This is Part 2 of a series. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, which covers the front country (road accessible and day hiking) part of my Yellowstone adventure, you probably want to start there.
When backpacking in Yellowstone, you can’t just show up with your gear at your desired trailhead and start walking. There’s a procedure that needs to be followed, the full extent of which can be found on Yellowstone’s Backcountry Hiking page. But here’s the short of it: You either plan your itinerary in advance and reserve your site(s) from 48 hours up to several months out in advance, or you drop in at one of Yellowstone’s nine backcountry offices with less than 48 hours notice to plan your trip.
Both options have their merits.
When you reserve in advance, you have more choices and it’s easier to put together longer routes that require multiple overnight stops. The downside is that it’s hard to anticipate what conditions will be like, and you have to pay a reservation fee of $25 per trip at the time of this writing.
When you drop in with less than 48 hours notice there will be less camping options available, but you’ll pay less, get to check the weather forecast, and get advice from the rangers.
Whichever way you choose, you do need to stop at any one of the backcountry offices no more than 48 hours before the start of your trip to pay for and pick up your permit ($3 per person per night right now), and watch an educational video on backpacking and bear safety. You’ll get a tag to hang on your party leader’s backpack and a card to put in the window of your vehicle so you can leave it at the trailhead without being cited.
When Julie and I first arrive at Yellowstone on July 4th, we go straight to the backcountry office in the town of West Yellowstone.
There we talk with the backcountry volunteers on duty and collectively plan out a three night trip to Shoshone Geyser Basin, reported to be the most beautiful of Yellowstone’s backcountry thermal areas, and also a very popular backpacking destination. We pay the $25 to reserve the sites in advance, as the soonest we can get the three sites we want in the necessary order is the weekend of July 19th to 22nd – the very end of our time in the park.
Having worked in Yellowstone the summer of 2015, I’ve seen most of the front country attractions the park has to offer at this point. It’s only the back country stuff that remains a mystery, so making it to Shoshone Lake and basin was definitely on my list.
Julie and I decide to do our other two backpacking trips sans reservation, to save on money and have more flexibility with our schedule.
July 10, Wednesday
Backpacking trip number one is a go!
Yesterday, Julie and I popped into the the West Yellowstone backcountry office (located inside the visitor center) to pick today’s hike, and get our permit. We choose site 4C1 in the Canyon Village area after hearing from reviews and rangers that it’s very pretty, and one of only three sites located within the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which Julie has not seen yet. It was available tonight, and only for one night, but one night is all we need.
It’s worth noting that on this trip, I was in charge of researching the RV camping, and Julie was in charge of researching the backpacking.
So when she says “one night, 4.5 miles each way” I think great, it’s a shorter hike that will help prepare us for the longer adventure that will be Shoshone Lake. In the ranger’s binder of knowledge is blurbs about every single back country site in Yellowstone, and the one for 4CA mentions a terrific view, no livestock allowed, tent site is on gravel, no wood fires, and, I quote: “is about 40 feet above the river, which makes getting to water dangerous.”
Which should have clued me in right there that this hike was not going to be a walk in the park because, as those who’ve been to the Canyon area know, it’s a long long way down to the river from the rim.
We arrive at the rim around 1 pm prepared with Subway sandwiches picked up at West Yellowstone, and enjoy them near the Grand View lookout point before getting started. It’s rather cloudy today, which I’m okay with because it’ll be more comfortable for hiking.
After eating, I park Bertha at the Glacial Boulder trailhead (near Inspiration Point), and put the little card in the windshield that allows me to stay overnight. There is a large boulder here, that I later learn is listed in rock climbing publications, but no one is climbing it when we arrive.
Julie and I grab our gear, and start on Seven Mile Hole trail.
I did part of this trail on a grand circuit over Mt. Washburn late in the season the summer I worked here, but since it was at the end of that hike and I was tired, I remember little of it. It’s relatively flat, and follows the north rim of the canyon, cutting through a thick forest of conifers and occasionally swinging back towards the rim to offer a good view.
