Backpacking the Yellowstone River Trail

Scroll to the bottom to find details on planning your own trip.

The latest High Country News has an article titled, "The death of backpacking." In it writer Christopher Ketcham asserts, for various reasons, that Gen Xers, specifically folks 40 and under, aren't into backpacking. It's hard work, there is no adrenaline payoff (if you do it right), and it takes you away from flashy technology.

That's probably all true, but as someone who just got back from backpacking with a seven-year-old through Yellowstone, I felt a little defensive. (My math-minded readers will note that I am not 40 or under, but I'm going to let that one go--41 is close enough, and I am a stereotypical Gen Xer.)

Admittedly, there were moments while we walked along the Yellowstone River Trail, gasping at the beauty of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, the bright wildflowers, and rushing water, that I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Why would I carry all the gear and food for two people (sans Anders' sleeping bag), through clouds of biting deer flies, over hot, exposed hills, while playing 20 Questions 20 times?

I won't go into all the wonders of getting into the backcountry, spending real time with your kid, slowing down, and seeing places that most people don't even know about. You have to go to know.

So, I can see why backpacking may be dying. It's hard work.

I do wonder about the data Ketcham used to make his point. He looked at the fall of backpacking gear sales. My backpack and stove are 12 years old, my beloved Crazy Creek chair, which blew out on this trip (may it rest in peace) is 21 years old, and my sleeping bag is 18 years old (it can vote and go to war!). My water filter is in the same age get the idea, I'm not buying a lot of gear. Backpacking stuff holds up, and even when it doesn't you can improvise because it's not a safety issue. The biggest problem with old gear is that it's heavy.

I am all over the place here and I really just wanted to show you pictures of our trip. Grab a beer, because there are a lot of them!

Henry and Finn dropped us off at the trailhead so we could through hike (and they hiked in a bit with us).

Our destination wasn't on the sign: Eagle Creek Campground 18 miles.

Here we go- the first mile is all downhill to a suspension bridge over the Yellowstone.

Our first view of the Yellowstone River from the bridge. We wouldn't see it again for five miles.

Puffy clouds and sagebrush.

Fireweed as tall as a seven-year-old.

The Yellowstone River Valley is winter range for a lot of animals, but, like this elk, they don't all make it through winter.

We paralleled the river for 16 miles before turning away. We loved thinking about how this is the same river that flows just blocks from our house.

Our first campsite. Elk shed their antlers each year and we saw (and left) a ton of sheds.

Anders filters our water for drinking.

Barefoot in the river.

On day two we stayed close to the river.

Anders plays in the sand on one of our many breaks.

Crevice Lake. Look! I was there, too.

Wild rose, fireweed, sticky geranium, and harebells- just a few of the many wildflowers.

Knowles Falls--it's bigger than it looks in this picture.

Playing in the mud near our second campsite.

Campsite two. You are required to stay in designated campsites in Yellowstone. We didn't mind.

Sun set view from our campsite.

Eating raspberries along the trail was a highlight.

Anders especially loved the rocky sections of trail.

Seriously--it's a scenic river.

Bear Creek comes into the Yellowstone east of Gardiner, Montana. This is where we turned north and slogged up the hot, dry, steep trail for two miles. Nothing like feeling super tough at the end of a trip.

Plan Your Own Trip

What: Backpacking!
Why: Spectacular scenery, lack of people, great fishing
Where: The Yellowstone River Trail in Yellowstone National Park. We started at the Hellroaring Trailhead and ended at USFS Eagle Creek Campground. Night one was at 1R1 Cottonwood Creek and night two at 1Y2 Knowles Falls. Each day was about six miles.
Who: Anyone who wants to walk up and down six miles for each of three days with a lot of weight on their backs. Also, backcountry lovers, solitude seekers, and mother-son teams.
How: Reserve a permit through the mail after downloading a reservation form and sending in $25. The permit is free (the reservation has a fee) and you can chance it and get a permit from any backcountry office in the park the day before or the day of your trip. I want a guaranteed reservation, so I always pay the money-- it would be a bummer to show up all packed and ready to go and then not get a permit.

Reading material

My favorite guidebook for hiking or backpacking in Yellowstone is Hiking Yellowstone National Park: A Guide to More than 100 Great Hikes. However the western two miles of trail has changed since he wrote this, so talk to a Park Service person about the new detour. I couldn't find the new trail on any maps, either. It's hard to miss, though. Keep walking to Bear Creek, then another few minutes until a trail sign points you uphill. It's a slog for a couple miles before reaching a Forest Service campground where you left your car.

We brought this Trails Illustrated Topographic Map. You'd be hard pressed to get lost on this trail (follow the river!), but it's nice to see distances and the names of surrounding creeks and mountains. Plus, you should always have a map.

Permalink 07/21/14 01:24:00 pm, by Mel Email , 964 words, Categories: Montana, Yellowstone, Wyoming, Hikes, Anders ,

Throw a Nature Themed Birthday Party

Our kids keep having birthdays every year, and that’s a good thing. But the impact of all those birthday parties isn’t good for the environment. As hikers, skiers, and nature-lovers, we decided to do something about that and make our kids’ parties a little more eco-groovy.

