A set of elk antlers sit on the ground next to a river, with greenery and a heavily clouded sky

Yellowstone: Backpacking the Thorofare and South Boundary Trails

Backpacking is something that AJ has done for years. He grew up near Glacier National Park and has gone on various backpacking trips in other locations as well. He’s an experienced outdoorsman and has enough gear to start his own small outfitting company.

As a rural-kid-turned-long-time-city-dweller, I was drawn to getting out into nature and seeing beautiful scenery. Prior to meeting AJ, I really had no idea what I was doing or where to go, so I think it’s so cool that this is something we can do together. I’ve been excited about it ever since we talked about it on our first date.

The Year of National Parks

We decided two years ago that 2019 would be the year of National Parks for us, with our vacations being centered around hiking and backpacking. Now, as much as we’d both love to visit every single National Park, just like we visited every single Disney Park, we knew that this just wasn’t going to be feasible in one year. We had to sit down and make a list of our top choices and pick a few to focus on.

Yellowstone was a must-do for both of us. I’d never been there at all, and AJ had only driven through to see a couple of the major sights. Because of how planning and vacation time worked out, it ended up being our first National Park of the year. We invited a few friends and family members to come with us on this journey. Happily, our friend Danny was able to join us.

A clear bluish thermal feature in the ground surrounded by a rocky crust
A thermal feature on the Geyser Walk near Old Faithful

Planning: Choosing an Itinerary

I knew next to nothing about Yellowstone when I started researching it. I just knew that Old Faithful was there and possibly also Smokey the Bear. I learned a lot just by looking at all of the different trails that are available. First of all, Yellowstone is HUGE. There are tons of different areas to explore and endless backcountry trip possibilities. 

Then I came across a little blurb on the website of a backcountry guide company that talked about a nine-day trip on the Thorofare and South Boundary trails. Certain phrases jumped out at me, words that really ignited my wanderlust, like “the most remote dwelling in the lower 48” and “farthest away from a road you can get.” Plus, the first few days were pretty flat. “Should be easy!” I thought.

AJ thought that this itinerary sounded cool too. Since we unfortunately don’t have unlimited vacation time, he started looking at the logistics of how we could make it a shorter trip. He came up with a seven-day itinerary for the same trip that the guide company was doing in nine days. It had a couple of “tough” days with a lot of climbing involved, but I knew that we’d be fine with adequate training.

Planning: Applying for Permits

For a National Park backcountry trip, you can be one hundred percent sure in your heart that you’ve picked the perfect itinerary for yourself, but it means nothing until you get the permit. Each park, as we’ve discovered, has its own unique system for applying for and issuing permits.

For Yellowstone backcountry permits, there’s no online application system. You have to mail it, fax it, or apply in person. All applications received on or before March 31st are processed in random order starting April 1st. Anything received after April 1st is processed in the order it’s received AFTER all of the random lottery applications are finished being processed. Essentially, this means that if you really have your heart set on a specific itinerary, you should get that application in by March 31st. More information on the process can be found here.

We submitted our application in late March. In addition to our first choice of itinerary, complete with desired specific backcountry campsites, we listed a few other possibilities on the application, in hopes that we’d at least get something. Since our desired itinerary involved camping outside of the park for one night on the South Boundary trail, which people tend to do on this itinerary, I had to call the Park Service and ask how to indicate that campsite on the application. It turns out you’re supposed to write “Forest Service” or “USFS” (short for United States Forest Service), since that part of the trail is actually in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We also checked the box that indicated we’d accept the same itinerary with slight changes to the assigned campsites.

Sometime in mid- to late-April, AJ got a call from a Yellowstone Ranger. They’d been able to approve our itinerary but had to make some campsite changes. They just had to review the changes with him and get the okay. We’d gotten our first choice itinerary!

Preparation: Training

Since I had never been on a backpacking trip of any kind before, job one was to do an overnight trip. We ended up doing a couple of weekend trips around Harriman State Park in New York leading up to the Yellowstone trip. I got accustomed to packing my pack, utilizing the various eating and sleeping equipment, and using nature’s toilet facilities. I also learned a little bit about how much food I would need to pack.

Two backpackers sit on the ground and rest while leaning on their backpacks in a forested area
Lunch time on one of the days we were glad we’d trained for

I tend to need most of my weekends for downtime and errands, so the rest of our training was in the form of day hikes. We did them with our packs on, progressively increasing the weight of the packs until we were close to the weight we’d be carrying on the trip. When possible, we’d do an easy, short hike one weekend with an increased pack weight. Then the next weekend we’d use the same pack weight for a more strenuous hike that was roughly equivalent in mileage and elevation gain to our hardest day in Yellowstone.

