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National Parks: Yellowstone

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

The trip starts with a 19-mile hike from Lake Butte trailhead to the Cabin Creek Patrol Station via the Thorofare Trail. (Note to the lazy or time-strapped: You can cut this leg by a day by hitching a ride across Yellowstone Lake from the Bridge Bay boat ramp.) The cabin is the last place our boots will touch a human-made trail until Sylvan Pass, four days and 25 miles later. It’s so mountainous that we won’t see any of Yellowstone’s otherwise-plentiful bison and elk. However, we will spot multiple grizzlies, and park biologist Kerry Guenther tells us that the Watch Tower area is the only place in Yellowstone where they’ve found lynx.

From the cabin, we head cross-country over three miles of slow-going scree and fallen trees until we reach the southwest flank of 10,683-foot Colter Peak. We tag the summit via a class 3 scramble, then descend into upper Trappers Creek drainage to establish our first camp. There aren’t any designated camping areas out here, but we’d spotted two primo spots on the map: at the head of Trappers Creek for the first two nights, and at the head of Beaverdam Creek for the third night. After a long first day, we cook beside a small tributary as clouds build, then bed down across the meadow (bear protocol: don’t sleep where you eat) to enjoy a calming, all-night drizzle.

The next morning, we dayhike the eastern wall of Trappers Creek to a saddle connecting the Watch Tower and 11,063-foot Table Mountain, the highest peak entirely within park boundaries. Table’s south face is a gently sloping plateau blanketed by open tundra, with nary a rock overturned. We ditch packs and coast to the top. On the descent, we size up our line on the Watch Tower and look back at yesterday’s descent of Colter’s east ridge, backdropped by Lake Yellowstone and Mt. Sheridan.

The Watch Tower is a 10,208-foot spire composed of sharp and angular breccia (pronounced bret’cha). Truth is, it’s terrible for climbing: gritty and brittle. We ascend from the north, and Tom leads the only technical pitch (a 5.6) of the entire tour. When I reach him, we scramble the remaining 200 feet to the summit. Tufts of grass litter the tower, and blue skies backdrop the ridgelines, valleys, and sweeping cirques surround us. No footprints, no cairns. An explorer’s dream.

The next day is even bigger. We climb out of Trappers to Mt. Humphreys’ south ridge (10,920 feet) and follow a snaking, 11,000-foot contour connecting Mt. Schurz, Mt. Atkens, and Plenty Coups. Hiking ridgelines and game trails instead of man-made singletrack is taxing and demands constant routefinding. “Does it go?” we constantly ask each other. It does. But that doesn’t mean no more surprises. At mile 14 on the sweeping east face of Plenty Coups, we spot a male grizzly digging in the tundra 300 feet away. We make noise. He saunters toward us. He disappears in the land’s undulations and emerges just 150 feet away. I’m shaking—is this our Treadwell moment? Nowhere to escape, no one to help. At 100 feet, he stops, snorts, and jogs down the slope. I exhale fully in the deepest wilderness I’ve ever known.

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