Utah Backpacking in the Grand Staircase Backcountry

Our April 23-28 canyon country backpack trip is a wonderful walk through the fairly large but relatively little-known Paria-Hackberry Roadless Area. This chunk of wild southern Utah is a land of expansive juniper-dotted sandstone mesas cut by rugged steep walled canyons with clear streams and lush riparian vegetation. There are slots, arches and big red canyon walls! We rate this trip “fairly strenuous”, mainly because on one day we will pack water up to a dry campsite at the high point of a mesa with a spectacular view. But aside from that, most of the walking is pretty mellow.

But first things first. A billionaire real estate developer from new York City, who knows nothing about public lands, sits in the Oval Office and is working with his cronies to dismantle many public land protections. As you probably know, the Trumpeteers have dismantled much of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. This won’t affect our trip, at least in the short term, because the Paria-Hackberry is an official Wilderness Study Area that pre-dates the National Monument (designated by President Clinton). So the BLM is legally required to manage it for the perpetuation of wilderness character. For now.

Nonetheless, if the monument reduction holds up in the courts, adjacent lands will see an increase in off-road vehicle abuse, over-grazing and maybe even mining, oil-drilling and the new roads that always accompany such examples of wild-land industrial development, and this will indeed impact the Paria-Hackberry. So stay tuned. Join Wilderness Watch and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. And by all means, sign up for this great guided Utah backpacking trip while the backpacking is still a wild experience!

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Utah Backpacking in Canyonlands National Park

This is one of our mellower treks, and if the thought of spectacular multi-colored sandstone canyons, with a cool desert stream, lush riparian vegetation and numerous ancient ruins and pictographs interests you, then don’t miss the opportunity to sign up for our April 16-21 trek in Canyonlands National Park! I said “mellow”. That’s because we drive to the high point, at the start of the trip. Which means that once we begin the hike on BLM land just outside the park boundary, we descend into the main canyon and from there on, it is all pretty level or slightly downhill — until the end of the trip, six days and about 30 miles later. Except for a couple of modest uphills on optional day-hikes, your biggest elevation gain with a backpack will be about 50 feet. That’s all!

All this and more in a magnificent high desert setting. Weather in the southern Utah canyon country during April is usually pretty good. The intense heat of late spring and summer has yet to arrive; yet nights can be frosty, usually with mild sunny afternoons. But don’t ignore our Clothing/Personal Gear List: bring what is on it, because occasional cold spring storms do occur some years.

This trip begins and ends in the once lovely little town of Moab, Utah, nestled in the red-rocks along the Colorado River. OK, it’s been a long time since Moab was lovely. Smaller is better by my way of thinking, and Moab is no longer small — though it’s all relative. And for someone from Philadelphia, for instance, Moab might indeed seem like a quaint little town. At least the uranium mill is long since shut down. But nowadays, the industrial tourist invasion is pretty much year round, with an overabundance of off-road motor vehicles —  motorcycles, jeeps and four-wheelers — utilized by modern canyon country “wreckreationists” flirting with high blood pressure, diabetes and other sedentary lifestyle-induced diseases. And then there are the mountain bikers, adrenaline junkies who think of the canyon country as little more than an outdoor gymnasium. Don’t get me started…. Fortunately, though, there’s still room for those of us who simply wish to experience and enjoy wild nature without mechanized transportation, and backpacking in Canyonlands National Park’s back-country is a great way to do just that!

And “just that” is a wild walk through big stream canyons lush with cottonwood and willow, framed by impossibly colorful rock spires and vertical sandstone cliffs. The pungent smell of sagebrush and juniper will enthrall you, and who knows, maybe the ghosts of the ancient ones will haunt you at night under the spectacularly starry Utah high desert sky.

