America the Beautiful: Part 3
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
YELLOWSTONE: TRUE TO FORM
Night 18: Granite Creek Dispersed Campsite, Wyoming
Saturday, September 26, 2020
AM temp: 33º — Elevation: 6496 ft
The road up to the falls at Granite Mountain was as true to form as any picture I’ve seen. The golden, shimmering grasses leading up the steep slopes were interspersed with deciduous trees that shot upwards in sharp, conical points that went all the way into clear blue skies. While they stood still, the clouds raced overtop the sharply angled granite mountainsides. Every picture I’ve seen of Yellowstone seemed to hold the very colors and images I was standing before.
Along Granite Creek were a multitude of pull-offs for dispersed camping. There was a campsite at the end of the road near the waterfall, but it cost $15 and was closer to the mountain, which meant more chances of precipitation. It had been misting on and off all day and the road was already very slick and muddy.
Granite Creek Falls, WY
River Runs Through, Waterfall Scene
We pulled up to the waterfall, where a scene from, “A River Runs Through,” with Brad Pitt was filmed. People were coming and going in this muddy, turnaround point. I’d heard about a natural hot springs located along the opposite side of the creek and all one had to do was wade through the rushing, 50º water and they’d be seated inside yet another waterfall. This time, a mildly-sulfurous waterfall spilling 100º water over its edge and into the rock-lined pool at its base. The pool was deep enough to lay all the way down in and was close enough to the creek that bits of cold water would seep in if it were disturbed. It fed down to another two pools around the backside, but this one was the most scenic with the waterfall crashing just a hundred feet away.
The campsite we selected was very choice as we’d looked at each one and had gotten there with enough time to have the pick of the litter. It was a private spot that lead down a hill to a flat circle and then down one more hill to come alongside a flowing creek with fire pit nearby. The creeks rapids were filling the air with their vibrant sounds. The water was crystal clear and tons of smooth, multicolored river stones laying beneath its rushing waters. The tall, color-changing brush was as much a hopeful backdrop for a moose or bear to emerge as I’d ever seen. The feeling of these aforementioned scenes became an embodiment of the statement, “True to form.”
Bridger-Teton National Forest, WY
The night was not too cool, despite being our lowest low, and the 50º daytime temps felt great while spent in the sunshine. It was prime time to be here, with the aspens in full color change and only a month before the entire state became engulfed in snow. We had timed it perfectly to enjoy the last of warm weather, lessened crowds, the fall color change and the bison and elk fully into their rut.
Night 19: Shadow Mountain Campgrounds, Wyoming
Sunday, September 27, 2020
AM temp 24º — Elevation: 6798 ft
COLDEST AM TEMP OF THE TRIP!
The phrase true to form continued on as we looked upon the magnificent Grand Tetons. I’d never seen such a spectacle of mountain peaks compressed into such a short amount of space. From the valley floor, ten miles away, their rugged peaks rose up five thousand feet in a craggy instant.
As we arrived, the iceboxes that they were, started to pull in the surrounding clouds and drove down upon their chiseled slopes sheets of snow. Each passing storm revealed a new snow covered landscape. We watched from the comforts of the valley covered in its tall, golden grasses. The storms would make their way down the range, visiting each peak and then obscuring them from view. Here, upon their doorstep, would be our coldest night yet, with the temperatures plunging into the low twenties.
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Night 20: Lewis Lake, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming
Monday, September 28, 2020
AM temp 28º — Elevation: 7838 ft
The designated course for visitors to travel through Yellowstone NP was blatantly obvious and intentional to keep folks contained only to certain areas. Go here: take photo. Drive again: stop and take photo. I felt ushered, despite the overwhelming span of wilderness and unique geological spectacles. It was becoming increasingly monotonous and forced. I'm not one to walk the same line of others and it was causing some discomfort for how I had hoped to experience a park of this stature.
We did, however, take a short six mile hike near to our campsite once we were settled in at the Lewis Lake campgrounds. It was a down and back to the lake, which was quite empty in the waning afternoon hours. We only passed two other hikers and saw one small fishing boat. The trail had bits of broken gravel that was so fine it felt like sand, despite being in a wooded forest. All around us were fallen trees indicating the harsh and cyclical patterns of nature.
As we walked deeper, the landscape started to envelop us. Finally, I was feeling the immersion and isolation I craved from this huge wilderness. We came to a nice point along the lake that allowed us the chance to see the sun’s intended destination.