In addition to all of this, I tried to keep up with my normal running and weight lifting routine as much as possible.

Overall, I felt pretty physically prepared for Yellowstone with the above method, whereas I think AJ wished he had done some more general exercise, in addition to the hikes we were doing. The only thing we weren’t able to train for was the altitude. More on that later.

Preparation: Packing

The best thing we did for ourselves in regards to packing was to pack our backpacks early, a week or so before the trip. When we tried it, we discovered that we had waaaaaaayyy too much stuff and too much weight. We then had time to order a lighter tent and sleeping pads. I downloaded the Kindle app to my phone so that I could leave my Kindle at home. I gave up on bringing camp sandals. AJ gave up on a lot of the camera equipment he wanted to bring, and so on.

In hindsight, we were very glad we brought as many clothing layers as we did. Even at the end of July, early mornings were very chilly. Winter hats, gloves, a couple of different long-sleeve shirts, and rain jackets were all put to good use. We also needed our water shoes a lot and were very glad to have them.

What we could have done without was quite so much food. I thought we had packed the right amount (about two pounds per day) based my estimates after the overnights and strenuous day hikes that we did. What I didn’t consider was that even if you’re burning a ton of calories through activity, it can be hard to replace what you’re burning when you’re not used to eating that much. AJ, in particular, often had a hard time finishing a huge dinner. We had a lot of leftover food at the end. I guess it’s better than not having enough.

The other thing we had too much of was fuel, which Danny picked up when he arrived in the area, since you can’t fly with it. We thought we needed way more than we did, to the point that we even picked up an extra canister at a general store in Yellowstone. I think the error in our calculations happened because we were doing the calculating at sea level, and much less fuel was needed to boil water at such high altitudes.

The mosquitoes were really terrible for a lot of the trip. Between Danny and us, we made it through with enough bug spray. Actually, Danny saved us by letting us use his bug spray when we ran out. We also had to ration toilet paper, which was less than ideal. I think those were the only two things that we should have had more of.

Preparation: Logistics

This is one area where we failed pretty miserably. We should have done more research and maybe made a couple of phone calls ahead of time. It would have saved us a few headaches.

Since Danny had rented a car as well, we arranged to meet him at the south entrance of the park the evening before we started the hike. The idea was that we’d leave one car there (at the end point of our hike) so that we could drive straight to the starting point in the morning, stopping to pick up our permit at a nearby ranger station along the way.

An old barn sits in front of snow-capped jagged mountain peaks
On our way to meet Danny at the south entrance of Yellowstone, AJ and I stopped to see the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row near the Grand Tetons

First of all, we didn’t say exactly where we’d meet. We just set a general location and time. We knew we probably wouldn’t have cell service in the park, but for some reason we didn’t make the connection that we should probably specify a place before losing service. AJ and I were running a few minutes late, which complicated things further, but luckily we all found each other without too much trouble.

Secondly, we didn’t bother to find out if we needed any sort of special permit to leave the car parked near the ranger station at the south entrance. And, since we arrived after it had closed for the day, we couldn’t ask. Upon inspecting the other cars parked there, it looked like you did, in fact, need a tag in the window. So we’d gone out of our way for nothing and would need to return in the morning. We’d booked accommodation in West Yellowstone, a good hour and 45 minute drive away. And that’s if traffic isn’t completely stopped because people are gawking at buffaloes. I felt pretty terrible about this debacle, since I’m normally really good at thinking through the details.

Mistake number three was not downloading a Google map of the park for navigation while in the car. Lucky for us, Danny had thought ahead on that one, so we followed him to West Yellowstone that night. AJ downloaded the map as soon as we had service/WiFi at the hotel.

Our last big mistake is probably the one that caused the most strife. We didn’t look at the latest backcountry situation report. They had one printed out at the south entrance ranger station, which we revisited in the morning to get our permit and leave the car. The ranger sort waved to it and said “you’ll be fine.” We were so anxious to be on our way that we left without looking at it thoroughly, so we really had no idea what to expect when it came to river crossings or trail conditions, other than what we’d seen on an older situation report a couple of weeks earlier.

Day 1: A Few Hurdles

We woke up at about 5:30 on the day we started our hike and left the hotel at 6:00. Since the only breakfast place open that early in West Yellowstone is McDonald’s, we’d decided the night before to meet up with Danny at the Grant Village Dining Room, which is in the park on the way to the Snake River Ranger Station at the south entrance.

