Established as a national park in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. and arguably also first in the world. Covering over 3,471 square miles of geothermal features, forests, mountains, and grasslands – Yellowstone is home to truly unique terrain as well as diverse wildlife. While we had experienced and loved Grand Tetons, our itinerary during 8 National Parks in 10 Days – The Best Outdoor Variety Road Trip took us west and away from Yellowstone. Not this time.
With Yellowstone’s history and reputation also comes tourists – many, many tourists. With over 4 million annual visitors, Yellowstone National Park is often very busy. Like any other of the national parks that we have visited, it’s crucial to plan your trip well in advance. For Yellowstone, reservations are accepted from January 1 to October 31. All reservations received by March 31 are processed in a lottery. Basically, if you’re planning a Yellowstone backcountry trip, be sure to get your application in by March 31 to maximize your chances of getting the site that you want. Also, permit applications can only be submitted by fax or mail. To maximize our chances of getting a bear-filled site deep in the backcountry, Alex mailed in our application at the beginning of March for our intended stay in July.
Yellowstone has a helpful backcountry trip planner available online, which explains the backcountry permit process and gives some information on Yellowstone’s different regions, including maps of backcountry sites.
We went all in on our Yellowstone goal – seeing a Grizzly – and chose a remote site on Heart Lake, several miles from any other. Located at the base of Mt. Sheridan, Heart Lake is a Yellowstone ‘Bear Management Area’, meaning that its handful of backcountry sites are closed until July 1st each year to keep the prime bear habitat undisturbed. Hell. yeah. We chose site 8J1 as our top pick – really for the reason that it seemed the most remote. The permit application process was easy – you have the option of choosing as many ‘alternative’ sites as you’d like, in case your preferred site is selected by another group who comes up first in the lottery. To guard against luck being against us – especially since Heart Lake’s sites are some of the most in-demand backcountry spots – Alex listed 15 different sites on the application. Yellowstone had a quick turnaround time, despite many facilities being closed due to COVID-19, and we heard back by email mid-April that we had received our first-choice site.
Drive to Yellowstone
Our journey to Yellowstone began in the early afternoon, as we started the two hour drive from Grand Tetons. Our destination was the Grant Visitor Center. We would pass by our trailhead on the way, but we needed several things (in order of importance):
- Stickers as souvenirs to commemorate our epic journey
- A fishing permit (so Alex could legally catch a massive fish and cook it over an open flame in bear country)
- Refill our water supply
The visitor’s center was closed but the ranger advised us to write our email permit number on a piece of paper to put on Bug-Slayer 2’s dashboard and that no physical permit was necessary. We stopped by the nearby Grant Village General Store which thankfully allowed us to take care of all of our needs above, with the added benefit of also a huge selection of local beers.
We drove south from the general store and arrived at the Heart Lake trailhead in the early afternoon. After a final look through our bags and a hit of venison jerky each, we started on the approximate nine mile hike to our campsite. Right as we started on the trail, a group coming out told us they heard large animals off the trail. Our bear-sense turned up to 11, we scanned every inch of forest along the way, hoping to see the creatures that had eluded us so far.
The hike was beautiful, but we had hiked over 30 miles in the last two days in the Tetons so our energy was low. With the thought of beer and chili at our campsite keeping us alive, we were determined to make quick work of the trail ahead. This plan was almost derailed, when Alex felt a strange cold feeling coming from his back. He quickly determined that it was not the result of a rattlesnake bite or a bear attack, but rather something arguably worse. A can of beer, thought to have been packed carefully, had burst inside Alex’s backpack. A triage of the scene revealed nearly everything inside soaked with the appropriately-named Devil’s Hump. After rinsing off what we could, and hoping Alex’s drybag would save his sleeping bag from the same fate as the rest of his pack’s contents, we continued on – fully aware that the lingering smell of beer soaked into nearly all of Alex’s belongings and clothes probably smelled delicious to a hungry Grizzly.
Continuing on for a few more miles, we passed a group of hikers who had spotted a bear and cubs up ahead. This news gave us a new life as we continued through the relatively flat, forested trail. Although we saw no bears, we soon began to smell sulfur in the air and came across our first thermal feature. Pictures do not do these justice, but seeing steam and water bubbling up from the earth is almost unreal. We went as close as we could to safely view these features – always sticking to the advice we read online: never step where there isn’t grass. Often, the crust around thermal features is thin and not able to hold much weight, hiding extremely hot and acidic water underneath. Staying on greenery is an easy way of ensuring the ground below can (likely) hold you.
As we continued on, the hike progressed from flat terrain to some hills, mostly with us going downhill towards the lake. The views were impressive – and the thermal pools we passed along the way did not disappoint.
One thing we would always suggest you do, is to research your trail before heading to a national park. Many people (like us) have tips and tricks to make your experience better. In particular, we learned that our trail had a smaller version of Yellowstone’s ‘Boiling River’. Basically, this is an area where boiling thermal water meets cold river water, diluting the thermal water to a safe, yet warm, temperature. We spent the middle part of our hike testing every river we came across, until eventually:
Unfortunately for us, it was actually incredibly hot throughout our hike. So, the hot water wasn’t refreshing in any way, but it was definitely a cool experience. Had the weather been colder, it would have been a great place to warm up and prepare for the next leg of the hike. We won’t tell you exactly where this was on the trail, you’ll have to find that out on your own.