There were ducks playing in the water across from us and what I thought was a smoldering campfire (backcountry camping allowed). It turned out to be a thermal hot spring. Its steam plumed from the ground and out onto the lake. Behind that, more plumes of rising steam. I used the binoculars to scan along the banks and sure enough, there were more and more of these fumaroles. Hard to believe we were sitting inside a super volcano that encompassed nearly all of Wyoming.
As we sat enjoying the views, suddenly in the near twilight hours, we heard the bugling call of an elk and our focus shifted to the advent of these sounds. We looked at each other asking the same question of whether or not the other had heard it. As we sat waiting and grinning, more and more, the bugling would continue. I said lets walk down the beach a little ways and maybe we could gain a better vantage of the meadow across from us. It was difficult to see across with the low angle of the sun beaming directly onto the water, but we did our best to peer out and wait for what would be a most anticipated scene: a lone elk wandering down to the water.
Nothing showed and quickly doing the math on the amount of time it took us to walk the two and a half miles to get here and what light we had left, I proposed two options: either we walk back up the beach and enter where we had come to it from or continue on in this direction and take a shot at cutting through the forest in a spot I’d thought I’d seen break through to the trail earlier. We chose the second option and as we crossed numerous fallen trees, I slipped on one that had been moist from recent snowfall. I fell, straddling it and nearly drove a limb into my abdomen. I landed un-injured and we laughed, but kept moving on. I knew the mission was critical that we link back up with the trail or else we’d be faced with a slightly less than ideal scenario of retracing our steps out of here in the dark. The trail we had taken was very clear-cut and never broke in its appearance amongst the dense vegetation. I was sure we would find it, so long as we were taking the right angle to intersect it.
Right after I had slipped on the log, I hopped down from another fallen tree and didn’t realize the forest floor was uneven from all the older, decaying matter that was covered by tall grasses. I folded my ankle over taking a lot of the weight from my body onto it. The pain smarted, but having experienced this injury multiple times while hiking and backpacking, I knew it was not totally serious and wouldn’t amount to much more than some mild stiffness. I pushed on, reiterating that we needed to keep a good pace if we didn’t want to do this in the dark. We climbed over a dozen more gigantic and fallen trees and then began pushing through a younger section that had multitudes of tiny, interspersed wiry limbs. I could only use the tops of the trees now as a waypoint for where the setting sun was, but we held a pretty decent NNE heading despite all the climbing and zig-zagging. With a few mistaken appearances of what appeared to be the trail, we finally met back up with it.
The trail from here on was very simple and we would have enough ambient light with the setting sun to make it the rest of the two miles with ease. I kept my hand primed on the trigger of the bear spray at all times while while we walked, but it was very quiet aside from the calls of chipmunks and brown squirrels. The nearly full moon came out early to give us a show within the now pink, swirling sky. By nightfall, we had returned to the trails inception and back motoring the short distance to camp.
Once inside the camper, we were quick to warm ourselves up and sleep came just as fast as our huddled warmth did. I’m not sure when, but at some point we were both awakened to the shrill call of two bugling elks near to our camp. We listened with the windows opened for awhile and then decided to sneak out for another attempt at possibly seeing them in their act. We layered up a bit and walked down the adjacent trail meant for tent campers. We had closed the distance on the sounds, but never laid eyes on these majestic and full of semen beasts. The stars were out in full force and we shuffled back to the truck once again, this time cold as could be.
Night 21-24: Lulu Pass Dispersed Camp Area, MT
Tues-Frid, Sept. 29 - Oct. 2, 2020
AM temp 28° — Elevation 8776 ft
HIGHEST CAMP ELEVATION OF THE TRIP!
Cooke City — Gallatin National Forest
Our most celebrated camp spot to date has been the areas along Lulu Pass that took us deep into the Gallatin National Forest. We’d been inundated with overcrowded campsites all throughout Yellowstone, boasting the highest nightly prices (not unreasonable, but four nights would have cost $60) and an occupancy rate that requires sitting in a queue at 7AM, usually of about 6-8 cars hoping to get one of the few (sometimes less than four) spots that open up. The turnover of campers is quite high with most cars only staying one to two nights, but the process was not conducive to how we wanted to travel. It seemed yellowstone worked best if you could pull in, detach your RV trailer and then go motor around the park. Having only the hard shell camper, we’d have to leave a chair in the campsite to mark it as occupied. We did this for the night we spent at Lewis Lake, and it was quite a nice spot, but with the recent dip of freezing nightly temperatures, they had cut off the water and the bathrooms were in quite a state due to the influx of campers.
