10 Days and 9 Nights Journeying through Yellowstone National Park’s Back Country

Elliot’s Yellowstone Adventure Overview

When I first arrived in Cody, Wyoming I was hoping that I would be able to spend about a week in Yellowstone National Park backpacking through the wilderness. I did some research before on bear safety and precautions and had spent a good amount of time and money gearing up and preparing.

The idea was to start learning how to cope with snow while camping. Also to have my longest backpacking adventure yet. Though I didn’t get the mild snowy weather I was hoping for, I did get quite a challenging adventure logistically and mentally.

Every night was very different, ranging from anxiety about bear activity, to lack of sleep due to Elk and Moose trumpeting, to sleeping soundly in Yellowstone’s very fun and beautiful campgrounds of which the Madison area was my favorite.

Another big goal was to see lots of wildlife while staying safe. Yellowstone has the highest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 United States (Alaska has more) and I am a large animal enthusiast. It turned out to be a great time and I really started to get the hang of being out there about 5 days into the adventure.

The second day in Cody, I made a friend named Josh, who I met at Sunlight Sports on the Main Street Sheridan Avenue. Josh is becoming a really good climber and we got another chance to climb after this and also went bouldering with some local dudes that were super talented on the local bouldering routes up on Cedar Mountain. We went sports climbing a day later and I asked him if he could give me a ride to the park for some gas money. He agreed, so I found a small storage unit and put all of the climbing gear and things that I didn’t think that I would need backing into it. Tuesday morning I headed into the park with Josh as my driver.

I later sent a 5.10c on lead and am super psyched on it even though I topped out like a beached whale cause my arms had literally no strength left in them at the top.

Part 1 – Acclimatizing to Living in Nature

Day 1 – Into the park and the Yellowstone Lake Backwoods

can you see the grizzly bear’s shoulder hump in the photo?

Josh dropped me off at about 9am at the East Entrance to Yellowstone State Park. I paid the $20 for personal entry to the park and started walking. The first day was spent mostly hoofing it alongside the road. Yellowstone isn’t exactly the most pedestrian friendly place in the world and focuses far more on road maintenance than keeping up its trails. However, this setup does allow for easy and effectively managed wildlife viewing, so I definitely have mixed feelings about it. I saw my first Grizzly bear about 3 hours into the first day, at about 11:30am whilst walking along the road. A photographer up ahead of me had a massive camera and we chatted for about 30 minutes about the bear’s activity. The photographer was full of useful information and had followed the bear the previous season, as well as earlier in the week. It was a very interesting beginning to a very long day.

Sylvan River Sulfur Spring

After 15 miles or so of hiking it along the road and having people waving at me from both directions, I left the road from the East Entrance. At about 3:30 (plenty of daylight to get to the lake, or so I thought…) I followed the Sylvan River down into the back country where I enjoyed the nature far more than the vehicles (many of them were RVs). I found this fascinating sulfur spring pouring into the river and decided to pump my water far upstream from it, where the water was much clearer. I wasn’t and still am not sure if my filter would be effective against such a smelly and toxic looking thermophile deposit, but it seemed to do fine with the trace amounts that must have been in the river. I continued down stream, leaving the river at points because the back country travel was so difficult. I was bush-whacking over large and stacked pine trees and began to see lots of animal sign, scat and tracks. I knew to make noise and avoid being smelled and I had all of my bear equipment at the ready, but I still became very fearful of animal activity and interest in me as the day progressed. I really felt that an animal might get curious and approach me. But the sun was going down the horizon and it was getting super cold. I setup my pack and bear canister far away from my site and waited to cook until the following day to stay hidden from the bear’s incredible sense of smell. Additionally, the sulfur deposits leeching into the river would protect against something smelling me or my pack. I settled down into the hardest night of sleep while in the park, worried that a bear might smell and/or interested in my campsite.

Sunrise of Day 2

I had a hard time sleeping that night, but my dreams were incredible. It probably took me 1-3 hours to get to sleep each night and this was for sure the longest it took me whilst in the park. My first dream was about a bear attacking me, jumping on my back while I was in my tent. Surprisingly, this put me at ease, allowing me to find some peace with where I was and the situation. I let go. The night passed and I awoke to a hard frost, but no signs of animal activity near me. I had made the mistake of leaving all of my sweaty clothing out (away from my tent) and it had all frozen over. Next time I would keep my wet clothes in my tent to avoid that situation happening again. I waited for the sun to rise above the ridge-line of the valley that I had slept in and warmed up with my gloves and some backpacker’s pantry oatmeal for breakfast as well as the Instant Coffee I bought from Pour Choice in Auburn, CA for this exact adventure.

