Yellowstone backcountry campsites

I’ve taken Illinois students backpacking in Yellowstone four times, all in late June. There are still bear closures at those times, which rules out a number of sites I’d like to use. Most sites are limited to eight people, so I’ve needed two sites; once I used a site that allowed twelve. The goal, obviously, is to find two sites reasonably close together. Every backcountry office has told me that it’s OK for groups to eat together, though we must split up for sleeping.

My student groups have consisted mostly of backpacking novices. I’ve learned that it’s best to aim for distances around 2-5 miles, but that’s not always possible. Grebe Lake is at the low end of that range, the Gardiner sites at the higher end. Heart Lake sites would be great for groups but they are nine miles from the trailhead. The Snake River sites would also be great. Later in the season you can ford the Snake at the South Entrance; earlier in the season, you use an informal trail south of the park, across a bridge, and park on the east side of the river. That adds a couple of miles.

In addition to advice for backcountry groups, I thought I’d add reviews of other sites I’ve used. I’ve compared my impressions to Bill Schneider’s Hiking Yellowstone, which reviews every hiking site in the park. The park retires sites regularly, or restructures trails. Some of my reviews are updates to Schneider’s book.

One frustration in Yellowstone’s backcountry is that most official sites don’t follow the park rules. Ideally, your sleeping area, cooking area, and food storage area should each be 100 yards apart. You should sleep upwind of the cooking and food storage so that those food smells don’t lead a bear to your sleeping area. Not one of the sites reviewed here follows all of those rules.

Gardiner River

1G3 and 1G4 provide a pair of sites that work well for a group. You can put two eight-person crews here, within an easy walk of one another. Unfortunately, neither of these sites have a view of Electric Peak, though they would make a good basecamp for a climb of Electric.

Electric Peak1G4. This site is close to the Gardiner River water source. This site is very open with a big fire circle that is great for a group. The campfire has very good views across the meadow and into the lower portions of the Gallatins. Even though this site is visible from the trail, I’d choose this one over 1G3 if I were backpacking by myself.

1G3. This is a more closed-in site. It is much more private than 1G3, located some distance off the trail. It does not have any real view from the cooking area or tent sites. It’s about a hundred yards to the river water source.

Gardner's Hole1G2. This site is also on the Gardiner River, but it’s on a different trail than 1G3 and 1G4. You can’t accommodate 16 people here. Schneider gives this site five stars, but I can’t figure out why. He likes it as a private site with a good view, tent sites, and water source. I certainly agree on the tent sites and water source, but there were no real views from the site. You could get some good views if you walk upslope a bit from the sites, which are in the woods by the river.

The nearby site 1G5 is for stock groups only, but it better fits Schneider’s review. It’s possible that he mixed up the two sites in his notes. For views similar to mine, see http://www.trailguidesyellowstone.com/yellowstone_hikes/fawn_pass_trail_east_yellowstone.php

Grebe Lake

There are three sites on the north side Grebe Lake that would work well for groups. We used 4G3 and 4G4, but 4G5 would also pair well with 4G4. 4G3 and 4G4 are a little farther apart than I’d like for a group, and the trail between them is indistinct. The lake was very buggy in late June, and the area mostly seems to attract anglers. All three sites had clear views of 4G2 on the other side of the lake, which was also occupied. This reduces the privacy.

4G3 parallels the trail. It has beautiful views of the lake but is not at all private. The tent site, bear pole, and eating area are spread out in a line and more separate from one another than is true at most Yellowstone backcountry sites. There’s a community of Uinta ground squirrels between the campsite and the lake.
Guard uinta
4G4 is a real winner, though the bear pole, eating area, and tent sites are closer together than they should be. The site is hidden in the woods but looks out over the lake.

