The Lost Trail: Chasing Yellowstone's Nez Perce Path

Hike a historic long path through Yellowstone--if you're lucky enough to find it.
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Hike a historic long path through Yellowstone--if you're lucky enough to find it.

The toughest thing about Yellowstone's Mist Creek Pass is the knowledge that you have no choice but to climb it. It comes at the tail end of a trek across Pelican Valley, a wide-open meadow so dense with grizzlies the park service closes it until July 4-and even then limits access to daylight hours. So no matter how cooked you are after hiking 8 shadeless miles, the 8,200-foot pass looms. There's no way out but up.

As I drop my pack alongside the trail after toiling to the top of the saddle, it hits me that more than a century ago, the Nez Perce Indians faced the same dilemma with this pass-only for far different reasons. I'm overheated and weary from a first day out, but exhilarated by staggering views of mammoth Yellowstone Lake spilled across the valley below-and by the mystery that's unraveling with each step I've taken. The tribe of nearly 750 (including the very young and very old) and its 1,500 horses would've been tired, too, but mindful of the need to stay in front of a United States Army regiment intent on chasing them into oblivion.

That the Indians passed this very spot-and camped in the meadow where I'm headed tonight-was, until recently, mostly a matter of wild conjecture. In 1877, the Nez Perce, on the run from troops, undertook one of the most dramatic treks of all time: a 5-month, 1,170-mile blitz from Oregon to Montana. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail, designated in 1986, commemorates the entire route-except for roughly 40 miles across northern Yellowstone, where the Indians proved to be perhaps the earliest and most literal practitioners of the Leave No Trace ethic.

That a group so large could slip through a national park undetected is an amazing thing-and the tribe's path through Yellowstone remains one of our nation's great unsolved wilderness puzzles. The trail's exact whereabouts remained the subject of inconclusive debate for decades until Yellow-stone historian Lee Whittlesey made the Nez Perce Trail his personal mission 30 years ago. The wiry 55-year-old has paired painstaking research of journals, oral histories, and other documents with thousands of Yellowstone trail miles, and has closed in on some compelling conclusions.

We're here, 10 of us, as pioneers of a sort. Yellowstone Association Institute leaders were so intrigued with Whittlesey's findings that they commissioned him to lead a backcountry course called "The Flight of the Nez Perce" to recount his findings. We're the first to join him and see firsthand the route he's pieced together-and to get a chance to add to the growing body of knowledge.

Our starting point, Whittlesey says as we pull on our packs the first day at the trailhead, is relatively easy to figure out. Accounts from the Army's main scouts and two parties of tourists the Nez Perce captured and held hostage (not exactly ideal PR for the world's first national park, established in 1872) clearly indicate that the tribe entered near what is now the west entrance and worked its way toward the northern tip of Yellowstone Lake at Fishing Bridge. That's where scouts-and scholars-lost the trail, and debate begins.

But Whittlesey pointed out that the wide-open terrain of the Pelican Valley would have been an obvious choice for the tribe, which was headed north toward Canada and would have welcomed the abundant water and food supplies for its horses. "By the time the Nez Perce arrived in Yellowstone," Whittlesey told us, "they were exhausted and beleaguered from being chased."

But he shook his head when someone asked if the Nez Perce, then, wouldn't have just camped in this valley. "S.G. Fisher [the lead Army scout] was on their tail, and this valley would have left them far too vulnerable," he said.

"They had to have pushed on."

This is the sort of insight Whittlesey doles out throughout. In fact, before setting out, he sat us down and immersed us in his theories, after which he handed out his own comparative research and a palm-sized photocopy of the Yellowstone chapter from Jerome Greene's recent book, Nez Perce Summer, for us to take along on the trail. We studied maps and learned about previous skirmishes between the Army and the Nez Perce (all of which the tribe won) before arriving in the park.

Now, everything we encounter trek-king this wild landscape resonates that much more. We're excited for a backcountry holiday; they were running for their lives. "Given what we know about the direction they'd come from and how close they were being followed," Whittlesey said, "Mist Creek Meadow is the only place that could have provided enough space, water, wood, and grazing for so large a party. Plus their own scouts could patrol the pass."

That's where we'll camp tonight. We finally began our ascent of Mist Creek Pass, a 2-mile, 600-foot climb, almost entirely through forest that burned during the historic Yellowstone fires of 1988. An unsung trail crew has since carved a tunnellike path through the heaping, blackened timber that toppled helter-skelter along the slope. The views from the top are hypnotic, but there's not much time to hang around; first-day fatigue and a charley-horse attack on one in our group has slowed the pace of our 11-mile day, and it'll be dusk by the time everyone trickles in.

