Twenty Miles

New forest arising from the ashes of the old. Those dead trees were victims of the '88 fires.

Nature’s renewal on the trail to Mallard Lake

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.

The Firehole River

The Firehole River

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.

A little tree growing atop a boulder in the ravine

A little tree growing atop a boulder in the ravine

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!

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

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.

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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.

Took this on May 13th, two days after arriving

Took this on May 13th, two days after arriving

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.

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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.

The cliff down to the water is also showing a little color

The cliff down to the water is also showing a little color

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.

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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.

A moody morning on Mount Washburn

A moody morning on Mount Washburn

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.

Loved the lighting in this one, that illuminated summit on the right is Electric Peak

Loved the lighting in this one, that illuminated summit on the right is Electric Peak

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.

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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.

Hello ladies, don't mind us...

Hello ladies, don’t mind us…

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.

Don't mind the snow pole

Silly snow pole ruining my shot

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.

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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.

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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.

A taste of what's to come

A taste of what’s to come

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.

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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.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

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.

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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.

A raging torrent, or not

A raging torrent, or not

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.

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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.

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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>

Lodgepole forest, bear country

Lodgepole forest, bear country

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.

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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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Grand Loop Road twisting along the side of Mount Washburn

Grand Loop Road twisting along the side of Mount Washburn

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

41 Comments

  1. Debbie in VA on September 8, 2015 at 1:10 am

    Very impressive! You should be proud of your hiking progress :-).
    Debbie in VA recently posted..From Maine to ?????My Profile



    • Becky on September 8, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      So excited to be finishing up Debbie. Maybe this coming weekend. 🙂



  2. Andy on September 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Great post Beck, and I love the pictures too! I can’t wait to make it out that way (planning a trip in 2017) so I can check out some of those trails too.
    Andy recently posted..Return visit to Lake Proctor Wilderness AreaMy Profile



    • Becky on September 7, 2015 at 10:04 am

      Great Andy! There’s so much to see and do here, you won’t get bored that’s for sure. 🙂



  3. OpenSpaceMan on September 6, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Becky_

    Your blog is getting better all the time. I almost thought I was there for a minute.

    Not to put to much pressure on you but the Japanese have a word for it…

    kaizen: constant improvement



    • Becky on September 7, 2015 at 10:02 am

      It’s a good word OpenSpace. 🙂

      Thanks for following along, it’s nice to hear from you again!



  4. Tom on September 6, 2015 at 12:55 am

    Your blog is so detailed. Just curious, how is it that you remember so much detail on your long hikes? Do you make written notes as you walk?…or have a voice recorder?….or what?



    • Becky on September 7, 2015 at 10:01 am

      My prop I guess you could say is my pictures Tom, when I get home and review them in chronological order it reminds me what happened in what order and what I felt. It also helps that I start writing the post soon after I return from a hike while things are fresh, even if it takes a few days to get it published here.



  5. Steve P on September 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    Again, thanks for all the info and pics on the hikes. My wife and I will be there this coming week. I wish I could do a lot of those hikes, but my hips won’t allow that anymore. I am planning some of the drives you have been on. Especially interested in Beartooth byway.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:08 pm

      You’re welcome Steve, enjoy your visit! Beartooth will probably be closing for the season in the next week or two so keep an eye out for road closure announcements when you get to this area. Hope it’s still open!



  6. Norm on September 5, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    You’re almost there! Congrats on all the mileage, but a special “thank you” for sharing the beauty of these hikes. Felt like I was right there (with my hiking pole) feeling the wind. Good post.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      Gosh Norm, I could have used your hiking poles on that last one. 😉

      You’re welcome, glad you enjoyed this.



  7. Jim Schmechel on September 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I LOVE your wide photo with the blue sky, puffy white clouds, mountains, trees, and golden grasses. Such a great range of colors and textures 🙂

    I also like your comment of curling up in a ball to roll down the hill. Then you make up your own song too! Your personality shines through in this post.

    It is this personality that I am driving to go meet. In fact, I don’t think I am really going to Yellowstone to see Yellowstone. I am going to Yellowstone to see the person working at Yellowstone.
    Jim Schmechel recently posted..BaptismMy Profile



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      Yeah Jim, the colors and contrast on that meadow panorama turned out fantastic! Nothing special I did on my end, we just happened to get to that spot at the right time of day in the right conditions for a great photo. I love when it works out like that.

      Looking forward to meeting you!



  8. Frank on September 5, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    This has been, by far, my favorite of your writings. I am living vicariously through your writings. When I retire, my wife and I plan on doing what you have done this summer. You are keeping my dreams alive! Thank you!!



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      You’re welcome Frank, thanks for reading. This part of the country is a fantastic area to visit and explore, no doubt. 🙂



  9. Kit Frost on September 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Terrific new header photo too.
    Kit Frost recently posted..Colorado Fall ColorsMy Profile



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:04 pm

      So happy that picture worked out as a header, not all good photos do.