We start by choosing an outdoor setting and playing games that help the kids get to know this amazing place we call home. Then, we serve food that doesn’t require a lot of packaging. We tried instituting a no-gift policy, but that did not go over well with the party-recipients after the age of four.

Hiking to a local waterfall was the activity for a friend's birthday party.

Here’s what did work.

Choose a location

Whether it’s a Forest Service pavilion, a picnic table in a local park, a blanket alongside a pond, lake or river, or your own backyard, the first step is to reserve a place in a natural setting. Because Montana weather always keeps us guessing, we like pavilions or other structures with roofs. Finn's third birthday was at the Pine Creek Pavilion in the rain, and it was a big success.

Play natural games

As long as you have a group of kids out in nature, play a few games to hone their senses to their surroundings. Then give them plenty of time to discover what’s out there on their own.

Blind walk: Before the guests arrive, wind string between trees, over logs, and through the forest at kid-height. Blindfold each child, place his or her hand on the string, and have them follow it to the end, paying special attention to the sounds, odors, and feel of the place. If the kids are young, have an un-blindfolded adult travel with them.

Camouflage: One child stands in the trail or in an open area, eyes shut, and counts to 20. The other kids hide. The hiders must be able to see the counter’s head throughout the game. The counter tries to find all the hiders without moving, but he or she can pivot in a circle. The last person found is “it” next time.

Andrew Goldsworthy-inspired art: Goldsworthy is a British artist and sculptor who creates huge pieces of landscape art using all natural objects such as pebbles, twigs, branches, pine cones, mud, leaves and petals. Ask the party-goers to create their own natural art installations with found (not picked) objects.

Campfire: Of course you are going to have a campfire if you are in a location that’s appropriate. Gather round, roast marshmallows, tells stories, and sing Kumbaya.

Food on sticks in fun to eat and leaves minimal trash.

Low-impact food

To keep with the theme of “nature-inspired” try to minimize the trash your party generates.

• Skip the plastic-lined juice boxes and ask guests to bring their own reusable cups, which you fill from gallon-size, glass juice containers.
• Serve food on skewers. Fruit kabobs, caprese sticks (cherry tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves), meat and veggie kabobs, make eating fun and low-trash. The skewers can be composted or tossed into the campfire.
• Roast weenies and marshmallows over a campfire. Finding the right sticks is a game in itself.
• Grill up veggie burgers and dogs and serve on buns—no plates required.
• Cupcakes don’t require plates or plastic forks, and the wrappers can the burned in the fire if they aren’t plastic-coated.
• Stock up on cloth napkins from a thrift store. You can reuse them at every party and backyard barbeque you host for the next twenty years.

Goody bags

We’ve decided to forgo goody bags altogether. No one needs a plastic bag filled with candy and plastic junk. It all ends up in a landfill within a week, or a turtle’s stomach not long after. The goody is the games, cupcakes, campfire, and camaraderie.

Permalink 07/15/14 06:11:00 am, by Mel Email , 632 words, Categories: Issues, Less-plastic ,

Not my job

Taking wildflower photos is my job.

Henry and I share a lot of tasks around our house, but there are some jobs we've divided between us. I plant and maintain the gardens, he mows the lawn. I do most of the cooking, he gets things out of the high cabinets. I'm in charge of adventure planning, he loads the car. When never talked about it, it's just how it worked out.

There are a few other things that are decidedly his purview. Right now he is camped on an ice floe in the Arctic (this is not a metaphor) and those tasks have fallen to me. I wish they hadn't.

Henry is in charge of tech in our house. My email stopped working last Wednesday and it still hasn't spontaneously fixed itself. I may have to look beyond the marital bed for help.

Even more distressing is one of our chickens died. It was Ninja. She just croaked and I have no idea why. We (I) always said I would take care of beginning of life--raising the cute chicks-- and H would take care of end of life. I was really missing my sweet husband as I was pulling a stiff chicken out of the coop, in the rain.

At least the cat is alive. Here, Mr. Finklestein puts on his famous "Fat Tummy Show."

Anyway, that's not all that's going on around here.

Stuff I did when I wasn't here

I am stealing this idea from the Bloggess who writes a weekly round-up of her non-blog writing. I'm not prolific enough to do that, but I have a few stories to share.

We have a growing trail system in our little town, and I love getting out and exploring it. I wrote about six local trails here on the blog, and reworked it just a bit for Outside Bozeman. Don't read the title or you'll have that song stuck in your head for hours.

I also wrote a piece about savoring summer slowly for Outside Bozeman. Here's the longer, unedited version. Now, I just need to remember my proclaimed priorities and slow down.

We might be losing westslope cutthroat trout forever and I wrote about it's hybridization with rainbow trout (another casualty of global warming) on Daniel J. Cox's Natural Exposures website. It brought one climate change denier out of the wood work and into the comment section.

You'll need a drink after reading about trout, so here's a piece about a new cider house in Bozeman, penned for the Great Falls Tribune. Cheers.

