Yellowstone Thorofare on horseback

Having survived being dragged across Iceland by pony (with only one day where I gave up and walked 40km), the family reckoned I’d love a six day trek through the remotest parts of Yellowstone… Have you ever tried western-style riding ? It’s not like you get taught in the UK – in particular, the stirrups are set very long and somehow at an angle such that you seem to spend the entire day with your feet at right-angles to anything remotely natural, which results in your legs being unscrewed at the hips, and your knees aching after ten minutes. It’s not as if you actually go faster or further than if you were walking, and horses are essentially what you’d get if Microsoft designed bikes. They second guess what you want to do (wrongly) at every juncture, won’t run continuously without frequent restarts, consume enormous amounts of resource, leave large piles of [manure] everywhere, and you can’t just switch them off and get on with the next task… They get viruses, too, although ours didn’t on this trip 😉 I did manage, however, to avoid giving up and walking on this trip.

We started on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake, where the road leaves the shore at the nine-mile trailhead. There was quite a lot of faff as we met up with the rest of the group and sorted out kit, what beast we were each to ride and the usual briefings that always precede any action on a trip like this.

There was no messing about with amateur horse-boxes – these were herd-sized

Then we mounted up and headed south on an easy trail through burnt Lodgepole forest. With the lake on our right, we weaved in and out of forest, variously burnt (mostly the 1988 fires) and in full growth, so views came and went. Eventually, near Columbine Creek, we turned off the main trail and went a hundred metres or so down to the lake shore, where we set up camp. This is where travelling on horseback shows its greatest advantage over backpacking, as great coolboxes of fresh food came out (despite the heat, we had fresh rather than dehydrated food, some still needing defrosting, for the entire trip).

Shore of Yellowstone Lake, campsite, first night

On the Iceland trip, we were mostly responsible for saddling up and organising our own ponies (and the cooking stuff travelled separately, so we didn’t have to hang around whilst it was packed up), giving us long days actually riding. Here, the folk leading the trip did all the packing up and organising horses, which made for much later starts in a morning, leaving us the job of packing up the tents and our own kit (which then had to be loaded onto mules).

Campsite locations allow for decent fires, despite forest fire risk

Unlike National Forests, managed with an eye to the value of the timber, National Parks are supposed to be more natural. Although forest fires were assiduously fought in the early years, it became apparent that this was changing the forest ecology and policy changed to let fires burn where they didn’t threaten infrastructure. The build up of brushwood from the early years resulted in these uncontrolled fires being fiercer and burning larger areas until in 1988, huge fires burnt a large fraction of Greater Yellowstone. We’d seen the results of this on our visit in 1992 when scars were fresh, but there are still large areas with standing burnt timber and young lodgepole pines growing up between. These are by no means all from the 1988 fires, as areas burn every year, though its unlikely that such an extensive burn will occur again. The area just uphill from our first night campfire was struck by lightning a day or two after we’d passed, and the Columbine Fire, as it was known, burnt for about three weeks, heading towards buildings at the east edge of the park, where the fire was fought. Mostly the flames were fanned by westerly winds and the area along the lake shore where the trail passes was not burnt.

The trail follows fairly closely along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake until well into the second day

To the south of Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows through a wide flood plain at about 2400m, with wooded slopes above, rising to bare peaks at around 3300m. The second and third nights’ camps were both on this floodplain, which provides rich grazing for the local wildlife, and for a limited number of livestock on treks like ours.

Tethering the horses in pairs stops them wandering off until they are dekitted and a temporary corral is set up

We camped away from trees and the river, but had the cooking area on the riverbank, and used trees to hang food against raiding by bears. The silty shores provided ample evidence of use by wildlife – we found wolf prints as well as bear. The prints we found on the third night seemed to be fairly fresh – made earlier in the same day.

This is certainly bear country – and don’t grizzlies have big feet ?

The third night camp was also haunted by a lone Mule Deer, which seemed to be an outcast from its herd and circled the camp at a short distance, giving us some photo opportunities, but in frustratingly low light. The river banks were also home to a variety of wading birds.

Camping in an open area by Thorofare Creek gave plenty of space to
see wildlife approaching, as well as grazing for the stock – site 6T1

The late starts and early finishes meant we had fairly short days in the saddle (very welcome for those of us who don’t do a lot of riding), but did mean that distances were quite short too. I suppose that was part of the point of the journey – to spend time in the park away from the tourists and roads, rather than to travel long distances each day. It did give us plenty of time to wander about the camp areas and socialise around the campfire.

The cooking and eating area was away from the tents, by the creek, just left of centre in this photo
In the distance, the dip in the horizon is the Lynx Creek drainage – tomorrow’s route

The camp at Thorofare Creek was about as far from a road as it is possible to get in Yellowstone. Indeed, it is close to the remotest point from a road in the whole of the 48 contiguous states. At 2400m this far from civilisation, the night sky is fabulous and brings home how much we are deprived of such views by light pollution at home. Clear skies at night not only gave us splendid views of the Milky Way every night, but also gave us some very hard frosts in the mornings.

