The thought “Well that title’s a bit dramatic” probably crossed your mind. Just wait, it gets worse.
Backpacking the Yellowstone River trail ranks among one of the most terrifying and exhilarating backpacking experiences of my life. It was my first time in Yellowstone, and I was about to realize what I’d signed up for.
Before even setting out on a backcountry trail in Yellowstone, backpackers are required to attend a 20-minute orientation, or what I like to call “100 ways you can die in Yellowstone”. You sit in a small room with anywhere from 10-30 other prey – er, backpackers – and watch an informational video. Set to 90s-era music, the inspirational voice instructs you to fear everything from the large predators (who want to eat either you or your food), the large herbivores (who might trample you if they think you’re a threat) to even inanimate objects such as the swift river currents (try not to swim) and wild weather conditions (it’s hot then it’s cold). Yes, in Yellowstone even the weather wants to kill you.
I left the orientation a lot more intimidated, but really none the wiser. How far did I need to stay away from a grizzly again? What about buffalo? (Turned out, that would come in handy later.) We gracefully packed up our equipment in the Mammoth Springs parking lot as the clouds brimmed with rain. I was too busy contemplating the approximate hunger level of Wyoming grizzly bear populations to notice a fellow tourist pull into the parking spot that occupied my spread of backpacking supplies.
We’re experienced Northwest backpackers from Seattle, so of course we pretty much broke every basic rule of backpacking in Yellowstone right off the bat.
By the time we got to the Hellroaring Trailhead (the less popular Yellowstone River Trail access point) we only had about two hours of daylight left. The plan was to hike fast and find our campsite before dark. If the inspirational video had taught me anything, it was: “Don’t go hiking at dusk. That’s when the predators are most active.” Well, that wasn’t happening.
Five minutes into our trip, we broke out of the skeletal pines to catch a first view of the Yellowstone Valley. Spectacular, wild, vacant. I stumbled over rocks and roots as I my eyes soaked in the monumental plains. Countless tacky adjectives and metaphors fogged my tourist mind, right up until I noticed a great white sheet of rain approaching us at an alarming rate. We heard the wind howl through the canyon below as a squall tore across the valley, headed straight towards us. Be ready for any weather, we thought as we threw on our rain gear and headed down into the valley.
As the squall passed and the rain blew by, sun drenched the Yellowstone Valley with a spectacular strain of orange light. We hadn’t seen a soul since we’d given directions to two lost hikers. We could literally see for miles around; nothing but the distant shapes of buffalo and herd animals moving across the grassland. It was a bit unsettling for a Pacific Northwesterner that’s accustomed to being socked in by trees.
I’d never felt so intimate with the word “agoraphobic”.
I really was overcome by a feeling of isolation I’d never really felt before. With the “How to Die in Yellowstone” documentary still fresh in my head, I knew that if we screamed no one would hear us. Well, we’d hear each other screaming at least.
As I fantasized some morbid and dramatic premature end to our trip my partner–impervious to my fatalistic fantasies–stopped dead in his tracks. That worried me.
I looked up.
A great black orb, about as big as the average Seattle Subaru, lumbered towards us. Colorful language ensued. (Mostly verbs and adjectives.)
I’d seen pictures of buffalo before, but when you’re nearly face-to-face with one, you notice things a bit differently. The horns look sharper. The hooves can surely shatter bones. The dark oval eyes: malevolent. The stench smells like deceased hikers.
We backed away slowly, trying to remember the details. Were we supposed to make eye contact? Avoid it? Were we supposed to stay 15 meters away or 25?
As we stumbled backwards off the trail towards the sulfur stench of the Hellroaring River, the buffalo followed. It snorted as it walked down the trail. But to me it flared its nostrils as it stalked us into a corner. Smelling the blood. Trying to prevent any means of escape. Ready to attack. I was pretty sure we’d found the first carnivorous buffalo, but wouldn’t survive for the nature documentary.
But of course that wasn’t the case. The buffalo kept wandering down the trail. As he passed, he didn’t even give us an acknowledging glance. He lumbered away, snacking on tufts of grass here and there. He didn’t so much as flick his tail at us.
We booked it after that, through the close-knit pine forest, down a narrow trail punctuated with buffalo patties. Every stump and shadow looked like a grizzly bear. As we made our way back into the grasslands, I wondered what monstrous creature I’d find on the other side of each knoll. We traded cautious glances with the deer and antelope as we made our way through the wild landscape. Bones and antlers punctuated the prairie like exotic plants, stained orange in the setting sun.
Finally, as the sun slipped behind the trees, we set up our tent on a plateau in the only small patch devoid of bones, antlers, and buffalo patties.
I could only imagine what the second day would offer on the Yellowstone River Trail.