Perfect 10: Pilgrim Creek Trail, Bridger-Teton National Forest, WY
Trek into the emptiest, most grizzly-packed meadows, all within sight of the Grand Teton.
As a freshman in college, I found enlightenment in the faces of a trail crew on a Student Conservation Association flyer. I could see it in their tired, happy expressions: Trail crews had the summer job thing figured out.
So in the spring of 1991, I signed up to work on a crew in the Buffalo Ranger District of the Teton Wilderness, on the southeastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. My home for the summer was the Pilgrim Creek Valley, which fans between Wildcat Ridge and Bobcat Ridge and throbs with one of the densest grizzly populations in the West. Back then, the wilderness still smarted from the 1988 wildfires that burned 794,000 acres. But the entire place coursed with water, and lush pocket meadows thrived amid swaths of charred timber. Now the forest is recovered, with oxbowed streams and groves of flickering aspens. The hike in from the Pilgrim Creek trailhead to Wildcat Peak (where we worked) is arduous. You cross Pilgrim Creek 15 times in the first three miles, before diving into a neck-high willowed jungle. Then you pitch up a steep, sun-baked hillside, then back down into the willows for another 2.5 miles. When you reach the first creek you can cross without wading, you’re nearing the Wildcat Peak junction. Go north, climbing 1,000 feet over 3.5 miles to a wide divide separating the Rodent Creek drainage and Wildcat Peak. Here, the trail peters out, but keep a bearing on Wildcat’s summit and bushwack toward it, picking up the Wildcat Peak Trail .5 mile from the top.
Rewards? Absolutely. Dead ahead is the supremely toothy Grand Teton, snapping at the clouds. Look back, and see the 10-mile trail that turned me into a lifelong wilderness lover. We camped in meadows exploding with blue columbine, Indian paintbrush, and purple monkshood. We saw no other footprints, no fire rings, no tent sites—a backpacker’s Eden. We measured our hands against countless grizzly tracks with claw marks the lengths of our fingers—and I cycled from screaming with fear at unknown sounds to popping the safety on my bear spray to singing with joy after a solo encounter with one big female. According to the Hiking Wyoming guidebook, even the personnel at the Blackrock Ranger Station call Pilgrim Creek a primitive area within the wilderness, and few know what’s back there.
I, however, grew to know exactly what was back there. For 27 days over three nine-day hitches, we crosscut and chopped a six-mile tread into Wildcat Peak. The work beat me down and built me up, so that by the end of the summer, when I looked in the mirror, I saw the same tired-but-happy expression as the kids on the SCA flyer.
PERFECT 10 Pilgrim Creek trailhead to Wildcat Peak
From Jackson, take US 191 37.6 miles to Pilgrim Creek Rd. Turn right, and reach the trailhead in 2.1 miles.
MAP USGS quads Two Ocean Lake and Huckleberry Mountain ($8 each, usgs.store. gov; Bridger-Teton National Forest Jackson Hole and Buffalo Ranger District maps
GUIDEBOOK Hiking Wyoming: 110 of the State’s Best Hiking Adventures, by Bill Hunger ($17, falcon.com)
CONTACT (307) 543-3700; fs.usda.gov/btn