Snake River

8C1. I love the views from this site, which go up and down the Snake River Valley. The bear pole, eating area, and tent sites are lined up parallel to the trail, reasonably spaced out. Because we don’t make campfires, we ate away from camp on bluffs overlooking the river. You don’t have any privacy, and the trail attracts a fair number of horsepacking groups.
Snake River Morning
There are other sites within a reasonable distance that would make this work for a group. They’re a little farther apart than I’d like, though.

Thermal features flow into the Snake River at a couple points, creating legal (and safe) soaking areas. You should be aware of the risk of the Naegleri fowleri parasite, which is deadly.

Basin Creek

8B1. This site has been moved since Schneider wrote his book, and the nearby trail junction has been restructured a bit so that the site is south of the junction and not north as the maps show.

Schneider calls it “semiprivate,” but it’s now a very private site. Because it’s new, it lacks a defined spur trail. If you’re coming from Snake River, look for the sign and walk uphill across the meadow. You’ll find the site in the woods. If you’re coming up the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, turn left at the junction with Heart Lake, not right. (The NPS failed to tell us this; you might ask for details at the backcountry office.)
Basin Creek Sunrise
Inexplicably, the cooking area, bear pole, and best tent site are all on top of one another, so don’t use that tent site. It’s hard to find level sites in the woods, so we just found a hard site in the meadow. The meadow has quite a few bison wallows, and I wouldn’t use those! There are great views toward Overlook Mountain from that meadow, so enjoy.

Heart Lake

There are five campsites on the west side of Heart Lake. 8H2 and 8H3 share a new spur trail, but are otherwise private. We could see 8H2 from our bear pole, but the campers there never showed any awareness of us. Both sites are on the lake and allow campfires. 8H2 has a composting pit toilet with no walls. It’s visible from the cooking area, which is another example of poor landscape design by the NPS. However, we never had any problems with smells.
Heart Lake sunset
We only found one good tent site at 8H3. It has a good view of Mount Sheridan, but not of Heart Lake. However, there is a shoreline area along the lake where we watched sunrises, sunsets, and beavers.

All of the Heart Lake sites are great basecamps for a hike up Mount Sheridan. That’s a nine-mile round trip from 8H2 and 8H3, a little less from 8H4-8H5-8H6, and at least a mile more from 8H1.

Thorofare and Southeast Arm

5E4 Brimstone Bay is a lovely lakeside side with a beautiful view of Yellowstone Lake and Promontory Point, down an easy 0.2 mile spur from the trail.  It rightly earns five stars from Schneider. My only concern (August 2017) is that there are a lot of snags in and around the campsite – one fell down during our dinner on a perfectly calm day. We ran into a ranger later and raised the issue, so I hope the NPS can remove the safety hazards. Until then, place your tent well.

6B4 Beaverdam Meadow seems to have new routing, with about half the 0.4 mile spur trail essentially guesswork through a meadow.  That meadow seems popular with horse parties, and we saw a lot of horse, uh, sign there.  The food area and tent sites don’t have views.  The water source is easy but also lacking in views. We had requested, but didn’t get, the sister site at 5E1, which has views from a bluff (and is visible from the main trail).

6C2 River’s Edge is a beautiful site on a bluff above the Yellowstone River with a number of good tent sites.  It’s a bit challenging to get down the bluff to water. Unless you’re on horse, the mile-long spur trail entails some route finding to cross streams in the meadow and to reach the well-marked campsite.

6Y6 Three Mile Bend on the Yellowstone River has a beautiful view and a lot of mosquitoes. This was the only place we used our head net.  It’s easier to get down the bluff for water than it is at 6C2, but there is no flat space at the river’s edge – you’re balancing on slick mud. The spur trail required some bushwhacking through the willow, but the route finding is easy if you stay close to the river.  There was a lot of bear sign when we were there, and we met someone who had a grizz examine her bag at the food pole two days before.

We had lunch near 5E9 and 5E6, which are beautiful lakeside sites with great views.  5E8 seems similar but we didn’t see it directly. We had a reservation for 5E7 but decided to hike out instead as it’s a buggy site with a view of a meadow, facing away from the lake a few hundred yards away.