A couple miles in, Julie and I are going strong, but the increasingly dark skies are a bit worrying. At one point a few drops fall, which feel refreshingly cool, but a true downpour would not be fun while hiking, even though we have rain gear with us.
Fortunately the sky is all talk and no action. By the time we reach the fork to turn right down to Sevenmile Hole, the clouds are starting to break up.
Which is good, because the last two miles to our site are all downhill.
Normally, steep downhills are a non-issue for me, but center of gravity and balance are greatly altered by having a large weight strapped to your back. Add in the fact that there’s loose gravel on most of the trail and neither of us own hiking poles and, well, progress slows considerably.
I think the hardest part of the steep downhill is the angst that comes from knowing tomorrow morning we’ll have to come back up this, still with a large weight strapped to our backs. At least the view is engaging, so I focus on that more.
There’s clearly thermal activity in this area.
The forest retreats back from discolored stretches of ground where faint trails of steam rise into the sky. Sinter cones dot the landscape, some dormant, some hissing and spluttering. These hotspots are only ordinary in comparison to Yellowstone’s more extravagant and photogenic hydrothermal features. Anywhere else, these features would be extraordinary.
Below these old dormant cones, we finally see the sign for 4C1 breaking off from the main trail. We think we’re in the clear but no, there’s still another half-mile of steep descent down to the actual campsite, and here the trail is much less defined since it gets only a fraction of the traffic. The Yellowstone River comes into view, it’s deep green color broken by whitewater reminds me of rough glass.
Quite exhausted, we finally spill into site 4C1 around 4:30 pm.
Which means, we did the 4.5 mile hike in 3 hours, so we average 1.5 miles per hour. Not bad! The first order of business is hanging all food and smelly stuff from the bear pole provided at each back country site in the park. Then we set up the tent. The campsite itself is very cool, a slump of flatter land with pine surrounded by sheer canyon walls. The view across the river is incredible.
Then we go to get water.
Remember the warning in the site description about “dangerous water access?” Yeah, they weren’t kidding. Not only is it steep getting down to the river’s edge, with very little edge to stand on without falling in the churning water, but the whole slope is a thermal area. We both watch our footing carefully to avoid stepping in steaming holes and little trickles of hot water. It would have been impossible to get down to the water on the other shore.
That taken care of, Julie goes to take a nap and I sit out by the river, watching the sun creep below the canyon wall and listen to the sound of rushing water. Later, we cook a prepackaged dehydrated backpacker meal and then retreat into the tent as the mosquitoes come out.
Even after dark, the temperature doesn’t fall. All literature for backpacking in Yellowstone says wear layers and prepare for cold temperatures, as the variation between the high and low temp can be quite extreme in the mountains and snow is possible any time of year. We’ve been seeing highs as warm as 80 and lows in the 40’s at our boondocking spot just outside the park. But I sleep in short sleeves tonight as the heat generated from thermal activity underground radiates up through the floor of the tent all night.
The climb out of the canyon is rough, but we manage it without mishap. Including breaks, it takes us 4 hours to get back to Bertha, one hour longer than going down. We treat ourselves to a huckleberry shake in West Yellowstone on the way back to Tribble, which I left at our boondocking spot while we were gone. My tiny home is exactly as I left it, none the worse for wear for being unoccupied for a night.
All in all, I consider this first backpacking trip in Yellowstone to be an absolute success! It was great seeing what the canyon was like below the rim, and to explore parts of the park I’ve never set foot in before. One down, two to go!
Related Yellowstone Posts:
- Tips for Visiting Yellowstone – My best advice to get the most out of your Yellowstone trip!
- 100 Mile Hiking Club – A collection of all the day hikes I’ve done in Yellowstone from most to least recent, go back to the end of page 2 for the first post which explains more
- Working at National Parks for RVers – Can’t get enough Yellowstone? You can work and live there for a summer!
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