We made pretty good time getting there, since that’s a bit early for traffic and buffalo gawking in the park. We were eating at the breakfast buffet by 7:45. We all stuffed our faces, knowing it would be our last “real” meal for a week. While we were there, we snagged a dinner reservation for the last night of the trip, ensuring that we’d have more “real” food if we managed to survive.

Next we headed over to the nearby general store to pick up more fuel (which we didn’t need – see above). After that, it was straight on to the ranger station to get our permit.

We had to watch a 20-minute safety video before we could pick up our permit. It covered a lot of things, but bear safety was a main topic. We were prepared with one can of bear spray. AJ and Danny had a lot of experience in bear safety – not putting any food or scented items in the tent, hanging a bear bag, etc.

Once we’d watched the video, we had to talk to the ranger and get our permit. He went over some basic questions with us, and, as I mentioned before, glanced at the situation report, but it was pretty fast. He gave us one ticket for each car, which we were supposed to leave in a visible spot on the dash.

It struck me that there is no hand-holding when it comes to backpacking in a national park. It’s up to you to know what gear you need and what kind of training is required. I didn’t expect it to be any different, nor do I think it necessarily should be, but I do wonder if there are people who go out into the wilderness woefully unprepared.

After all of that, we finally got on the road to our starting point at Nine Mile Trailhead, about an hour and and a half away on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake. By the time we got there, it was about 11:00am. Then we had to do some final shuffling of items and apply sunscreen. It was 11:30am before we started hiking.

Three backpackers smile together with a recently burned forest behind them
Here we go!

The start of the Thorofare trail goes through a section of forest that burned recently. Although a lot of trees are still standing, they’re dead and could fall anytime. What’s pretty about this section of the trail is the view of the lake and the wildflowers blooming on the forest floor. As the day went on, we started to move into less-burned areas.

I think we all expected all of the trails in Yellowstone to be really well-maintained, especially since Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks. Let me tell you, they were not. The beginning of the Thorofare trail had many fallen trees that had not been cleared. We spent a lot of extra time climbing over or under them. Even worse, some of them were so big that we had to bushwhack to try to find a way around.

A swiftly flowing rocky creek interrupts a forest hiking trail
A view from our lunch spot on Day 1

We came across a group of people on horseback who were traveling in the opposite direction. After we passed them, it was at least a little easier to follow the path that the horses had taken around the fallen trees.

The first day of hiking was a slog. Getting such a late start wasn’t so good for morale. Our bodies weren’t used to the altitude, and our packs were at their heaviest. Stopping every few feet to navigate the tree obstacles expended a lot of extra energy. We stopped for lunch after a water crossing about two miles in. We would stop for breaks in open areas with a breeze, since the bugs weren’t as bad that way. We hiked about 11.4 miles in a little over seven hours, including breaks. We got to camp – site 5E4 – at about 6:30pm.

The campsite was beautiful, but the mosquitoes were awful. Like, really awful. They swarmed us as we quickly ate our dinner and got ready for bed.

A man eats his rehydrated backpacking meal at sunset on the pebbly beach of Yellowstone Lake
Danny tried to escape the bugs by eating next to the lake, where there was a little more breeze.

Day 2: Wildflowers and More Mosquitoes

We woke up at around 6:00 or 6:30 the next morning with the intention of getting on the trail by about 8:00. It was really quite cold. I had on a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, and raincoat, and I was still shivering as I sat outside for my morning meditation. We’d brought a nifty little contraption to turn a sleeping pad into a chair, just so that I could meditate in the comfort of the tent. Unfortunately, it broke that morning. (AJ was able to fix it so that I could use it the next day.)

Three hikers pose next to the vast, blue Yellowstone Lake with a cloudless sky and a few pine trees in the background
The first of what became our traditional start-of-day group campsite photo. This one is at 5E4.

We dragged our feet breaking camp, mostly because of the cold. I don’t know, maybe we were actually enjoying the fact that the cold was keeping the mosquitoes in their hiding places. Being able to go to the bathroom without being eaten alive was a welcome relief.

Although the goal was 8:00-ish, we didn’t set out on the trail until after 9:30. It was a 12.5 mile day with more elevation than we had expected, or at least it felt that way. We continued to walk south along the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake. Once it warmed up, the mosquitoes were bad. Except for the times when there was a breeze, they were really bad. Like, the biggest swarms of mosquitoes I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m from Minnesota, where the mosquito is the unofficial state bird.