Needless to say, I was becoming distraught with Yellowstone and the hordes of people trafficking through it. As mentioned, I felt ushered around and sure there were spots to pull-off, get out and access hiking areas which then opened up to the expansive backcountry sites one could hoof it too, but those didn’t interest me. I was there for what everyone else was: the geological features and wildlife. But pulling off with every other fool that’s mesmerized by a bison or hearing there’s a colored speck way up in the hills and you do your darndest to find it with 10x50 binoculars meant there was a lot of short-lived and rather dull experiences thus far. Don’t be fooled, its beautiful, but the entire surrounding Montana, Wyoming and Idaho area are equally as astounding and contain similarly remote and isolated territories. However, when discussing thermal hot springs and cascading waterfalls within gigantic ranges is truly why this place is visually unique. There really isn’t anything else like it in the world and that's why in a single month, the park can attract three quarters of a million people. Add to it the other peak summer months and it’ll clear two million visitors annually.
From the crowds to the struggles of finding a decent campsite, I was ready to move on towards Montana. We tried a few camp areas on the way out, but of course by late evening they were all full. We exited the park and went a ways past Cooke City and saw a 4x4 trail that had some dispersed camping listed on the overlander app.
We charged Deb up the heavily rutted and rocky trails, going up inclines of twenty plus degrees with loose, rocky scree and passed by only one other RV’er. We went beyond earshot of their generator and pulled into an open patch within the woods. I wandered around looking for a few loose rocks to level the rear of the vehicle and shortly there after called it a night. It was certainly a spooky area and having not seen it in the daylight, but we kept ourselves tucked in until the early morning hours.
We’d spend the days here either visiting Yellowstone or tending to odd tasks that the truck was in need of. We would cook meals on the tailgate and watch a few downloaded football shows before heading off on exploratory trail rides up the steep, snowy slopes. There were discarded mines along the paths and supposedly a cool plateau atop the ridge, but we were unable to complete the summit due to the hazardous trail conditions. It was griz country up here too, so we had to be extra cautious about wandering out at night. Even during the daytime, for that matter, with cooking and anything that would attract a woodland scavenger.
High up on Lulu Pass (10,191 ft)
We claimed this patch of woods for ourselves
Revolving (cool) weather patterns, but no snow
When we’d visit the park, we’d crawl out in the early morning to get a good head start on the day. We wanted to go into Lamar Valley and hope for some unique wildlife activity. We took to foot on the Lamar trailhead and meandered our way back towards the confluence of the Lamar and Cache River.
We had great wildlife coming within the stated limits of closeness for bison and while tucked away in the sagebrush, an active threesome of pronghorn antelope came galloping directly in front of us as well. One went up on the hill and started rubbing its antlers ten feet from where I was crouched. The rule of thumb on distance with wildlife in the park is if you disturb it in any way or alter its behavior causing it to have a reaction to you, then you are too close and can actually be federally prosecuted. If the animal crosses your path, that's a little different, and you do your best not to make any sudden movements, but sometimes it just happens. Like when we came around a bend on a high mound and spooked a group of resting bison. They all leaped to their feet and did the iconic bison round up routine, stomping the dirt into submission. They relaxed and we moved on, but were sure to keep a vigilant eye on those alert and upright tails still signaling their displeasure.
We finally made it up to the viewing ridge where the Yellowstone wolf watchers practically reside. After talking with a traveling photographer in the Soda Butte Saloon a few nights ago, he tipped us off on where to go and who to see, in order to hopefully gain a glance through a spotting scope at one of these marvelous creatures. Today, our excitement was met by luck. We started the day with a lone bison inside our campsite and then spotted two moose traveling through the woods on our way into the park. A group of cars were stopped looking at another moose across the river, but we had wolves on our mind and were on track to see them.
When we got to the viewing hill in Lamar valley a nice gentleman and his wife instantly allowed us to look through their scope and then started filling us in on the pack we were observing. It was eighteen pups, all without any adults present. Eleven of which were blacks and seven grays. He’d been here since sun up and also the night before where a couple of the pups had participated in a failed bison hunt. He described the young wolves attempts to leap onto the bison in order to sever the hamstring, but none could make enough contact to bring it down before being shook off by the 1200 pound, thundering in foot behemoth.
