In the last week, I have added a whopping twenty miles to my hiking total for this season. For newcomers to IO, Yellowstone National Park puts on this little competition called the 100 mile Hiking Club. Employees have the summer season to hike 100 miles within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (includes the national forests and Grand Teton National Park too) before the end of September. Everyone who signs up gets a tee-shirt and hiking book, people who complete the challenge get another shirt and a keychain.
Friday, August 28
Now, where the heck is this trailhead?
Around 9 am I find myself skulking around the visitor cabins behind the Old Faithful Lodge, looking for Mallard Lake trail, which I hear starts down by the river. Tourists are rollings their belongings out of the cabins to head on down the road and I get a couple curious looks as I weave my way back and forth. Finally I ask one of the housekeepers, and he tells me it’s behind the employee gymnasium (yes, we have one of those) by the construction.
Next to a gate where construction equipment comes and goes, a little sign points to a worn track just on the outside of the fence. This is where Mallard Lake trail currently starts, it isn’t very obvious.
After crossing the Firehole, the real trail starts.
Despite the crowd already starting at Old Faithful, the trail is empty except for two overnight backpackers on their way out. A variety of terrain is crossed, from young to old forest, open meadows, and a rocky ravine where I hear pika but only catch a glimpse of one.
I’m hiking alone today and have my bear spray, but I keep a close eye on my surroundings anyway – it pays to be vigilant. I see a lot of red squirrels, a couple chipmunks and ground squirrels, and several small birds but nothing larger. That’s okay. The morning is warming up, the sun is shining, and despite the hub of activity nearby, the backcountry remains peaceful and wild.
It’s 3.6 miles to Mallard Lake, and then you need to retrace your steps, so 7.2 miles total, but it’s not a hard hike. The climb up to the lake is gradual and the footing is good, so you can focus on your surroundings instead of the trail and time goes quickly. Which is good, because this afternoon I have blog work and other chores to do. A thinning of trees in a mature forest offers a tantalizing glimpse of the lake, before long I’m there. It’s bigger than I expected!
I scan the water for my quarry…. yes, there are indeed ducks on the lake. Three of them, although I can’t tell the species from this distance.
The trek back is uneventful, although I do come across quite a few hikers heading out to the lake. I’m glad I went earlier like I did, sharing the lake with just the ducks was very relaxing. It’s nice to be able to get away without having to drive to another part of the park.
Tuesday, September 1
On the southern edge of the Old Faithful employee campground lies a trailhead for Fern Cascades. This hike has been taunting me since I arrived here, I pass it every time I head to the shower/laundry building, climbing up the side of a hill and into tantalizing wilderness. I’ve been meaning to do it since I arrived, but I wanted to save it for a day when I didn’t have enough time to do any other hike.
After getting done with work at 2:30 pm, I went home to clean. Cas is dusted, swept out, all picked up, and the waste tanks emptied. It’s around 4 in the afternoon now, too late to drive and start a hike somewhere else, but a perfect time to explore this little hike that’s right in my yard.
It’s only two miles round trip, and is a more moderate up than the Mallard Lake trail. The whole way there is through dense young lodgepole pine, but enough light reaches the ground near the cleared trail for other plants to grow. Like this tall grass that is drying out with the changing season.
Autumn has started in Yellowstone, no doubt. The high elevation here means fall color starts earlier than in other parts of Wyoming. A tiny aspen tree further along the trail makes its presence known with golden-orange foliage. Have a good winter little guy.
Fern Cascade isn’t showy like the bigger waterfalls in the park, in less fantastic surroundings it would get a lot more ooohs and aaaahs I think. The trail official ends on top of a cliff among the young pine which make it impossible to see the water roaring below. I climb slowly down the small cliff to actually see the cascade.
It’s choked with fallen trees from the ’88 fires and the late afternoon light makes for poor illumination down in this little canyon. This is one of those spots that is more impressive in person than a picture will show. The sound of running water, the light hitting the steam in the geyser basin below, the hint of a peak over the valley that Old Faithful sits in, the breeze through the pines… it’s a more down-to-earth kind of pretty.
Thursday, September 3
Today’s my most ambitious hike in Yellowstone to date. 10.8 miles, starting at the Chittenden side of Mount Washburn as I did with Jayne on July 24th. Instead of going down the switchbacks in Dunraven Pass after reaching the summit though, our group of four is taking a network of other trails down to a backcountry thermal area and then along the Yellowstone grand canyon, ending at Canyon Village.
The four of us hiking today (not people I’ve hiked with before, one is a coworker, two are interpretive rangers who work at the visitor center) meet at 6 am in a drizzle. Luckily it’s the only rain we experience firsthand all day.
You’re already familiar with the first two and a half miles of this hike, although the difference in weather changes the experience. The clouds are lingering from the rain overnight, and the sun is lower in the sky. “It feels like November does, in other parts of the country.” one of the rangers remarks into the very robust wind.
We’re all decked out in cold weather gear, but there’s no chance of my hat staying on in wind this strong. A rumble from behind makes us turn back the way we came, a truck is driving up the road! We joke about hitch hiking up to the top and wonder if it’s supplies for the ranger who mans the fire tower on the peak. It’s actually an AT&T truck, wonder if they’re thinking about putting a tower up there? The sub-alpine hills are gold where the light hits the grass, against the blue mountains in the background it’s a pretty scene.
