Total Miles: 1356.2
Strolling under a reborn sun, the snow only a fading memory, it’s easy to forget until you hear a low hissing sound coming from a few feet to the side of the trail. Then a puff of steam coming from another spot. Then a small cauldron of bubbling, iridescent water peeks from behind a row of bushes. Everything we’ve walked through in the park and everything we can see for miles in any direction is part of the same geologic story: the massive caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
It’s almost too large to wrap your mind around, the thought that all of the various geothermal features throughout Yellowstone are connected by a common volcanic past. Essentially encompassing the entirety of the park—all 2 million acres of it—what visitors see today is the aftermath of a volcanic eruption millennia ago that did not merely reshape the landscape. Supervolcanoes are of such size that their eruption is a cataclysmic event that can fundamentally alter the climate of the entire planet. Think Mt. St. Helens on steroids. Lots and lots of steroids.
We would have plenty of time to ponder the living volcanic history beneath our feet, but I’m getting ahead of myself. After braving the snowstorm two nights ago and arriving in Old Faithful Village, things got…challenging. With the Labor Day weekend having just ended, we were hopeful that we’d be able to find a room for the night at one of the three lodges in the village. We were also planning to make use of the laundry facilities that our guidebook app had noted were available in one of those lodges—a perfect opportunity to breathe a bit more life into our damp gear.
The first blow came when there were no available rooms, and the second came when we were told that actually, there was no laundry. The third wrinkle was regarding the trail immediately ahead of us. Due to yet another wildfire, the next 20 miles of the CDT were closed as well as all surrounding trails in the vicinity. With no campground in Old Faithful Village, the options for where to lay our heads for the night were vanishing rapidly.
After some quick thinking, we decided that the best option was to hitchhike our way back to West Yellowstone—some 30 miles away—and regroup for a night or two. Watching throngs of puzzled tourists drive past the scary strangers with their thumbs out was equal parts amusing and disheartening, until a young woman who worked at Old Faithful pulled over and gave us a ride.
While hitting the reset button so to speak with a day in town, we had managed to arrange a ride back to the trail this morning which had the added benefit of giving us a two hour tour of parts of the park that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Herds of bison and elk grazed in the frosty meadows, the smell of sulfur wafted through the air, and steam vents billowed little white clouds from the banks of various rivers.
When we finally arrived back at the CDT, it was not where we’d left it. Due to the fire closure and the lack of any detour available via nearby trails, we had three options:
- Road walk around the fire closure for 20 miles on a shoulder-less highway clogged with tourist traffic
- Invent a cross country bushwhack route through the backcountry, without knowing where and when we might come upon unexpected geothermal features and the thin crust of soil that can often cover them
- Get a ride around the closure and rejoin the trail at the next available location, approximately 20 trail miles to the south of Old Faithful Village
Given the implicit safety concerns of the first two options, we went with door number three, which is how we found ourselves on such an unexpected and unplanned tour of the park this morning.
At 10:30am we finally arrived at the closest access point south of the fire closure and were reunited with our old friend the CDT. Meandering through nearly flat terrain, we passed by brightly colored boiling springs and could see vents scattered across the land, identified by the whispers of steam they cast into the air.
Along the way, the aptly named Witch’s Creek snaked its way alongside us and since it drained many of the geothermal springs and pools along its banks, the temperature of its water was like that of a nice hot shower. Reaching down to test it and expecting the usual crisp cold of a mountain stream, feeling its warmth throws your brain into a tailspin wondering how it can possibly be. It was like a cascading hot tub.
As the creek bent away from us, we came to the edge of the placid Heart Lake and followed the trail directly along where the barely lapping water met the shore. Across the lake, peaks rose in the distance with their north faces clinging to the snowy vestiges of the recent storm, a reminder of what was and what may be again should we lose the weather lottery.