The scenery that day was beautiful. The lake, wildflower-filled meadows, and mountains looming to the south. Once we got past the southern end of the lake, the mosquitoes let up a lot, and it was actually quite pleasant.

A dirt trail runs through a meadow with wildflowers

At one of our three big creek crossing for the day, we met what looked like a large guided group. We starting chatting a bit, and the person answering most of our questions seemed to be the group’s leader.

They were coming from the opposite direction, so I asked him if there were any pit toilets or outhouses ahead. We’d seen one close to the start of the Thorofare, but we hadn’t been able to find out from any of our research whether or not some of the backcountry campsites had them. The group leader politely responded in the negative, but another guy in the group rudely scoffed and guffawed at me, as if I were some sort of Girl Scout Barbie wannabe. Since some national parks do have toilets on backcountry trails, it was a perfectly reasonable question. I swallowed my rage, at least until we were out of earshot, and moved on.

The day as a whole was another slog. Our packs were still heavy, and our bodies still weren’t used to the altitude. We took it slow and took a lot of breaks. We stopped for lunch in a shaded area of meadow with a breeze. The only wildlife we saw were a deer and a few birds.

Three hikers sit on a log that's found on rocky ground.
Taking a break on Day 2

Our campsite for the night, 6C2, was a full mile off of the main trail. That last mile was pretty muddy, and we had to cross a boggy moat of sorts toward the end of it. I mistook a boggy section with grass for solid ground and fell in up to my knees. Fortunately, I was not hurt, just wet. We got to camp a little earlier than we had the night before, although not by much. Given the fact that we’d started a full two hours earlier and only gone a mile further, we were definitely moving more slowly.

The campsite itself was actually really beautiful, once we got there. It was along the Yellowstone River and had a nice breeze. The mosquitoes were not even one tenth as bad as the night before, although there were a few more flies.

A starry night sky with silhouettes of trees and a lit-up tent

Going to bed that night, I think we were all looking at the river and contemplating the fact that we would have to cross it eventually. We were also worried that our “easy” days felt really hard.

Day 3: An Outhouse and a Lost Trail

The third day started out alright. We were acclimating to the altitude a bit better, and our packs were starting to feel noticeably lighter. We crossed a particularly beautiful creek in the morning. I remember genuinely enjoying that scenery and reveling in the fact that so few people ever get to see what we were seeing.

Three hikers in caps smile in front of the Yellowstone River with a tree-filled landscape and blue sky in the background
Getting ready for Day 3

A little later in the day, there was another small creek. AJ managed to make it across by stepping on rocks and not get his feet wet. Danny put on his water shoes to make the crossing. I followed in AJ’s footsteps, literally, but I wasn’t so adept at navigating on the rocks, and my feet got wet. Still, my spirits stayed relatively high. My feet would be dry again eventually.

After that, we were in the home stretch to the Thorofare Ranger Station, the most remote dwelling in the lower 48 states. Well, it may be remote, but it still has a glorious, beautiful outhouse. In fact, it was the best outhouse I’ve ever seen in my life. We all used it at least once and thoroughly enjoyed the bug-free experience.

We were disappointed to find that there was no ranger at the ranger station. We’d hoped to be able to discuss our upcoming crossing of the Yellowstone River, which we were all pretty anxious about. They must only man the station for a short time in August and September.

Still, we stuck around for a little while, relaxing on the porch and signing the trail register. The register book was roughly half full and was begun in 2011. Only eight people had signed it before us in 2019. That’s not a lot of people! We weren’t exactly surprised, though, given how few people we’d seen on the trail up to that point.

Three hikes pose on the porch of a log cabin
The most remote dwelling in the lower 48 (outhouse not pictured)

From the ranger station, we continued on to finish the final 2.5 miles to our campsite for the night, 6Y2. When hiking, I always hope that the last few miles will be relatively smooth. Especially at the end of the day when I’m tired, it’s hard to have the energy to get through challenges with humor and grace. On this particular day, we had no idea that these last 2.5 miles would be probably the most challenging of the whole trip.

Shortly after getting onto the South Boundary Trail, we came up to our third big creek crossing of the day, Thorofare Creek. I don’t know who was in charge of naming these things, but this was really more of a river than a creek. Expecting a similar creek to what we’d encountered previously, we saw as we approached that it was way too deep and swift to cross with backpacks where the trail met up with it. AJ went on a little reconnaissance mission to find us a better place to cross. He’d forgotten to take his water shoes and hiking poles with him, but he still managed to demonstrate that it was crossable. Danny and I didn’t know what the conditions were like where he was crossing, so we made a plan as we looked on to throw him a rope if he should slip and fall in. The place we ended up crossing was about knee-deep.

