The best memories of my Yellowstone trip didn’t involve Geysers, Hot Springs, or Bison. No—it involved moments when the only thing reminding us of civilization was us and the dirt path.
Unfortunately the drive from West Yellowstone to Cooke City was a long, gloomy day filled with rain, hail, and 40-degree temperatures. Compared to the Park’s lower half, these roads were trampled with less RVs, tour busses, and tourists. The roads were still a far cry from a ghost road through the Sahara, but stop areas were more spaced out and true wildlife took over. Lamar Valley is probably the most northern area of Yellowstone and although it was teeming with life we kept going. We passed signs for trails within the Valley but wanted an area with elevation and trees.
We hiked for a couple days around Cooke City… and hiking was my favorite part. Being from flat Florida, the closest thing to hiking up mountains was ascending the stairs at work. Although BF Shoes and I are healthy, relatively fit adults we made sure not to make our introduction to hiking goals too crazy. We were beginning hikers doing short, day excursions. We didn’t want to be complete newbs so we actually prepared. Our back packs contained water and flat, energetic snacks. Our boots had good grips. We wore sunscreen and hats. And it may sound silly but every few minutes we’d start clapping our hands and yelling loudly, “We. Don’t. Want. Bears!” —a bear scare is the real deal up here.
PETRIFIED TREE / LOST LAKE
I never thought this hike would become my favorite experience mostly because of all the problems that accompanied it. I had only intended to visit a Petrified Tree just 50 feet from the road (pretty underwhelming in appearance when compared to steaming water fountains shooting into the air) I wasn’t planning on hiking until BF Shoes saw the nearby sign. It wasn’t clear on distance or time but we grabbed our bags and followed. Three miles and two-and-a-half hours later my body and mind were still shocked from the unexpected physical effort it had just undertaken. The entire time we followed a dirt path a mere foot wide. Sometimes tree branches and shrubs got close enough to grab our clothes. And don’t forget the 45-degree temps. We’d sweat a little, take off our jackets, get cold again, put them on. Remix. Repeat. The sky was a beautiful blue until out of nowhere a strong, cold wind blew and suddenly snow drifted down. Later on tiny hail pelted us and finally drops of cold rain.
Ah. Nature. We couldn’t hide inside the nearest mall. And malls don’t have the constant fear of bear attacks.
But nature was also beautiful. During the whole hike we only crossed paths with 12 other people. We didn’t hear any car engines or AC units except for when the path briefly crossed the Roosevelt Lodges. At the Trail’s beginning our dirt path was muddy and marked with the hooves of horses while a dashing stream snaked and danced nearby cutting a mini canyon into the ground. The tall, eerie tree-trunk remains of a forest fire surrounded us. Rounding a hill brought us to Lost Lake where tall, yellow grass swayed in waves with the wind. Suddenly we entered a forest and the path zig-zagged back and forth to safely bring us down a steep hill filled with vegetation. Just as quickly the trees vanished replaced with wildflowers as we trekked uphill. At the hill’s top we were exposed—the tallest creatures around—with flowers bowing.
COOKE CITY HIKING
The area east of Cooke City isn’t part of Yellowstone, but it’s still filled with enough vegetation and elevation changes to provide scenic hikes without needing to share the experience with others.
Before we even entered the trail near the Crazy Creek Campground the sound of water crashing against rocks was deafening. Although the path was short, it led us up the large, stone hill near the waterfall’s top. Instead of a typical vertical drop, the river rushed downward at a steep incline while it bubbled and crashed as it wound around the many huge rocks in the way.
The Clark’s Fork Trail began with several short boardwalks that led us to another noisy waterfall and a broken-down, old power plant at the fall’s base. Not challenging enough? Kersey Lake was beckoning us to find it with images of vast waters. The boardwalks quickly disappeared and soon we ran into… snow piles! There were no signs, markers, or anything manmade from there. The only way we figured we were even on a path was by footprints in the snow created from an unseen person.
This path leading to Kersey Lake was relatively level with dirt and stone piles thrown around. Mud sloshed under our boots and tiny streams of melted snow flowed. Physically the walk was easy. Mentally? I’m the one who caved in. With footprints being our only sign and my still-very-real fear of bears smelling lunch on my breath, I asked to retreat after less than an hour.
When a beautiful view of a rushing river framed by mountains made us park our car, BF Shoes walked ahead to take more photos. Shortly he came crashing back from the trees. He claimed to have seen a bear’s small footprint in the mud. You can call me honey but not food. We left.
I love my little home city, but there’s a mysterious lure to being surrounded by wild nature. When buildings and cars disappear you pay more attention to the marks on tree trunks and the sounds of birds. But there’s also an excitement resulting from not having control. I was in nature’s house—not vice versa. Maybe my fears were overimaginative but I kept seeing a bear rearing its head from behind a clump of bushes… or a snake crossing my path (I hate snakes)… or sliding down a canyon and twisting my ankle.
I know I will continue to crave this sliver of a natural experience until I can return to the trees again.