By morning, the juveniles were back out in their claimed territory munching on bones and carcasses while it was suspected the adults had traveled beyond the range of their radio collars. This area in particular was called the Rendezvous point and the pack we were looking at were the pups of the Junction View Pack, named for the confluence of those two rivers we had hiked previously. We watched as the pups laid around, some sniffing about looking for more scraps and others tussling and play fighting with each other. They acted very juvenile and as one observer put it, quite like the unsupervised teenagers that they were. However juvenile they were in appearance, the average life span for a wolf here in Yellowstone is only 4.7 years, so development happens quick.
Earlier in the 1980s, when this restoration project began, the Druid Pack was the famed group that ran the hills all the way from Mammoth City east to where we were standing at in Lamar Valley. Which was about 500 square miles of territory and they covered it with absolute mastery. Only until their pack numbers began to dwindle from its peak of thirty-seven total members did it give rise to other packs to make advances at gaining influence in some of that territory.
Wolf pups are entirely dependent on adults for their food. A single adult can consume twenty pounds of meat themselves, and will often bring back hunks of meat from the kill in whole or regurgitate it back out for the pups. The wolves seem to honor a first come basis for who gets the meat and the others will allow the first to get there to consume without any further confrontation. These are, of course, the musing lessons I learned from a colleague of the main person here, Rick McIntyre from the Wolf Project.
The volunteers tend to spend most their days out here from early dawn until after sunset. The person we were speaking with was in communication with other spotters set up around the park, tracking movements and notating behaviors. The quietly intrigued in his work gentleman wore a fine, white Stetson with an interesting feather in its band and a set of smaller binoculars around his neck. A Theodore Roosevelt lookalike, if you will. He would constantly scan to the east, hoping to see the adults returning from their hunt to the meetup point. They all carried two-way radios to communicate the sightings to one another while others searched for signals from the radio collars using large, hand-held antennae.
The man on the hill stood talking to another couple and a group of traveling university students. I sat kneeling, listening while watching the pups travel east towards the rising sun. The spotters, having stared at this field for so long have named certain geographical landmarks to make communications easier. One such is The Triangle, a cluster of trees in an opposing ridge that slopes in such a fashion it resembles the obvious. He said when the sun warms up, depending on how hot it is, the wolves will lift up into the hills to rest during the day and then become active again in the early evening hours. Grizzlies had been spotted recently in the same area, perhaps challenging the pack for their kills. We watched, as down the road where another viewing hill was setup, a line of cars started to fill in and people were walking right out into the field we were observing.
Our spotter friend had detailed an observation of his that the wolves seem to be comfortable with the stream fishermen that are out in the river, often fishing every day. Since they were pups, the wolves had always seen them in similar spots and the fishermen weren’t focused on them, so they treated the fishermen like any other piece of wildlife. While the motoring tourists stopped, talked loudly and pointed their glistening cameras at them through the sagebrush, the entire pack would take notice and often retreat back up into the hills recognizing the shift in focus.
West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP
After Lewis Lake we had spent the day visiting all the thermal hot springs beginning with the Lower Geyser Basin around West Thumb. There were bubbling mud pots, open thermals and many rolled right into the water. Geologists believe the entire West Thumb portion of Yellowstone Lake was a crater site due to its carved out edge around the perimeter and multiple hot springs within its depths. Temperatures taken from the bottom of this lake have also confirmed this theory. It was a good introduction to the geological features of Yellowstone, but with the crowds picking up at exactly 10AM we motored on towards the big geyser that gets all the attention.
The road corralled us towards the much sought-after spectacle (Old Faithful) and into the amusement park insanity that surrounds this feature attraction. Buses were unloading throngs of people that stretched way out across series of parking lots that seemed to have no end. The hordes of people were flowing towards the entrance, which felt like the gates of Universal more-so than a national landmark.
There were lodges, gift shops and just absolutely so many people I turned right around and fled the scene. It’s a weird thing when you tuck away into the hills of remote, natural forests and then quickly re-enter civilization. Sometimes there’s no easing in, an the reintegration can be quite jarring.
I drove to a trail I was looking for, but it was closed due to fire and so with a new sense of bravery, decided I would try again at summoning the courage to enter into the mayhem of Old Faithful. I actually could see it was erupting right as we parked and could see there were hundreds, if not a thousand people circled around this conical vent rising up in the middle of the “amusement park.” A very nice boardwalk took folks out and around the area to view the many other geysers and thermals. It was a nice walk and the sun was beaming, which was a great counter to the crowds.
