Yellowstone Backcountry Transit

While on the phone with the Yellowstone Backcountry office, I learned that the area around Heart Lake, through which the CDT passes, is off-limits for 3 months—from April 1st through June 30th—so that mama bears can be with their newborn cubs undisturbed by humans. At his typical pace, Dad was set to enter the park on July 2nd, right after the restriction was lifted (as if we had planned it—we hadn’t). The problem (and there’s always a problem, isn’t there?) was that upon leaving Brooks Lake Campground after our 7th meetup, there were 45 miles of trail before he crossed into the park, and then another 27 miles before he got to the Heart Lake Trailhead. In other words, he had a total of 72 miles (or 5 days) to hike before reaching the next spot where I could drive up to the trail.

Dad aka 'Tartan' modeling the new Alu-Cab Shadow Awning at Brooks Lake Campground in Wyoming
Dad modeling the new awning at Brooks Lake Campground

To keep his food carry at 3 days or less, I drew inspiration from our on-trail meetup in the San Juans last year, where I hiked towards him on the CDT, we met mid-way, and then we hiked out together. Therein lay the problem. It was going to take me 2 days to reach Dad on July 1st (before he entered the park), which meant I’d have to depart the Heart Lake Trailhead on June 30th, which—you guessed it—was the very last day that the bear management area restrictions were still in effect. So, no bueno. Also, in the back of my head, I had a desire to get us a night in one of the park’s lodges, but our impeccable timing thus far meant that we’d need a room on the Saturday of Fourth of July Weekend with less than a week’s notice 🤦‍♂️.

Justin pointing at a Continental Divide sign in Yellowstone National Park
Pretty awesome Continental Divide sign in Yellowstone

But none of this mattered if I couldn’t get Dad a permit that allowed him to move through the park and stay at established backcountry campsites. The patient ranger on the phone, who seemed particularly eager to accommodate this 72-year-old thru-hiker, miraculously strung together an itinerary of 4 backcountry sites along the CDT, on the dates we needed, that were all roughly 15 miles apart. After surveying the park map further, I discovered that I could skirt the bear management area by hiking around it—namely 25 miles over 2 days on the South Boundary Trail, intersecting with the CDT near where Dad planned to camp just outside the park. From there we’d hike together northbound on the CDT into the park. And most remarkably among all my frenetic coordinating, I was able to book an available cabin at the Old Faithful Lodge for Saturday, July 3rd!

Annotated copy of Yellowstone National Park South Boundary Trailhead Map
The plan for our 8th and 9th meetups, my path in yellow, Dad’s in blue

The only gotcha in all this is that the South Boundary Trailhead (where I’d be starting) was 14 miles south of the Heart Lake Trailhead (where we’d be finishing). So on the morning of June 30th, I parked the Jeep at the Heart Lake Trailhead, walked out to the main road of the park, and held up a sign I’d made the night before, boldly requesting “SOUTH ENTRANCE”. Much to my disbelief, after walking down the road for no more than 5 minutes, an RV pulled over, and a Korean-American family from Michigan with two young daughters at the start of their 2-month vacation picked me up!

Justin holding a SOUTH ENTRANCE sign in preparation to hitchhike
Preparing to hitch for the first time in my life!

With the planning complete, all there was left to do was…ford? Right from the start, I had to cross the Snake River—my first major ford. I’ve crossed a handful of shallow and narrow streams barefoot or in flip-flops before, but this was definitely the first time that I plowed through so wide a knee-deep river with my shoes on. I can’t remember if I forded any other streams that day, but I do recall that on the second day, after climbing 2,400 feet over a 10,000-foot ridge and taking cover from a thunderstorm late in the afternoon, I had to ford the Snake River again, twice, less than a mile from our 8th meetup. Not only did this mean that my shoes and socks were saturated just before making camp, it also meant that the following day we’d be recrossing those same fords first thing in the morning.

Dad fording the Snake River, first thing in the morning
Knee-deep in the Snake River, just before 6am

All told, the next day we forded half-a-dozen streams and rivers en route to our backcountry campsite east of Heart Lake, two of which came right at the end. The day after was our much-anticipated independence day, the Third of July. There were only 12 miles between us and the Heart Lake Trailhead, our 9th meetup, and even though there was a steep mile-long climb mid-way, we finished it off in record time at 11, hopped in the Jeep, and sped off in the direction of burgers and ablutions.

Dad aka 'Tartan' hiking along Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park
The trail was the beach along the north shore of Heart Lake

Given that we’d traded one of the backcountry sites for precious showers and beds, this left Dad with just over 20 miles to cover between the Heart Lake Trailhead and his next backcountry site. I suggested he slackpack it, because the campsite was near a trailhead. Once again, the devil was in the details. Every single slackpack Dad had attempted last year ended with him at the Jeep, with his backpacking pack and all of the overnight gear he’d left behind. In this case, the campsite was actually 3 miles from the trailhead, so not only did I have to haul my backpacking gear to the campsite for the night (our 10th meetup), I also had to haul his. Luckily my backpack could expand to accommodate 2 sleeping bags, 2 mats, 2 tents, dinner and breakfast for the both of us, plus all of our other miscellaneous overnight clothes and accessories. And wow, did he crush those 20 miles, arriving at camp around 2:20pm…and then promptly passing out! As we were working out these logistics, I laughed at myself for thinking that last year we’d attempted every possible type of meetup—when this year it seems that, out of necessity, we keep creating newer and stranger ones.

Backcountry Campsite #OA1 Lone Star
Our backcountry campsite

Early the next morning, we packed things up and hiked those 3 miles in light rain back to the Jeep (technically our 11th meetup), where Dad reassembled his pack and picked up the bear can he’d already filled with 3 days of food for the next stretch. He had one final night at a backcountry site on the west side of the park, this time by himself, after which he’d bid adieu to both Yellowstone and Wyoming before meeting up with me along the Montana-Idaho border. After 21 days, Dad had hiked 270.5 miles.

4 Comments

Herman

Wish you and Brain a safe trail. Mathew is my son-law.

Herman! Thank you much for wishing us well. I passed your sentiments along to my Dad.

Marge G

Good progress. Continued good hiking now.

Cassidy

Awesome to hear. Happy trails!!

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