GET OUT: Sweet Seclusion

By on June 28, 2016

Instead of Lake Solitude, enjoy actual solitude in West Shoal Creek.

Turn away from the Tetons and venture into the Gros Ventre to avoid the crowds and enjoy a slice of quietude. (Photo: Matt Berman)

Turn away from the Tetons and venture into the Gros Ventre to avoid the crowds and enjoy a slice of quietude. (Photo: Matt Berman)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – This summer record numbers of people are predicted to visit our national parks. But if solitude is what you crave, there are still plenty of places in our backyard where almost no one goes. You just might have to turn away from the Tetons for a moment. Don’t worry; you’ll be back. Despite the similarities between park and forest land, there’s one way the land to our south, most of which is owned by the Forest Service, is particularly different from the land owned by the National Park Service: Solitude is around every corner.

Sometimes I like to imagine what it would have been like to walk through these mountain ranges before maps, trails and signs. The Bridger-Teton National Forest still offers that experience. The modern world ends abruptly, and untrammeled wilderness extends forever. And I don’t mean wilderness lined with rock walls and stairs, where bridges keep your feet perpetually dry and rangers abound to answer your every question. I mean real wilderness, as in bring a map and the knowledge necessary to use it, because where you’re going, you won’t see much of anything but groves of trees and the meadows in between.

Tucked in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, the trailhead to West Shoal Creek is easy enough to get to, if you don’t mind a few long miles of rough, potholed road and the fact that the trailhead is lacking even a one-car parking spot. We asked a nice couple if we could park at the turnaround by their house and then we headed up the rocky trail, which gained six hundred feet in the first mile.

We walked through a narrow valley with steep, forested sides. A series of carefully crafted beaver ponds slowly poured down the middle of the drainage. These beavers were hard at work, or perhaps there was a team of them, or both. Trees showed the telltale signs of beaver chewing at the six-foot mark. Was this the work of a giant beaver? Had the tree grown four feet since it’s top was chewed off? Do beavers climb trees? Regardless of the answers to these pressing questions, the beaver ponds make for a happy forest. They provide habitat for mallards, robins, red-tailed hawks, and at least one Lazuli bunting.

After an hour or so of hiking we began looking for a campsite, but we didn’t see anything promising… at first. So we walked deeper into the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, eventually finding ourselves drawn to a flat spot not far from a side tributary untainted by beavers (we hoped.)

After we set up camp, I set out to search for the fire ring. There is always a fire ring, right? Here, however, I couldn’t find one. We felt like we were the first people to ever camp in this area, but that couldn’t be possible. Sure, West Shoal Creek is off the beaten path, but it’s still less than an hour from town.

My partner and I hung up our food and our backpacks and we set out on a hike further up the way. After a few more miles of hiking we found no better camping spot and no fire pits, not even at the main junction, in the shadow of a towering boulder.

We abstained from having a fire, partly because no one had before, partly because we felt awkward disturbing such an undisturbed place. That night the stars looked like dense clusters of diamonds against a black sea.

The next day, on the way back out to the trailhead, our eyes were fixed up high, staring at the towering peaks. Neither of us had noticed the view the day before because we’d been walking away from it.

As we emerged again from the forest, we thought about how the mushrooms were probably done for the spring. The forest floor was drying out. The trees had already dispersed their yellow clouds of pollen. Sometimes June can be a wet month here, full of rain and snow, but this year we’ve mostly had dry wind and hot sun. So the snow has already melted off the belly of the Sleeping Indian, which means peak runoff is here.

Soon we’ll be living again in the short window of time when a person can explore the mountains without skis. And if you’re searching for solitude, West Shoal Creek is merely the entrance to a vast world of peace. PJH

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