Greater Yellowstone

On the Trail

The Tetons, the Beartooths, the Spanish Peaks, the Wind Rivers — these names have achieved near-mythical proportions in the annals of hiking, and hitting the trail in Greater Yellowstone means choosing from among these spectacular ranges. Over the past decade, I have had the extraordinary fortune to venture into each, never with enough time to exhaustively explore the far reaches, but with plenty to reach some of their sublime backcountry jewels.

The Tetons: The Teton Crest Trail traverses the spine of one of the youngest mountain ranges in North America. The three to four day backpack from Teton Pass to Jenny Lake shows off the finest terrain that the Tetons have to offer — Alaska Basin, the backside (western view) of the Grand and other Teton peaks, and the furiously rushing Cascade Canyon.

For dayhikes in the Tetons, head for two backcountry lakes. Amphitheater Lake is a switchbacked climb of 4.8 miles each way. Lake Solitude is a full-day's outing of up to 18 miles, shorter if you catch the boat across Jenny Lake. With the kids, Hermitage Point offers interconnecting loops of varying lengths and the likelihood of trumpeter swans, beaver and moose.

The Beartooths: Civil War veteran General Philip Sheridan led the first group of white men across the Beartooths in 1882. Today The Beaten Path is the preferred trans-Beartooth route, a 26-mile trek across one of North America's highest land masses. The Beartooths are dotted with lakes, each basin more spectacular than the previous. We chose a route a bit off the traditional course for our crossing, one that our friend and Beartooths expert Bill Schneider at Falcon Press advised would showcase the region's best. Starting at Beartooth Lake, we spent the first night at Martin Lake and the second at Jorden Lake. We then headed cross-country on a rather harrowing day of stream crossings to pick up The Beaten Path around Russell Lake and continue onward to the jewel in the crown: Fossil Lake Basin.

For dayhikers, the Beartooths are ringed with trailheads. On the south side of the range, Becker Lake is a fairly easy yet worthy destination about 4 miles in from the Island Lake Trailhead. From the east, you can follow the Lake Fork of Rock Creek to Keyser Brown Lake for a 13-mile day trip, or continue over Sundance Pass for a 2 or 3 day backpack. This 21-mile point-to-point route exits along the West Fork of Rock Creek. From the north, the Rosebuds, East and West, are gateways.

The Spanish Peaks: With 25 summits topping 10,000 feet, lakes too numerous to count, and only a short drive separating them from Bozeman, the Spanish Peaks are justifiably renowned as one of the most scenic areas of Montana. We chose a trailhead farthest south, away from the crowds that flock to the area, and enjoyed a day hike to ourselves. The Bear Basin trail leaves from the North Fork trailhead off the spur road to Big Sky. This 13-mile out-and-back route passes through the wildflower meadow of Bear Basin and over a 10,000-foot ridge to Summit Lake.

Hilgard Basin is another highlight of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which encompasses the Spanish Peaks. I have always had a fondness for backcountry basins, like the Teton's Alaska and the Sierra's Dusy. Hilgard, with its lush green meadows, sparkling lakes and blue spruce, ranks among the most beautiful I have visited. You can reach it on a day hike of about 15 miles round-trip, or on an extended backpack or climbing expedition.

The Wind Rivers: The Wind River Range is known as the Roof of Wyoming. It encompasses over one million acres of contiguous wilderness and includes 47 peaks that top 13,000 feet. The Continental Divide bisects the area, offering a spectacular stretch of the Continental Divide Trail along the western slope. The trek from Big Sandy Campground to Green Lake runs about 100 miles, following the Highline Trail. We spent nine days between Big Sandy and Island Lake on what still ranks for me as the finest backpack trip of my life.

At one point near Big Sandy, the Divide turns on itself, looping into three-quarters of a circle. A ring of 11,000 and 12,000 foot peaks forms the Cirque of the Towers— Watchtower, Wolf's Head, the Warriors— over a dozen peaks in all. The shortest route into the Cirque is a 7-mile backpack to Big Sandy Lake, then a day hike to the Cirque.

On the east side of the Wind Rivers, the Popo Agie River watershed leads to outstanding dayhikes and extended trips into the backcountry.

Yellowstone National Park: What needs to be said about Yellowstone National Park hiking except that there is something for everyone? Try Yellowstone's nature trails with the kids, or the 3.2 mile out-and-back hike to Fairy Falls (near Old Faithful). For extended backpacks, try the Heart Lake Loop (anglers, bring your fly rod), or trek through the backcountry along the Snake River. The possibilities are endless.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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