The next morning, our route veers south along Hellroaring Creek, its banks flush with huckleberries just beginning to ripen. We’ve walked less than 500 yards when we glimpse a black bear at the base of a pine, pacing nervously. Suddenly, a beagle-size cub scurries up the trunk. We can hear its raspy, eerily human cries. The sow follows effortlessly into the treetop. But when we stick around snapping photos, mama scampers back down. Upsetting a bear that’s protecting a newborn ranks right up there with the all-time stupidest backcountry tricks, so we divert onto a slippery embankment that rejoins the trail downriver. Later, we recognize what’s left of an elk. Its remains are stripped clean except for inedible sinew; stamped in the mud nearby is the unmistakable paw print of a gray wolf.
The terrain changes abruptly on our third day. The forest thins, undergrowth recedes, and fragrant sage and juniper appear amid craggy outcrops of orange rock. It’s a classic high-desert landscape, and the last place I’d expect to encounter a grizzly. But at dusk that’s exactly what comes galumphing toward our campsite. After a frozen second, we realize that it doesn’t see us. The bellowing river and stiff breeze muddle its senses. Instant, unbridled hollering solves that problem. It perks its ears and then does an about-face, disappearing behind a furrow in the hillside. After the adrenaline clears my system, I’m reminded of the exceptional solitude we’ve found. It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve seen more bears (three) than other backpackers (zero).
On our fourth day of hiking, we’ll link up with the Yellowstone River Trail and follow it to the mouth of the Black Canyon. It’s also the day that the weather–consistently sunny and pleasantly warm until now–shows its teeth. When we intersect the Yellowstone River, the sky resembles wet concrete; thunder reverberates in menacing claps. Thankfully, eight miles of easy walking brings us to our fourth campsite, situated beside the Yellowstone River near Crevice Lake.
We pitch our tents on a sandy shelf just a few feet above the river, where there’s a secluded beach. Wendy wades into the strong current for a dip, and plunges up to her neck in the frigid water. She doesn’t stay long. I opt to douse myself with water hauled ashore in a cooking pot. I’m still drying off with a Lilliputian camp towel when the storm strikes. I dive into my tent, where the spattering rain sounds like buckshot. We’ll stay two nights here and use the layover to explore the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, and then on day six complete the final 4.2 miles to Blacktail Deer Creek trailhead, where we left a shuttle car.
It’s eight miles from Crevice Lake through the Black Canyon to the terminus of the Yellowstone River Trail in Gardiner, Montana. We decide to dayhike halfway. Without a full pack, I feel weightless as we enter the chasm and descend through an increasingly desertlike landscape marked by prickly pear cactus and sagebrush lizards. The temperature pushes 80°F, which triggers tremendous snowmelt. A mile from camp, 15-foot-high Knowles Falls, on the Yellowstone River, firehoses over the drop. Farther west, the canyon narrows to the width of a freeway, funneling water into frothy rapids that catapult RV-size hunks of forest detritus and the occasional deer carcass downstream.
Walking silently, I scan the river valley for movement, hoping to spot more animals–bears or elk or bison. But if there’s one thing about Yellowstone–especially when it comes to wildlife–it’s that you should be careful what you wish for. At that moment, I unwittingly straddle a five-foot-long prairie rattlesnake coiled on the trail. It clacks its tail, then bluff-strikes right between my legs (yes, there)–at which point I shatter the Olympic long jump record.
When I breathe again, we’ve reached our lunch spot, a black-sand beach that wouldn’t look out of place ringing the shore of a Tahitian isle. The setting reminds me just how much we’ve seen in less than a week. We’ve fast-tracked nearly every Rocky Mountain ecosystem–subalpine meadows, montane forest, riparian valleys, and a desert biome. And for the final act, we’re treated to a slice of the park’s volcanic soul. With one night to go, I only have one concern about my first trek in Yellowstone: Where will I go on the second?
Michael Behar lives in Boulder, Colorado. He’s currently shopping for kevlar-reinforced boxers.