Last night I pitched my tent at 8,500 feet atop the Buffalo Plateau, in a mile-wide meadow laced with spring-fed brooks. From the campsite, overlooking the remote northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, I have the option of descending back to the base of the plateau and making a horseshoe end-run around its north side. But a ranger in the backcountry office had told me about an off-trail shortcut through a lodgepole burn that would save four miles. Of course, like most cross-country bushwhacks, it was debatable if the “shortcut” would actually save time. I knew it would require acrobatic scrambling over and under fallen timber. But who can pass up the allure of such a little-used route?
It’s late June and I’m in Yellowstone on a six-day, 40-plus-mile hike with my wife, Ashley, Jake and Wendy Jacobs, who are buddies from Seattle, and Hope Schmeltzer, an old friend from San Francisco. None of us has backpacked in the park before, and the Buffalo Plateau is an unlikely location for first-timers. With a week to amble through the iconic park, most Yellowstone rookies hit one of the known classics–Bechler Meadows, the Lamar Valley, or the Gallatin Range. These are each life-list treks, to be sure, but to hike them you have to wait until late summer–when passes aren’t snowbound and river crossings aren’t life- threatening–and you must be willing to share the deservedly popular routes with other hikers. None of that would do. BACKPACKER had challenged me to find a wildlife-packed, people-free, accessible trek–and one that the magazine hadn’t already covered, a daunting task considering its staffers have mapped no fewer than 43 trails spanning 353 miles in the 2.2-million-acre park (see them all at backpacker.com/yellowstone). With help from Dagan Klein in the backcountry office, I found my prize on the Buffalo Plateau with a point-to-point route that promised it all, plus a chance to explore the dramatic Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.
One reason the area has remained under the radar screen: Most photos of the Buffalo Plateau, taken in late summer, show ochre grasslands that suggest heat and dust. But we departed Hellroaring Creek trailhead last June, after a season of above-average snowfall had saturated the park. On the morning we started hiking, the sun shined brightly on a landscape transformed by the moisture, like all of Yellowstone had been treated with Miracle-Gro. Had I been drugged and blindfolded and then told I’d been delivered to the Mayo coast in western Ireland, I’d have had no trouble believing it.
Our plan was to follow the Buffalo Plateau Trail north, then link up with Hellroaring Creek and, turning west, end with a tour down the Black Canyon. After the first mile, we reached a suspension bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River, swollen with snowmelt, running milky and full. From the bridge, we faced a six-mile, 2,500-foot climb to our first camp on the plateau. The ascent was steep but not arduous; valley updrafts kept the air cool, in the mid-60s. Radiant meadows glowed a dozen shades of green and the trail, hidden beneath lush spring growth, varied from barely visible to entirely vanished.
We climbed through a minefield of glistening dung patties so fresh that bison must have moseyed by only an hour earlier. They also left behind fist-size clumps of fur that clung like Velcro to low-slung shrubs. By the time we set up camp in the high meadow, without having seen another backpacker all day, I knew we’d come to right place.
Even so, I’m prepared for the worst when we embark on that shortcut in the morning. It’s the only section of our route that passes through backcountry torched during the 1988 Yellowstone fires. And though the going is tough–we must balance on fallen and charred trunks, which frequently collapse underfoot–the reward is well worth the effort: The rejuvenated landscape amazes us. Thousands of lodgepole saplings have sprouted like a deep-wilderness Christmas tree farm. Wildflowers run amok–lupine, Indian paintbrush, bluebells, shooting stars, and forget-me-nots–in undulating rainbow bands. Sparrows nest in deadwood hollows, and the mounds of pocket gophers furrow the chocolate-hued topsoil. The ground itself bursts with water as brooks upwell through electric-green moss, like champagne bubbling to the surface.
The shortcut deposits us just beyond the park boundary. Wild chives fringe a shallow spring-fed pond, and I sample a handful before rejoining the established trail. After crossing a muddy woodland, the path emerges on an exposed ridge that rises 1,000 feet above Hellroaring Creek, which flows so furiously that it vibrates the earth. We continue 3.2 miles to our second camp, an airy bench at the confluence of Hellroaring and Horse Creeks. We celebrate our last campfire (they’re prohibited along the remainder of our route) by stoking the flames and munching on squares of artisan dark chocolate that Ashley had secretly packed. After a 10-plus-mile day, it’s a moment to savor: The fire warms our faces, stars blaze overhead, and lightning flickers on the horizon.