The object of my road trip this year is Yellowstone National Park, and along with Uncle Bob, cousin Rob, cousin Alex, and family friend Amy, we’re set to eat up as much of it as we can in a week. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, formed in 1872 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. That age is obvious at Fort Yellowstone in Mammoth Springs, the first settlement beyond the iconic Roosevelt Arch gateway in Gardiner, Montana: it still looks like the army installation it was when the cavalry defended the park’s borders in the days before the National Park Service. Its stately buildings stand in tribute to General Philip Sheridan, one of those complicated figures of American history who was a central figure in smashing the Confederacy and in the preservation of Yellowstone who also oversaw the systematic destruction of Native American independence in the West.
Yellowstone’s age allows a visitor to see the changing beliefs in conservation since the first wagon parties of tourists made their way west and the army enforced its borders by the barrel of the gun. A generation later, Yellowstone’s guardians threw up massive lodges beside some of its largest attractions, with stately hotels looming over Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake to house the adventurers who came by train. By the 1950s, the Park Service realized that, no matter how tasteful, putting these behemoths on top of attractions wasn’t the brightest idea, and built out its road network to reflect the automobile era. The new Canyon Village is set tastefully back from the canyon but is a relic of that era’s architecture, at once fascinating and rather ugly. Sweeping wildfires in the late 80s prompted more rebuilds, along with new theories of forest management and recognition that humans can only manage so much.
At times, Yellowstone feels like a commercial for the entire National Park system. One short hike along the Yellowstone River evokes the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a waterfall higher than Niagara Falls, the hoodoos of Bryce, and the red and green cliffs of Zion, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Upper Geyser Basin alone, which is one of many geyser basins in the park, is home to over half of the world’s active geysers; to the east, the Hayden Valley is the epicenter of the largest big game preserve in the lower 48 states. If that isn’t enough, the park sits atop one of the two largest supervolcanoes in the world, a pulsing magma chamber at the heart of North America that could just kill us all if it ever decides to blow its top. This park is a natural wonder on a scale few others can match, and while many parks can outdo it in some aspects, none can outdo it in all.
The park is often crowded, though a ranger at Old Faithful tells Bob and Amy numbers are way down, a trend likely spurred by a complete lack of international travelers due to Covid-19. Not only are foreigners often legion in national parks, they also tend to be more intrepid than Americans and venture beyond main attractions. Even as a massive parking lot next to Old Faithful fills and the crowds spread their way along the Grand Canyon and wildlife-induced traffic jams clog its roads, we never feel great unease, and a few steps into the woods usually does away with the crowds. On the middle two days of the backpacking trip we encounter all of three other hiking parties, and there are far more remote corners of the Yellowstone backcountry than the part we visit on this trip. Solitude is available if one knows where to look, and this crew has some experience on that front.
Our destination for the first three nights in the park is the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a hike that will take us down the river’s lesser-known but still stunning canyon in the park. Our road into Yellowstone takes us up the Paradise Valley, which heads from I-94 in Livingston to the park’s northern gate in Gardiner, where the trail will dump us at the end. We leave my car at a campground on a steep peak above Gardiner and caravan with the other two to the Hellroaring trailhead along a ridge overlooking the Yellowstone. Both the road and the first stages of the hike take us through a dozen microclimates: river canyon, alpine meadow, boreal forest, barren plateau, seasonal ponds. We dodge the deer, holster up our bear spray, and immediately work our way down to a solid suspension bridge over the river.
Hiking with this crew has little in common with my solitary forays along the Superior Hiking Trail. When I go by myself, it’s a spare operation built for speed, an intense pace with few breaks, my movements machine-like to a fault. Here, we hike at a sustainable pace, and the steady chatter keeps us going. Rob, a Bay Area engineer, educates us on the intricacies of digital imaging; Alex, fresh off a weekend of sunburn in Door County, Wisconsin and afflicted by allergies, bears the brunt of most of the trip’s indignities. (The collections of tissues and flaking skin in the tent we share are a sight to behold.) Bob, who has the organization of these trips down to an art, offers his endorsements of some of our new gear, while Amy provides the necessary morale boosts. We follow deliberate packing and repacking processes and stop to gain intel from backpackers heading the other direction, who warn of a recent grizzly attack up Hellroaring Creek and a black bear running through their camp. We pass through pine forests and open sagebrush meadows, scan these expanses for big game but come up empty.
We come to the ford over Hellroaring Creek, which is wide, icy, and has a current that shows how it got its name. There’s a bridge a couple miles upstream, but a party we’d met at the suspension bridge say the trail to it grows hard to follow. After some scouting, we decide the way straight across is as good as any and pick our way through the rushing creek. The trail is harder to pick up on the opposite bank, and a lone bison down by the creek also forces a detour, but in time we find a halfhearted trail down the Hellroaring to its confluence with the Yellowstone, where we camp the first night. It is a stunning setting. The Hellroaring pours down its cataracts to the end, but the Yellowstone rushes even faster, and Amy uses her experience from her whitewater days to scout out lines through the rapids. We set up camp, with the tents up on a ridge away from our kitchen area just above the river, and we dip our feet in a pool off the creek. Over a bourbon happy hour and a freeze-dried dinner we solve most of the world’s problems before a mosquito attack leads us to beat an early retreat to our tents, stuck up awake for a few hours until it cools enough to put on the warm clothing we’ll need for the lower late night temperatures at this elevation.
