Spring Backpacking in Yellowstone
First Trip of the Season
No matter how many times we do our favorite activities, the first one of the season can be very exciting and nerve wracking. However, it can also be a great chance for personal improvement. As a backpacking and outdoors guide in the world’s first national park, all those things come into play. Time to scrape the rust off and go backpacking.
The Black Canyon is the best early season route in the park. Period. The lower elevation and drier conditions allow the trail to emerge first from the depths of winter. The National Park Service won’t let people even experience the other reaches of the park because of bear management, unsafe river crossings, and deep-mountain snows. The Black Canyon is by no means a default route, but the first chance we get to sleep under the stars. However, as with all trips in Yellowstone (especially the spring), the weather can be cold, snowy, and unfavorable.
But here we go…
Day 1 – We started the day with a classic meet and great at the clients’ hotel in Gardiner, MT. We transferred gear, loaded the packs, obtained the physical permit from Yellowstone’s Backcountry Office, ran a shuttle, and finally hit the trail. To be honest, my spirits’ were not high during this process as the forecast was coming to fruition with blowing snow and cooler temps. Yuck! However, the clients from England, Deke and Jill, did not waiver from their enthusiasm. Time to suck it up!
We entered at the Hell Roaring Trailhead (2K1), took some before pictures, and began the descent upon the Yellowstone River. The pace was good as we stopped along Hells Roaring Creek for lunch. The name of Hells Roaring Creek is quickly understood in the spring. The light snow, rain, and grapple shower mix continued throughout the day as we crossed the open sagebrush habitat of Yellowstone’s northern range. Our first camp was 1R3, located on a small plateau atop the Black Canyon. 1R3 is one of my favorite sites along the route. It’s a scenic site with good views of Electric Peak, the rolling hills to the south, and a thruway for wildlife activity.
We arrived in camp around 4:45, set up a backcountry shelter, and chatted about the day while staying out of the wind. I fired up my stove to boil some water for a quick cup of coffee and tea. Unfortunately, my stove was not working properly! Instead of a jet engine the stove was a dull whisper. It’s never fun when the gear malfunctions in the field, especially in the cold. As we waited, tents were set up, sleeping pads laid out, sleeping bags unstuffed, and our nighttime quarters assembled. Finally the water was hot enough for coffee and our freeze-dried meals. We ate chili and a rice burrito mixture accompanied with tortillas and cheese. Not too bad. The hot meal was nice. After wrapping up dinner, we changed, hung the bags on the bear pole and retreated to our tents. Bedtime comes early when it’s cold, people are tired, and fires are not permitted. Not having fires is the worst thing about hiking in the Black Canyon. A year round fire ban is implemented in the Black Canyon due to dry conditions. Bummer!
Day 2 – The morning of the second day began with me going to the bathroom around 3 am. When I first unzipped the tent, snow was falling, and slowly accumulating. In a daze, I rolled my eyes, finished my business, quickly buried myself back into my warm sleeping bag and hoped for the weather to pass. Finally, I awoke for the morning around 8 am. Sun was beaming on my tent, the snow was gone from our campsite, and optimistic thoughts filled my mind. Now, let’s make some coffee!
Deke and Jill popped their heads out of their tent about 20 minutes after me. After a quick morning conversation of “How did you sleep?” “Did you stay warm?” , I got to work on heating up water preparing breakfast. Fingers were crossed about my stove functioning properly. And no! What is wrong with this thing? Deke and Jill broke down their tent and patiently waited. My frustration grew and finally I had to remedy the situation. I completely disassembled the stove, followed the detailed manufacturer directions, and issued a little improvisation. Success! The stove was back to 100%. NOW, let’s make some coffee. The water was heated in no time, coffee made, breakfast eaten, and the rest of our campsite was dissembled. Time to hit the trail.
The route for the day took us into the heart of the Black Canyon. From campsite 1R3, the trail drops towards the Yellowstone River, and parallels the river until the next major junction. Just below our first campsite is one of the best views of the trail and we took full advantage of the sun and scenery. Our packs came off and the snacks came out. That’s what I am talking about! We continued with no major drama or excitement, just great views and wild scenery. The pace was consistent and we decided to make a quick detour to relax above Crevice Lake.
Crevice Lake is a large, clear lake, along the Yellowstone River Trail. The lake is somewhat of an oasis on the route. The best place to enjoy the lake (in my opinion) is above the feature on the far south side. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and chatted about life and activities in the U.K. If I was not leading the trip, I would have closed my eyes for a power nap.
We made it to our camp, 1Y8, around 5 o’clock, and began the evening routines. Camp 1Y8 is next to the Yellowstone River with another awesome view. The area is flat with plenty of good tent sites, tons of privacy. It’s a hidden gem. I have stayed at 1Y8 in the past and the site has become one of my favorites along the Black Canyon. Jill and Deke definitely appreciated the site.
Luckily, the water clarity was decent along the Yellowstone River for cooking. If the water was very muddy and turbid on the river, it can be collected from Blacktail Creek, a couple hundred yards south of the campsite. After the water was boiled (with a working stove), we had some late afternoon coffee and tea, dinner, good conversation and bed.
Day 3 – When I awoke in the morning there was not a cloud in the sky. The forecast has been accurate to date and was gradually improving. Nice! I was looking forward to a bluebird day with sweeping views of the area. However, I was not looking forward to the hike out of the canyon and what animals were lurking on the Blacktail Plateau. I was aware of a grizzly bear that had been spotted a couple of days prior on the plateau, feeding on a bison carcass. I wasn’t sure if the bear was still around. We’ll find out shortly.
Breakfast was cooked, caffeine consumed, gear put away, and now it’s time to hike out of the canyon. Deke and Jill were briefed on the day. I told them slow and steady was the pace. I asked Deke if he wanted to set the pace for the day. Generally, the slowest person in the group should set the pace. Having the slowest person go first, allows the group to stay together. Getting spread out on the trail is not safe.
We went up the trail, following Blacktail Creek, at a good pace. I made sure to break every so often, allowing Jill and Deke to catch their breath, and to enjoy the views. No need to rush. We have plenty of time! A nice packs-off break in the shade after completing the hardest part of the day was needed. Time to polish off the snacks and lighten the load. Deke was happy, as he had been carrying the groups’ snacks for the duration of the trip.
After snacking and resting, the hike continued. The end of our expedition was in view. Upon ascending the canyon, there is a visible marker signifying the end of the voyage. Fences or exclosure on the ridge line can be seen from a couple of miles out. Exclosures are used to keep animals out of an area to study non-grazed vegetation. They also make great landmarks on the trail. I made sure to point these out to Jill and Deke.
We reached the exclosure and high-fived one another. All down hill from here! I made sure to scan the landscape and look for any people activity or bear jams. Sometimes looking for people that are looking for wildlife is a better way to identify potential animal in the immediate vicinity. If there are people looking, chances are there are critters in the area. Nothing present! No people or traffic jams! Looks like we are home free.
A nice easy coast down the hill was a great way to finish the trip. What a great way to spend 3 days in Yellowstone! I am so glad Deke and Jill were fun to be with, the weather was nice (at least for two days), and everyone was safe!