Certain geysers had hand-written signs next to them stating when the next eruption was predicted to occur. The valley is a series of undulating hills, with only a few trees interspersed due to the chaotic conditions going on below the surface. So, from across this large, expansive boardwalk area we could plainly see from afar another geyser going off with utmost ferocity. We continued on around visiting the various hot, thermal attractions and as we approached the Castle Geyser, it was still spewing out huge plumes of steam and erupting about seven to twelve feet in the air. It did this for about ninety minutes and I remember asking myself the question, “How long could I watch steam come out of the ground?” Given the predicament of being surrounded by hordes of photo-taking tourists, I figured about ninety minutes was this days’ appropriate amount of time.
Despite all the humans, it was impressive and hard to believe the geological acts that were happening before our eyes. What was this place I kept asking as I scanned the horizon and saw steam spewing mightily from the barren, mineral deposited landscape. It was surely a spectacle. We circled the boardwalk to return to Old Faithful’s backside to catch its predictable routine from a slightly less crowded angle. It really wasn’t all that special and on our way out saw yet another crowd stopped and huddled around a particular geyser. Sure enough, boom, the thing goes off and started spurting twenty or thirty feet into the air. It was a total wow moment as we watched the Grand Geyser erupting into the air. It was unanimous amongst those that had just come from Old Faithful which geyser was the one that blew it out of the park. Yes, it was grand indeed. We left feeling pretty satisfied despite it all, but continued on from the park boundaries to return to our secret, mountainside haven.
Castle Geyser, Yellowstone NP
Grand Geyser, Yellowstone NP
West Thumb, Yellowstone NP
American Bison, Yellowstone NP
If you’re ready to take a pause from the stories, I invite you to check out Episode 14: Yellowstone from the America the Beautiful video. Thanks for watching and please be sure to continue on to the end for a vey special, second video capturing Montana!
Click to view Episode 14: Yellowstone
Night 25/26: Tom Miner Basin, Montana
Sat-Sun, October 3-4, 2020
AM temp 35° — Elevation 7105 ft
Gallatin National Forest.
We had heard speak of this notorious wildlife viewing area dubbed the Grizzly Capital and so we set off in search of it. I was able to find the road that went past a dude ranch where an unspeakable bear attack had taken place some years back. There were countless stories of this nature and we we entered with a sense of apprehension and fear. The road lead back to our intended campsite by the name of Tom Miner, which was also the name of the area. Along the way was the supposed viewing area, which was just a pull off that looked out along a long tree-lined ridge with an open meadow before it. Behind was a fenced property that held similar features. Cars would pull up along the fence line and most would either sit on their tailgates or hop up onto their roofs for a better vantage. We did the latter, but it was cold once the sun had lost its dominance in the sky.
By our second visit to this site, we had come to witness nine bears in total in about two hours of hopeful gazing. The scene depicted itself as if in a cyclical fashion with elk scattered amongst the hills and trees, coyotes dispersed in the tall prairie grasses and then all of the sudden a big dark shape would pound its way out from the tree line and into the open meadow. It would either continue on into a thicket of aspens to be obscured from sight for some time or travel up the hill, past the elk and into the opposite tree line. Folks certainly got excited when the bears would emerge.
We had a mixture of both brown and black bears, with the majority being brown and easily recognized by their significantly larger size and lighter coat color. Their trunk-like legs would stomp with conviction and even in a gentle stroll they moved quickly and with intention. Occasionally a mild skirmish would ensue between the coyotes and bears over what I could only presume to be a carcass of sorts. The coyotes would daringly put themselves in harms way and narrowly escape the giant swiping paws of the disgruntled and hungry bear. The spectacle was both amusing and mesmerizing in the near twilight or early dawn hours.
While we camped, we lay timid of those roaming bears lurking in the vicinity and hoped they wouldn’t come meet us on our way back from the toilets. We ended up doing a very challenging hike up to Ram’s Horn Peak (9772’), which included a lot of loose scree ascents and was accompanied by some fantastic littering of petrified wood remains.
