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Backpacker Magazine – September 2008

Destination Nowhere

The most remote spot in the Lower 48 is inside Yellowstone National Park. It's also the goal of our correspondent. What he encounters–and what it says about the solitude backpackers treasure–will surprise you. PLUS: See more of his photos and read a Q&A.

by: Mark Jenkins, story and photos

Colored algae grows on thermal pools along the Snake River.
Colored algae grows on thermal pools along the Snake River.
Sunburned brush below electric peak.
Sunburned brush below electric peak.
Hours-old, 8-inch-wide grizzly tracks.
Hours-old, 8-inch-wide grizzly tracks.
Gaillard documents the day's hour-long wolf serenade.
Gaillard documents the day's hour-long wolf serenade.

photo icon  Need More Nowhere? Author Mark Jenkins goes deeper into the concept of wilderness, how to protect  it, and what the middle of nowhere is really like in this extended Q&A interview. Plus, see more of Jenkins's photos in an exclusive online gallery.

We pass several outfitters’ horse camps late in the afternoon and pitch our tent on a bluff that burned during the 1988 fires. Already, seedlings have turned into brilliant green, 20-foot saplings standing tall among the blackened totem poles of their ancestors. The tranquil, outwardly simple beauty of the scene, which conceals a still-not-fully-understood ecological and evolutionary complexity, evokes an almost religious feeling in me. Given even half a chance, nature is astoundingly resilient. Leave it alone, and it will rebound all on its own.

That night, well after dark, gunshots wake me. Night hunting is illegal, but no one is out here to witness it.

In the morning, we carry on along the Thorofare River. Another pack train passes. More trophy antlers, more dudes, but I notice that the saddlebags look practically empty.

“Where’s all the meat?” I ask Gaillard. “They had five sets of elk antlers, but the saddlebags were flat.” Gaillard smirks. “The bears have learned to follow the hunters,” he says. “They come south out of Yellowstone during hunting season. We thought it was just to eat the gut piles, but now we know that some of the hunters are illegally leaving most of the carcass and just hauling out the antlers. A gunshot has become like a dinner bell for the grizzly.”

Late in the afternoon, we finally slip into Yellowstone National Park, where hunting and trapping are prohibited, and stroll up to the Thorofare Ranger Station. Built in the 1920s, this is the most remote cabin in all the national parks outside of Alaska. A tiny, quaint log bungalow with a sloping front porch, set amidst tall grass and even taller pines, it’s the kind of place Ed Abbey would have holed up in to write a howling treatise. Ranger Frank DeLuca, a good-natured former New Jersey firefighter, invites us inside.

“More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone every year,” says DeLuca. “But you know what?” He pulls off his green, flat-brimmed ranger hat, revealing a bald head, and grins. “Probably not more than a hundred get back this far.”

He’s interested to hear what we’ve seen. We tell him about the pack trains and outfitters and dire bear warnings.

“We’ve had to kill six grizzlies this season,” DeLuca says reluctantly, “all because of hunter/bear encounters.”

“We haven’t seen a single one,” I volunteer.

“Well then,” says DeLuca, “I guess you’re doing every-thing right.”

That evening, we traverse the wide Thorofare Valley, spooking up three bull elk that have intelligently stayed this side of the park boundary. At dusk, we ford first the freezing Thorofare Creek, then the icy Yellowstone River, our white feet going numb as blocks of wood. We camp on the far bank of the Yellowstone amidst enormous wolf tracks.

Wolves once roamed the entire continent, from Panama to Prudhoe Bay. Yet due to government bounties and extensive predator-control programs designed to support the commercial interests of a few ranchers, the last original Yellowstone wolf was killed in 1926. Exterminated from 80 percent of its natural range, the gray wolf was only protected by the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

“Wolves are wisely mistrustful of humans and avoid contact,” says Gaillard, brushing his teeth inside the tent and telling me what I already know: There has never been a documented case of a wolf fatally attacking a human in U.S. history.