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Montana Backpacking in the Beartooths

The awesome Beartooths are Montana’s highest mountain range and encompass the eastern and northern portions of the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area. This rugged granitic landscape is in southern Montana, just to the north and northeast of Yellowstone National Park. It is a major wild-land component of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and like our Yellowstone backpacking trips, Montana backpacking in the Beartooth Mountains is a real wilderness experience. But the similarities end there. Unlike the rich verdant mix of forest/meadow/lake and river that one encounters in Yellowstone, our guided Beartooth hiking treks explore a rugged high altitude realm of some of the most breathtaking glaciated mountain country in the United States! There’s not as much wildlife as in Yellowstone, but we do typically encounter mule deer, pikas, marmots, and occasionally mountain goats. There are other critters there, too, but because few animals can digest granite, the wildlife habitat is a bit less productive than that of Yellowstone. To be sure, there are fewer grizzlies than in the park, but remember, I said “fewer”. I did not say that there are none. So we still utilize all of the protocols for safe travel in bear country. And the Beartooths have some of the best alpine wildflower blooms in the Rockies!

Because our guided wilderness backpacking treks in the Beartooths are generally at 7,500 to 10,000 feet in elevation, we recommend that clients arrive in Bozeman an extra day early, if they have the time, to begin the acclamation process. Once on the trail, folks can expect a relatively mellow first day, usually hiking up a beautiful mountain stream valley of forest and meadow framed by high rocky peaks. Day two usually gets us up into the high country, near tree-line, where big vistas of this alpine wonderland are unsurpassed. There are lots of high mountain lakes, too, nestled amidst the alpine plateaus and 12,000-foot peaks. Our 2018 scheduled trip in the Beartooths is August 6-11. This place is every bit as spectacular as the Tetons or Wind Rivers, with the hiking difficulty comparable to our Grand Tetons trip and a bit easier than that of the Winds. Don’t miss out!

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2017 Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights: Northern Yellowstone in June

The June 2017 Northern Yellowstone Wildlife and Wildflower extravaganza lived up to its name, as it almost always does! The six day adventure began by hiking down a beautiful wide-open drainage with an exploratory side trip up an adjacent valley where the group was caught in a sudden storm. Directed by guide Bob Clark, they hunkered down in the trees to wait out the strong winds and sideways rain that tested everyone’s rain-gear. The rain-suits all passed!

The wide-open creek valley empties into the Yellowstone River, where a pair of ospreys occupied a nest above the pack-bridge. The group then backpacked upstream (east) on the north side of the Yellowstone River enjoying beautiful spring wildflowers such as arrowleaf balsamroot and bitterroots. The route eventually took the group north up into a beautiful mountain river valley that begins in the adjacent Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. A coyote and a couple bison were spotted along the way as well as sand hill cranes. Across from the camp next to this raging river, Bob spotted two black bears in the evening, and on day four, the group spotted a pair of grizzly bears and later watched another griz, this one alone, from a safe vantage point at a bit over 100 yards. It was a fantastic week for viewing wild bears in wild country!

The final camp was a bit higher in a tributary creek, and on the layover day, our hikers enjoyed an off-trail trek through open grassy forest up to the edge of the Buffalo Plateau – an amazing wild place where they crossed from Wyoming into Montana near the northern boundary of the Park. The final day is a great hike through green meadows with scattered groves of spruce, Douglas-fir and aspen that featured big views of much of northern Yellowstone. At last they crossed back over the tumbling and churning Yellowstone River on another pack-bridge. The Yellowstone is the longest un-dammed river in the lower 48 states. The final mile is an uphill back to a trail-head where the Big Wild van awaited. Bob later told us that it was a great group (as is usually the case), and everyone went home with wonderful and wild trip memories!

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2017 Backpacking Highlights: SW Yellowstone Bechler

Our mid-August Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland trek, with five guests plus guide Jesse Ford, was yet another great walk through the pristine wilds of the world’s first national park. Yellowstone backpacking is always great! For the record, the 1.5-hour drive from Bozeman to the trail-head was in a torrential downpour that stopped right as the group began to hike. Thereafter, there was not a drop of rain for the rest of the week!

