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Adventures in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon: The Trail to Nowhere

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Yellowstone's Black Canyon
The boneyard on the Hellroaring River in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.  Photo Source:

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.)

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
Rolling hills upon rolling hills in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

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.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
Navigating the plateau in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

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.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
A storm rolling in over the Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

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.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
We were eventually rewarded with a rainbow over Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

Fear and Loathing on the Yellowstone River Trail

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yellowstone river
On the Yellowstone River Trail you have to be ready for anything. Here, even the weather is trying to kill you. Photo Source:


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.

yellowstone river
Backpack for scale. Would my pack become an artifact on the Yellowstone Valley like these antlers?

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.

Yellowstone River
The swift moving Yellowstone River after a sudden squall.

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”.

yellowstone river
Alone in the wilderness on the Yellowstone River Trail.

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.

Finding camp in the open spaces of the Yellowstone River Trail.

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.

Read Part Two


Yellowstone Bear Kills Park Employee

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Yellowstone Bear Kills Park Employee
Trails closed after a Yellowstone bear kills park employee on Friday. Source:

According to the National Park Service, a Yellowstone National Park employee was attacked and killed by a bear on Friday in a popular off trail area approximately a half mile from Elephant Back Trail.

Park rangers searched for the man after he didn’t report to work Friday morning. The man’s body was found partially consumed and cached near Lake Village Friday afternoon. There were defensive wounds on the victim’s forearms and bear tracks indicating an adult female grizzly and cub were involved in the attack.

Yellowstone Bear Kills Park Employee
Initial investigations indicate a mother and cub were involved in the fatal attack. Source:

The man, whose name is being withheld pending next-of-kin notification, was considered an experienced hiker and a long-term seasonal employee of the park. The man worked for Medcor, a medical company that operates three urgent care clinics in the park.

Park rangers and wildlife biologists collected DNA evidence and set traps despite heavy rains in Yellowstone on Friday and Saturday. Officials noted that if a bear is trapped that was involved in the attack the bear will be euthanized. Concerned about public safety, the park has closed the Elephant Back Loop Trail and immediate area and is encouraging those who visit the park to hike in groups of three or larger. Park officials have posted signs and maps of the closure area are available at park visitor centers.

Yellowstone Bear Kills Park Employee
The fatal bear attack occurred close to the popular Lake Village area in the vicinity of the Elephant Back Loop Trail. Source:

According to the National Park Service, the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone was estimated to be to between 674 and 839 in 2014. This attack is the first bear encounter at the park in 2015. There have been four bear related fatalities in the park from 2010 to 2014.

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