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GET OUT: Bear Creek: Hard Hike to Hot Springs
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Bear Creek, located near Palisades Reservoir in Alpine, offers a hypnotizing hike along a waterway that moves aimlessly through the open valleys along this alpine valley on the southern slopes of the Caribou Range.
The beauty and simplicity of the scenery is deceptive, however, as this is not a good hike for someone who is not in shape. Even some football players who made the hike said it was one of the hardest workouts they’ve had.
Most of the 15-mile, out-and-back trail is moderate but there are splits in several spots linking to a larger trail system. Some of the splits are marked with signs but most will be left up to your own sense of direction. Though the higher trails may be a bit more strenuous, they offer a way to keep your feet dry by avoiding the deep, wide-creek crossings at the bottom of the canyon.
Two miles in, amongst the tall meadow grasses you will see a small cabin along the bank of the creek. It was built decades ago by Buel Warner, but is now owned by the Forest Service. Bear Creek is abundant with wildlife including elk, moose, deer, black bears and the occasional mountain lion. This is a coveted area for hunters in the fall, especially those seeking deer.
At four miles in, the trail splits where the south and north fork of Bear Creek merges. At this crossroad you can take the north fork for another five miles to get to the Fall Creek trail system, or you can take the south fork trail for another three miles to a hidden oasis. Here is where the going gets tough, not only physically but in terms of a navigational challenge as well.
With at least six major stream fords, you will find yourself wading through icy cold waters as you struggle to differentiate the trail from the overflowing waters. An abundance of beaver ponds, which provide great habitat for trout, create even more water obstacles. Now is about the time you wish you had an extra pair of wool socks and shoes to change into. The best advice I can give you is to keep walking; your body heat will warm up those toes in no time.
At about six miles in you will reach a big open space as the creek widens and the canyon opens up. There are a few spaces for camping here if you don’t want to haul the camping gear up the steep incline. Even if you are not pitching camp, this is a great place to take in the beauty and catch your breath as the last mile is a grueling climb with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet, and I can guarantee you will be looking down at every footstep.
However, save the views for when you are on your way back down. The trail switches back quite a bit at this point, but is mostly straight up. As you get closer to the top, the land becomes lusher with brilliant shades of green, and you can feel a change in humidity. You will feel like you have ventured into another world.
At 7.5 miles you will reach the hidden hot springs, a welcome relief for your weary body. Slip into the 10-foot wide, 20-foot long, and two-foot deep soaking pool bordered by rocks and grass. A long platform spans the deeper end and is a great place to sit if you just want to soak your feet. Spring water perks up through the sandy bottom at a perfect 98 degrees.
Several boulders scattered within the pool offer additional seating. The outflow runs through a few small rocky pools nearby, eventually settling into a warm, winding stream through the lush grass. There is a designated camping area right next to the hot springs with room for about eight campsites featuring fire rings and logs for seating. The secluded site doesn’t see much foot traffic, and the few visitors that venture this far afield are hunters in the fall, so feel free to shed the clothes.
Directions: Go to the Palisades Reservoir dam on Highway 26. Cross the top of the dam and go to the left past the boat docks and campground on the left. When you come to a fork in the road, turn left and follow Bear Creek Road, also known as Forest Road 58, until you come to the parking area on the right-hand side of the road. If you cross the small bridge on Bear Creek Road you’ve gone just a little bit too far.