GET OUT: A Happy Hellroarin’ Time

By on May 31, 2016

Trading the valley’s rainclouds for some Ystone backpacking.

Just the thing to sate early season desires for exploration—a Yellowstone multi-day adventure. (Photo: Matt Berman)

Just the thing to sate early season desires for exploration—a Yellowstone multi-day adventure. (Photo: Matt Berman)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In Wyoming’s extended mud season, finding viable outdoor activities can be a challenge. The snow is sometimes too mushy for good skiing. Bike trails are intermittently muddy if not snow-covered. Unsuitable for fishing or soaking in hot springs, the rivers are high and brown

But Wyoming is greening up after another long winter, and all I want to do is get out. Now that the roads through Yellowstone are open, I like to make an annual pilgrimage to the northern end of our northern neighbor.

I know—that’s too far away. Yes, coming from Jackson, the area between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower, which is only a few miles from the Montana border, might seem like a far away planet. But you’re trying to get out, after all, and this adventure is worth the journey.

Why go all the way to Yellowstone’s northern border, you ask? Aren’t there a plethora of trails I’m sending you right past? Well, yes, but the bulk of Yellowstone (especially the side facing Jackson Hole) is high, more than a thousand feet above Jackson in most places, so many loops of backcountry trails are blocked by thick snow pack, high rivers and bear management areas, which are off-limits to humans until July. This is why you’ll have to drive all the way to Hellroaring Creek. (Has there ever been a better name?)

In this northern extreme of Yellowstone, everything is very different than you’re used to. At less than six thousand feet elevation, you’ll see fields of tiny prickly pear cactus (look out for thorns) and the same little juniper trees you may have noticed during spring trips to Southern Utah. It’s like stumbling upon a strange desert surrounded by the Rocky Mountains.

The centerpiece of the Hellroaring Creek Trail is the string of wild bridges that allow hikers to pass high over impassible rivers. While “pure wilderness” has its appeal, the suspension bridges over the Yellowstone River and Hellroaring Creek, and the subsequent log bridges you’ll come across on this trail, are glorious feats of engineering, no matter how common and old-school. Suspended high above the river, that first bridge raises the hairs on the back of my neck, but I’m particularly sensitive to heights.

After those bridges, second most prominent on the Hellroaring Creek trail are the two maintained backcountry cabins. The Hellroaring Station Cabin (built in July, 1925) is a few miles over the border, in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the Hellroaring Creek Cabin, owned by the National Park Service. Since they are both owned by their respective government agencies, you can’t stay at either one, but you can go there, plop a seat and enjoy the view from out front. Sitting on the porch of these cabins transports you to another time and place, long before the Industrial Revolution.

The Hellroaring Creek loop also serves as a tour of Wyoming’s wildflowers. Bright yellow glacier lilies dot the sides of the trail, as well as pink shooting stars, yellow bells and purple sugarbowl clematis.

Antler aficionados will be pleasantly surprised to see sheds everywhere, in various states of wear and tear. Scattered throughout the lodgepole forests and sagebrush meadows racks from this year’s sheds and chewed up antiques abound. You can’t remove the antlers from Yellowstone, but that’s part of the magic—reveling in an intact ecosystem that still looks almost as it did hundreds of years ago. (With the notable exception of those steel suspension bridges and log cabins I like so much.)

So get out and enjoy a quiet loop of Yellowstone’s trails, a preview of the summer season. Leave the park and explore a tiny piece of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Camp out there, so you don’t need to deal with Yellowstone’s Byzantine permits system. Walk over massive chasms on impressive suspension bridges. Stop to appreciate the wildflowers. And when you’re done, enjoy a cold one in Gardiner. PJH

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