This great trek begins in typical Yellowstone lodge pole pine forest and visits Shoshone Lake and Geyser Basin, winds up over  some high plateau country, drops into the magnificent and lush Bechler River Canyon and ends up in and just beyond the spectacular Bechler Meadows. The variety of terrain on this beautiful walk is astounding!

Among other highlights, a young fellow who was on the trek with his parents, came eyeball to eyeball with a large bull moose while filling his water bottle! The moose survived. A great late summer swim in Shoshone Lake complimented a wonderful walk through Shoshone Geyser Basin, which the group had to itself, except for two sand hill cranes feeding in the adjacent meadow. Waterfalls galore graced the Bechler Canyon, and of course, a visit to “Mr. Bubbles” provided one of the great backcountry hot pool soaks in the world! There was also great berry picking in the lower part of the canyon — mainly huckleberries, thimbleberries, raspberries and serviceberries — and a couple of moderately challenging fords of the Bechler River. The big meadows provided a view of the “back-side” of the Tetons, which Big Wild co-owner Howie Wolke (yours truly) helped to protect as designated Wilderness back in the 1980’s. And last but not least, the group came upon a father and son, discovering that Dad had just broken his right humerus while scrambling off trail up through a steep talus slope. There was no extra charge for our group watching Jesse and two physicians who were on the trip splint an immobilize the broken limb and then send Dad and his son on their way.

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2017 Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights: The Gallatin Range

This mid-summer trek was guided by Dave Ellis with Mary Byers assisting, and a wonderful mid-summer walk it was! They began the trip in a beautiful mountain valley in the northwest corner of the park, and after setting up camp they enjoyed a mellow nature walk to identify and enjoy spectacular wildflowers blooms in the open meadows. Backpacking in Yellowstone with Big Wild usually includes a layover day; so the layover day-hike took the group to a beautiful high mountain lake where they spotted Barrow’s goldeneyes plus mountain goats on the surrounding cliffs. After the morning at the lake, they hiked off trail and found a high ridge for lunch with a great view. They also spotted another herd of mountain goats with kids and watched a couple of red-tail hawks circle the valley.

The next day included a challenging morning backpack up-mountain past colorful wildflower meadows along the way to another beautiful high mountain lake, which the Big Wild group had all to themselves. While camped at this lake, Dave led some members of the group to the summit of a near-by 9,800 foot peak, while others relaxed around the beautiful lakeside camp. From the summit, the views of surrounding Yellowstone National Park and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest were stunning — and they even used the binoculars to spy on the Big Wild Adventures home/headquarters in Paradise Valley, far below and a few miles distant! If the incredible views weren’t enough, Yellowstone once again asserted itself on the descent. The group was briefly halted by a herd of mountain goats with kids on the trail. They lingered for a while, providing a great opportunity for photography as the hikers admired the goats’ agility on the cliffs. Still excited from the close goat encounter, the group was again rewarded, this time with a black bear sighting further down the mountain! It was a great afternoon in a park that hosts some of the most abundant and diverse wildlife on the planet!

The walk from the high lake to the final night’s camp was spectacular. The route followed the Sky Rim Trail along a roughly 9,500 foot ridge with a few areas where sheer cliffs dropping off below us offered unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains and forested valleys. After hiking over a 9,900 foot peak, the crew enjoyed an afternoon of downhill backpacking in Yellowstone, to their final creek-side camp in a lovely valley of wood and meadow. The last day in Yellowstone featured a morning day-hike to the neighboring valley where they spotted mule deer before returning to camp. Then they packed up and headed to the trailhead, where the Big Wild van was ready for the scenic drive back to Bozeman.

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2017 Backpacking Highlights: Northern Yellowstone Autumn

Yellowstone backpackers usually experience lots of crisp clear weather in September, with warm days and frosty starry nights. But not in 2017! Our September Southwest Yellowstone trip, guided by David Ellis, was a wet one, with nearly unprecedented amounts of rain. Normally easy stream crossings became a raging challenge, but trusty old David got everyone through it in good shape, despite the wet elements.

