The adventure in the north: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.
The best two-week pack trip I can think of? Easy: Through the Teton Wilderness, into Yellowstone Park and then on to the Absaroka-Beartooths. If you’re looking for a great backcountry trek, here’s a step-by-step, or destination-by-destination, guide to some of the most beautiful land we’ve seen. Unlike most wilderness areas that contain little more than rocks and ice, this stretch had huge grass-filled valleys, large rivers and lower elevations, and goes through the largest intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. We saw bears, bison, bald eagles, elk, deer and a variety of terrain. If I had two weeks to go on a pack trip this is the route that I would take.
We left Red Rock Dude Ranch on July 16 on the Gros Ventre River close to Jackson, Wyoming, for a two-week, non-stop ride all the way to Emigrant, Montana. We just now got out of the backcountry and it has been the most epic part of the ride to date. We traveled almost 300 miles and crossed only three roads. For those of you looking for an incredible horse pack trip this one would be my most suggested—at least from what we’ve traveled through thus far.
I’d start at the Togwotee Lodge on Highway 287 east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and go north into the Buffalo River area. From the Buffalo, follow the North Fork of the Buffalo River, a beautiful tributary filled with massive native Cutthroat Trout that even a bunch of cowboys can catch dozens of fish in. Head north up the Buffalo fork to Trail Creek and over Two Ocean Pass to the Parting of the Waters. The Parting of the Waters is what Lewis and Clark searched for: the only waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Two Ocean Creek is the only creek that is diverted in half; one side goes to the Atlantic and the other to the Pacific. The creek literally splits in half at a rock pile and this is significant because fish species can pass over the Continental Divide at this location. It’s the only place in North America where this happens.
From Two Ocean Pass head east on Atlantic Creek to the Yellowstone River near its headwaters. The Yellowstone, at this point, is only a large creek and it winds its way north through a valley a half-mile wide filled with waist-high grass, elk, moose, wolves and grizzlies. Continue north on the Yellowstone River to Hawk’s Rest, the furthest point from a road in the Lower 48 at more than 30 miles. If you wind up here you either know what you’re doing in the backcountry or you’re extremely lost. The fishing at Bridger Lake, near Hawk’s Rest, is simply unbelievable. You can patrol the shorelines and see huge Cutthroats up to 20 inches also patrolling the shoreline. We used wooly buggers to catch them and they looked like sharks attacking our flies, sight fishing at its best. From Hawk’s Rest keep going north on the Yellowstone, past the famously wild Thorofare, and on to Yellowstone Lake inside of Yellowstone National Park, one of the largest natural lakes in the area at 136 square miles.
It takes at least one full day to travel on the east side of Yellowstone Lake and get to the northern edge. From there keep heading north up the Pelican Valley, which is loaded with Buffalo and ridiculously scenic views. Go over Mist Creek Pass into the Lamar River drainage, which is home to one of the largest Bison herds in the world. Keep heading north along the Lamar until it intersects with Cache Creek. Head east on Cache Creek (another stream loaded with native Cutthroats eager to eat a fly) to the trail turnoff headed to the Soda Butte drainage. At the Soda Butte, head west to the confluence of Pebble Creek. Go north on Pebble Creek to Bliss Pass and get ready for some tight switchbacks where the Bighorn Sheep live. After Bliss Pass go into the Slough Creek drainage, another huge valley filled with Bison and even better Cutthroat fishery in North America. The views here are unparalleled, with young Aspens growing in the wasteland of the historic 1988 fire. Go north on Slough Creek, exit Yellowstone National Park at the northern edge, and enter into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Once you’re in the wilderness, continue north up Slough Creek before branching off onto Bull Creek, which will take you into the Buffalo Drainage (there’s a lot of creeks and landmarks called buffalo in this area). From the Buffalo Drainage continue west into the Hellroaring Canyon, a gnarly steep canyon with huge cliff walls above water that would make the cleanest aquarium look like a mud pit. From the Hellroaring go up Specimen Creek to the Ash Mountain Trail above the timberline with views of huge mountains every direction you look. The grass up here is strong, thigh-high, and filled with Indian Paintbrush, Blue Lupine, and so many types of yellow and white flowers that its impossible to keep up with all the species.
From Ash Mountain stay on the crest of the Absaroka range to Knox Lake, Fish Lake, and the massive Monitor Peak. On top of the Monitor you can see all through the Absaroka Range, the Beartooths, the Gallatins, and the mighty Yellowstone making its way through the aptly named Paradise Valley. From the Monitor head northeast along Six Mile Creek to the Yellowstone River.
We just now finished this stretch of our trip, but it won’t be the last time I go along this route. All of our campsites were filled with strong, abundant mountain grass, the rivers teamed with fish, the wildlife was abundant and the scenery was unbelievable. The Park Service, Forest Service and outfitters keep excellent trails in this area, and it’s horse country at its finest. Enjoy!
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NOTE: Backcountry editor Ryan T. Bell is currently riding with the crew.
Be on the lookout for upcoming articles featuring his time on the trail.