Night 27/28: Big Beaver Campsite, Montana
Mon-Tues, Oct. 5-6, 2020
AM temp: 50º / 57°— Elevation 5315 ft
Gallatin National Forest — Big Boulder River
Yesterday we stumbled onto one of the best adventure sites we’ve come across. Following the Yellowstone River east, our camping options became limited to only fielded lots that were were barely a street outside of town. They would have served their purpose as a stop-off for the night, but there also weren’t that many miles along the course which meant we’d be stopped there for more than we’d like. So, we elected to double back on a state road and returned to the Gallatin National Forest. It seemed I couldn’t escape this giant patch of wilderness. It covers the entire south-western corner of Montana and butts right up to Yellowstone. We had such a good time in this forest, it seemed right we should enter into it once again.
A series of campgrounds along the Big Boulder River would be our newfound campsite, but the main attraction that caught our attention was a natural bridge recreation area. We came to its parking area and found a few families and couples milling about their cars. Some were leaving, as it was later in the afternoon and while gazing at the information board, I had been listening to a family of three speaking in spanish. When the older woman had said hello to me in english I jumped at the opportunity to respond back in spanish. She stopped dead in her tracks repeating what I had said as if making sure she heard me correctly. I laughed and began asking where they were from. She said they were from Mexico and I gathered they didn’t get too many persons in Montana to speak spanish with, but as I told her where I had gone to in South/Central America she began to grin ear to ear. I’m sure it was quite a surprise to be speaking spanish with a white kid in Montana. Her daughter joined in, asking a few questions of her own, but as we talked, I noticed the grandson standing there holding their scruffy dog impatiently. When mom had asked where he wanted to go, I heard him say the shorter of the two routes and this would be the only thing I’d hear him say. I said ciao and grandmom said ciao back. Bella and I took off onto the trail together, but were split up quite quickly as my excitement had become completely lifted like an airplane leaving the runway.
Natural Bridge Falls, Montana
I ran to the first viewpoint that overlooked the gulch where the fast flowing river was audibly crashing and bouncing off the dispersed rocks. It led to a series of waterfalls. before plunging right through a land-covered chute that gave this place its name. It was a huge granite depression that had apparently some time ago collapsed, but not so much as to impede the water flowing beneath or the ability to walk across it. I raced back up the rock-lined trail and crossed the long, wooden bridge that spanned the gulch. The bridge had large, wooden slats as wide as a picnic table that were loosely bolted down by pins the size of a coffee mug. It was here that we learned from an informational sign that this area was once an ancient sea floor and how water, over many hundreds of millions of years, has carved out the deeply cut ravine we saw today.
The sides were possibly a hundred feet tall if not more and the water was flowing with a tremendous rate. I could feel the energy surging and I ran everywhere the entire day. I had folded an ankle a week prior and still felt the pangs of that injury, but it was pushed from the mind as it became overflowing with appreciation and wonder for this beautiful, natural landmark.
We stood atop the collapsed bridge where a chunk of rock, half a football field long lay across the middle. The waterfall was upstream of us and pounded its way down. I climbed along the coarse, grooved rock down to where I could peer into the chute as it flowed beneath the landmass. It swirled and pooled along the eroded sides, but never stopped moving for a second. We hopped and climbed around on these broken, craggy boulders taking a few photos, but this fervor was too electric for me to be still. We walked to the edge of the landmass where I saw once again the Mexican family moving away from the high cliff. As I peered over, I said out loud, “Wowwwww!” The rock curved out into open air and immediately fell for over a hundred feet. At the bottom was a big horseshoe-shaped pool and beyond, a quarry-like section that was lined by tall, rock spires pointing vertically. As I scanned this scene, I saw a guy no bigger than a speck, rock climbing one of the spires with a girl belaying the line below him.
I heard from over my shoulder the Mexican woman say to me, “Impressioso, no?” And I agreed adamantly. It was totally cool. My feet could not stop moving. I had to jump, climb and crawl on every piece of this place. I could feel it down in my bones that I was at something totally unique. I’d been to a few natural bridges in my day, but never with a series of rushing waterfalls flowing directly into and through the landform. It was a combination of so many unique features compiled into one single location. You’d have to travel far and wide to gain access to a natural bridge, a waterfall, a slot canyon, a series of rock climbing cliffs, a swimming hole and this water chute that was the fertile airway of this magical, rock-filled location.
Looking upstream and into the downstream reservoir
We followed the trail down to where the lower pool was collecting and could see the water shooting out from the opposite side. We climbed around on the spilled about boulders near the waters edge and inevitably made our way closer and closer to the thundering sounds. We sat beside the water chute, amazed at its power and flow. It bounced and ricocheted of the rocks sending itself upwards into the air.
