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National Parks: Yellowstone

A forgotten explorer's route leads to off-trail, high-peak adventure and bona fide solitude.

Here’s a dirty secret about America’s first national park: It’s crowded. Campsites fill quickly, and geyser zones can feel like Walmart on a payday. Even the grizzly-packed, ultra-remote southeast corner of Yellowstone—the Thorofare Valley, famous as the farthest spot in the Lower 48 from a paved road—is brimming with horsepackers.

Granted, I’m a genuine solitude snob, given to Edenic places where wolf sightings outnumber footprints and fire rings. That’s why—when my PTO and bank accounts fatten—I escape to Alaska or the Bob Marshall Wilderness, some of the last places on this continent where a dedicated crowd-hater like me can still play explorer.

Or so I thought until I ventured into a seldom-seen and almost-never-hiked mountain range on the eastern border of Yellowstone. The adventure started with a “!”-riddled email from Tom Turiano, an Exum guide and author of Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone. Tracing a route he’d scouted across nine 10,000- to 11,000-foot-plus summits, he described a trek that would take us through some of the “most isolated country this side of the Yukon.”

What snapped my skepticism and persuaded me to sign on was his book research. Turiano had unearthed the 1871 Hayden Survey of Yellowstone, the essential piece of research that convinced Congress to make the area a national park, and ultimately launch an unprecedented federal program to preserve the country’s most spectacular natural places. The report contains notes from Army escort William Barlow, who recorded clues about peaks that are essentially unknown even today. One summit in particular captured our imagination: Barlow had scrawled the name “Watch Tower” next to the volcanic spire north of Turret Mountain. It looked like an innocuous circle on our USGS quads, and in all of our searching, we couldn’t find a good picture of it—or evidence that it had ever been climbed.

A goal soon emerged: make the (likely) first ascent of Watch Tower, the second ascent of Turret Mountain (Turiano nabbed the first in 2010), then traverse a 20-mile ridgeline from Trappers Creek to Sylvan Pass, summiting another seven rarely climbed peaks along the way.

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