GET OUT: Forking the Buffalo in bear country

By on May 14, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO - I love this hike. You shouldn’t try it if you are overly afraid of bears. Me, I like to know a grizzly could very well be around every corner. It heightens your awareness and keeps you hyper-alert. Oh, and make sure you do it in the direction I tell you or you will be sucking wind at the end.

My favorite time to hike the Buffalo Fork is in the late fall. Mid- to late-October is perfect. The hunters have vamoosed, and the place is all your own. Heading into winter is when griz are in hyperphagia – the calorie-packing frenzy bears get in when heading into hibernation. They know time is short, and they are looking to pack on the weight. Some grizzlies will consume 20,000 calories a day (up from 8,000 to 10,000, normally) in order to head to the den with enough fat reserve. Running into a grizzly when he’s in this state is bad juju.

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Bridge over North Fork Buffalo River. (Jake Nichols)

Early spring is almost as bad. Bears have just awakened from months of slumber. They are hungry and a bit edgy. If they find a winter-kill carcass, you better pray you don’t find it too. If you see a dead elk, get your head on a swivel and get out of there.

How to get there

I started this hike last week from the Turpin Meadows end but that’s not the way you want to do it. It is probably not possible to do the whole hike-through yet so I only completed half. When it’s melted out enough here’s what you do. Take two cars up Togwotee Pass. Drop one off at the Turpin Meadow trailhead. It’s about 10 miles in from the highway on Buffalo Valley Road (FR 30050). Take the other vehicle to Togwotee Mountain Lodge.

From Togwotee Mountain Lodge, get on service road behind the lodge for about a half-mile. I think it’s FR30040 to FR30041 but I don’t know if they are signed this way. FR 30041 leads to a little turnaround circle where you will park and put on your big boy hiking boots. And maybe grab a fly-fishing rig. The fishing is insane!

The trail begins a fairly steep descent. It is the northwest-facing termination of Angle Mountain that you will be tracking down. For almost two miles you will be in heavy timber. The light of day doesn’t shine in here. Fear not, sunshine is on the way. You’ll drop 1,200 feet in the first mile. Coming up this after already walking 5.5 miles might not seem so bad on paper, but it’s a real ballbuster in your Keens.

Getting Buffaloed

As it starts to open up, you will get a great glimpse of the confluence of the Buffalo forks. To the right, that’s the South Fork. It’s traveled a good 20 miles as the crow flies from the Washakie Wilderness near Bliss Creek on the Divide to be here – bringing snowmelt from Pendergraft Peak, Smokehouse Mountain, Terrace Mountain, Simpson Peaks and more. It meandered lazily through Lower Pendergraft Meadow before squeezing past Bear Cub Pass (guess how it got that name?) to get where you are looking at it.

The North Fork also has its tale to tell. It begins as nothing, off the southwest slope of an unnamed 10,800-foot mountain. Everything melting on the other side of that mountain flows down through Woodard Canyon and feeds the Yellowstone River on its way through the Thorofare. The North Fork picks up steam after Joy Creek and Soda Fork join it.

There are two bridges down here – the smaller footbridge over the North Fork and a bigger one spans the South Fork. Just after the confluence the new Buffalo River takes a big curve and deepens considerably. This is where I would fish it.

Continue west another four miles, jumping up and across a ridge and tracking the Buffalo River (to your left) out to the Turpin Meadow trailhead. The Tetons will come into view as you approach the end. The trip totals 6.6 miles and, when taken in the late fall or early spring, you almost certainly will encounter griz or griz sign. Bring pepper spray. If you travel with dogs make sure they do not get far from you and bring back a surprise.


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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