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By Richard Jirik
| TRIP REPORT: YELLOWSTONE BACKPACK ...by Richard Jirik
Mike Budig's annual fall Yellowstone backback trip in 2006 blazed new territory : the Gallatin Range in the northwest corner of the national park.
Four hardy members of the WMC accompanied Mike on this adventure: Mike Roundy, Naval Apolin (a native of Peru), Jaynee Levy, and myself. We were to meet Mike in West Yellowstone on Saturday morning, September 16th . However, due to inclement weather forecast for that weekend, we elected to drive up Saturday afternoon, after the brunt of the storm had passed. This change in plans came in the absence of any response from Mike, despite a mounting number of messages left on his cell phone. Maybe Mike needs a new cell phone provider, or to turn his phone on ?
After a relatively peaceful albeit chilly night in a Forest Service campground just outside of West Yellowstone, the four of us arrived in that tourist haven and met Mike at the prearranged restaurant, exactly 24 hours later than our prearranged time. . Seems he had arrived there a day or two before us, and had hunkered down in his cozy truck-mounted RV at the end of a dead end street while waiting out the rain.
Following a hearty breakfast we drove up to the Mammoth Hot Springs backcountry ranger office, where we picked up our backcountry permit. After watching a bull elk threaten some tourists right outside the Mammoth visitors center, who evidently came too close to his harem, we headed back down the Grand Loop Road to the Glen Creek trailhead about five miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs.
Our proposed route was a large loop that would take us west through the Gallatin Range to its namesake river, and then east back through the range to the main park road, a distance of 40+ miles. The route seemed simple enough, except for one detail—the NPS-designated grizzly bear management area that encompasses most of the Gallatin Range. Within the management area cross country travel is prohibited, i.e., hiking is restricted to designated trails, and camping prohibited. All of the limited NPS campsites are located peripheral to the management area. Thus, we had to plan on crossing the rather extensive management area each way in a single day, as per Park regulations. That meant for two very long days of hiking of 15+ miles per day, ….and conversely two relatively short travel days. There was no alternative. And what if we encountered a problem that delayed or prevented us from passing through the management area in a day ? Well...
The trip was relatively uneventful until we broke camp in the Gardner river valley the morning of the second day, when we planned to pack across the bear management area. Perhaps mesmerized by the fall colors, the scenic vistas of the Gallatin Range to the west and Electric Peak towering to the north, and the clear blue sky as a backdrop, we initially experienced some difficulty in finding the main trail. Ultimately locating a trail that appeared to be well worn and paralleling the river, in apparent agreement with the map, we myopically trekked up the valley. However, the absence of any yellow NPS trail markers nailed on the trees should have given us pause to question our complacency. Upon reaching a designated campsite as the valley narrowed, Mike’s map conveyed the bad news. We had missed the trail heading up the Fawn Creek drainage, where we wanted to go, and were now about two miles farther north. We could only surmise that we had been traveling on a heavily used game trail.
Despite having lost over an hour, going cross-country through the management area ( a Park Service no no!) to intersect our trail was not an option, so we backtracked and eventually managed to relocate the Fawn Pass trail, assisted by the two GPS units we had previously been neglecting. It was during one of those GPS breaks, while in a long clearing, that we experienced our first and only grizzly bear sighting of the trip. The lone (male ?) bear wandered into the clearing several hundred feet in front of us, and began moving in our general direction. As we were downwind from him, initially he was unaware of us. At about 40 (?) yards he evidently detected our scent, and stood up on his hind legs to get a better view. Having confirmed our presence, he bolted off into the forest, never to be seen again. The accompanying photo, snapped by fearless Naval, was the only bear picture we could muster. The rest of us were too busy keeping a keen eye on Mr. Bear as he approached. To underscore the rarity of grizzly bear sightings in Yellowstone, it was only Mike’s second grizzly encounter in the Park during the 20-odd trips he has led there.
Our trek over the Gallatin Range via the Fawn Pass trail that day was long (17+ miles) and tiring. Nevertheless, we were rewarded with some great vistas, and saw a multitude of elk, including several bulls in rut. And even if we couldn't see them, bugling elk could be heard frequently. We arrived at the second night campsite along the Gallatin River at twilight, and prepared dinner in the dark.
Day three was more of a rest day, and we slept in after the demands of the previous day. A few of us hiked west down the Gallatin River valley in the morning via the Bighorn Pass trail, and then backtracked to camp in the early afternoon. We backpacked east along the Bighorn Pass trail to another campsite about two miles up the Gallatin. That night Mike entertained us with tales of past WMC trips in Yellowstone that he had led.
The weather looked threatening when we awoke the next morning, as a storm system began to move in. It rained a little as we marched toward Bighorn Pass at the crest of the range. There we briefly enjoyed some stunning views, and then continued on down Panther Creek, hoping the rain would hold off until we reached two of our vehicles at the Indian Creek campground. We saw and heard more elk, and passed a number of bison along Indian Creek. Most of us spent that night at the Mammoth campground, in the company of a number of elk that move into the Mammoth area from the high country in the early fall. The following morning, as we drove down to Canyon Village for a little sightseeing, the higher elevations were mantled with up to several inches or more of fresh snow. We had beaten the storm but just barely---a fortuitous ending to another memorable Yellowstone backpack.