Now, let’s talk mosquitoes. Up until this point, the mosquito situation at Yellowstone really wasn’t that bad. As we got closer to the lake, however, we realized standing still was the absolute last thing we wanted to do. Although tired and nearing 40 miles of hiking in 3 days, we pushed on.
Soon we finally arrived at Heart Lake. Exhausted from hiking, we realized that we had definitely over exerted ourselves. Next time, we were determined to plan our ‘hiking’ days better and not have so many back-to-back. At least, we assumed based on our map, we were close to our campsite.
The trail took us onto the beach – which at first we thought was a nice change of scenery. However, it was not nice for two reasons:
- The mosquitoes had reached Grand Tetons levels – meaning they were terrible
- It was actually incredibly hard to hike in the sand
- It was a long stretch on the beach until the trail started again
Navigating through the beach trail, Laj and Alex did see a bald eagle nest and several bald eagles flying around. Eric was too busy apparently to look at any of the wildlife. According to our map we had a little over a mile and a half from the beach to our site, but it felt like we had hiked a far greater distance than that. Eric and Laj both doubted that we were on the right trail – even though there was only one. Eric tried to use his GPS but it was completely useless and still thought we were in Colorado. Finally, we did get to our campsite – it was incredibly remote but that was part of the draw.
Soon we realized the mosquito situation was incredibly dire. Honestly, we can say it was the largest swarm of mosquitoes we had ever seen in our entire lives. Standing still for any amount of time meant literally hundreds of mosquitoes swarming any exposed skin. Again, Alex’s probably saved his life. We quickly tried to set up camp, determined to have a camp fire even if the mosquitoes killed us. The campsite was basic – but large. It included access to the lake down a steep hill, a large fire pit with some logs surrounding it, and a pit toilet in the woods about 50 yards away (the perfect distance for a bear to eat you without anyone being around to help). While Eric and Laj started a fire to (hopefully) ward off the mosquitoes, Alex went down to the lake to try and wash the beer that had soaked into almost everything he had. Thankfully, the drybag performed perfectly – and his down sleeping bag beer-free.
Unlike the ‘bear-boxes’ at the Grand Tetons, at Yellowstone you need to hang your bags and food from trees to prevent bears from getting into them. Most backcountry sites provide you with an area to do this, and – after a bit of a struggle – we had all three bags hanging.
We made a delicious meal of chili and rice but soon learned that the fire did not help at all from mosquitoes and the exhaust from our camp stoves actually attracted them. Also, all of our clothes smelled like amazing chili- something we were sure our bear neighbors could smell as well. While the scenery beckoned us to relax and enjoy the views, we ate quickly and hid from mosquitoes in our tents for the rest of the night, contemplating our next move.
Our initial plan was to spend two nights at our site, and summit Mt. Sheridan on day two. We realized we were far too tired to do this, and the mosquito situation would leave us unable to spend much time agony-free outside. We did what all national park explorers must learn to do – changed our plans. We decided to hike back to the car in the morning and head out early on the next leg of our trip. While this would be another 9 miles of hiking in the morning, it would save us from sitting around doing nothing.
Surviving another night not getting eaten by bears, and Laj again sleeping directly on the ground without a sleeping pad, we packed up our stuff relatively early. Alex made his customary camp coffee and drank it while trying to catch some fish on the lake. Unfortunately he had no luck, but his collapsible fishing rod worked great and the views were amazing. Again, the bug net’s importance cannot be overstated.
The hike back was long, but the amazing views kept us motivated, as did the thoughts of an epic meal that evening. After what felt like double the time it took us to hike to the lake, we finally got back to the car and ate our weight of venison jerky.
We drove north through Yellowstone on our way out, heading towards Billings, Montana. We headed towards Yellowstone’s North Entrance, and felt compelled to stop along the way at Old Faithful. The scene at Old Faithful was the complete opposite of our remote backcountry site – as far from relaxing as possible. Surrounded by hundreds of people, we waited for about five minutes and realized that we had seen the parts of Yellowstone we wanted to and this was actually taking away from our experience.
Our drive out was beautiful though, and it was a nice way to see a large part of the park. We saw plenty of wildlife, but sadly no bears. Alex even almost got an epic close-up shot of a bison right next to the side of the road – the only time that our car took us well within the usual ‘view from a distance’ advice that we followed.
We saw Prismatic Spring from the road and, while it looked cool, the parking lot was packed beyond belief. Again we decided our backcountry Yellowstone experience had it all – large animals, thermal features, rugged terrain – so we were content to move on to the next park. The drive out of the park took several hours, something which was lengthened by a near 15 minute traffic jam. After seeing several people leave their cars and run to the edge of the woods, we were hopeful the elusive bear might make an appearance. However, that wasn’t the case – it was just a moose. In our eyes, this was an unforgivable reason for cars to stop in the middle of the road. As we exited the north entrance, Laj and Alex saw several elk grazing near the north entrance’s post office. Eric thought they were horses.
In the end, our Yellowstone trip was epic. The views were amazing and the terrain truly felt rugged and wild. The thermal features made the landscape seem alien. We would have loved to stay for another night, but we had hiked too much and the mosquitoes were too insane for that to have been realistic. That being said, we were not impressed by the crowds at the ‘tourist’ locations – like Old Faithful and Prismatic Springs. We’d definitely recommend going to Yellowstone, but head into the backcountry to find the true nature of the parks. To enjoy everything Yellowstone can offer, you need to explore it the way it’s meant to be seen.
And with that, we were off to Teddy Roosevelt.