[typography font=”Copse” size=”24″ size_format=”px” color=”#8c0510″]Yellowstone, of all the National Parks, is the wildest and most universal in its appeal. Daily new, always strange, ever full of change, it is Nature’s wonder park. It is the
most human and the most popular of all the parks.
– Susan Rugh, Family Vacation[/typography]
Yellowstone is (arguably, of course) the crown jewel of the National Park Service. You’ll find it on lists of best, most memorable, most iconic, and most scenic destinations and hikes. It was established in 1872 as the first national park in the United States — before its home states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho were even states.
Yellowstone has always been on our list.
And boarding a plane bound for the Mountain Time Zone is one of my favorite things in life. So Yellowstone it was for our annual couples retreat into the wilderness. 2 million acres of fresh air, here we come.
With a quick connection through Denver, we landed in Bozeman, Montana and enjoyed a cab ride every bit as friendly as the Montana we met last summer outside Glacier. The sun was shining in the Big Sky as we made our way to meet the rest of our group for a pre-hike meeting at a nearby hotel. Our group was on the large side with eight total: Jeff and me, a family of four from London, England — Matt, Lucinda, Florence, and Cecily, and two guides — Louie and Thad. We discussed itinerary, weather, gear, and expectations before heading back to our rooms for one last night with the cool side of the pillow and a hot shower — before four days in the woods.
Wake up call was early to get loaded and on the road at 6am. We had a 4-hour drive ahead of us, including a mid-trip stop in West Yellowstone to retrieve backcountry permits. We snoozed a bit in the van, but enjoyed incredible scenery on our drive. And as we approached the park, traffic at the gate was thick enough that Jeff and I jumped out for this photo and jumped back in before the van even moved. Such is reality at one of the most popular parks during its most popular time of year!
By 11am, we were at the Heart Lake Trailhead and eager to get on the trail. But first, final packing, group gear-distributing, pack-adjusting, and — of course — photo-taking. It’s always a bit of an icebreaker on that first day — to gently break it to people we just met that they’ll likely wind up on the internet. Hi, guys!
We were hiking by 11:20, and headed toward Heart Lake. We would be in the southern part of the park all week, starting at the Heart Lake Trailhead and eventually meeting our shuttle driver at the South Entrance. The park is massive and contains over 1000 miles of hiking trails. In reality, we would see just a fraction of it, but we would see it from off the well-traveled, tourist-crowded roads and well into the backcountry.
Almost immediately, we were hiking through a burn area from the 1988 fires — the largest forest fires in the history of Yellowstone. 27 years have passed — and the contrast of visible damage and regrowth was incredible.
We got our first true taste of Yellowstone as we stopped for lunch on the trail. After dropping our packs and taking in the view, we found a moss-covered, soft-looking spot to sit while Louie and Thad assembled chicken wraps for the group. Admittedly, being able to rest and take it all in — while someone else fixes food and cleans it all up — is one of our favorite things about guided hikes. We’ve had fantastic experiences with guides over the years, and Louie and Thad were no different. They were pros, and great cooks.
As we ate, Louie and Thad explained that the chalky, white soil in the area was a sign of underlying geothermal activity, and the heat we assumed was a result of the sun warming the rocks — was coming from underneath! At one point, the rock we were sitting on got so uncomfortably hot we had to get up and walk around. Which is when we discovered this — about 30 feet from where our group pulled off the trail.
Yes, that’s BOILING water and STEAM — coming right out of the earth we were sitting on!
A quick picture against the backdrop of lake, mountains, Continental Divide, and boiling earth and we were back on the trail. The bugs were minimal, the scenery was incredible, and the terrain is overall flat at Yellowstone — it’s a giant plateau. Fantastic hiking. Per usual, Jeff was out front of our group most of the week. He knows to look for bear signs, and he’s still within safe distance of the rest of us — and he gets to move at his pace. I, on the other hand, am typically bringing up the rear with my shorter stride and tendency to stop and take photos.
After five hours on the trail, we made it to camp for the night and waded from our rocky stretch of beach into Heart Lake for a makeshift ice bath for our feet and legs.
Short and sweet, and we fell asleep to rainfall on our tent. G’night, Yellowstone!
Day 1 – 9 miles hiking
I genuinely love waking up in a tent in the woods. No alarm but the sunshine, nowhere to be but here. Overnight rain meant a soggy morning, but we were up and at ’em and excited about an “off” day — no packs! We would be at camp 8H4 two nights so no breaking camp, but we had a big day ahead of us — a summit of Mt. Sheridan. We were on the trail by 9:15.
Camp to summit was 4 miles — and an elevation gain of 3000ft. As Louie talked us through it over breakfast, he admitted, “that’s steep, you guys. And that’s coming from a Canyon boy.” When a Grand Canyon guide tells you something is steep… yikes.
It took us 4 hours to the top. The air is dry and thin out there, and we took our time. The below shot is of the final ridgeline to the summit — where you see the fire-lookout hut.
The summit was windy and chilly enough for an extra layer, and we enjoyed lunch before heading back down to camp. As we’ve learned many times – the summit is only halfway. The steep trail that took us 4 hours on the way up, took only 2 hours on the way down. Dropping elevation and trying not to shock our knees — we made it back to camp about 4:15. Just in time for another ice bath in the lake and a quick nap.
It may seem ridiculous, but I don’t mind when we have bad weather on our trips. Sure, I wouldn’t love it if we had pouring rain for four solid days, but I find myself more and more comfortable when the sky isn’t picture-perfect. It just reinforces being at the mercy of nature — and that sense of wild and unpredictability is precisely why we’re out there at all. You can plan and prepare — but nature is in charge.
So after the sky cleared just long enough for Thad and Louie to feel confident taking down the rain fly — only to put it right back up when rain rolled in — I smiled.
We were briefly bummed that the rain might dampen our post-dinner plans for a tour of a nearby geothermal area and geyser basin — but the cold rain lasted only as long as dinner, and the sky cleared just in time for our evening adventure.
I struggled for words at the time, and I struggle for words even now — these photos truly capture only a fraction of the otherworldly magic that we were able to see so close. In the backcountry, there are no fences and guardrails. We were up close and personal.
Yellowstone – the whole place – belongs on another planet. Walking through this area was unlike anything I’ve ever done.
The different colors within the springs correspond to the microorganisms able to live at different temperatures — and approximate temperature of these pools can be determined by the color of the water. This one, for example, was alluring enough to attract a thirsty, curious elk — but hot enough to kill it when it (likely) misjudged the uneven ground surrounding the pool, and fell victim to water upwards of 180 degrees.
As we gingerly stepped through the area, mindful of the crusty, white, telltale travertine — we saw an erupting geyser from a distance. Louie checked his watch and let us know we had about 20 minutes to get over there if we wanted to see its next eruption a little closer.
The eight of us just kept repeating, “WOW.” It was an evening stroll I’ll never forget.
Day 2 – 6 miles hiking, 3000ft of elevation, and one personal geyser show
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