Over the vociferous objections of ranchers, the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Not surprisingly, the 31 relocated Canadian-born wolves found their new home much to their liking. Thirteen years later, an estimated 1,250 wolves populate the Idaho-Wyoming-Montana region. As with the grizzly, the wolf program represents an impressive endangered species success story. Wolves bring the greater Yellowstone ecosystem back into some form of natural balance–admittedly human-managed–but guided by natural ecological principles.

“Wolves are a top-level keystone species,” Chuck Neal told me on the phone. “They are the principal predators in Yellowstone. Take them away and the ecosystem begins to unravel.”

A keystone species is one that directly impacts the entire ecosystem. In Yellowstone, the extermination of wolves caused the elk population to explode. Starving and diseased, elk chewed down the aspen saplings, which depleted the home-building materials of the beaver, reducing their numbers. Fewer beavers caused a change in riparian vegetation, which caused a drop in neotropical songbirds.

Everything is connected.

Like grizzlies, wolves require a sizable block of land to survive. The average range for a Yellowstone wolf pack is 350 square miles. Individual wolves searching for new territory to start their own pack can travel 50 to 70 miles beyond their natal range.

“Wolves searching for food regularly leave the park,” explains Gaillard, only his nose poking out of the sleeping bag. “In 2006, more than 25 percent of Wyoming’s wolf population was killed by ranchers or contract hunters hired by state or federal agencies to protect sheep and cattle.”

On March 28, 2008, as I was writing this story, U.S. Fish and Wildlife delisted the wolf as an endangered species and handed wolf management over to individual states. More than half of the Northern Rockies wolf population, some 650 animals, lives in Idaho, where governor Butch Otter publicly committed to reduce that number by 500–to only 150–through hunting. An in-state license costs $26.50. “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket myself,” the governor told a rally of hunters in Boise last year. In the greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming, wolves are now designated as trophy game–hunted for sport, not food. In the rest of the state, they’re considered predators that can be poisoned or shot by anyone, at any time, no license or permit needed. In the first month after delisting, 37 wolves were slaughtered.



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R. Davis
Jul 05, 2012

I've hiked areas of Kanab Creek Wilderness Area in Arizona that felt like the most remote spot to me. There are also areas north of Lake Meade in Nevada that can feel pretty remote until you get to the top of a peak and see Las Vegas in the distance.

Tom
Jul 05, 2012

I have hiked spots in colorado closer to cities, but where I have only encountered other hikers once in a half dozen hikes.

Buzz
Jul 05, 2012

One should never use the word "Most ..." in the title without stating the parameters used! Otherwise it's hyperbole.

I've always felt The Maze was the most remote spot, as defined by how much time it would take to get to a city or hospital.

J. Duncan
Dec 04, 2011

Why all the hoopala about south central yellowstone being the most remote place in the lower 48? If it isnt, its close enough to it. The idea is that there are still these great places where one can escape this mad every day world with its car horns blowing,undisciplined kids screaming,dogs barking, and rushing around like fools to get no where fast. Ect, you get the point, Thank You.

R Guidos
Dec 02, 2010

Why do a few of you assume that the meat was left to rot? No guide I know of would allow that to happen. Besides being an unfathomable waste, judges are notoriously harsh when it comes to wildlife violations. As for the most remote place in the lower 48, it's my parking spot at Disneyland.

Cynnel
Dec 02, 2010

How did he choose the"most remote" spot. Whilre hiking it, he sees a horse train of people. I've spent days while backpacking on Isle Royale NP in Michigan without ever seeing a soul.
(and everyone has new clothes/gear sometime-would we mock someone for breaking in a new pair of hiking boots?)

John
Dec 02, 2010

This is a good article, but it is dangerous to stereotype hunters based on a few guided hunts. I have met hundreds of hunter and none leave the meat. Hunters love wild game. In my home state of Michigan, hunters pay the most for conservation of all public lands that are enjoyed by hikers, bikers, and others. For example, nearly a million michigan hunters go deer hunting at $15 a license which is $15 million in revenue for the state. By comparison, how much do you think Michigan people donate to the sierra club, as the author suggests? You literally cannot write an article like this without first and foremast thanking hunters for their conservation efforts.