Day 2 – Getting to Yellowstone Lake and Hitching my First Ride

The morning of the first was by far the hardest hiking I had to do. Two miles took me two hours and it took 5 to get to the lake. I attempted to follow the Sylvan river, but it was extremely slow going due to the downed trees, most likely from the flooding earlier in the season. Luckily my trekking poles came in very handy to effectively help me to cross over many of the larger stacked trees, but I still had to find my way through the maze. Sometimes I had to literally go backwards a bunch and find a new path forward. It took all morning and just a bit of the afternoon to reach the lake, which I had planned on staying at the first night.

My first view of the lake was spectacular, both in feeling and beauty. My stress levels diminished quite rapidly as I soaked my worn out feet in the lake, which were being gradually destroyed by my new Arc’teryx Acrux mountaineering boots that were not yet broken in. And I realized I had forgotten my favorite shoes, my Choco’s sandals, in my temporary storage unit back in Cody. I swam a bit in the icy cold water and then continued barefoot up to the road, where there was signage and all kinds of warning about bear activity in the area. I knew I was pretty lucky not to have encountered any wildlife other than squirrels and birds so far so I decided to recuperate and plan the next part of my trip outside of the lake area that I had originally planned to stay in for the duration of my backpacking trip to Yellowstone.

I hiked up to Sedge Bay and Steamboat Point picnic areas and met a really friendly Canadian couple who were traveling through the park with their car (like a normal person would). I asked for a ride and they graciously offered to bring me north, to Canyon Junction where they were staying at the expensive and beautiful Canyon Lodge.

We traveled for a few hours and roamed around the park, seeing Bison, checking out geysers, and learning about the conservation efforts of the park. I pretty much just went along with whatever they wanted to do, happy to not be alone in back country any longer. All the time we spent seeing the sights, I was wondering where I would stay the following night. At this point I learned that its really not allowed to just stay in the back country (even though I had previously signed up for a back country permit) and that you were supposed to stay in specific campgrounds throughout the park. But due to the off-season closures, I had a terribly hard time finding rangers to give me advice or any sort of guideance.

Once we arrived at Canyon Village, I talked to the very nice, however uninformative receptionist at the hotel, who explained that only one campground was really still open (actually there were two) and that it was on the Western end of the park, the Madison campgrounds. I was wary of staying in the back country for another night and didn’t have any idea of how I could get there, especially at the late hour that it was, around 6 o’clock. When I’m backpacking I definitely prefer to have my tent setup before dark. And Canyon Village had campgrounds, although they were closed for the season, even though the weather was still very agreeable. I got a hot plate for dinner, rice and chicken and veggies and then followed the Canyon Village road to the closed campground area.

I decided to stay just off the campgrounds in the forest around some trees that looked very healthy. I slept really well that night, but the dreams were still extremely vivid. And I could hear wolves and coyotes howling that night, which made for some interesting thoughts. Overall one of my good nights overall, getting to have a hot meal and feeling safe my camping area.

Day 3 – The Wild Greeble Lake

I woke up on the third day to the cold. The mornings were definitely a big temperature difference from the nights, so I would layer up in the mornings and then take off clothes as I started to sweat, doing my best to avoid moisture buildup in any of the layers.

I had studied a back country path out to the Cascade and Greeble Lake area so I got on the road early to find the trail. I got to the trailhead and began towards the lake, an easy hike for about 3 miles. Once I got there, the views were magnificent; this was the type of camping and backpacking that I had been looking for in the park. I passed a back country campground that allowed for fires and started to get super psyched to spend the night out there. I met three hikers along the trail and we chatted a bit about bear safety, they seemed to be very interested in my larger backpack so I was happy to chat and tell them about what I was doing out there.

I found an open site on Greeble Lake (some were closed due to wildlife activity) and setup my tent. It was only about 4pm so I went for a swim in the icy lake and got a fire going, cooked some dinner (actually my least favorite meal, New England corn chowder) and dried off some of my clothes, still wet from the first night’s hard frost.