Around a bend we catch two triangular heads with horns silhouetted against the clearing sky, bighorn sheep laying partly on the trail. We could walk off trail uphill to keep 25 yards from them, but that’d mean walking on the fragile plants that grow at this elevation which a sign also warned against. It’s decided that the lesser of two evils would be to walk single file on the far side of the wide track and keep quiet.
We discover while passing that it’s two ewes, with a lamb just a little farther down the slope. The matronly ewe who’s rump is parked on the trail keeps an eye on us as we pass, but seems unconcerned. They’re less flighty than some domestic sheep I’ve had contact with.
Once we’re a safe distance away, I turn back to get another picture, and discover it’s a whole flock! Ten or eleven other sheep are just down the hill, they were hidden when we were coming up the other way. The ram with the largest horns continues keeps a sharp eye on anything that could pose a threat to his charges, while the rest soak up the early morning sunshine.
As before, Mount Washburn offers stunning views of distant ranges. Near the top, we take a different trail that leads us over the top of two ridges.
There are a lot of lose rocks and the exposed ups and downs are made more treacherous by the continuing wind. My shoes lose their grip on the descents and I slide more times than I can count, but I keep my balance and avoid toppling over. I’ve never before wished for hiking poles, but they would have come in handy on this section of the trail.
Gnarly whitebark pine are the first trees to greet as as the path starts downward, and boy is it downwards. This trail has 1,500 feet of up, and 2,000 feet of down total. There are no switchbacks to soften the blow, I almost feel like I could tuck myself up in a little ball and roll all the way to the bottom. My calves start to hurt form the effort it takes to stop myself on each step.
The forest transitions to spruce and fir at a lower elevation. This area reminds me of the Jenny Lake hikes out in the Tetons that I enjoyed so much. The trees here are big, but still not quite as impressive as the ones to be found farther south. In small clearings, the abundant grass and plants are also starting to change colors for fall.
We find two obvious piles of bear scat on the trail and debate whether it’s black bear or grizzly bear. The conclusion is that it’s probably grizzly because of where we are in the park. The first pile has a lot of vegetable matter in it, the second pile has considerably more hair.
In a large meadow, we look back at the mountains and are surprised by how far we’ve come. The fire tower is visible on Mount Washburn, as are the two ridges we crossed after that and the dip where we started down to our current location. There are a lot of elk prints in the dried mud in the meadow but we don’t spot any in person. It’s getting on towards noon now and if there are elk here they’re probably bedded down where we can’t see them.
Not long after the meadow the smell of sulfur assails our noses. The trail spills abruptly onto a hillside devoid of vegetation, the bare ground has that curious ashen look I’ve come to associate with thermal areas. From depressions in the ground come a low rumbling noise and plumes of odorous steam rise up on the now gentler breeze. At first we think it’s a collection of impressive fumeroles, then a splash of dark gray mud reveals the mudpots for what they really are.
Our trail takes us right over a trickle of dark gray runoff, which my coworker’s thermal gun reveals to be around 100 degrees. Forget about soaking in a hot spring, this would be more like those mud spa treatments. We step over carefully and continue on our way.
Next is the first of the steams. Our guidebook says that this trail has a couple water crossings without bridges, and we’ve all brought sandals with us to ford them without getting our hiking shoes wet. What we didn’t anticipate was how little water the streams would have in them this time of year. We’re easily able to jump across, and each subsequent water crossing comes with smart comments like “Hold on, let me get my sandals on!” and “The current is too strong, reach out your hand!” and the like.
This section of the hike is punctuated by other less impressive thermal spots through a forest that has changed again to rangy lodgepole pine. We come to what I suspect is Sour Creek, and I get a picture of the green runoff, this water is about 80 degrees and has algae growing in it.
The last mudpot is lighter in color and has a lot of bubbles coming up in it. We rule out boiling hot thanks to the thermal gun, and conclude it must be CO2 gas. Next to it is a pine with four gouges running down it at about chest level. Looks like a bear did it, although it could have been a person playing around too. We have seen a couple more piles of bear scat, luckily none of it as fresh as today.
I take my turn as leader of our little party, which means I get clapping duty. Grizzlies have not been known to attack a group of four, but we always advise hikers in the backcountry to make noise periodically, especially in low visibility areas, to avoid startling any bears that may be nearby and to keep them away. That noise could be talking, clapping, or a bear bell. I decide to combine the human voice with clapping, and make up a little song that the rest of the group gets a giggle out of. It’s to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Feel free to use it anytime you’re hiking in bear country.
If you don’t want to get eaten, clap your hands <clap twice>
If you don’t want to get eaten, clap your hands <clap twice>
If you don’t want to get eaten, let your ego take the beatin’,
Don’t be shy, you don’t wanna die, so clap your hands <clap twice>
Through a gap in the trees, the grand canyon of Yellowstone opens up to the river far, far below. Across from us is Silver Cord Cascade. From this distance, it does look like a silver cord threading it’s way down from the lip of the canyon, more easily seen as a series of waterfalls through a binoculars at this drier time of year. Behind it and to the left, lightning streaks occasionally from a mass of clouds but the sky over our heads remains blue.
Not far beyond that, the trail coughs us back up onto the road, where Bertha is parked and waiting–we had vehicles at both ends. It’s now 3 pm and we left at 8 am, so we did 10.8 miles with a lot of up and down in seven hours, not bad! The drive home goes by in a blur and I fall into bed early and sleep soundly. Twenty miles in seven days. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made in endurance since I arrived in Yellowstone back in May, this kind of hike would not have been possible then. Only 8.8 miles to go!
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