GET OUT: A last hurrah before the frost

By on October 21, 2014
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A hot spring soak is just the thing to warm the bones while enjoying some crisp fall camping. Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Backcountry camping can be chilly this time of year, but the crisp fall days are an inspiring time to enjoy the last bits of warmth before winter. Located a little more than two hours from Jackson via Ashton, ID, the drive to the southwest entrance of Yellowstone offers unique scenery and the promise of a bone-warming soak in one of this park’s most abundant features: hot springs. The trailhead also can be accessed via Grassy Lake Road, but be prepared for an adventure.

From Ashton, we drove 26 miles (10 on an easy dirt road) to arrive at the Bechler Ranger Station around 3. We thought we would be on the trail in no time. Little did we know, obtaining the permit would take almost an hour as we filled out a detailed itinerary and watched a video about rules in bear country.

“Do you have bear spray?”

“What are you going to cook with?”

“What is your water filtration device?”

It felt like an outdoor GRE. After exhaustively outlining our survival techniques, we were asked to provide a list of backups in case those failed. Following a most inquisitive ranger encounter, we found ourselves emancipated on the Boundary Creek Tail amid a thick of lodge pole forest.

The treed monotony of typical Yellowstone hikes existed for only a mile. After a creek crossing, we arrived in a golden meadow with Teton views. The hiking was dry, but evidence of deep tracks in old mud told me springtime holds wet marsh filled with mosquitoes. Although most trail junctions were labeled and signed, we were happy to have a map to see where we were in the seemingly endless hay fields.

A suspension bridge on the Bechler Meadows Trail highlighted true Yellowstone trail crew handiwork. We walked back and forth across it a few times. It’s not every day I encounter a suspension bridge, and they are true testament to the brains of the park service. The bridge also served as a nice respite to cold creek crossings in sandals. After a short snack of salmon, goat cheese and avocado, we made our way to the base of a small hill, the biggest feature we encountered the whole trip.

We had a permit to camp about a mile from Dunanda Falls. This area of Yellowstone has plush camp spots. There was a flat, sheltered area for our tent and a metal bear hang spaced adequately away allowed for ease in quickly hanging food (bring proper cord for hanging). The most shocking thing I found was a concrete toilet at our campsite. I’ve never seen anything like it in all of my backpacking but it beats adding to your out load with a wag bag. Bear poop and upturned logs perked our alertness for large animals. We found a nice spot to cook a deluxe meal of sausage, bean and rice tacos.

At dusk we walked to the hot spring. It wasn’t the best idea; we debated walking at night, but chose warmth and risk over fear and cold. We walked carefully, bear spray in hand and bright headlamps scanning our surroundings.

We arrived at the waterfall after dark and followed a spur trail down the hill to the base of the falls. Slight sadness ensued when we heard a group of people in the distance, but the many small springs available at the base of the waterfall offered us views and ample privacy. Moon bows lit on the mist of the waterfall. It felt nice to soak on such a crisp evening. Just when we were about to leave, a meteor lit up the sky and exploded above our heads. We took this as a sign to stay and relaxed for a few more hours. Temperatures were perfect and adjustable for long soaks, as the springs flowed into the river. Upon a late night arrival back at our tents, I slept with warm knees and feet, a sign of comfortable camping in the fall.

It was a cold morning, but we took our coffee to the hot springs while our tent defrosted. First light rainbows showed through the mist of the waterfall. Upon closer observation of the hot spring site, I saw a mesh of scattered cans, illegal fires and trash. Now, I understood why the ranger was so inquisitive and questioned us for so long. It was a bummer to see trash strewn carelessly in such a magical and pristine place, but it wasn’t heavy and was an easy fix. Upon returning to our camp spot, our tent was dry and the sun was warm. We continued the day mixing hot springs with fishing and eating massive amounts of food. Our backpacking trip continued through to other notable places, but you will have to explore that for yourself.

Info: 7 miles one-way, 600 feet elevation gain. Camping permits required, either make a reservation ($25) at Yellowstone Backcountry Office (307) 344-2160 or get one at any Yellowstone Ranger Station, open 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., (free within 48 hours). There are rangers patrolling everywhere, so if you don’t get a permit, you’ll likely be fined. Fishing permits are also available at these stations (cash only). A separate fishing permit is required for YNP.

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