We continued on toward our campsite and at some point started to cross a large meadow, following the trail trench as we had been all along. Then, the trail just… ended. It disappeared into nothingness, swallowed up by tall grasses and thick shrubs. We saw a wooden post in the middle of the meadow with an orange trail marker on it and headed in that direction.

From there, we couldn’t see any more trail markers and there was still no trail. We knew our campsite was on the Yellowstone River and that the river was somewhere on the other side of the meadow. We spent what felt like forever – but was probably really 20 minutes – trudging through the dense shrubs trying to find the trail again. We came to another stagnant water moat, so we had to bushwhack some more to try to find a way across it. Eventually we did, using our poles as leverage to jump across a narrow section.

At some point, we found the trail again and started following it. As we were coming up to our campsite, it disappeared again. But by this time, we were able to see the bear pole of the camp site and make our way over the fallen trees to get to where we needed to be.

Lesson learned. Do not expect the trails in Yellowstone’s backcountry to be as well-manicured as other trails you might be used to. It’s just as remote for the people maintaining it as it is for backpackers.

By the time we’d set up camp and made dinner, it was 8:00pm. I would say that morale was at its lowest point of the trip. We’d had a long and exhausting day, lost the trail, not seen any rangers, and the big Yellowstone River crossing we’d been so worried about was on the docket for first thing the next morning.

After dinner, AJ and Danny went over to the river, just a short way down the trail, to take a dip and scope it out. AJ, once again, managed to cross without hiking poles, and reported that it was only a little over knee-deep. Meanwhile, I was in the tent airing out my feet, fearing that I was getting trenchfoot from walking in wet socks and shoes.

Day 4: Too Much Excitement

Day 4 started out with the much-dreaded-but-now-not-so-scary Yellowstone River crossing. It wasn’t quite as easy as AJ had assured me it would be the night before. It turned out that the water level varied quite a bit depending on where you crossed, and the path we took that morning was quite a bit deeper than the one he’d taken the evening before. I got pretty scared once the water was up to the very tops of my thighs, and I struggled a bit to stay upright in the strong current. Thankfully, we all made it across just fine.

Three hikers smile while sitting on a log in front of a glassy river and a mountain
We thought our Danny-as-third-wheel joke was pretty funny.

Hiking-wise, what we thought would be one of the harder days turned out to be one of the easiest. We went about nine miles with 1500 feet of elevation gain, and we were all feeling pretty good. The climbing was surprisingly easy, and the trail was quite well-maintained along this stretch, especially given we didn’t see a single other person the whole day.

The one thing that was a little disconcerting was that we were seeing a lot of bear scat on the trail pretty much all day. Fresh bear scat. Consequently, we were trying to make a lot of noise as we went down the trail to scare away the presumably huge bear that was nearby. Making noise for the sake of making noise feels really weird. And it makes climbing hills quite a bit more difficult, wasting air on making loud noises.

A backcountry pond surrounded by pine trees and green grass
A pond that we passed on Day 4

The last mile of the day had been really crappy for the first three days of our hike, but going into the last mile of day four, we were feeling pretty cocky. “Last mile!” AJ yelled. “Bring it on, Yellowstone!”

Apparently, Yellowstone was listening. Not long after that, we came up to a noisy stream. The rocks were high enough in the water that it was possible to walk across with our hiking boots on, so I forged my way ahead, leading the way. I slipped a little and soaked one of my feet. I was focused on that as I trudged out of the other side of the stream, expecting that AJ and Danny were right behind me.

Then I heard, “Katie! Stop! Bear!” I froze. I looked up in time to register that there was a huge brown animal about 15 yards away from me. As it dawned on me that this was, indeed, a bear, the creature bounded across the trail and away into the woods.

A female hiker crosses a creek with her pants rolled up, using hiking poles for balance
Imagine that the bear took this picture.

AJ and Danny seemed to think this encounter was pretty cool. I, on the other hand, was shaken. Danny was on the other side of the stream with the bear spray, so had the bear charged me, it would have happened pretty fast and there wouldn’t have been much anyone could have done.

In hindsight, we think the bear just couldn’t hear all the noise we were making over the loud rushing of the stream. For the most part, we were doing everything right. I think next time I’ll carry my own can of bear spray, just in case.

