With all the information that lies just a click away these days, it's easy to overlook some of the best resources when it comes to exploring the backcountry of our national parks: the backcountry offices of the parks themselves.
For instance, a long-time hiking buddy and I have been contemplating "epic" adventures that might be fun to check off next summer. In looking at Yellowstone National Park, guidebooks and maps are great starting points, but sometimes they don't fill in all of the blanks. Our initial list of candidates for this epic journey was short:
* Hike from the park's Northeastern Entrance near Cooke City down to Cascade Corner in the southwestern corner.
* Paddle most of Yellowstone Lake
* Hike from Old Faithful down to Cascade Corner
A call to Yellowstone's backcountry office, along with filling in some blanks in those three possibilities, also revealed some others.
Regarding that first trek, from Pebble Creek near the Northeast Entrance down to the South Entrance, it was not too difficult to figure out from maps that the distance was roughly 115 miles. However, what wasn't immediately apparent, but which the ranger in the backcountry office explained, was that we'd have to hike through the Pelican Valley, a distance of roughly 11 miles, in one day as restrictions tied to grizzly bears prohibit overnighting in the valley. Not a major obstacle, but one that's good to know when you're planning your daily hiking distances and picking backcountry campsites.
Additionally, the ranger pointed out that we'd probably make good time hiking the 30-or-so miles through the Thorofare, as the trail is mostly flat. Along the way we'd pass stands of willow, not too much sagebrush, and enjoy great mountains views, she said. With several stream crossings also required, she suggested a late-summer or fall trek when the streams are lower and not quite so challenging when it came time to ford them.
Among the complications of this trek, though, is that there are no obvious food caches, so we'd have to carry 11+ days of food from the start, and we'd have to either hitch-hike or arrange a shuttle back to our rig. Hitching would not be a good option due to the questionable odds of landing a ride from the South Entrance all the way to the Northeast Entrance, while arranging a shuttle could be an expensive proposition, as we'd be in a captive market served apparently by only one company, Back Country Sports in Ashton, Idaho (firstname.lastname@example.org; 208 652-3385.)
A solution to the shuttle, the ranger suggested, would be to embark on a loop starting and ending at Old Faithful. Such a route could take us south into Cascade Corner, then east along the South Boundary Trail, up to Lewis and Shoshone lakes, and back to Old Faithful, a trek of maybe 95 miles. To stretch this loop we could hike farther east on the South Boundary Trail into the Thorofare, then up to Heart Lake and over to Lewis and Shoshone lakes and on to Old Faithful. The main remaining complication of this loop revolves around how long we might like to linger in Cascade Corner enjoying the waterfalls and soaking in the hot springs. The beauty, of course, would be checking into the inn at the hike's conclusion.
A somewhat shorter loop, said the ranger, would be to start out from the Heart Lake Trailhead and saunter down to Two Ocean Plateau, west along the South Boundary Trail, and the back to the trailhead, a total distance of about 50 miles.
To tackle the Yellowstone Lake paddle, the most obvious route would be to put in at Sedge Bay on the lake's eastern shore, paddle down into the Southeast Arm, back north around the Promontory and into the South Arm, down to the bottom of that arm and back up to Flat Mountain Arm, around Breeze Point, and to the boat dock at Grant Village. This trek would cover nearly 75 miles and could range in length from five days to more than a week, depending on how much dawdling and hiking we'd want to incorporate.
The main obstacle to this circuit would be arranging a shuttle so we could leave our rig at Grant Village, a shuttle that would be early enough in the day so we could shove off and make it to our first campsite before the afternoon's winds kicked up the lake and beat us up.
The point of this exercise is not only to show some options that backcountry travelers to Yellowstone can tackle, but also demonstrate the value of the parks' backcountry offices. So when you're planning your next adventure, don't stop at downloading the "backcountry planners" that can be found at many of the large Western parks' websites, and don't be timid about placing a call to the backcountry office and quizzing the rangers there. They have quite a bit of knowledge to share.