I should detail a little fact about me, and that’s I seldom pass up an opportunity to sit beneath a waterfall and feel its power. I had passed on two recently, simply because the water was glacier cold each time, but that hadn’t stopped me before and I was upset with myself. This one had redemption written all over it.
We had each gone out to try and stick our hand in it a few times, but I had had enough testing and started to remove my socks and shoes. Bella sat staring at me slack-jawed not believing I was now serious about it. I peeled off my shirt and shorts and set up the gopro against a rock, asking if she could get a photo or two perhaps. I started to inch my way closer and had gained the attention of the rock climbing couple that was now sitting down near the lower pool. I got to where I had stopped short before and then moved in underneath the falls and sat on a rock. The full force of the water pounded down onto my head in waves and the coldness penetrated me to my core. It shook me from the inside out and as the water heaved overhead, all I could do was to finally become still, transfixed in this moment. I let out a yell and came out to thumbs ups and applause from the spectators. I felt such gratitude to be within the falls power and a crisp, rejuvenating freshness was tickling my skin.
Feeling its power
A water creature
This northern part of the Gallatin Forest actually boasted temps in the 80s this day, and so in some parts there were quite warm patches of air nestled into the lower falls area. I laughed and shivered knowing I had finally set right what had been wrong all along with the passing of great waterfalls and no proper respect paid. I drip-dried a bit and then put back on the clothes overtop my wet body. I wanted to check out where the guy had been climbing and so we moseyed over to the opposite side of the gulch. It was very steep-sided and difficult to ascend due to the amounts of loose rock, but we clambered our way up. Within one of the cracks was a most magnificent pass through, with tons of angled and wedged boulders letting the light find its way into the space in the most mesmerizing ways. I climbed on more rocks and let myself see this place from every angle possible.
The dog in me was escaping. I wanted to leap and bound with an unfettered joy. Similar to a lab I’d seen recently set loose in a grassy meadow, I wanted to both run free and simultaneously put my eyes and nose down close to the earth to search for all the clues of what had been here before me. I stop to pick through the piles of bones left by predators, investigate the varying rocks and sediments and scan the surfaces for any signs of life. These are the sensory recordings and trail markers that I commonly use to navigate the wilderness.
Somewhere out there, above the boulder-filled rivers and within the pine and aspen filled hills, I’d found myself in a state of being that was as good as new. Which is quite odd, considering I hadn’t showered in days and been sitting atop toilets made of dirt and moss that I’d stumble into a sense of rejuvenation. That I’d find myself completely awash with new purpose, new desires and set forth in new directions.
These budding developments came from the campsites that drew hardly a daily visitor and aside from ourselves, we spent our days in solitude with nothing but the open skies, dispersed trees and roaming animals to guide us back into our natural states of harmony.
Night 29: Upper Boulder River, Montana
Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020
AM temp: 42º — Elevation 6348 ft
After an unsuccessful attempt to cross through a remote and deep section of 4x4 trails, we were forced to double back down the trail. We had encountered a boulder section that could not be conquered in my vehicle. I was able to get over one very challenging rock, but realized there’d be more to come and turn-arounds were practically non-existent on these narrow slopes. Returning back, we came to a particularly difficult section where a very harrowing and technical incident took place. While attempting to cross a series of large, scattered boulders, the front tire became airborne and the truck was now almost in a balanced state perched upon this rock. I paused, deciding whether to push forward or reverse out. Weighing our options, we remained still, sensing the precarious nature of our position. One wrong shift in weight and we could slide down the angled rock and become what’s known as high-centered where no wheel is capable of making adequate purchase.
Thankfully, I caught my composure and was able to stop any forward progress. I summoned the courage to ease it backwards and sure enough we were able to pull out from this dire situation. I re-approached the rocky squeeze from a different angle and we passed through it a second time no issue. That was the most dire off-road test of the day, but the remaining hour plus, downhill route still required lots of technical maneuvering and line spotting to get us back out the woods. We had traversed 12 miles of steep mountain terrain and gained 2,200 feet of rocky elevation.
Back to camp along Big Boulder River, Montana
Sometimes, you just have to flex
Thank you all for reading and I hope you enjoyed following along. If you’re so inclined, I have one last video to sum up the second portion of our time spent exploring the greater Yellowstone area and wildernesses of Montana. Take a look and be sure to keep an eye out for the finale! Cheers
Click to view Episode 15: Montana