 

Shoshone Lake

8S2. I didn’t stay here but walked through the middle of it, and talked to someone staying there. There’s a tent spot about 10-15 yards of the trail but the cooking area is right on the tail, with the lake on the other side of the trail. Pretty but not private.

8S3. This was empty when I walked through it, but is similar to 8S3 with perhaps a little more privacy.

8R5. This is a gorgeous site about a half-mile from the trail. The bear pole and cooking area are on a small bluff above the lake, or walk down to the shoreline for views of the Shoshone Geyser Basin and Shoshone Lake.  It’s down a good spur trail, about a half-mile from the trail. There’s a pit toilet (no walls) and abundant tent sites, all an appropriate distance from the cooking area and each other. The shoreline offers great sunrise and sunset views in September.

Yellowstone 2013 – The Grand Tetons

Emma Matilda Lake

In previous years, we have started class in Grand Teton National Park.  We often have students who choose to fly, so we pick them up at the Jackson airport. Being further south than Yellowstone, GTNP is also a little bit closer to Illinois, and we can cover the 1350 miles in two days.

 

Dependable moose

Seeing the Tetons first can shape students’ views of Yellowstone in negative ways.  For many students, Yellowstone can be a bit of a disappointment, as they decide that they like the spectacular scenery of the Tetons more. Jackson Hole also has a more visible elk population, which shapes students’ perceptions of the landscape.  Wildlife such as moose is more dependably visible on Teton trails.

The Tetons are hard to beat

Interestingly, seeing Yellowstone first in 2013 produced the same result – the Tetons show better.  The reasons varied a little. Students preferred the scenery in the Tetons to that in Yellowstone. Students preferred the feel of Teton trails over the boardwalks and greater development of Yellowstone’s trails, even in the backcountry.

Making bad choices?

Students also though that the Tetons attracted “higher quality” hikers, even on the very popular trail to Inspiration Point. It’s been interesting to me that “lower quality” hikers (unprepared in clothing, supplies and demeanor) make my students view a trail as more like developed frontcountry.

This year’s wildlife viewing was not noticeably better in either park. We did not see pronghorns in either park, though we saw many outside the parks. We did not see moose, wolves or bighorn. We did see some smaller species for the first time in my classes, notably badger and pika. Yet even without wildlife sightings, students preferred the Tetons.

 

Tetons at Dawn

Is there something wrong with Yellowstone? You can’t do much about the scenery.  The Tetons are one of the world’s great mountain ranges in scenic terms. Yellowstone has the Absaroka, Beartooth, Gallatin, Red, and Washburn ranges — all beautiful but they do not match the Tetons. Spectacular as Yellowstone Lake is, Jackson Lake has the better setting.

Far from the madding crowd

More important than the scenery, the visitor experience in Yellowstone clearly impacts the students’ own visitor experiences in undesirable ways.  Visitors are more likely to seem ill-prepared in Yellowstone, are more likely to stick to the parking lots, and seem to crowd the wildlife more. That makes Yellowstone seem less natural, even less “wild.”

Better without people?

Sadly, in the world’s first national park, visitors can be a problem for other visitors.

 

Fuzzy Wilderness

Evidence of human presence in a state wilderness area.

Wilderness law encourages us to draw a sharp line between “wilderness” and “not wilderness.”  That’s certainly easy for land managers because it tells them how to manage specific lands on either side of a line.  It’s supported by the natural science approach to most land management, which thinks in terms of physical characteristics of a place.

Loon Lake, Sylvania Wilderness

A wilderness is “untrammeled,” without evidence of human occupation or resource use.  (Evidence of recreational trammeling is, perhaps incoherently, consistent with a this definition of legal wilderness.)

 

 

Not a legal wilderness, but it seemed wild.

