I Cheated

Okay, look…I don’t live inside Yellowstone anymore.  Yeah, it’s true that I could pretty much spit and hit the park from where I now live, but it just ain’t the same thing as actually living in the heart of the whole damned thing.

In summer my favorite places are incredible.  In winter they are…magical.

In summer, an erupting geyser is a reminder of the power and processes under our feet that we never really consider.  In winter…in winter, that superheated column of water and steam, in the right place and at the right time, turns to the finest of ice crystals in the blink of an eye.  Watching that diamond dust erupt and blow, watching it turn the nearby branches into “ghost trees”…  Yeah, it’s not the cold that gives you the chills at that point.

In summer, the trail from Wolf Lake to Cascade Lake is well-trod as a long(ish) day hike.  It is crowded, even.  In winter?  In winter, it is not a trail, it is a two-day marathon of snow and ice.

And then you have Mount Washburn, at the north end of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon…

The country north and east of Washburn has been closed to human traffic for several years.  This is because of the bears, of course.  Oh, it is not to protect humans from the bears.  Quite the opposite, actually.  This area (and a couple of others) are closed as “bear management areas” in order to provide space where cubs and juvenile bears can learn and grow without ever so much as sniffing a human.  No contact means no acclimation, and no acclimation means they will be far more prone to avoid humans for the rest of their lives.  That’s good for both of us, human and bear.

Unfortunately, the area north of Mount Washburn also hosts the only section of the Howard Eaton Trail that I have not yet hiked.


It’s a weird goal, I know, but ever since my first week in the park almost four years ago {Edit – five years, actually. Math is hard}, I have wanted to complete the entirety of the Eaton trail.  That trail, if you don’t know, is pretty much the original “tourist trail” in the park.  Howard Eaton himself was a local rancher and early guide who would lead 3-week horse tours through the park.  From up here in Gardiner, those tours went down to Old Faithful, and on to what is now Grand Teton National Park.  Coming north again, they would pass Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, the Gand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then skirt the west edge of Lamar Valley and cross Blacktail Plateau to return to Mammoth and Gardiner.  The trail still exists, for the most part.  A couple of sections are “lost” and no longer maintained, but you can still find them if you know where to do the research, and what to look for.

I know. I know where to look, and what to look for.

I had completed seven of the eight sections by the time I left the park to move into Gardiner itself.  All I had left was the most “lost” of those sections, the one that left from Canyon Village, skirted Mount Washburn’s eastern shoulder, and continued north to Tower Junction.

Remember that closed area I mentioned, the one just north of Washburn?  Yep, you got it right, that’s it.  The trail goes right through the heart of that area.  In winter, however…

In winter, you can snowshoe/ski it.  If you know what you’re doing.  If you’re confident in your backcountry skills.  If you’re more than a little insane.  I am — ahem — all three.  

Along with a couple of friends who share my insanity, I just had to complete that last section.  Wait…“a couple of friends?” I hear you ask. “But you hate hiking with other people!”

Let’s put it like this — I’m insane, not stupid.  It was actually the hardest thing, in a physical sense, that I’ve ever done.  If you’ve never snowshoed, let me offer a little homework for you: go to the softest and deepest sand you can find, put on your heaviest boots, grab a fifty pound pack, now start slogging.

Congratulations, that’s still a world easier than snowshoeing over several feet of untouched snow and ice in some of the roughest terrain in Yellowstone.  We predicted a two-day trip, but prepped for four.  In the end, it took three, so let’s hear it for splitting the difference!  Yeehaw!  The two day prediction  would have been spot-on, by the way, except for that oh-so-fun shortness of breath that COVID left me with…

It’s tough to get into the heart of the park in winter, by the way.  The roads are closed, the few snowcoach trips are as expensive as they are limited, and snowmobile tours are even more tightly restricted.  Now, I have no problem with those restrictions.  I think they are a very good idea, as a matter of fact.  But, for a local, those restrictions make getting in to the heart of Yellowstone a pretty damned significant trip on skis or snowshoes.

Unless you cheat.

If you…umm…happen to have a friend or two who still live full-time inside the park, you can hitch a ride on their snowmobile.  You can also, if you bring offerings of booze and food (in that order), usually crash at their place for a day or two…

It’s not luxurious, and it certainly isn’t easy, but it also isn’t on any tour company’s list of offerings.

God, I needed that.

Post Script — I get tired of people asking about the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” thing. I have heard far too many tourists say, “It’s just marketing, honey. They borrowed the name from the real Grand Canyon.” *sigh* A picture, at least, might help to explain the name. And, yes, I have hiked down into the Canyon. I have camped on the river. And I have hiked (inevitably) back up that steep-ass wall…

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