Greeble Lake Fog

Pretty much as soon as the Sun went down, I heard loud trumpeting right next to my tent. And then swimming. The elk were for sure going out into the lake to swim and several of them were calling for mates. It was actually quite symphonic, they were beautifully calling out in the night and the moon was pretty full so I’m sure those elk were having the time of their lives out in the lake. Partially through the night, I heard a more distinctly large and deep animal trumpeting sound, that was more chaotic and louder. I’m pretty sure this was a moose, cause it came back to an area near my tent and started making tons of noise. I didn’t sleep so well that night, but it was so fantastic that I didn’t mind the next day. The dreams I had that night were the most vivid of the whole trip.

Day 4 – Arriving in Norris and Madison

The next day I awoke to no animal movement except for the little mallards on the lake. I woke up a bit later to get the sleep I knew I needed and to let the Sun warm up the fog from the lake. I pumped water, ate some breakfast and got on my way.

I passed Wolf and Ice Lake fairly early in the day and got out to Norris, where my trail disappeared into a giant meadow, with no landmarks in sight. I was completely lost for about an hour and heading into the direction I knew the road would be in. I trudged through the thick sedge grass in the meadow and followed power lines out to the road at Norris and the main road. Once I was on the road I decided to check out the Geyser basin. It did not disappoint, Norris has the most dynamic thermal activity in the park and is constantly changing. I spent about an hour exploring there, ate a little, then began to walk down the road to the Madison Campground.

At this point my feet were pretty destroyed, it was the first time I had worn my boots and I didn’t have a send pair of shoes to trade out. I was moving too slowly to get to Madison before nightfall so I decided to throw up my thumb and try to get my second ride of the trip. Probably 200 cars passed me before a truck stopped pretty far ahead, it looked like the guy who stopped was reorganizing his trunk space. I confirmed that he was going to give me a ride and a feeling of relief washed over me.

The next 15 miles took about 20 minutes rather than a whole day. Nate and his family of four, two younger boys, were my miracle that day, giving me lots of snacks and food to continue on with my back country adventure. They had previously traveled around Shoshone Lake and I figured that would be a good place to spend a night or two.

I got into the campground, tired and hungry and went to the local store to buy as much food as I could eat that night, including bacon, instant noodles, and BBQ style kettle chips.

I was getting my fire setup to cook the bacon when my Irish neighbors came over with some Bourbon whiskey to share!

These two gentlemen were from Ireland doing the continental divide trail on bike and were also looking to take a day and rest (I had covered quite a lot of distance in the past 3 days and needed to rest my feet from the heavy boots). We became friends quickly and began to tell of our lives back home, Tommy was a poet and Dermot, well I’m not too sure about Dermot’s story but he had traveled a lot and continued to love living in Ireland. We decided that the following day we would go fishing and take it easy at the campground, as it was one of the few places with accessible food. The rest of the park seemed to be completely shut-down for the season.

Day 5 – Fishing in Madison

I slept like a little baby that night, the bourbon kept me plenty warm and I was very happy to have a couple of friends to share time with. Tommy and I woke up late and went out to the river to fly fish and we spent the day exploring different flies and trying to entice the fish to our reel to no avail. Tommy had previously gotten his fishing license and I was happy to learn all about the conservation efforts for the local species of cutthroat trout. In fact, if you catch a bass in Yellowstone you are required to kill it. They are very intelligent about how they want to preserve native species in the park, I recommend checking out the rules simply because they are so interesting.

We came back to camp and had a couple of beers together and cooked some more bacon, I was definitely trying to eat as much fat as I could over those two days in Madison. And again I went to sleep a happy camper.

Part 2: Mental Acclimatization

Day 6 – Faerie Falls

The next day I woke up and packed up all my things, ready to try taping up my toes to keep them from forming more blisters from my boots. It worked out okay, but the first part of that day was still extremely difficult. The pain in my feet just didn’t seem to alleviate for any reason, no matter how I changed my walking technique. Eventually I found that stepping with my heels first was the only way to keep my toes from exploding with pain. I would use this type of walking technique for the rest of the trip, which definitely slowed down my pace.

The Madison River area turned out to be one of my absolute favorite places in the park. It was beautiful, everyone was friendly, and the fishing was really good. I could see myself going back during the summer months to stay for a couple of week and just follow the river and fish.

