played it pretty safe so we didn’t have any issues. Each of us also carried bear spray so that was nice too in case something did happen that we had a way to defend ourselves. There is that joke people always make about grizzly bear poop smelling like pepper spray and having bells in it…essentially the joke is the bells and spray don’t really do much if a bear really wants to get you. Well, it’s true…which isn’t really the thing you want to hear before you go into bear country! But we at least took every precaution we could and luckily didn’t come across a crazed bear!
We made it to our campsite at a reasonable hour and enjoyed checking the site out and seeing the serene creek running through the area. It was quite a relaxing spot and we picked a great space to set up our tent. We enjoyed a cold dinner of granola bars and tuna packs because I was scared to cook anything in case it attracted any bears! It was actually pretty funny looking back because I made Jake keep on talking loudly to me as I went to the bathroom or to wash my hands in the creek. They had a bear pole set up that hung between two trees where we could string up our packs. Those bear poles are pretty nifty; it’s so easy to spring up your food when it’s all ready to go. I’ve never experienced that before. Normally I have to figure out a good spot and then either set up a rope and whatnot and it always seems to take forever, so this was great!
We were in the tent relatively early so I ended up reading for a good bit before falling asleep at dusk. I woke up periodically to listen if there were any animals nearby and about two in the morning I heard something and woke Jake up. We learned later that morning that it was elk after we saw about three different herds of them during our hike back to the car. We awoke to another beautiful day that was already starting to get warm. We packed up pretty quickly and headed out. It was a treat to not have the wind blowing and we were able to enjoy the quiet of the wilderness. We essentially followed the creek back for a couple miles and because of that we saw a ton of elk. It was really fun seeing them in their natural state, just hanging out. The babies were cute too! Unfortunately we didn’t see any big bulls, just some young ones.
We crossed this narrow metal suspension bridge and headed back to the car. We figured as we were cresting the ridge of the last hill that we would figure out where we went wrong with the trail during our hike in. But nope, we still took the wrong trail back. It wasn’t a big deal since it was just a big hill and we knew which direction the car was in. It was more annoying because I hate getting messed up with trails.
By the time we made it back to the car it was already hot out so we were happy to drink lots of water and change into shorts. We headed back into the town of Mammoth Springs for a quick breakfast and we were excited to hit the road and head to the town of Old Faithful.
I can’t even begin to express how cool the drive was from Mammoth Springs to Old Faithful! We saw such diversity in the landscape between geysers, springs, lakes, waterfalls and completely burnt forests, it was amazing to see so much in a relatively short distance of 50 miles. We made it to the town of Old Faithful just in time to see the geyser erupt. It was super cool and we were thrilled we didn’t have to wait around a long time to enjoy seeing the eruption! Afterwards, we headed to the backcountry office to get the down low of our next hike to Shoshone Lake. We were happy to hear they had seen no bears in the area since it is a pretty popular trail!
We had to stop at the post office to mail another postcard to ourselves so we can remember that leg of our trip. We had also mailed one during our time at Mammoth Springs. We then had to stop for some ice cream and I was so hoping to enjoy the huckleberry but they didn’t have it. It was sad news bears. I didn’t even get any huckleberry ice cream the whole trip because no other store had it that we went to except Mammoth and they weren’t open yet when we were ready to have some. I will have to get some the next time I am there!
As we were driving to the trailhead of Shoshone Lake I was complaining a bit because my feet where just aching. I am not used to hiking for hours a day. But I powered through and we hiked the three miles to our campsite. The lake was just beautiful but it was another very gusty evening and the lake had whitecaps on it. We made camp, ate a quick meal and hit the hay.
I then thought it would be a good idea to read, in detail, the instructions that came with the bear spray to learn more about how to be safe while in bear country. So, we are laying in the tent together as I am reading this manual in the dark and the manual starts to get pretty detailed about different types of bear encounters you can experience while in the backcountry. For example, what to do if you encounter a bear on the trail, a mother and a cub, if you surprise a bear, if one is in your camp, etc. The manual describes what to do in these different situations and how to best handle yourself. The last section then goes on to say what to do if a bear attacks you while in your tent. It pretty much says that you are screwed and to fight with everything you have. Supposedly if a bear attacks you in that situation it is pretty much crazy and you have to do anything you can to survive. So yeah, that was great to read before bed!
Due to exhaustion from not getting much sleep over the last three nights, we both slept like logs and felt pretty refreshed by the next morning. We hiked out bright and early and actually saw people on the trail for the first time during our backcountry adventures. We made it back to the trailhead and immediately took off our shoes and slipped into something more roomy than our hiking shoes. I had to massage my feet since they were so sore to get some blood moving. Wow, did that make a huge difference. I was moaning in pleasure from the pain subsiding while I was massaging them and Jake was making fun of me. But I don’t care, it felt amazing!!
Monday was turning out to be another great day! We stopped at a picnic area to enjoy our breakfast and saw some elk out on a peninsula of Yellowstone Lake. We also saw a couple of trumpeter swans while we were driving which was super cool! Deciding to stop at the small town of Fishing Bridge was a great decision because they had a museum there of a ton of animals that are in Yellowstone Park. It was so interesting to see the detail of the birds that were stuffed rather than just a picture. The general store there was pretty great too. I thought they had the best t-shirts out of all the stores we went to in the park.
The drive out of Fishing Bridge was just beautiful. Yellowstone Lake is so huge! There were a ton of burned trees from the fires in ’03 so that was really interesting to see the super tall burned trees next to the new growth. As we were coming around a curve in the road we saw that all of these people were stopped. After looking around we saw a baby grizzly and the mom! That was a treat because I had really wanted to see a grizzly bear before we left and we did about 15 miles from the east exit! The drive out of the park was very cool because you go through these huge mountain passes.
Other than that the rest of our trip was uneventful. We did some sightseeing in Cody, WY and took the back roads to Buffalo which was cool to see all the small towns! We were happy to make it home safe and sound after five days fulfilling one of the items on our bucket list! I couldn’t have asked for a better guy to spend my vacation with!
Be sure to check out more of Amy’s incredible photography and travels on her blog (https://adventuringwomanintheblackhillsblog.wordpress.com/) or click here!