We arrived at camp at 3:30, a big improvement over the previous three days. The campsite, 6M4, was nicely situated but really buggy. We all got in our tents very early because of that. At some point, there’s only so much that bug spray can do!

Day 5: Climbing to 10,000 Feet

We finally got the hang of getting up early and breaking camp on this day. We were shooting for 8:00 again, since we knew it would be a long, hard day. We left camp at about 8:10. That was way closer to our targeted time than on any previous day.

Three hikers pose in front of a fire ring surrounded by logs at a campsite
Fun times at 6M4

We had about three and a half miles to hike before our first Snake River crossing, after which we’d have a four-mile climb of 2500 feet ahead of us. Along that first stretch, we ran into a group of twelve people – two adults and ten teenagers – out for a nine-day backpacking trip that was part of an adventure trip offered by a company. It sounded like a very expensive summer camp for outdoorsy kids. We spent a little time talking to one of the group leaders, Gill (pronounced “Jill”), who seemed to have actually read the backcountry situation report. This group had also already crossed the Snake River at what would be our final river crossing, near the Snake River Ranger Station. It was comforting to know that their group had already done it and survived.

It was strange seeing so many people. The backcountry had been so sparsely populated up until that point. We leapfrogged with this group all day and ended up camping right near them that evening.

The first Snake River crossing was not too bad, although it was made more difficult by the fact that we bushwhacked to try to find a place to cross without taking off our shoes. Bushwhacking takes way more energy than just changing shoes a couple of times, even with a heavy backpack to maneuver.

After that, it was a lot of climbing. The day’s 2,500 feet were packed into about four miles. I felt surprisingly good, and I was grateful for the training we’d done. I think Danny felt pretty good too, but AJ struggled a bit on the ascent. That’s why we’d set out early – so that we could take breaks if we needed them.

We stopped for lunch near a stream so that we could refill our water bladders and rest before the final few hundred feet to the top. It wasn’t too long after that that we finally reached the highest point of our trip at just over 10,000 feet. The vegetation was very sparse near the top, and the terrain became pretty desert-like.

A sand and grass mixed landscape with white-capped jagged peaks
The view of the Grand Tetons at 10,000 feet

From up at the top, we had a spectacular view of the Tetons. As Danny put it, “The Grand Tetons are Yellowstone’s best feature.” We also randomly had cell service up there, so we spent a few minutes sending out texts letting people know we were still alive. It’s so crazy how reliant we’ve all become on constantly being in communication. Our third surprise at various points near the top was snow. Snow in July!

Unfortunately, there were some ominous-looking storm clouds moving toward us from over the top of the Tetons. We started booking it down the mountain as fast as we could, which wasn’t that fast. There was quite a bit of loose gravel on the descents, and Danny and I were both having quite a bit of pain from our hiking boots being too tight for our swollen feet.

On our way down the mountain, we saw a grizzly mom and her two cubs. Thankfully, our noise worked this time, and they were running away down a snowy embankment when we saw them. You do not want to get between a mama bear and her cubs, so I, for one, was happy to only get a short glimpse of them. It felt much safer than the previous day’s encounter.

After a while we entered into another recently-burned area. You can technically camp anywhere once you’re outside of the park boundary, but we hiked on until we got to the coordinates we’d marked on our map that we’d heard was an established campsite. Sure enough, it was there. We’d actually managed to do proper research on something.

Gill had warned us to set up our tents well away from the “widow makers,” dead trees that could fall at any moment. Especially with the wind picking up and storm clouds moving in, it seemed pretty important. We did our best, but there were still some trees that could have fallen on us. They were unavoidable. Danny and I both saw a couple of trees fall but nothing too close to our campsite.

Even though there was a fire ring, there was no bear pole at this campsite. Gill’s group had brought along a tarp, and they planned to wrap all of their scented items in it and place it far away from their tents. They were extremely nice to let us put our stuff in with theirs. Otherwise, we would have had to just leave our bear bags on the ground as is and hope for the best.

The Milky Way with silhouettes of mostly dead, burned rees
The “widow makers” silhouetted against the Milky Way

The storm never really materialized where we were. It got windy, and it rained a little bit – the first and only rain of the trip. It was dry enough for us to cook our dinners and still get eaten by bugs. The ground was completely dry by morning.