A Bernat
Dec 02, 2010

The Thorofare region of Yellowstone NP and the Bridger-Teton National Forest has long been advertised as the most remote spot in the lower 48. It may or may not be true. I guess it really doesn't matter. The main fact is that its remoteness does not equate to solitude. Hunting is not the only big draw to the Thorofare. The early season fishing, when the Cutthroat trout migrate up the Yellowstone River to spawn, also brings in the 'crowds' of outfitter traffic. This may even cause more trail damage since the trails are often wet from snow melt at that time of year. So if its solitude you want stay away from there in June as well as October.
If you still want to access the Thorofare, do it from Yellowstone Park. You will have a much different experience on the trip in. Horse traffic is still the primary mode of travel however it is more regulated. During a week spent traveling up the Yellowstone from Yellowstone Lake my wife and I saw only two mounted parties, one was an outfitter and the other was a park ranger. We saw no hikers. The Park Service designates camp sites as hiker camp sites or horse camp sites and we found the hiker sites to be almost unused. One day the only other tracks on the trail were fresh griz tracks. If you choose to go east from the Yellowstone valley up some of the side trails into the Absaroka Mtns there is even less use. You won't find the overuse until you leave the park at the southern extent of the Yellowstone River. The only drawback to this approach is the long, kind of boring, 20 mile approach along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake. My wife and I took a canoe up the lake which was a great trip in of itself.
Back in the 70's I was a backcountry ranger for the forest service. I was mounted. I've spent most of my backpacking time since then trying to avoid those places where there is a lot of horse traffic. I have nothing against horse people. There are good ones and bad ones, just as there are backpackers who don't practice LNT principles. The fact is that horses have more impact on the environment. In the Rocky Mountain West horse use is part of the heritage and that isn't going to change. It is easy enough to plan routes where the horses don't go so if you want solitude don't go into areas where the horses go and certainly don't go into famous hunting areas during hunting season.
One of the comments above mentions that hunting groups and outfitter groups are also wilderness advocates. I agree with that however, they are also a force that is lobbying to open up the hunting of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. I don't have anything against hunting for food however as far as wolves go, I don't think anyone eats them. Hunting just as an act of killing something doesn't agree with me.

Doug Welker
Dec 02, 2010

I am curious how Mark Jenkins defines "the most remote spot in the Lower 48." Where he went is certainly not the place farthest from the nearest road. I suspect that location may lie within the big wildernesses of northern ID or MT, or perhaps even in the Grand Canyon. It is also certainly not the point farthest from the nearest trail, since he was on a trail, and he is unlikely to get more than five miles from the nearest trail in that area. It is also not the place that requires the longest walk from a trailhead. There are also certainly places he could have gone where his chances of meeting someone are even less, and places that are farther from where anyone else has ever stood, such as on the walls of the Grand Canyon. I have heard elsewhere that the most remote place in the Lower 48 is in Yellowstone, but never with documentation. It would be great if someone could provide that.

On another note, the impact of hunters on horseback, or horseback riders in general, in wild areas is directly related to the management policies of the agency that manages them. It is hard to blame hunters if the Park or nearby National Forests allow hunters on horseback in large groups, allow them to cross fragile meadows, don't provide enough leave-no-trace education, and don't give high enough priority to hiring backcountry rangers to enforce the rules and provide on-the-spot wilderness education.

Mike
Dec 02, 2010

I often run into hunters in the Oregon and Washington Cascades and have been in the Wind River Range in Wyoming in September when I came across hunters. Most of have been just like anyone else...nice folks.

As for stereotypes of hunters, I think the writer is correct when he describes clients on guided hunts. I've seen them myself. They are often wearing brand new politically correct outfits, are overweight, and according to a guide I know locally, many expect their trip to be like a 4-star hotel and they have no clue how to field dress an animal nor how to take care of themselves in inclement weather. They're often very good at drinking.

