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Backpacker Magazine – September 2000

Wyoming's Absaroka: Wild At Heart

If you think the last truly wild, unexplored land is in Canada or Alaska, you haven't been to Wyoming's Absaroka range.

by: Steve Howe

Expedition Planner

The name Absaroka comes from a pioneer mutation of the phrase aps-ah-look-eee, or "People of the Driftwood Lodges," the Crow name for its own tribe. The namesake mountains begin southeast of Livingston, Montana, and build toward Cooke City at the northeast corner of Yellowstone. From there, they run due south, form the eastern border of the park, wind through the Washakie Wilderness, then eventually taper down to the alpine plateaus of Togwotee Pass near Jackson, Wyoming.

Trails: Trail elevations range from 6,000 feet along valley floors to 9,500 feet over the higher passes. The best travel season is from July through September. Trail distances are vast. It's easy to follow the river corridors, but trails across the high ridgelines are rare.

Cautions: This is remote country. Rescue will be slow to nonexistent. During spring runoff, the numerous river crossings are difficult and sometimes dangerous. There are black bears and lots of grizzlies, so hang all food, cook away from your tent, and generally follow all bear- country travel and food-storage protocols. Don't carry or consume smelly foods like tinned fish or smoked oysters. I recommend you don't fish.

Walk softly: Campfires are allowed in national park campsites and the wilderness areas. Downed deadwood is readily available, an ironic legacy of the 1988 Yellowstone blaze. There are plenty of established campsites in the Absarokas; keep your impact low by using them. You'll need backcountry permits and a campsite map for overnight travel within Yellowstone (Yellowstone Backcountry Office, 307-344-2160).

Maps: For a thru-hike like this one, a two-map set is best: a 15-minute, 1:250,000 scale map set for general overview, combined with a second, more detailed set of 7.5-minute, 1:24,000 quads. Since our route covered more than 20 quads, we custom printed our own maps, using iGage's All Topo software and discs for Montana and Wyoming (iGage, 888-450-4922). This simple but comprehensive collection of digital maps has zoom and mileage tracing functions that allowed us to survey and measure our intended routes easily. Statewide collections of all USGS 7.5- and 15-minute maps are available.

Logistics and info: Here are the contacts and services we used.

Billings, MT

  • Billings Chamber of Commerce, (406) 245-4111.
  • Shuttle to trailhead: Phidippides shuttle, (307) 527-6789; phidippides; For two people, the 2-hour ride to Boulder River cost $180.

Cooke City, MT

  • Resupply, shipment holds, and gear replacing: Cooke City Bike Shack, (406) 838-2412;

Pahaska, WY

  • Lodging and shipment holds: Pahaska Tepee, (307) 527-7701.

Togwotee Pass, WY

  • Lodging and shuttle to Jackson airport: Pinnacle Butte Lodge, (307) 455-2506.

Land management/ contacts: Absaroka/ Beartooth Wilderness (for the Absarokas north of Montana/ Wyoming line): Gardiner District, Gallatin National Forest, (406) 848-7375. For the eastern and southern sections of the Absarokas: Wapiti Ranger District, Shoshone National Forest, (307) 527-6921. For backcountry camping permits and information on sections in Yellowstone National Park: Yellowstone Backcountry Office, (307) 344-2160.

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