I'm tired enough that I'm disinclined to bother with my dehydrated stew. But what cuts through the fatigue is my excitement over realizing that Whittlesey has to be right: The open meadow, the presence of water, the defensible pass, they all make sense. I'm a history buff, but until now, I've done most of my learning in museums or between the covers of books. Being in this specific wilderness while learning the intimate details of the tribe's desperate trek is a heady thing.

But Yellowstone is also a place that keeps you very much in the present. In the morning we find fresh grizzly scat barely 100 yards from our tents, and we've hardly started walking when Tom, an avid hiker and fisherman from Pennsylvania, spots a bison carcass in the meadow grass. The skull and extremities are strewn across a 20-foot span, having served as an expansive buffet spread for much of Yellowstone's food chain. I've been leery of grizzlies since our prehike pepper-spray tutorial, and after these discoveries I don't think about the plight of the Nez Perce for a while.

Today we have just 8 miles to cover, fording both Cold Creek and the Lamar River to reach our camp on its bank. This is a particularly disputed section of the Nez Perce route and Whittlesey says the tribe may have splintered and taken several different paths to reach the Lamar. "This is when it's so important to get out and to compare historic descriptions with actual topography," he says. "I've been immersed in the literature of Yellowstone for 30 years, but you can never truly understand it without hiking the backcountry."

Within a mile of our campsite, drizzle turns to relentless rain that hangs around until morning. Despite our chilly, campfireless state at the Little Saddle Creek camp, we crouch beneath protective pine boughs sipping spiked Crystal Light from Nalgene bottles and listening to wolf howls pierce the white noise of rain. Maybe only a handful of other groups camp here annually, Whittlesey says. And it turns out to be fitting that he chooses this setting to elaborate on the tribe's skills of evasion in Yellowstone.

"The key was the park itself," he says. "According to oral histories, the Nez Perce had traveled, hunted, and even soaked in the springs for close to two centuries before their retreat through here."

In other words, they knew their way around-unlike white people, who had only begun exploring the area in earnest earlier in the century. "The park was still terra incognita," Whittlesey says. "Development was shut down when it was designated the first national park. Even today, we know so little about it."

Nonetheless, I'm settling into the rhythm of the backcountry, starting to relax some about sharing close quarters with bears. In the morning I find wolf and elk prints in the smooth silt of the riverbank. An eagle rides an updraft. I breathe deeply, struggling to reconcile the rapture of this stunning wilderness with the bitter knot of history now unraveling in my head.

Apparently I'm not the first to wrestle with these sorts of colliding emotions. The night before, I'd read a journal passage in which Army scout Jirah Allen recounts how the troops, badly mismanaged, had traveled dejectedly through the park, at one point stumbling unexpectedly across an abandoned Nez Perce camp. There they found, among other items, several pairs of baby moccasins. "I could not repress a wish that the fleeing, hunted creatures would get through all right," Allen wrote.

It's a cliché, but traveling along their likely route, seeing almost exactly what they probably saw, it's impossible not to feel empathy. Especially knowing how the story goes from here: Roughly a month after Allen wrote that journal entry, the Army finally vanquished the Nez Perce at the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain in Montana, just 40 miles south of sanctuary over the Canadian border. "I am tired; my heart is sick and sad," Chief Joseph famously said. "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

Contrary to the terms of surrender, the U.S. government exiled the tribe to Oklahoma and Kansas (known among the Indians as "the hot country" for its suffocating open-plains humidity); families were split up and Nez Perce traditions extinguished. We hike deliberately on our third day, traversing forested slopes that run parallel to the surging Lamar. We spot tiny frogs, butterflies, and inspect a lodgepole pine marked by five deep scratches-classic grizzly sign. We find mountain-lion tracks on the rain-softened trail, but no other human footprints besides our own.

After our final backcountry night together off the Lamar River Trail on Miller Creek, we'll part ways-not with one another, but with the Nez Perce. Whittlesey thinks it likely that from there, the main group continued east on Miller to Hoodoo Basin. But we'll backtrack to the Lamar and head 11 miles north, to the northeast entrance road.

Did we solve the puzzle? No-though I'm far more certain about the validity of Whittlesey's hard-earned hypotheses than I would've been just hearing about them around a conference table. But the point, I realize, isn't to fill in every missing line on the map; that's an unlikely prospect, considering the shortage of hard evidence. Rather, it's to experience a great park through the lens of a dramatic-if exceedingly tragic-chapter in our nation's history.

Regardless of exactly where they went, this is one of the very few places in America where you can connect with Native American history through the experience of hiking dozens of miles of unchanged, unsullied wilderness. The reenactors try hard with their tepees and powwows, but backpackers have the unique ability to access this singular place, to walk through a landscape that's as wild as it was in 1877-and where it's not difficult to imagine that the last feet through these parts were shod in soldiers' boots or moccasins.