There’s a little yellow book sold in our shop titled “Day Hiking Yellowstone” by Tom Carter. It’s simple and unassuming, the black and white photos are not high quality and the pages are just folded in half with two staples to make the binding. It was originally published in 1978 and it doesn’t look like much, but there’s an interesting story behind it.
Tom Carter graduated from high school in 1973 and left Arkansas the day after to come work out at Yellowstone for the summer. He enjoyed it so much, he worked a total of six years as a tour guide in the park, and still comes back frequently. He became a hiking aficionado and wrote this little book specifically for Yellowstone employees, to help them get out and explore more of the park’s back country. For years it was given out for free to any employee who was interested, in 1985 it was made available to the public.
Today, the Yellowstone Co-Op Employee Recreation Program manages the Yellowstone Hiking Club. There are three different levels, the first is the 100 mile club. For $10, employees get a copy of “Day Hiking Yellowstone”, a tee-shirt with the “Yellowstone 100 mile hiking club” logo on it, and a log book. The goal is to hike 100 miles in a summer season, and no – walking to and from work doesn’t count. You record your hikes in the log book, and when you get to 100 miles you turn it back in at the recreation office (most Yellowstone ‘villages’ have an employee recreation hall – the one at OF is located inside the OF Lodge, and features an indoor full size basketball court among other things). The reward for completion is another tee-shirt and a key chain. Not bad for $10.
I learned all this today as I was riding along with four of my coworkers to Mystic Falls, my first hike of the season. Normally I get a much earlier start on hiking when I arrive somewhere new, but the lack of days off while I was in training, the lack of bear spray for hiking alone, the rainy weather, and the abundance of things to see not far off the road on maintained boardwalks have all contributed to a later start.
Mystic Falls can be a 2.5 mile in and out hike, or a 3.5 mile loop. To get to it you park at Biscuit Basin on the road between Madison and Old Faithful. Heavy clouds lumber through the sky and there is rain in the forecast again today. I’m trying to remember how many days I’ve had here at Yellowstone where it hasn’t rained, I think maybe two or three. The clouds keep the temperature lower, and the hydrothermal features are shrouded in steam, lending an eerie look to the basin.
At the back of the boardwalk that circles the basin a sign points the way to Mystic Falls through a young lodgepole pine forest.
In 1988, massive wildfires swept through a good part of Yellowstone and killed off a lot of trees. You may have noticed in the pictures I’ve taken since arriving that there aren’t a lot of big trees around. The newer growth is no more than 27 years old. They’re by no means saplings, but they’re still a ways from attaining the maximum height of 160 feet that lodgepoles can grow to.
The trail is mostly gray gravel, the soil here is sandy and has a high obsidian content that makes it look dark in color. Out of the trees to the left of the trail the Little Firehole River appears, fast flowing from all of the rain we’ve been getting. It burbles merrily and when the sun breaks through the clouds, the temperature almost immediately rises. Not a bad day for hiking after all!
Elevation gain is minimal on the way up the river to the falls. We know we’re getting close when the burbling increases to a roar.
Mystic Falls cuts through harder ryolite cliffs to cascade 70 feet to the softer rock below. You can get decent pictures of it right from the trail, or go a little off trail down to the river edge for a more intimate portrait. At this point, you could turn around and follow the trail back the way you came for an easier hike back, or follow some switchbacks to the top of Madison plateau (500 feet of elevation gain). The two more casual hikers in our group turn around and go back, and I go with the other two to the top of the plateau.
It’s a neat climb. As the valley becomes visible below, numerous plumes of steam can be seen rising up into the air. They’re all hydrothermal features, more visible this time of year when the air temperature is cooler. Abruptly there is a break in the trees, and an overlook grants a magnificent view of the whole upper basin.
Yeah, this was worth the extra effort to see. Puffy clouds cast shadows on the landscape below, and sunlight glints off of the buildings at Old Faithful in the distance. Nearer, one can see the Little Firehole winding through the trees and a large barren thermal desert, Biscuit Basin where the trail started. Just on the other side of the fence to keep people from going too close to the sheer edge, a large metal medallion is set into a rock – a geological benchmark.
My two coworkers and I take in the view for a while. They’re both returners on their 4th and 5th seasons in Yellowstone, and have done this hike before. They point out which plumes of steam are what, and while we’re talking Old Faithful erupts in the distance! What a magnificent view.
Down the switchbacks on the other side we go, offering encouragement to two different groups coming up that are wondering if the view is going to be worth the effort. Back down at the trailhead we meet up with the other two members of our party. Biscuit Basin looks very different in the sunlight, and I snap a couple more pictures on our way out.
To celebrate the first hike of the season, we all go out to eat at a place in West Yellowstone called Slippery Otter Pub. I get the fish and chips which is delicious, the fact that it’s 2 pm and I haven’t had lunch yet might have something to do with it. After being dropped off back home I walk over to the employee recreation center to sign up for the 100 mile club.
3.5 miles down, 96.5 more to go! Or possibly a bit less if my two boardwalk hikes out to Morning Glory count, I’ll need some clarification on the rules. Either way, this challenge is right up my alley and I’m looking forward to getting out and doing more hiking. I have 18 more weeks in Yellowstone, so with a bit of division I calculated I’ll need to average 5.36 miles of hiking a week to reach that goal. Lets do this thing!
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