Later that month, the Northern Yellowstone Autumn trek proved to be an equal meteorological challenge, as mother Nature again decided to ignore the September norms. She chose instead to dump over a foot of snow on our group! I was the lucky guide for that one, and instead of climbing to the beautiful Buffalo Plateau for our scheduled two-night layover, we instead had a backcountry base-camp in Coyote Creek, which is about 1500 feet lower in elevation. We probably would have encountered at least two feet of fresh wet snow up on the plateau!

As it was, the 12-14 inches that dumped on our camp was plenty! Fortunately, we had a hearty bunch: 5 clients who were well-prepared (by following to the letter our clothing/Personal Gear List) with warm clothing and adventurous attitudes! This group was fantastic at collecting large quantities of firewood for warmth and drying out wet gear, and we plowed through the snow on a couple of great day-hikes: one was to upper Coyote Creek, just outside Yellowstone in the adjacent Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the other was up the forested side of the Buffalo Plateau, until the snow got too deep to safely navigate the steep slope. There were great views of this Yellowstone backpacking winter wonderland in September! Late in the week the weather began to clear, and we hiked out to the trailhead under sunny skies on dry ground with golden autumn colors framed by the snow covered mountains and plateaus of the incomparable Yellowstone backcountry.

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2017 Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights: The Lamar, Part 2

The next morning dawned sunny after the obligatory brief evening thunderstorm. The big bear was nowhere to be seen. We parted with the Californians and hiked over Mist Pass and then down through lodgepole pine into the magnificent Pelican Valley, a high elevation wonderland of grassland, sagebrush, wetland and meandering streams framed by the forested Absaroka Range to the east and the Mirror Plateau to the west. Bison by the hundreds dotted the entire valley. Mule deer plonked along. Across Pelican Creek Jesse spots a grizzly, nearly a mile away. We watch it through binoculars. Soon we see another griz, not quite as far, and then I spot yet another big bear, this one accompanied by two little brown dots that would rapidly grow into big brown bears, again at a very safe distance. It was becoming tough to rack up the miles, with so many things to see! That brought the trip grizzly count to six!

We hike. We hear some howls. We see a wolf just a couple of hundred yards ahead running along the stream bank. We turn to the right and spot a three more wolves below a cut slope of bare dirt above Pelican Creek. Wow! I try to herd our group along, as this last trip day covers 11 miles, but we must give this menagerie of large carnivores its due. Oh well, we’ll get to the trailhead soon enough! And just when it seems like our wildlife viewing luck has to come to an end, we round a corner on the grassy bench above Pelican Creek, turn around and see that the wolves were now in a cohesive pack of 7 gray and black canines, all resting together in the grass next to the creek, about a half mile behind us. We stop for lunch under some lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir and watch the big dogs as we wolf down cheese, crackers, peanut butter and Jelly plus some dried fruit so that we are adequately energized for the final 3 or 4 miles.

What a day! What a trip! In 40 years of guiding Yellowstone backpacking treks, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a week for wildlife viewing, especially for large carnivores. Add to the animals the beautiful wide open Lamar and Pelican Valleys plus the rich forested upper Lamar Valley, all in a true wilderness setting, and I am reminded with an exclamation as to why I long ago chose to start a guide service as an alternative to my part time youthful job as a bar bouncer in Jackson, Wyoming. Long live the wild griz and howl of the wolf!

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2017 Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights: The Lamar, Part 1

Our 2017 Lamar Backcountry trek will go down in the books as perhaps the greatest trip for wildlife viewing in the 39 year history of Big Wild Adventures! OK, there was that trip in the Gros Ventre Wilderness in 2010 that was also extraordinary, and included a mule deer chasing a wolf. But for sheer numbers and big mammal biomass, this one took the cake.