Humanists might suggest that “wilderness” is socially constructed. Society has built an idea of wilderness in general, and associates certain kinds of places with that idea. As I know from conversations with students, those ideas are widely held but also somewhat malleable. Students are willing to consider types of wilderness they hadn’t thought of before, like caves, underwater sites, or tallgrass prairie. They also change their minds about what signs of human presence they will accept.

 

 

 

Politics of Yellowstone

Workbooks and such

As is usually true, social scientists tend to take positions straddling the views of humanists and natural scientists.  Through surveys, logs and journals, poking hikers randomly for their feelings, and other techniques, social scientists have connected physical places to social constructions of those places.  I do this informally while teaching, drawing from the wilderness literature to define the kinds of questions I ask. Students fill out worksheets that look like some of the surveys, and I control the places where I have them fill them out.

Bear viewing on the trail

Based on some of these techniques, Carie Steele (Texas Tech) and I have examined how our students have constructed the idea of “wilderness” in the field. In a recent article, “What Makes it Wild?”, we discuss two different ways that perceptions of wilderness change independent of the landscape. First, the sequence of wildlife sightings matters: seeing elk and then a bear along a trail is different than seeing a bear and then an elk along the same trail. Seeing the bear first makes the trail seem wild, which makes the elk seem wilder too; seeing the elk first would not make the trail seem wild. Bison, wolves, and even spawning trout can make a place seem wilder.

Using social media to construct “wilderness”

Second, a group may define wildlife and wilderness in idiosyncratic ways. This makes one group perceive a place differently than other groups do, just because of the peculiar direction their own conversations have gone.

The Yellowstone River is wild here.

If “wilderness” is socially constructed, if it changes, if people view it differently, if different groups arrive at different construction, then we probably should not think of wilderness in terms of sharp lines. If our definitions of wilderness are degrees of gray, instead of being black and white, how should we manage wild places? How do we keep it wild if “wild” is a gray area to begin with?

 

 

 

The 1964 Wilderness allows grazing.

These constructions have real consequences for land management.  For example, the National Park Service wants to remove a sustainable oyster farm from a wilderness area in Point Reyes National Seashore because it’s incompatible with “wilderness.” Defenders of the oyster farm, including some wilderness theorists, disagree. They believe some kinds of resource use are compatible with “wilderness.”

Does a fuzzy wilderness have oyster farms?


For the Point Reyes issue, Google “Drakes Estero.” You’ll see links to both sides.

Pahre, Robert and Carie Steele. 2013. “What Makes it Wild? Visitors’ Constructions of Wildlife and Wilderness in the Greater Yellowstone Area.” International Journal of Wilderness 19(3): 25-31 (December). Available here in an on-screen reader at the IJW website.

Some photos of wilderness.

Yellowstone 2013: Geology

Two Cones

Yellowstone is famous for its geology.  The park holds more than half of the world’s thermal features.  Its surface appearance reflects the activity of a huge caldera that last erupted about 650,000 years ago.  The Yellowstone River carves a spectacular canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, that holds two beautiful waterfalls, 308 and 109 feet high.  There are petrified forests atop Specimen Ridge inside the park and in the northern Gallatin range just outside it. Mountains such as the Gallatin, Beartooth, and Absaroka ranges ring the park, and the Red Mountains lie entirely within it.

Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs

Despite those riches, geology is an awkward subject for a class on the “Politics of Yellowstone.” The federal government does not have a policy on place tectonics or volcanism. With rare exceptions, we do not have a geyser policy. At the same time, it would be stupid for the course to ignore these wonders. The students rightly want to see this famous geology while they’re in the park.

Old Faithful

What to do?  We use the scenic geology to start talking about tourism. By visiting tourist-heavy destinations like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, we examine the impact of tourism development on the environment. Finding a geyser along the trail in an isolated area is very different than viewing Old Faithful from a boardwalk surrounded by hotels, restaurants, gift shops and parking lots.