Day 6: Fire Keeps the Bugs Away

We had to wait for the teenager group to wake up before we could get going in the morning, since they had all of our scented items, including breakfast. We left camp around 9:30…

Three hikers smile at a campsite with dead, burned trees and some live pines in the background
Happy that our tents weren’t crushed by any falling trees

…And we got to our final campsite, 8C4, at 12:30. This was probably the only day that went by without incident. We had about five miles to go, and a lot of it was downhill. We did have to cross the Snake River once, which was hard for me only because of my rapidly disintegrating water shoes. We didn’t get lost once that day, and we saw no animals, except our good friends, the mosquitoes and the flies.

We had to go off of the South Boundary Trail to get to this campsite, which changed our overall path a bit from what we’d originally planned. Rather than following the South Boundary Trail the entire way back, we ended up on the Harebell Cutoff Trail. This would take us to the Snake River Cutoff Trail the following day before rejoining the South Boundary Trail.

A set of elk antlers sit on the ground next to a river, with greenery and a heavily clouded sky
Are you sure somebody didn’t put those there on purpose?

Once we got to camp, we ate lunch and proceeded to chill out for the rest of the day. AJ and I soaked our feet in the river while Danny listened to some podcasts in his tent. AJ started a fire around 4:30, our first and only campfire of the trip, which allowed us to actually enjoy being at camp for a change. Fire keeps the bugs away!

A campfire in a rocky fire ring at a forested campsite
So long, bugs!

We still went to bed very early. Our goal was to leave by 7:30 the next morning to give ourselves plenty of time for the last leg of the journey. We had dinner reservations, after all. That meant getting up at 5:30, since it usually took us about two hours to get ready and break camp.

Day 7: A Race to the Finish

It’s funny how fast one can walk when motivated by the promise of a shower and non-dehydrated food. It really makes me understand the metaphor of the horse with the dangling carrot. I was extremely excited to get the heck out of the Yellowstone backcountry and get myself into a shower as soon as humanly possible.

We got up at 5:30 on that last morning, as planned, but we didn’t hit the trail until around 8:00. It was a very cold morning, and that played a huge role in our sluggishness.

Three hikers stand and smile in front of a forest landscape and river with elk antlers nearby
Let’s get the heck outta here!

We backtracked a bit on the Harebell Cutoff trail and joined up with the Snake River Cutoff trail. We had 3.3 miles to go before our first Snake River crossing of the day, after which we would re-join the South Boundary trail.

Those 3.3 miles were hard. There was quite a bit of elevation, for one. For another, we completely lost the trail again at one point. We were trudging along when the trail suddenly disappeared into a great big chasm. Erosion from rain or snowmelt must have washed it away.

We could see the Snake River from our vantage point, so we just had to find a way around the chasm. We turned left, went down a hill, and made our way toward the Snake River. Thankfully, there wasn’t any heavy brush this time, so it was relatively easy going. In hindsight, we probably should have gone right at the chasm to meet back up with the trail.

Two backpackers cross a wide, shimmering river
Danny and I at our second-to-last river crossing of the trip, shortly after losing the trail to the chasm

Eventually, we saw a trail marker on the other side of the Snake River, so we crossed at a wide, somewhat shallow spot. That was the last river crossing for my worthless water shoes, which by now were completely open at the toes. I went slowly and carefully, trying not to injure my poor pinky toes any further. They’d taken a beating in my hiking boots and on slippery rocks during river crossings. After that crossing, we stopped for a snack break before bushwhacking a little bit to find the South Boundary trail again.

A woman displays her dilapidated blue and white water shoes
Goodbye, water shoes. It’s been grand.

Once we were on the South Boundary, it was very smooth sailing for the rest of the day. It was relatively flat, and it was shaded. We sailed through those miles. We passed through an area that contained geothermal hot springs. We also passed a marmot calling for its mate that apparently had very little fear of humans or was just stupid.

We stopped for a quick lunch in a shady forest spot before plowing on to the finish. It was quite a moment when we first spotted cars in the distance. It’s bizarre to go that many days without seeing cars.

AJ and I did the final Snake River crossing in our hiking boots, since we’d be at the car shortly thereafter. Danny, who was faring pretty well in his river crossing sandals, chose to change his shoes one last time to avoid sopping wet hiking boots. For me, crossing in my boots was infinitely easier than any previous crossing in my water shoes had been.

Three backpackers smile widely in front of a sign that says South Boundary Trailhead

We were back at the car by 2:30, much earlier than we had anticipated. After the first few miles, the day had been downright easy. After AJ and I changed our shoes, we all stopped into the ranger station to check in, let them know we’d made it back safely, and tell them about the sections of trail that had been washed out or overgrown.