First, let’s understand that this guided Yellowstone hiking trek covers not just the upper Lamar River back country, but also some high tributaries of the Lamar plus a mountain pass and a long walk through the spectacular Pelican Valley on the last day. The first day is mostly through wide open country, and on the 2017 trek, we saw literally hundreds of bison and a couple dozen pronghorn “antelope”, as we backpacked through country that is sometimes called the “Serengeti of North America”.  A great start! The next two days in the upper Lamar were in a mostly forested part of the valley, with occasional big meadows and of course, the beautiful Lamar River. Wildlife sightings fell off a bit, to a few mule deer and bison, plus plenty of bird life. Just those sightings would have been above average for most entire backpack trips in western North America! Toward the end of day four, a one mile-long meadow ended at our designated campsite. But wait. A very large male grizzly blocked our route, grazing in the meadow about 300 yards away. He was between our 8 person group (6 clients plus myself and c0-guide Jesse Ford) and camp!

Moreover, 3 young Californians were at the campsite adjacent to the lower part of the meadow, close to where we stood watching the Griz. Understandably, these three Yellowstone backpackers were not too enthusiastic about camping by themselves next to the meadow that Ursus arctos horribilis was utilizing for food. So Jesse and I invited them to join us; thus our group went from 8 to 11, a very safe group size for camping next to a grizzly. But we still had to get past the bear. And thunderstorms were approaching. So we carefully slipped around him as he furiously grazed the meadow, watching us all the way, once standing up on his hind legs for a better view, but intent on gorging himself while showing no aggressive behavior toward this large mass of human protoplasm. Once camped, we enjoyed further views of this huge griz (one of the biggest I’d ever seen) in the meadow, and we also enjoyed a close visit by a coyote who avoided the bear but had no interest in altering his route to put distance between himself and our camp.

When we awoke in the morning, the grizzly was gone, but certainly not forgotten!

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How to Pick the Perfect Yellowstone Backpack Trip, Part 3

In the first two installments of this series, we’ve discussed the timing of our scheduled Yellowstone backpacking trips and the importance of choosing a trip that is within your level of physical capability. Of course, this does not mean that if you are extremely fit you should restrict your choices only to the tougher treks. Absolutely not! That’s because you’d miss out on some of the wildest and most wonderful terrain that Yellowstone has to offer, even though the landscape might dictate a “moderate” or even a “moderately easy” rating. Rest assured, because of the very nature of backpacking, you’ll get plenty of exercise on any of our Yellowstone wilderness walks!

But there’s another consideration that we think is also important, once you’ve begun to narrow things down. Let’s face it: we two-legged hominids are a diverse lot. Even among those of us who love wild nature and who relish the opportunity to sleep in a tent among wild beasts, hike in the rain and poop in a self excavated hole in the ground! For example, while some folks are simply looking for a general wilderness experience or an opportunity to escape the modern day techno-rat race, others have specific interests that they hope to satisfy on a guided hiking tour in Yellowstone (or in any of our other trip areas, for that matter). For example, some of our clients have a particular interest in wildflowers, and for them, the June Northern Yellowstone plus the Northeast Yellowstone and Gallatin Range treks would be great choices. For wildlife viewing, either of the Northern Yellowstone Treks or the Lamar Backcountry might be the best choices, though really, we nearly always see big mammals on any of our Yellowstone hikes. For waterfalls, river canyons and lush vegetation you can’t beat the Southwest Yellowstone Bechler trip. And for a big dose of classic Yellowstone backcountry with geothermal features, lakes, rivers, forest and meadow, the Bechler trip (see above) and also the Southern Yellowstone Heart Lake route are world class! And for fall colors, the September Bechler trip and the Northern Yellowstone Autumn hike are great. In other words, each trip is unique in its own way. And although you’ll almost certainly want to eventually do them all (as a number of our clients have done), read the trip descriptions carefully and factor your personal interests into your effort to choose the perfect Yellowstone Backpack Trip from the Big Wild trip menu.

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