This was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating backpacking experiences of my life. It was my first time in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon, and I was just starting to realize what I’d signed up for. Sulfur smelling rivers, bones littering the ground, and meandering game trails – just another day in the Yellowstone backcountry. You may have read Part 1 of this epic tale of adventure and folly, here is the second in this two-part series. I hope you enjoy.
My morning started by skirting down a cliff brimming with antlers and bones. I followed the buffalo tracks down to the Hellroaring River to filter water. I pumped halfheartedly, scanning the wild Yellowstone River for any signs of buffalo, bears, or stampeding antelope. As a Pacific Northwesterner, whose greatest backpacking fear is finding too few huckleberries, I was a bit out of my element in the Yellowstone wilderness.
I finished filling the water bottles and it was right back up the hill, dodging buffalo patties, to retrieve food for breakfast. I shivered under a set of down jackets and pants while the water steamed to a boil. It was the end of May, after all.
We’d camped at the fork of the Yellowstone and Hellroaring Rivers on our first night at Yellowstone. The Helloraring River, in case you were wondering, smelled appropriately of sulfur and all things demonic. Our tent was pitched on an isolating little outcrop of land, edged by a dropoff on two sides and a rock wall on the third–essentially a natural funnel leading the wildlife right towards campsite 2H2. After a few cups of coffee we packed up our tent, molted our layers and headed out.
We took the same strategy exiting the campsite as we’d used entering. Follow the least dangerous looking game trail. Yes, to avoid the bright eyed, bushy-tailed tourists at Yellowstone, I’d decided that we’d start from the less popular Hellroaring trail. The strategy was a success — so far the only bright eyed creature we’d seen was a buffalo, and the only bushy-tailed creatures around were the snooping foxes.
The one downside to this approach was that signage was a bit lacking. (Or missing all together.)
My partner and I picked our way through a quarter mile brimming with hedge bushes and slippery cliffs, finally breaking out into the plains. Grasslands for miles, as far as the eye could see. In wild land like the Yellowstone backcountry, trying to find the actual trail among a lattice of game trails was quite a skill. An important skill.
One that we lacked.
We picked the most traveled trail up the grassy knoll. We knew the trail headed west and this trail seemed like it could take us there. We were just 15 hours and one sleep-deprived night into acclimating to the 7000 ft elevation, which made every step seem deserving of a chapter in our personal memoirs. When we made it to the top, all we could see was a second hill to climb and a tangle of reasonable-looking trails leading the way.
A sea of hills beyond that. A network of convoluted game trails.
At this point I’d kill to see a tourist.
A decent climb and several uneducated guesses later, we finally stumbled onto the Yellowstone River Trail. At this point, our standard for the Yellowstone River Trail was just a narrow strip of dirt cut deep into the grasslands. Sometimes, there’s no shame in settling.
Dutifully, we followed. We meandered through the grasses, soaking in incredulous views of Hellroaring Mountain as we climbed higher onto the plateau. The grasslands brimmed with sunshine, speckled with sage hedges. It was spectacular. Not a tourist in sight. I was proud of my choice.
The Yellowstone River Trail finally led us up the plateau towards a small lake. On one side of the lake: a snoozing buffalo, on the other—a well-trodden trail through the reeds. The previous day I’d learned just how large and terrifying buffalo could be, so of course we chose the buffalo-free option.
We followed the trail, admiring the dramatic scenery until the trail just disappeared into the grass. Gone. We looked around, dumbfounded. At this point, the sun had faded to gray and dark, heavy clouds were rolling in. The temperature dropped about 10 degrees.
Using our stellar route finding skills, we chose a game trail to follow, inching up the knoll towards a cliff that separated us from the Yellowstone River. That didn’t work, so we tried a second. And third. We were fairly close to the drop-off as a sheet of rain rolled across the Blacktail Deer Plateau.
The valley echoed of an oncoming storm. Drops of rain became sheets of rain.
A gust of wind hit us and within a fraction of a minute the rain turned to snow. Aside from my colorful language, the only sounds to be heard were the bellowing wind and the distant roar of the river. The clouds were swollen and low, nearly tangible. Bruised and violent. As the wind gained momentum the snow blew sideways, accumulating on the yellow grass. Our visibility deteriorated to a matter of feet. The priority became seeking shelter.
We’d exhausted all of our trail options—the Yellowstone River Trail was nowhere near us—so we ran down the hill towards the shelter of pine trees. Slipping through the trees, we scrambled down a buffalo path and sat under the trees as we tried to determine just where we were. I’d come to know the large, dug-out area we were standing in as a buffalo sleeping area. We strategized as we pulled on our rain gear. The plan was brilliant: we were going to find the trail.
We headed uphill, away from the cliffs and towards the mountains. We climbed hand over hand among the bones and antlers as the stormy skies made their way over the mountains. The snow abated and the sun tore through the clouds as we finally stumbled onto that dirt track we’d grown to love and hate.
From that moment on, we never left the Yellowstone River trail.