The ranger we spoke with really couldn’t have cared less. She wasn’t mean about it, she just replied to everything we said with a mildly disinterested “oooOOOhhhhh,” the way one might respond to a child who was going on and on about his new toys. This really highlighted for us, once again, the lack of handholding in the national parks. You are completely responsible for your own safety.

We then headed over to Grant Village campground, where we checked in and set up our tents. After that, we stopped by the Grant Village Dining Room, where we had dinner reservations, to see if they could take us earlier. They were closed, so we went to take showers. The shower was everything I’d dreamed it would be. I’d never been that long without some sort of bath or shower in my life. It felt so good.

A walkway leading to a stone building with a large glass-windowed foyer
The trusty Grant Village Dining Room

By the time we all finished showering, the Grant Village Dining Room was open, and they were able to get us a table right away. We devoured that piping hot food and checked back in with some of the waiters who had served us breakfast on the morning we left. They cared a lot more about our safe return than the ranger had.

After dinner, the only task left for the day was to drive back to Nine Mile Trailhead to pick up the other rental car. It was still there, although there was a brief moment when we all thought maybe it was gone because there was another car blocking our view. On the way back from Nine Mile, AJ and I saw a wolf along the side of the road. This was apparently quite a rare sighting, even for Yellowstone.

The Touristy Stuff

We were used to getting up pretty early by this time, so none of us really slept in the next day. Even so, we didn’t arrive at the Old Faithful parking lot until a little before 11:00, having taken our time getting ready and filling up on more buffet breakfast at the trusty Grant Village Dining Room.

Old Faithful was erupting in the distance when we pulled up, so we knew it would be a while before the next eruption. We went to the general store to pick up some souvenirs. The constant post-hike hunger was hitting with full force, at least for me, so a snack was definitely in order as well.

After that, we went out to get a good spot for the eruption. It’s a very strange set-up that they have there – theatre-like bench seating, which is totally packed, for a geyser eruption. I’m not sure what else they’re supposed to do, given how popular it is. Still, it’s very weird.

A geyser shoots water into the air while people sit on a wooden boardwalk watching
Old Faithful does its thing

The eruption was supposed to happen at around 11:33 and actually happened at 11:31. For me, it was one of those anticlimactic things like seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Mona Lisa. In person, Old Faithful is really cool, but it’s pretty much exactly how you’d pictured it or seen it on TV. I’m glad I saw it once.

After the eruption, we went on a two-mile walk around the other side of Old Faithful to see other geysers in the area, most of which were not erupting. It was still interesting to look at the different geothermal features and read about them a bit. We also checked out the Old Faithful Lodge and found a lot of similarities to Wilderness Lodge.

A large wooden lodge in the background with a wooden boardwalk and pine trees in the foreground
Old Faithful Lodge

Our plan was to go to the Grand Prismatic Spring next. When we got there, there were so many people looking for non-existent parking that we just turned around a drove away. Since we only had one day to sightsee, we didn’t want to waste any precious time.

So, we headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs. It was very different from what any of us were expecting. As we soon learned, the area is a former military base, established in the pre-National Park Service days when the army was brought in to help keep order in the park. It really looks like a little town. The visitor center there had a nice exhibit with information on the park’s history. We also walked around the hot spring area, although none of them were active.

A geothermal feature overlooks an old military town with housing structures
Mammoth Hot Springs

We had the option to drive back to the campground the way we’d come, but we decided to take the Loop Road instead, just for some different scenery. After looking more at the map along the way, we decided to abandon our plans of cooking sausages and s’mores for dinner at our campsite. There were too many things to see.

For dinner, we ate at the food court at the Canyon Village Lodge. I had a chicken dinner, AJ had ribs, and Danny had a wok dish. AJ was struck by how different it is from Glacier National Park. You won’t find any food courts there. In Yellowstone, they’re really a necessity, with the number of visitors they receive each year.

A waterfall flows into a river in a large yellowish canyon
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

We’d seen Artist Point on the map, which was close to Canyon Village. Of course, AJ and I were intrigued, since one of the restaurants at Wilderness Lodge is named after it. The sun had just set when we got there. It was an incredibly gorgeous spot overlooking a large waterfall in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I wasn’t sorry that we’d skipped out on s’mores for that.

There is still so much in Yellowstone that we’d like to see. It’s on our list for a return trip someday!

A couple smiles for a selfie in front of a wooden sign that says Yellowstone National Park
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