I got to following the Firehole River in the morning, which drains south from the Madison Junction. There was a beautiful waterfall feature as well as massive cascades, so I spent some time just following the water and ate a solid lunch sandwich from the Madison Campground area.

I got back onto the trail from the fountain flat drive where I saw herds of buffalo roaming around the Western side of the park. They seem to love the thermal features, even when it is hot out. Whilst on the trail, I saw a buffalo that was really close, but seemed to pay no mind to me. I knew these were the most dangerous animals in the park so I kept as much distances as I could between myself and these absolute units of pure muscle.

Bison that is too close for Comfort

Further down the Faerie Falls trail, which was spectacular, a group of about 4 bison herded together and were about 130 yards away from me. One of the bison stared me down from the side of his eye, looking at me like I was a wolf or some other predator. It stomped its hooves at me and began to paw the ground towards me. I hunched my shoulders and looked away to show that I wasn’t a threat and simply. continued along the trail. Another bison stepped in between myself and the aggro male, probably a female calming her mate, and I simply walk away into the distance.

I walked a fair distance to the Faerie Falls waterfall, which is so beautiful, and met German couple who were celebrating their halfway point through medical school. Their English was very good and we got along great until I split from the trail to head to my campsite for that night. I slept in the forest that night, entranced by the beauty I had been able to enjoy that day.

Slow motion capture of low water flow of Faerie Falls

Day 7 – The end of the Faerie Trails and Old Faithful

I woke up to the sounds of baby birds and squirrels in the trees. Packed up camp and got ready for the next leg of my adventure. I was just starting to run low on food and gas so I knew that I would have to get to a store soon. I left the forest campground and headed back into the plains, where there were lots of tourists exploring the thermal features just north of Old Faithful.

I enjoyed walking along the decks by all kinds of amazingly unique natural wonders heading down to the national monument that I had visited once before with my friends from college. I got into the visitor area and talked with the rangers about where the southward back country campsites were and got a fishing permit and fly fishing rod to go out and have some fun in the rivers and lakes. I was running out of butane so I also grabbed some gas and bought a few food items, but they didn’t have any of the freeze dried meals that I knew I would need in the back country. I also had my first cheeseburger of the trip, which was just ok. I get spoiled by the incredibly good food in California.

I continued out of the highly trafficked area to get back into the back country and took the Howard Eaton trail down to the first back country campsite along the Firehole River, which had lots of thermal activity. I decided against a fire that night and setup my camp site as the sun dropped below the horizon. I was ready to get back into the sticks and see some more wildlife and nature and beautiful unique thermal features that Yellowstone is known for.

Castle Geyser

Day 8 – Shoshone Lake 1

I woke up a little late as I usually like to when its really cold out and packed up all of my things and made breakfast, which was usually instant coffee and a backpacker meal. I realized I only had one breakfast left and I cursed myself for not getting more food at Old Faithful. I had been too focused on getting fishing going for myself and idealizing about catching and eating a fish while I was out. I got going onto the trail heading south to Shoshone lake and figured I would just go as far as I could.

Shoshone Lake Sunset

My feet were finally feeling a lot better; I had bought moleskins, Neosporin, and blister medic kits at Old Faithful so I was completely ready to start experimenting with the optimal way to keep my feet from re-blistering. I walked along the Shoshone Lake trail for a long time until reaching the area that forks north. I surveyed several campground that didn’t allow for a fire, which greatly disappointed me because I was hoping to catch and cook a lake trout!

I continued on for about 15 miles that day which I was very happy with due to the state of my feet. I got to the northern campsites of the lake at dusk and setup my tent and 0 degree sleeping bag and that night I slept great. I was used to the trumpeting elk and got through the whole night without waking up too much. There were lots of sounds throughout the night, but I think I just got really used to them.

Day 9 – Shoshone Lake 2

I woke up happy and ready to start fishing, I had setup my pole the night before was stoked to get to lake fishing. However, in Old Faithful I purchased a fly fishing rod which is definitely used to running water and not the still water of a lake. I fished for about 2 hours, took a desperately needed bath and pumped water to get ready for another day of walking, all day long.

Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone National Park

I got about a half a mile further along the trail when I discovered a couple of park rangers that were assessing the back country campsites along Shoshone Lake. I stopped to talk to get as much information about the area as I could and was told that Lewis Lake Campground was still open and that there was a store down there. I was stoked! I needed to get more food and it would be so nice to be around other people again; I thought maybe Tommy and Dermot would still be there, as they had planned for two nights camping in Lewis Lake…maybe they would stay for a third?

I headed down the Delacy Creek Trail by the river and made excellent time heading down to Lewis Lake. I had started the day late due to fishing and bathing so I hadn’t met the rangers until about noon. I got to the DogsHead Trailhead and went east until the road, where I walked down to Lewis Lake Campground.

I got to the ranger station and they had several reserved, but unused, campgrounds. I guess there are some reserved for hikers and bikers there, but she sent me to a regular campground that can house up to 6 people. But there was no store! And no way of getting more food for that matter. I was pissed! Both at myself for listening to the rangers and at the campground for not having at least granola or chocolate bars to sell. It just seemed so silly to me to have a remote campground that didn’t sell food.

I was down to two back country meals, Mushroom Stroganoff (which is delicious, highly recommend) and Green Curry. Sleep that night came easily, but with the stress of knowing that the time had come to leave the park. I had exhausted my resources and my mental energy and I was ready to head back out to Cody. And I knew that getting out of the park, I would need as much luck as I could get.

Day 10 – Lewis Campground and Exiting Yellowstone Park

In the morning I woke up rather early, I was planning on fishing again to see if I couldn’t catch something awesome to keep me fed for another day. I packed up my stuff and headed to the restroom where I met a guy named John, who was traveling through the area with a supped up Jeep. We chatted for a minute (I let him use the bathroom first because I was in no rush) and I learned that he was from Sacramento! I told him about my situation, how I had arrived at the campground to find no store and no way of buying more food and he took me back to his camp site and fed me!

John and his wife (whose name I do not remember) was literally one of the nicest people I have ever met. They made me hash browns, eggs, and bacon and we enjoyed stories about their own backpacking trips through Desolation Wilderness, an area just outside of Lake Tahoe that I also love to spend time in. They also got me some backpacker meals and snacks to take with me, for which I will always be grateful. What an amazing twist of events from the night before! I asked John if he wouldn’t mind giving me a drive to West Thumb and he happily took me to the gas station there, which was only open for gas.

I went to the ranger station in West thumb to see about additional campsites, but they were all at the southern end of Yellowstone Lake, pretty far into the back country. However I still reserved a campsite for that night, just in case I couldn’t find a ride out of the park to Cody, I might as well have a decent place to sleep that wasn’t off the trail.

I got out of West Thumb after checking out the geysers, which in my opinion weren’t even close to as interested as the Norris Geyser Basin or the area north of Old Faithful and managed to hitch a ride to fishing bridge with a Mexican dude that lives in San Francisco. He was super nice and gave me a Blue Moon on the road, and we chatted about how great the wilderness was.

I continued down the road from fishing bridge and kept my thumb up, hoping that someone heading to Cody, WY wouldn’t mind picking me up. About 20 minutes later, Allen (same name as my dad, different spelling though) who is a Scottish man living in New Zealand and Perth, Australia picked me up. We drove about 10 minutes just talking when we saw a commotion on the side of the road.

There were two bears up on the side of a mountain foraging for food with a huge crowd of people watching them and taking pictures of their every move. The bears seemed not to care at all and rangers were watching the people very closely to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid.

I had a good chat with two of the rangers about the bears and how they manage them and apparently there is a little less than one bear attack a year, which in my opinion is really good. I guess there were 3 bison attacks earlier this year from people getting too close. Anyways, Allen and I got some great photos of the bears and then continued on our way back to Cody, where we had a couple of drinks. Then Allan took me to the end of the South Fork Road where the water ice forms that I came to Cody to watch and we marveled at the beautiful, but barren mountains. I really hope I get to see some of those infamous south fork pillars form this year, but I won’t see them on this trip due to the unusually hot October weather. Allan will always have my gratitude for taking me about 100 miles out of the park, he was a really fun and nice guy to hang out with for a day.

In Conlusion

This concludes my journey through Yellowstone. Huge shouts out to the people that helped me to get from place to place, I definitely would have suffered a lot more without them! John, Allan, Tommy, Dermot, Crissy, Terri, Isabelle, and Alex, and of course Josh, I really really appreciate your kindness and it will not go forgotten.

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