Our first examination of these issues in 2013 came along a trail I call the “Yellowstone Sampler.” We see some unfenced thermal features in the backcountry and usually walk fairly close to some bachelor bison groups at the north end of the Hayden Valley.  After lunch at a scenic spot, we emerge from a moderately-low use trail to the crowds and parking lots of Artist Point.  The transition is pretty sudden, which makes it a good place to talk about developed tourism and personal experiences of nature.

Stumped!

The hike encourages students to think about “wilderness” – the Wilderness Act of 1964, students’ personal definitions of nature and of wilderness, and the views of other people. Does wilderness matter to people? Is it important for well-functioning ecosystems? Does the preservation of the world, as Thoreau wrote, lie in wildness?

Specimen Ridge


In 2013, I added a new hike to our second full day in the park.  As part of our driving tour of the Lamar Valley’s wildlife, we climbed the lower reaches of Specimen Ridge to reach a petrified forest.  This was a remarkably steep trail, posing a definite physical challenge – but one that rewarded us with great views from high above the Lamar. We remained in sight of the park road, but the physical challenge contributed to the wilderness feel of the experience for many students.

Though some guidebooks describe it, Petrified Forest is an unofficial trail, not found on park maps. The Park Service does not maintain it, so people find their own track.  This results in many social trails and greater impact on the landscape.

In some parks, there might be a road going up to a site like this.  Instead, Yellowstone has decided to keep these petrified trees unpublicized, accessible only by a difficult and unmaintained trail.

Boardwalk at Grand Prismatic

Is that democratic?  Most visitors – about 97% – want to experience Yellowstone from their automobile or a high-density, paved path. Why do we keep them away from the petrified forest?  Automobile sightseers are restricted to a single petrified tree just off the park road, and that tree is surrounded by a fence.  Even that lonely tree is inaccessible to recreational vehicles. Is that fair? Or should the park keep some destinations away from the vehicles, recognizing that hikers have some “right” to physical challenge?

Parks are for people


When you ask those questions you realize that Yellowstone’s geology starts to open up all sorts of questions about political values.  What are national parks for? Who are they for?

Some might argue that Yellowstone should serve the vast majority of Americans who want to go sightseeing only a short distance from their automobiles.  Others might emphasize the wilderness experience that can be found only in the larger national parks. Still others might move away from human needs and argue that only large wilderness areas can protect intact, well-functioning ecosystems.

Those are the big topics of the national parks. Geology may not be a politically-salient topic, but it turns out that you can find political themes if you use the geology to play tourist.

Lamar Valley from Specimen Ridge

If you’re interested in geology, and to some degree even if you’re not, I recommend Geology Underfoot in Yellowstone by Marc Hendrix.

For a fascinating view of the human footprint on the geologic record, see Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?

Photos from the 2013 Yellowstone course are on Flickr.

Yellowstone 2013 – The Waters of Yellowstone

Absarokas across Yellowstone Lake

In past years, the first day in Yellowstone involved driving up from the Tetons, with stops at the West Thumb geyser basin before hitting the iconic site of Old Faithful.  This year, our introduction to the park began with Yellowstone Lake.

 

 

Geyser cone in Yellowstone Lake

We entered Yellowstone through the East Entrance, which brought us to the Lake Overlook. This was the site for my first mini-lectures, on wilderness, Native traditions of the region, and the Lake ecosystem.

Historically, cutthroat trout have provided a key part of the ecosystem here. When they spawn in the creeks around Yellowstone Lake, they provide a spring food source for grizzly bears. They also feed otters, ospreys, eagles, pelicans, and many smaller predators.

 

 

 

Deep water

It looks pristine — but not all is well. Cutthroat trout populations are suffering at the hands of non-native Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Those trout live in deep water and spawn in the lake’s depths, making them unavailable as a food source for predators. They also eat the native cutthroats.