Permalink 07/08/14 05:40:00 am, by Mel Email , 425 words, Categories: News ,

{Peru} La Playa to Santa Theresa

I started writing about Peru over a year ago...and am finally getting back to it today.

Today we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. We almost missed it.

The night before we debated whether we should walk the road from La Playa to Santa Theresa or take a longer, steeper trail over the mountain to the Hydro Electric plant, then a car to Santa Theresa. I voted for the road--it was shorter, which meant more time in the hot springs. Plus, Wilbur said the trail wasn't that great, we'd hardly see Machu Picchu, and we'd be there in a couple days anyway.

Talk about an undersell.

The group voted for the trail, and so we followed a dirt road for about a mile and half. After turning onto a steep, dusty trail, coffee plantations sprung up around us. We walked with Flavio, a 32-year-old man we met on the trail. He was on his way to see his mom, Theresa, at her coffee plantation.

We stopped with Flavio, met his mom, and the coffee drinkers among us bought beans to take home and roast. She didn't have any Earl Grey for sale, so I poked around and took photos.

Coffee berries

Flavio and Felicia trade money for coffee.

Mama Theresa

From there the "three hours of gentle climbing" Wilbur promised us turned into a steep, sweaty, slog. From what I can tell, this is de rigor for Peru--I don't know why we expected anything else. At the top of the pass, it looked just like Oregon--big trees, ferns, very temperate rainforest-like. Again, I was amazed at how much the ecosystems change here, and how quickly.

Here in Peru, one sixth of the world's plant life lives on one percent of the planet's land. There are 84 of 114 Holdridge plant life zones. Peru has the world's highest diversity of birds (1,800 species), butterflies (more than 3,500 species), and orchids (3,500). There are 6,300 endemic plants and animals, and about 30 million insects. It's pretty diverse.

Looking back on the river we hiked up from.


Heading back down from the pass.

As we started down the pass we got our first view of Machu Picchu. This wasn't just a glimpse. There it was across the canyon, perched on the top of a flattened mountain. What made it even cooler, is that we got to enjoy this view from a Mayan storehouse that lined up perfectly Machu Picchu. On the summer solstice, sunlight shined between two rooms of the storehouse and Machu Picchu.

We lounged on the grass, stretched, and ate lunch. This was definitely worth the longer trek. There was a very special feeling about this place, one that was hard to find at Machu Picchu with all the other people around.

Our first view of Machu Picchu.

The storehouse and solstice line.

The back side of Machu Picchu. Still far away, but getting closer every day.

Machu Picchu gazing at lunch.

Looking out of the store house at Machu Picchu.

We walked down the very steep trail to Rio Aobamba after lunch. Across the way a waterfall came straight out of a rock wall. It turned out this was part of the hydro-electric plant�a huge plant at the base of Machu Picchu that supplies energy to most of Peru. It has the ability to supply Bolivia and Ecuador, too, once they get the transmission ability increased.

From the hydro plant, we took a collectivo to Santa Theresa and our campsite at a garage and brick-making plant. The next day we would take the cab back to the hydro-electric plant to resume our walk.

Totally tubular flowers.

Just another cute kid living on a steep hillside somewhere in Peru.

After dumping our gear and grabbing swimsuits, it was back into the collectivo and on to the hot springs--three big pools set in a rocky background. It was incredible to clean up and relax in the hot water. Beer and popcorn followed, then it was back to camp for dinner and sleep.

The fabulous Santa Theresa hot springs!

Amazing setting, amazing water. Aahhh.

Plan your own trip

Are you reading along and thinking, "I want to go on a trip like this!"? Call my friend Felicia at Bella Treks, she'll set you up. And it's not just Peru, she goes all over South America, Morocco, Yellowstone, and a ton of other places.

Permalink 07/02/14 12:14:00 am, by Mel Email , 725 words, Categories: Hikes, Hot Springs, Peru ,

Endangered Species Have Feelings Too--ABC Feelings

As much as Facebook can drive me crazy from time to time, I have met some really great people there. This week alone, we've hosted two people/families that I've connected with through Facebook and this blog. It's great fun getting to know so many like minded and interesting people.

Last week, I met Danielle via my TravelingMel FB page. Turns out she lives just over the hill and is friends with another FB friend, so there is a good chance we will connect in person one day.

Danielle's mom recently released an Endangered Species coloring book.

Endangered Species Have Feelings Too is an educational book that children of all ages will enjoy coloring while becoming aware of the plight of twenty-six endangered species. The text offers characteristics of the animal/insect as well as their struggles to survive because of human impact on nature and species. As an added bonus, the child is expanding his/her feelings vocabulary which boosts their emotional intelligence.

We talk about the plight of animals, plants, and the planet a lot around here, and this looks like a great resource to put some feelings to those facts. I can't wait to dig in with my kids!

If anthropomorphized animals bother you, this may not be your book. But, that's kind of the point--using the way animals may feel to understand your own feelings. And hopefully after reading this book, and coloring in the gorgeous drawings, we might feel a little more for the critters we share the planet with.

Permalink 07/01/14 09:45:00 am, by Mel Email , 252 words, Categories: Wildlife, Issues, Learning ,

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