And I learned a long time ago that if you're on a major horse highway you're on the wrong trail. Also, people on horseback pioneered or improved many of the trails we all use and, at least here in Oregon, many horse people get out in the spring with their crosscut saws and axes to clear blow-down.

Oh, and when you encounter horses on the trail I believe the thing to do is to move off the trail to the downside of the trail if there is downhill that's not too steep for safety.

J Gindy
Dec 02, 2010

Lest we forget who paid for the reintroduction of wolves, is still bearing the costs and pays the largest majority of wildlife conservation... I also noticed that groups like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Mule Deer Foundation are not on your lists of groups to support. They too support preservation of land for wildlife propogation, and not just for hunting purposes. Through purchase and conservation easements, they set aside land for wintering grounds, calving grounds, and yes, in some cases, even hunting.

C Miller
Dec 26, 2008

Well said, J Miller.
I'm both a backpacker and a hunter and I find it amusing to an extent on the back and forth jabs.

Could this article have anymore stereotypes about hunters?
When the suburban hiker/backpacker finally ponies up the money and supports wildlife like hunters do THEN they can grip.
Hunters and Ranchers are the true environmentalists.

Larry L. Murphy
Nov 14, 2008

"Remote" isn't just being the farthest from a road or human habitation. I did a survey on "Summit Post.com" and the two places that won the "remote" award were not even close to Yellowstone National Park. Number one on climbers and backpackers list was the Picket Range in North Cascade National Park. Specifically Mt Luna in the heart of the range. Number two was in Canyonlands National Monument. What both sites have in common is a lack of humans. Getting to either of the two locations takes time and inflicts its share of pain on he who ventures there. Although both places offer very different environments they hold in common a real threat of danger reaching them. Reaching the Pickets requires bushwacking, river crossings, glacier travel, ice climbing and rock climbing skills in a weather environment which can go from sunny 80 degree temps to snowing and 35 degrees within two hours.
Canyonlands is approached mainly by river running the Green and Colorado River System. Then backpacking up canyons with little water and either extreme high temperatures over 100 degrees or cold temps in the 30's.
No! Yellowstone may have the farthest point to hike to from civilization, but it "taint" the most remote spot in the Lower 48!!!!!!!!

D. Conoley
Nov 10, 2008

Wonderful article. The feeling of being at the most remote spot in the lower 48 must truly be inspirational. However, the discussion along the trek about the "nature" of "wilderness" is what makes the article so noteworthy. I think what we're dealing with here (and I find this every time I discuss "wilderness" with anyone) is conservation vs. preservation, and the lines that blur between the two and also between conservation and unchecked overuse/abuse. What a catch-22 we are all in as lovers of the wild. I am unquestionably guilty of wanting the entire length of my hike to myself...therefore, I cannot scold others for their desires to enjoy the land in their own way. For me, it comes down to a question of sustainability and respect for nature, however you choose to enjoy it...and as always, keeping the over-indulging characteristics of our society in check. Shame on anyone who would hunt an animal simply for a wall mount. To leave an animal to rot while taking home its rack is as bad as slaughtering a cow to mount the hooves. And shame too, on anyone who scolds a man who responsibly hunts and eats what he kills.

Everyone has their own sense of "wilderness"...its up to all of us to realize that there is nothing stopping us from completely destroying it except ourselves.

J Miller
Nov 08, 2008

You might want to thank those outfitters and "wranglers" you demonize in the backcountry for paying for the conservation of the land they love more than life.. Sure there are a few bad apples but i've met a bad apple or too with a high tech backpack as well... One trip into a place you have never been and you are an expert on the subject. Spend three years there and tell me what you learn.. You might find yourself insignifigant and lonely.. That's how anyone feels back there.. Be carefull who you judge.. You are no different than those "dudes".. They are searching for adventure same as you except they just happen not to be walking.. Build yourself a "walking" trail if you don't want to get muddy next time..

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