Other waters face their own challenges. Fly fishers say the hatches of nymphs and flies are not what they used to be. Acid rain from industrial areas to the west is changing the pH of these waters, leaching trace minerals that are key nutrients for bighorn sheep.

 

 

Yellowstone Blues

Changes in wetlands, lakes and rivers have also harmed Yellowstone’s amphibians.  Though they are not as abundant as they used to be, we found some Tiger salamanders later in the week, at Lake Isa, on our annual salamander hunt.

In addition to these human-caused threats to the ecosystem, the Greater Yellowstone Area is in a period of extended drought. These periods have happened regularly in the park’s history, so we need not assume that global climate change is responsible. Drought has important political implications throughout the West.  Industry, consumers, and especially agriculture rely on water, and water authorities must work to find new sources in a drought.

 

Double pool at West Thumb

Historically the need for water has led to pressures to build dams and other projects in western national parks. In Grand Teton National Park, a dam raises the level of Jackson Lake by nine feet, water that supplies the potato farmers of Idaho’s Snake River Valley. Farmers have also cast covetous eyes at Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River, the Snake River inside Yellowstone, and the many rivers of the Bechler region in the southwest of the park. Unlike other iconic parks – Yosemite, Glacier, Rocky Mountain – there are no dams here. But there’s always the potential for new demands.

 

Storm Point

After visiting the Lake Overview, we drove to a trailhead where we saw our first bison. We hiked to Storm Point, where we were treated to wind, high waves, and a light squall. We  saw the local marmot colony before returning to the van. A quick stop at the Fishing Bridge visitor center and then the West Thumb geysers completed the day.

 

For further reading on the health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, check out Jack Turner’s Travels in the Greater Yellowstone.

Photos from the 2013 Yellowstone course are on Flickr.

Yellowstone 2013 – Getting there

Reading material on the road

In a regular classroom, it’s relatively easy to arrange topics in the order you want. You have to work around constraints like Thanksgiving break, and obviously the number of topics has to fit the number of class sessions in one way or another.  But that’s about it.

A field course also has constraints of the calendar. The biggest challenge is somewhat different: making geography fit both a chronological sequence and an analytical one.  We don’t have transporters that get us from place to place in whatever sequence we like. Instead, the geography must tell a story.

Windmill blade in Iowa

In past years, I’ve been constrained by the airport at Jackson Hole – some students have chosen to ride the van with me while others have flown. I’ve used that to tell a story of tourism, starting with a superficial engagement of the Grand Teton range. We see the Tetons as a tourist sees it while driving through, and then engage the landscape more deeply with hikes and an introduction to wildlife and ecosystems. Then we engage wildlife more deeply in Yellowstone, and loop back to Jackson Hole and the airport.

 

 

Back to the mythic West!

This year I had the freedom to do something different, a great crescent through the parks. We began at Cody, Wyoming, with an overview of the mythic West. My impressions over the years is that “the West” often helps recruit students to the class, but students vary considerably in terms of how detailed this vision is. They do know what a rodeo is, however.

Rooting for the calf

After a long drive on the second day, students had the option of attending the nightly rodeo in Cody, Wyoming. Questions of animal welfare sparked some reactions, especially when they saw calf roping and bull riding.

 

 

Rodeo clown and bull riding

Another cultural surprise came as the announcer and rodeo clown engaged in some banter that consisted mostly of bad jokes. A few of those jokes used stereotypes that would be socially unacceptable back in Illinois. That introduction to Western ways had most of us rooting for the bull against the rodeo clown.

Peregrine falcon and handler

We formally began class at the Buffalo Bill Historic Center the next morning. We visited the Draper Museum of Natural History, providing an introduction to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from low-elevation sagebrush flats to high-elevation tundra. Students explored the other four museums according to interest (Plains Indians, Art, Firearms and Buffalo Bill). We finished with a live raptor show.

Then . . . off to Yellowstone !

The entire set of 2013 Yellowstone photos is on my Flickr page here.