If you like the feel of being immersed in the wilderness, there is something truly seductive about a place where you know you are more than 30 miles from a road ... of any kind.
That is one of the particular charms of the Thorofare, a trail that runs through the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. There is no occupied dwelling in the contiguous U.S. farther from a road than the Thorofare Patrol Cabin at the southern border of the park.
A backpacking trip to this area almost demands a commitment of a week's time because of the challenges of getting there. On our little adventure, there were five of us, a young newlywed couple from Switzerland, a 30-something female lawyer-statistician from Virginia, a 62-year-old semi-retired journalist (me) and our 39-year-old guide (and genius one-pot chef) from the Wildland Trekking Company, the outfitter. Save for the newlyweds, we were all strangers.
This is our hiking group (I'm second from right) at the end of our Thorofare hike.
The easy way in, which we took, is to enter from Bridge Bay, taking a 9-mile boat ride from the marina to the other side of Yellowstone Lake, where you can pick up the trail.
The hiking is relatively easy, across meadows and through stands of spruce and pine, along the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake and then along the Yellowstone River. Like most of Yellowstone, the views are breathtaking. But here, every vantage point is a full-on sensory experience largely unsullied by the presence of, well, civilization. No car sounds, no chainsaw sounds, no boat sounds, just weather and occasionally creaking trees and the sounds of the animals that inhabit this corner of the universe.
You may see a lot of wildlife or you may not; we saw only elk and deer. But you always know it surrounds you. Large grizzly footprints in the new mud from an overnight rain. Bull elks in the midst of fall rut bugling night-time love messages as you settle into your sleeping bag, and then, in the morning hours before dawn, watching the rippling reflection of nearly full moon in the stream nearby, you suddenly hear the eerie howls of a wolf pack celebrating a fresh kill.
Hiking along the trails that course through Yellowstone's back country, it is not uncommon to happen upon a large antler rack from a bull elk with most of the skull still attached, a pretty sure sign the antlers were not voluntarily shed. Pelican Valley, for example, with an abundance of bear and wolf-hunting drama, is a great place to find them. But along the Thorofare trail, they seem even more abundant, often with piles of fur and various vertebrae and leg bones scattered nearby.
It seems kind of surprising that the biggest and baddest bulls seem to be the ones whose remains are most evident along the trail. But here's the thing: apparently, during fall rut, the big male elk that are the most successful with the ladies are always having to fight off the would-be suitors. Their success may net them as many as 20 eager females, impressed by all that manly head-butting. But between fighting off the wannabe's and satisfying the harem, a bull can get really tuckered out. And then suddenly, rut's over. All you want to do is lay low and get your head straight, but unfortunately, that's exactly when the wolves and bears turn up. There's a lesson in moderation there, I suspect.
When you're out in a place where there are no cellphone service bars, you're also mostly beyond the reach of reliable weather forecasting. When we left, the seven-day outlook was for highs 50s in the day and mid-30s at night and not much chance of rain. Nice hiking temperatures and no bugs. And mostly, the weather we encountered in mid-September was wonderful — except for the rain, sleet and snow one day and night and temperatures in the low teens the next. In Yellowstone, the outlying lodges and marinas and such pretty much shut down the beginning of October. Mid-September is kind of the last hurrah here. You see fall in the yellow willow thickets along the Yellowstone River, and you can smell winter coming in close behind. Sometimes it can catch you unawares, so it's best not to put much stock in a seven-day forecast and always bring the extra layer.
On our trip, we hiked along the lake and river for several days and then headed east, up to Eagle's Pass (9,500 feet), in the Absaroka Mountains at the park boundary with the Shoshone National Forest. There is a section here where the park service allows hunters to use Yellowstone trails for access and egress through the passes. Hunting inside the park is strictly forbidden, but poaching is still a problem.
During our seven days out, we ran into other parties four times. There was a couple in their fifties hiking alone (they told us where they had watched a large grizzly foraging); a horseback and mules party with two guides, three guests and a ton of gear; a lone fly fisherman stalking cutthroat trout; and one armed park ranger.
The ranger was on poaching patrol. He said they had caught a guy who was poaching elk in the Thorofare a couple of years earlier. The hunter had followed a very large bull into the park, killed it inside the park and then skedaddled after claiming his trophy head. A ranger found the carcass. Detective work worthy of TV's "CSI" followed, and, two years later, they obtained a conviction. Poaching convictions can bring jail sentences and fines, and the government can seize not only your taxidermic trophy — which he said they did — but also the equipment used in the commission of the crime (rifle, horse, truck, trailer, etc.) — which they also did.
When all was said and done, according to the ranger, they asked the poacher why he chanced it. He said the elk was just too big to not take the risk. Or so it seemed at the time.
Our trip took us in and out along the same trails, but we camped at different places, each one postcard-worthy. Each park service campsite has a fire pit and a bear pole for hanging your food and an extraordinary view of the lake or the river or the mountains. Over 50 miles, there is a lot to see. And then, at the end of it, you're back on a rocky beach where you started, waiting to hear the boat that brought you here come back around the bend, the first mechanical noise you've heard in a week. You listen for the outboard sounds of civilization, and you're glad for the ride, but you also realize just how rare and special it is to find one of those places where you can truly escape it.
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