We’ve all had our hiking plans disrupted by the pandemic, long-distance hikers especially. Hitching into small towns to resupply, eat, and sleep just isn’t a great idea. Organizations like the PCTA are advocating no-support hikes only. A big loop-route within a day’s drive seemed like the best option for a longer hike. The best place to make a big loop is through a large wilderness area, and no area in the lower 48 is bigger and wilder than Yellowstone. As I pored over maps, a themed route emerged: a hike of the Yellowstone Caldera. This 150-mile (242 km) loop would take me through the heart of the park, visiting deep wilderness, remote geyser basins, bountiful wildlife habitat, enormous lakes, and big rivers. It even featured a possible on-trail resupply option. The Yellowstone Caldera Loop, about 150 miles (242 km), starting and ending at Ninemile Trailhead on Yellowstone Lake’s north-eastern corner. Icons indicate thermal areas and our eight designated campsites. A hiking partner is a good idea in Yellowstone. Although bear attacks are rare, most of them happen to individual hikers. My friend Dan gave an enthusiastic yes when I pitched the idea. So we got a permit (all online/by phone now), went over the gear lists and menus, and headed out in late July of 2020. Our remaining logistical challenge was to find someone to hold our resupply box at Old Faithful, as the Post Office there was not accepting parcels. After an hour of wandering around the Old Faithful complex, we found a hiker working at an establishment who agreed to hold our box on the condition that we do not name them nor the establishment. Fair enough. We spent the night at the Canyon car campground and dreamed of grizzlies, geysers, and fat cutthroats.
Day 1 - Ninemile TH to Brimstone Basin
Blue skies, a blue lake, and blue lupines greeted us at the trailhead. We stashed beers in the shade for our return, snapped a selfie, and started walking through an old burn festooned with flowers. The Thorofare Trail, heading into the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. The burn gave way to a live forest amply supplied with stream crossings. Openings grew scarcer and the forest denser as we progressed south. Rounding out of the forest into a dense thicket, we called out, “Hello bears! We come in peace!” and jumped back as the brush exploded ten yards in front of us. A wave of energy parted the heavy foliage and shot thirty yards up the hill. We saw no fur or fang but there is only one animal that moves with that much power and speed. Bear spray in hand, we explained (as calmly as we could) that we meant no harm, were just passing through, and would now be on our way. We took the shuffling noises in the bushes above as assent and proceeded past a deadfall freshly stripped of its bark. Of course, we looked back. We saw that we were being followed by a good size long-tailed weasel. We admired it, walked on, looked back again. It was still there, skulking behind. We called out to it.
"Why are you following us?"
"Are you a spy?"
"Who sent you? Was it the bear?"
Eventually, it ceased its surveillance and turned off the trail to complete its weasel errands, whatever those may be.
We reached our NPS-approved campsite by mid-afternoon and found it equipped as advertised, with a cross-pole between trees for hanging food (we brought Ursacks). Sadly, this campground lacked an open-air pit toilet. It was hot, and there was plenty of time for a swim, so I dove right in and added Yellowstone Lake to my lake-bagging life list. At 7,500 feet, it was cold, although not nearly so cold as the alpine lakes in the Sierra and Rockies. Dan, being of a more judicious nature, elected to wade out gradually. That approach rarely produces an immersive experience. This time was no exception as his progress stalled out at thigh-level depth. We retired to the beach to dry off and lounge about until sunset. There was an abundance of flies and an absence of rising trout. But these were the only impediments to our complete satisfaction with the day’s hike.
Day 2 - Brimstone Point to Grouse Creek
We continued our walk toward the upper Yellowstone. The trail wove in and out of the forest, rewarding us with spectacular views of the lake, the Thorofare country, and the mountains beyond. Several northbound hikers passed. The last group we encountered was camped near the lower ford of the river. Like the other hikers, they had crossed at the Thorofare ford several miles up and found it waist-deep. They doubted the lower ford was passable.
We were also advised that several huge grizzlies were roaming the area. No surprise there, as half a mile of willow thickets stood between us and the river. We advanced cautiously, seeing no bears, but plenty of wolf tracks. Arriving at the river, we took our time scouting the ford, and found a route no more than waist-deep. Facing upstream, we side-stepped across, me in front to break the current, Dan behind holding on to my pack, ready to brace me. Though the smooth-flowing current was deceptively strong, we were across in a few minutes with no slips or scares. It was a challenge but—with proper preparation and technique—not a danger.
Member's Only Content
- Day 1 - Ninemile TH to Brimstone Basin
- Day 2 - Brimstone Point to Grouse Creek
- Day 3 - Grouse Creek to Heart Lake
- Day 4 - Heart Lake to Shoshone Lake
- Day 5 - Shoshone Lake to Little Firehole Falls
- Day 6 - Little Firehole Falls to Sentinel Creek
- Day 7 - Sentinel Creek to Mary Mountain Trailhead
- Trip Review
- Gear List and Notes
- Related Content
Member's only version is 5,300 words and includes 33 photographs and/or illustrations, and 11 videos.