The Trident Plateau forms a backdrop to our trail across the floodplain of the Yellowstone River

The fourth day of the trek saw a start back towards the road system, using trails not far from the park’s southern boundary. We first crossed the floodplain, from Thorofare Creek, and across the Yellowstone River, heading up into the hills to the west.

On the east side of Yellowstone River, heading north to find a fording point.

We retraced our steps a short way and headed north along the river where it was fairly deep with peaty banks, but soon found a place where it was wider and more silted. Although this area is very flat, it is surrounded by hills rising up to 1000m above the plain, giving us panoramic views all around.

In places, the Yellowstone River flows wide and shallow making crossing easy

Once over the river, the trail became very vague, but bright orange diamonds on posts at intervals make it not too difficult to relocate among the low scrub. Having a raised viewpoint on horseback does make these trailmarks easier to see !

On the west side of Yellowstone River, about an hour into the fourth day, heading for Lynx Creek

The changes in vegetation were very noticeable throughout the trek. Burnt areas of Lodgepole forest are quickly invaded by Rose Bay Willow Herb, making large areas very pink among the blackened timber and giving rise to its American name of Fireweed. We were a bit late in the season for the main flush of flowers which follows soon after snowmelt (giving the plants maximum time to ripen their seed) but there was still plenty to look at, especially in the damper areas where various species of Indian Paintbrush made bright splashes among the plants that they parasitise.

A short distance down the west bank of the Yellowstone, we cut west up Lynx Creek and were quickly back into the forest with our views restricted. The trails are much more well-defined in the forest, so our guide was able to relax, sit back, and read the newly-published Harry Potter book. He did have some work to do, however, since timber which has been burnt takes years to fall, resulting in a constant addition of dead logs to the forest floor. We’d passed a couple of rangers (on horseback too) with chainsaws heading for this same trail to do trail maintenance, but as we were now ahead of them, we encountered quite a lot of deadfall, meaning that Jett had to lead mules individually through the densest areas.

The guide, Jett, has seen it all before, the pony knows the way, he can get on with reading Harry Potter!

The high point of the trail, a little over 2800m, took us out of the catchment of the Yellowstone River (which eventually drains to the Atlantic) and into that of the Snake, which drains to the Pacific – so this was the great continental divide – not particularly noticeable in the forest amongst rounded hills. We dropped down Plateau Creek to meet another trail at the confluence, and a short distance later made camp on the left bank of the Snake River itself.

The fourth night campsite was quickly shady as the sun dipped below the clouds and hills

Now that we were among the hills and in a narrower valley, it was noticeable that we lost the sun quite early as it dipped first behind a bank of clouds and, soon after, below the horizon. We weren’t woken by warm sun in the morning, either, and seemed to take a long time to get going from this campsite, though this did give me time to wander around taking photos of more flowers. We now followed the young Snake River downstream, crossing occasionally, mostly through forested areas. As the valley opened out a little, the river took a turn to the south, where it makes a large loop. Our course at this point, however, lay north towards Heart Lake, an area with a reputation for a lot of bear activity early in the season, but supposedly much safer by late summer. We climbed gently for about 5 km, passing a site where a lot of trees had been felled by beaver (none of who were in evidence) and then to a wide fairly level area with a meandering stream and an extensive grassy clearing.

Finishing early to give time to sort the horses meant lots of campfire sociability for those not involved

The meandering stream provided some chilly bathing whilst some of the group went for a short walk to a thermal area across the valley. As we’d already seen a lot of geysers on our sea kayaking trip to Shoshone Lake, this side trip didn’t appeal to us greatly, and we were soon established at the camp fire getting warm. I think this was the coldest night on the trail, although it was actually the lowest altitude camp of the trip at under 2300m. There was a clinging mist in the morning and a hard frost on the grass and leaves making us reluctant to venture out of the tent until the sun came out.

Some of the morning mist at camp 8B5 was radiation fog, but some was from a thermal area across the valley

Frost on the leaves provided more fun photography but lasted only a short while as the morning warmed up, and breakfast called.

You don’t get bacon fry-ups and real coffee on the sixth day of a backpacking trip…

We continued NW climbing away from the Snake River, but turned off left before reaching Heart Lake, to cross a divide and drop into the drainage of Red Creek, flowing over very dinstinctively red rocks on its descent back to the Snake River.

Some steep descents as we drop into the Snake River basin

Red Creek occupies a steep-sided Vee-shaped valley, so we found ourselves on easier slopes high above the river, often in burnt forest. Reentrant streams gave us some zig-zags and steep descents, as well as climbs back up, before a long descent on the right bank took us down to the confluence. We crossed the main stream immediately – by now a considerably bigger river than when we had left its banks the previous day.

Our route now took us through patchy forest and grassy clearings to the south of the river, with some sapphire lakes and the occasional bog. The forest got denser as we descended, and views became more restricted.

Dropping back down to the Snake River basin via Red Creek (Photo: Mary)

After what seemed a long stretch on a well-defined track through dense forest with no views at all, we emerged suddenly onto the left bank of the Snake River, below its confluence with Lewis River. It was now quite deep but still not too fast flowing, as we crossed to the NW side and in only a very short distance we were back at the main road just at the Park’s south entrance. Noise, traffic, and goodbye to the horses as they were tidied away into their fleet of giant trailers.