We get a slow start on day two. I’m the first one up and take a moment for myself at the confluence of the river and the creek, and when we set out I set the pace across the open meadow. The trail is a mere suggestion here, a bison poop obstacle course where each step scatters a few dozen grasshoppers. We pick up the main trail and head up into a grassland where we are immediately assaulted by biting flies and mosquitoes. We go quiet and don’t linger, pushing up and up into a piney park as we dodge the impassable cliffs along the riverbank here. We catch glimpses of the Yellowstone below and start our way down, though the miserable bugs render any pauses along the picturesque creeks impossible.
By the standards of this party this hike was a perfectly reasonable one, but between the heat and the nonstop sun, we are all drained by the time we reach our campsite on the banks of the river. Bob reclines in the shade, while Alex passes out in the hammock; Amy and Rob take dips in the river, moving cautiously when water snakes appear. (Later, we learn they are harmless garter snakes.) My back is grumpy, but I catch up on my notes and this night too resolves itself in food and drink and a hasty retreat to the tents, where Alex and I play chess to wait out the bugs.
The third morning is leisurely, and Amy and I are up first and enjoy teas before the others wake. We take a side trip to see a second suspension bridge over the river at Blacktail Deer Creek and, after nothing but rip-roaring water over the past two days, marvel at the stillness of lonely Crevice Lake. From there, we admire the crashing falls of Crevice Creek and push up and around Knowles Falls, meeting a few fishermen along the switchbacks. For a second straight day we’ve underestimated the distance to our campsite, and fear we’ll have to climb another ridge before our site appears by surprise. It’s a small site, its tent pads tucked amid the grass along the riverbank, and it mercifully becomes cloudy not too long after we arrive, which keeps the site bearable in the midafternoon heat. After Alex reloads my water, I drift away in my own hammock session. Happy hour comes atop a small ridge with a view of rapids below, and we’ve saved three of the best freeze-dried delicacies for tonight. Finally, the bugs are minimal, and we can sit out and chat away through the evening before we fall asleep to the sound of the thundering rapids.
On day four we wake at a reasonable hour for once, but still leave camp later than planned after conversation over breakfast carries on. It’s a grey day, which makes for easier hiking; a few drops fall here and there, but the heavens never open up. After climbing the ridge we’d dreaded the day before, the trail meanders down a boulder field and into the deepest reaches of the Black Canyon, its rocks made more properly foreboding by the darkness. The Yellowstone pours through these granite halls, and the impressively engineered path presents a few rattlesnakes to liven things up. We straddle the park boundary and start seeing people again: first a stock party, then a dad with two religiously mask-wearing young daughters, and finally some random dude wandering the hill chattering on his phone. Lunch comes beneath a tree near the banks of Bear Creek, where the canyon opens up to views of the mountains surrounding Gardiner.
We conclude our hike with our last and greatest upward push. I set an aggressive pace up the early stages but am overruled on the route and settle back into the pack as we push up switchback after switchback in the suddenly re-emergent sun. Finally, we come to my car, which sits alone, baking in the parking lot. We pack it like a clown car and I let it roll back down into Gardiner, trying not to burn up too much of the brakes. Bob and Alex check into a hotel while Amy, Rob, and I retrieve the other vehicles, an affair slowed by a traffic jam induced by a black bear sighting.
We spend the night in Gardiner, a town dropped on a spare plain along the Yellowstone that exists slowly to lodge and equip national park visitors. Our abode for the night has an excess of dead animals in the lobby, and any enjoyment of indoor plumbing is fleeting: the toilet in the room that Alex and I share clogs, and with no 24-hour service at the desk, we settle for making the trek to a bathroom off the lobby. Still, it’s an upgrade over digging a hole with a trowel. We sneak in a dinner of bison and elk before a downpour, and Gardiner’s lone liquor store has a surprisingly good bourbon stash. We retreat to the hotel and catch some of an improbable opening day of baseball, a fleeting hint of normalcy that delights Rob and me.
On our fifth day, we play the dutiful part of Yellowstone tourists. Our vehicles caravan around the park’s Grand Loop, with a long stop at Old Faithful and its surrounding geyser basin, with vivid orange and blue pools and explosions of steam and a lingering aroma of sulfur. We have lunch along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, which stretches its fingers out toward the mountains beyond; later, we drive up the Hayden Valley, an American safari through open plains dotted with bison and elk. We tour the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near sunset, awed by its towering falls and wide palette of yellows and whites and blacks and reds. We spend the night in the car campground at Canyon Village, Alex and Rob religiously tending a fire beneath the lodgepole pines, Amy’s bourbon bottle on hand to fuel us through the night.
We ask ourselves why we do this, deny ourselves creature comforts to plow through the wilderness, and come up with a few answers: we know how few people will ever see this, know these memories will endure long after most of the rest of 2020 fades away in our minds, admit we may share a masochistic desire to push ourselves and live in a radically different way. In a year where travel itself has become a risky proposition, we managed to embed ourselves in an American wonder, and we plan to keep this tradition going in future years. We’ve written our own little history that will endure.