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(Mostly) In Praise of Off-Trail Hiking

Off-trail hiking can feel like the best idea ever—until it suddenly doesn't.

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We’re all grit and guts in the West Yellowstone backcountry office, playing up our preparedness for the increasingly skeptical ranger in charge of issuing our trip permit.

“You have a GPS?”
“We have maps and a compass.”
“Who approved this itinerary?”
“I’ve been emailing with this office for two years.”

I have no gripe with his questions. We’re asking permission to spend 10 days hiking border-to-border—west to east—across the park, and to do most of it off-trail, where travel happens slowly and trouble happens quickly.

“We don’t usually permit trips like this. I need to make a phone call.”

When my friend Travis first proposed this trek two years ago, he sold me on the idea that there’s an entire undiscovered layer of wilderness to be found off-trail. Just as car-camping tourists discover a new side of Yellowstone when they leave the pavement and go for a hike, we would go one level deeper by leaving the trails. If trails are ideas imposed on the wilderness, this was our chance to think outside the box. I signed on, and a few months later, mentioned the trip to my German brother-in-law, Fabian. He said, “Pete, I go anywhere. You tell me what to bring.”

We tried to go in 2013 but the government shutdown derailed our plans. But now, in August 2014, if the ranger’s phone call goes well, it’ll launch 10 days of exploring the unknown. And here he comes now.

“The permits check out. You’re good to go.” Then he gives us a look that adds: But this is a bad idea.

We embark the next day, bearing east into the woods, wending through sunny green forest, tracing contour lines on the map, semi-drunk on our rapid progress. We’re crossing on a southerly route, slaloming between Shoshone, Heart, and Yellowstone Lakes. It’s a route that avoids most of the park’s major attractions (that’s where the trails are) in favor of meadows far from parking turnouts and forests that haven’t yet been photographed and shared online. Yellowstone gets more than 3 million visitors a year and almost nobody goes this deep into the park.

The oft-repeated reasons to hike off-trail have to do with solitude and stillness: You see less of the big-ticket stuff and notice more of the details. And you do. But solitude never felt this electric. Every step out here grants some uncharted thrill of terra incognita. When we stop in a patch of forest clover and the map and compass reveal that we’re exactly on course, it feels preordained. Where else would we be?

The feeling lasts two days.

The third morning, we run out of lush, welcoming, stroll-through-fairyland forest and enter post-wildfire, screw-you-and-your-timetable new-growth pine. Dense, springy branches thwap our faces; we curse at them just to return the insult.

Even when the pines thin out, waist-high piles of deadfall logs have us crawling up and over and down, up and over and down like load-bearing ants navigating a spilled box of spaghetti. We routinely travel 50 yards without touching the ground; tracking our progress on the map finds us on the slow side of 1 mph.

The physical toll is remarkable. While on-trail effort can be grinding, a day of off-trail scrambling with a heavy pack leaves your body feeling like it’s been processed by the forest’s digestive system. Fabian is being German about it, but I’m hurting to the point that I can barely cook dinner.

Maybe this is a bad idea, as the ranger intimated. Well, yes. But what choice do we have now?

Six days in, we break for sandwiches on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Our eventual camp is visible just a mile across the water, but will require 8 trail miles of hiking. We’d cut across if it weren’t for this lake, we say, chewing slowly to keep lunch from ending.

Then someone tosses a log into the water as a joke. It floats really well. We lash a couple of 15-foot logs together. They hold our weight.

Where does it say we must go off-trail on-foot?

Soon, we’re waterproofing our packs to protect from errant splashes and paddling for the horizon on a Huck Finn raft. But just as we’re on the cusp of real progress, the sky begins to darken. A storm drops over the ridge and blows us straight back to shore. The four-hour effort saves us exactly 400 yards of hiking. Still, it feels like a breakthrough—the light bulb moment following a week of failed efforts.

As we go forward, we find we’re more open to new navigational ideas and better at picking our way through the landscape. We’re more feral and savvy, reading the terrain to see if ridgelines curve back onto our compass bearing and massaging our course based on wind direction, hoping to see an elk or moose or black bear before it smells us. We never do, but it constantly feels like we could.

Subtle paths and game trails reveal themselves in the undergrowth where none did before. It’s like we’re hiking to some new off-trail rhythm we hadn’t been able to hear.

Our exit from the park goes up a valley to the saddle between two peaks, where we camp and prep our last day’s hike, down a ridge. But when it comes time to leave, Travis suggests that we climb one of the peaks instead. We’ll lounge around all day in the sun, he says, then come back and camp in the same spot two days in a row.

Fabian and I hesitate, because now that we’re able to move more easily, staying put feels truly radical. But soon we’re on a grassy plain at the summit, with nothing to do but sit in the sun and look back at a hundred miles of a national park that now feels like intimately familiar terrain.

We wander around, taking in views off different sides of the peak, exchanging looks that all say the same thing: What a great idea.

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