  10. Kit Frost on September 5, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Hello again, really nice post. Thanks for the photos and for the song and for the hike. I really enjoyed it.

    Kit



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      Thanks for reading Kit, glad you enjoyed it. 🙂



  11. Bing on September 5, 2015 at 11:07 am

    A nice way to drink my morning coffee, I like the way you see things.
    Makes me wonder what a bear bell sounds like.

    Thanks – Bing



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      Rather a lot like any other bell really, it’s just got a clip on it to attach to your backpack and it jingles as you walk. Glad you liked this Bing.



  12. Jodee Gravel on September 5, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Go you! You’ve really added on the miles and that last hike was amazing with all the variety of terrain. Such a gift to be seeing all that beauty. I love the shot of Electric Peak. That herd of sheep was sure laid back, what a fun sighting 🙂 And the song is awesome, of course I had to sing it to Bill who got a chuckle as well.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Six and Half Pounds of Precious Steals My HeartMy Profile



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:57 pm

      Those sheep were unreal Jodee! As a vet tech when I worked with sheep they also seemed so nervous and flighty. These ones were so chill, such a difference.

      Glad you enjoyed the post and I’m glad Bill enjoyed the song. 😉 Congrats on the new addition to your family too.



  13. Ernesto Quintero on September 5, 2015 at 10:08 am

    This reply is because I just read your first email after sighing up for your blog and I’m very glad I did. Thanks for the wonderful writeup and images. Your observations are extremely keen and are communicated in a way that make me feel your passion for nature and moments, keep up the good work, I look forward to reading your next one. You’ve had a great affect on my decision too sell my house and buy a class C rv to live in full time in the near future.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      Hello Ernesto, welcome to IO!

      I’m so happy to hear that you’re finding my blog helpful and inspiring. I wish you all the best with your transition to living on the open road. Safe travels and happy trails!



  14. EmilyO on September 5, 2015 at 8:59 am

    The education you are obtaining – and we as well. Beautiful country.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      Indeed Emily, I am so fortunate.



  15. Pete W on September 5, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Becky, great post with great pictures. I really like your new header photo.

    Pete W



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks Pete! I got lucky that one of the photos from the Beartooth drive worked as a header, not all of them do.



  16. Terri on September 5, 2015 at 7:25 am

    All of your photos blow me away, and I know you take them with an iphone which impresses me even more. I think my favorite is the “moody” one of Mt. Washburn. You have inspired me in so many ways, Becky, and now, hiking is one of them. I bought hiking shoes in town where I moved to, and used them the other day for the first time. Can’t wait to use them again!! Thank you for the always-wonderful blog posts, and pictures, and inspiration, and everything. I hope IO lasts forever. This is a wonderful community you have built.
    Terri recently posted..Student loans….student loans….student loans….remember those??!!My Profile



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      Heya Terri, nice to hear from you!

      I hope Kanab is treating you well, that’s where I did my grocery shopping last summer when working in Zion so I know it pretty well, it’s a nice town.

      I also hope you get a lot of use out of your new hiking shoes! That part of Utah is great for hiking. I see you’ve visited the North Rim; you’ll have to see Zion, Cedar Breaks, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Bryce, and Lake Powell too if you haven’t yet. So many great parks near there.

      Thanks for reading and following along as always. Nothing brings me quite as much joy as hearing from readers who’ve made the switch and improved their lives. I hope your animals (at work and home) are doing well. Take care.



      • Terri on September 6, 2015 at 7:06 am

        I’ve actually been to Bryce, and to Zion and want to keep going back at different points of the year and do more hikes. Coral Sands, I definitely need to do too – it’s so close! And yes, we are all settling in. I’m finally getting a routine down, so I can blog more and read through other blogs more 🙂

        Wow, you had to drive all the way to Kanab to do grocery shopping!! I live so close to both of them, I could just walk if I chose to! 🙂

        I live two spaces down from someone who did workamping for a few years, too. She has a nice little 19 footer that I absolutely love!
        Terri recently posted..Student loans….student loans….student loans….remember those??!!My Profile



  17. Barak on September 5, 2015 at 6:10 am

    Love the song! Congrats on the hiking club progress.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks Barak, one of the interpretive rangers with us said she was going to use it in her next children’s program. I’m pretty sure she was just joking. Pretty sure…



  18. Marcia GB in MA on September 5, 2015 at 6:06 am

    Wow, great hiking and nice pics of the topography. Yellowstone is sure a varied environment. BTW, I am impressed with how your writing style has evolved over time <3. Very descriptive and yet still personal, it keeps the reader engaged every step of the way.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks Marcia, glad you enjoyed this!



  19. RGupnorth on September 5, 2015 at 5:49 am

    Another nice hike you took – thanks for sharing.

    RG



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      You’re welcome RG. 🙂



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