Friday, July 24
Today starts at the end.
Well, let me refine that. The end of the hike.
Jayne and I are doing Mount Washburn today, a famous Yellowstone hike that typically starts at Dunraven Pass, about five miles north of Canyon Village Junction at 8,859 feet. From the parking lot at the top of the pass, you can climb 1,384 feet over three miles up several switchbacks to the top of the mountain.
Less talked about is the equally long route up from the Chittenden parking lot farther north on the same road. And for those with two vehicles, you can go up one side and down the other, which is what Jayne and I choose to do. We meet at Dunraven pass, leave her car, and then take Bertha up the small gravel washboard road to start at Chittenden.
This little road is only open once the snow has all melted and is also closed if there has been heavy rainfall so if you’re planning to “thru-hike” Mount Washburn, you’d best check with the rangers to see if it’s open before arriving.
The more northerly face of the mountain is pretty exposed, the sub-alpine tundra grasses are short and hardy and when we start at 8:30 in the morning the strong winds have a sharp bite to them. Luckily the physical exertion of climbing combined with a wind breaker are plenty enough to keep me warm, hiking guide books say to bring extra clothes with because the top is usually colder.
The top of Mount Washburn has a fire tower on it which is visible for miles around, that’s our goal.
I’m guessing there was a fire up here, more recently than the big fires of 1988. The road passes through a swath of skeletal trees (visible in the previous photo too) and no young ones are visible poking up through the ground yet.
Notice the trail is more of a road than the typical hiking path. This route was completed in 1905 by Captain Hiram Chittenden for use by stagecoaches, and later automobiles, to reach the top of the mountain. In the early 1920’s, model-T Fords could be seen backing up the road to the summit. Yes, they had to go in reverse the whole way. That’s because early cars had no fuel pumps, and the gas tank was located underneath the seat. Too steep of an incline, and the gas couldn’t reach the engine! No thanks, I’d rather walk.
The peak flower season has now passed. There are still spots of color dotting the hillsides, but it’s no longer a rainbow carpet like it was a couple weeks ago.
While I don’t seem to suffer from elevation sickness the way some people do, I can definitely feel the difference hiking at high elevation like this. I start the hike with a slightly light-headed feeling that luckily fades after the first mile or so, drinking plenty of water I’ve heard helps. The shortness of breath sticks around the whole climb, but is manageable. When I first got to Yellowstone any hike would leave me short of breath, even flat ones. The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve acclimated and the better it’s gotten. I suppose if I hiked over 9,000 feet on a regular basis it would become normal.
Finally the tower appears around a bend, almost there! Despite the effort required to get up here, it seems to go by amazingly fast because the whole way up is a feast for the eyes. It would be hard to frame a picture that wasn’t scenic.
It’s hard to put into words how breathtaking the view from the top is. 360 degree views, and the fire tower has an enclosed viewing platform complete with scope and bathrooms. Score.
Four bighorn sheep ewes rest on the top of the hill nearby. By training the scope on them and then holding my phone up to the viewfinder, I can take a picture of them.
Towards the south, the view of the trail down to Dunraven follows a narrow ridge, behind it is the grand canyon of Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and Yellowstone Lake far in the distance. It’s hazy today, but still impressive.
Someone lives in this tower! An NPS employee is walking around the top of the grounds, answering visitor questions in addition to his main duty of watching for fires. His residence is one room with glass walls on the top of the tower. Now that must be a pretty cool job, although I bet there are drawbacks that don’t immediately come to mind.
The way back down follows a ridge, and every now an then the road through Dunraven pass is visible. The weather has become what I think of as ideal for mountain vistas: fluffy clouds cast patchy shadows on the landscape and add dimension to the photos. We picked a good day.
Behind us, the fire tower shrinks from view. Part of the road down is barricaded off because it’s eroding away.
This southern slope is much more protected than the other side, the wind is less strong. Whitebark pine dominated the summit, but as we get lower more spruce and fir take over where the soil is deeper and richer.
Wildlife on this hike has included numerous ground squirrels, one chipmunk, one marmot, plenty of sparrows… and now a second herd of bighorn sheep. We hear them before we see them, bleating through the trees below us. I catch a glimpse of a white sheep butt disappearing over the switchback below us, and then spot four or five young ones further beyond making their way down a rocky precipice – that’s where the noise is coming from. You can’t really see them in this picture, but it’s still a nice picture anyway I think.
At the bottom of the switchbacks, I turn around and see how far down we’ve come. We were on the top of that nub not long ago. Interestingly enough, despite the warming temperature and milder winds, it’s still colder going down than it was coming up, because gravity is doing the work instead of me.
Our 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms is looking like an accurate forecast. The clouds get thicker as we descend. Through a break in the trees a beam of sunlight illuminates the canyon cutting through the rock to the south.
Around another bend, the road through Dunraven pass comes into view. We’ve made it back to the end!
Total, Mount Washburn is 6 miles, 1,400 feet of climb (coming from Chittenden), and took us about five hours. Not a bad day at all.
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