The Greater Yellowstone Loop

By Alex Gaber

Yellowstone National Park, one of the nation’s biggest national parks, is surrounded on all sides by geologically distinct mountain ranges, far from the crowds that descend on the park from all over the world. All these mountain ranges, centered around one of the largest supervolcanoes on Earth, together form the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is one of the last intact temperate zone ecosystems on the planet, with a huge fluctuation in seasonal temperatures—from scorching, dry summers to the deep freeze of winter. While studying satellite imagery and topographic maps of the United States looking for my next long hike, I became aware of this unique ecosystem, most of which is federally protected from human development as wilderness, and it immediately struck me as an obvious area to link together with a long walk. I began sketching a route that would meet two principal goals: to hike on top of or stay as close to the main divide of each range as possible; and to summit nearly 60 named peaks, while carrying no technical climbing gear, to maintain the fast and light, self supported hiking style that I’ve come to love.

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The route began to take shape as a “lollipop” loop, and as I worked on it, the outer reaches of Yellowstone continued to make itself clear as an obvious area for a long-distance hike, traveling though huge stretches of wilderness, while still crossing roads where I would be able to resupply my food at intervals of between 80 and 160 miles, or four to seven days. My route ended up being over 1,000 miles long, divided into 10 sections punctuated by the necessary resupplies. Though everybody has a different style, for me thru-hiking has one simple rule that’s very easy to follow: Once the hike has started, I can get off trail via car, bike, helicopter, etc., but the only way to continue making forward progress, is to pick up exactly where I left the trail. This avoids the slippery slope of wanting to skip little bits or pieces, helps me accept the adventure from its highs to its lows, and adds a wonderful sense of continuity to the experience. I was about to spend two months alone in some of the most untouched and pristine wilderness in the states.

The first section of the hike began at the end of the lollipop stem in the Great Divide Basin, windblown flatland covered in sage just south of the southern end of the Wind River Range, home to many peaks over 13,000 feet, including Gannett, Wyoming’s highest at 13,804’. I began on June 27, a fairly early start after a snowy winter. The mountains were solidly in the season of spring, large snowfields covered much of the ground and all of the passes. Fifteen miles into the hike was my first crux, descending the northwest face of Wind River Peak (13,192’). It was a series of snowbound chutes and chossy aretes covered in melting ice that I managed to slowly work through with a bit of backtracking. I glissaded down to the lake in the valley bottom and looked back at the peak, with a welcome sense of capability and calmed nerves about the many unknowns to come on this hike.

Nearly every day I had at least one crux that I had seen on topo maps as I planned it from the safety of my computer, and each day was an exercise in not letting the unknown manifest itself as stress. Snowy passes that appeared dangerously steep could be worked over slowly, by kicking steps with my trail runners and planting trekking poles deep in the snow for a solid hold—slow, focused progress made one limb at a time. The day I was supposed to summit Gannett was overcast and extremely windy. I had just made it over Bonney Pass after a bad decision to get off the icy snowbank on the wrong side had me navigating ice-covered blocky granite in the sloppiest fashion. I looked at Gannett, low clouds scraping across her summit and made the easy decision to drop down and skirt around her, over Dinwoody Glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in the American Rockies. I pushed through a steady wind for the next two days as the Wind River Range slowly drops in elevation as it reaches north to the Absaroka Range. On the Fourth of July, I finished the first and longest section, 150 miles, in seven and a half days.

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From the craggy granitic peaks of the Winds, I crossed Togwotee Pass and after a hitch to and from Togwotee Mountain Lodge ten miles west of the pass for my food resupply box, I entered into the Absaroka Range, a wide volcanic range with alpine plateaus and deep glacially carved valleys. The low grasses and flowers of the plateaus were colorful and easy underfoot which made for very enjoyable walking. I summited Thorofare Peak (12,058’) on July 6, what is known to be the most remote peak in the lower 48, and could plainly feel the remoteness and wildness of the area. The trails in this section felt like old Native American trails that are now maintained by big game, scattering and disappearing in meadows or through burn areas, but reappearing to guide me over a pass or along a narrow bench. I continued to follow the divide north of Thorofare Peak which becomes more narrow and rolling with many highpoints and saddles, until Deer Creek Pass, where the main divide becomes too technical to travel along at the pace that was necessary to get me to my next resupply before I ran out of food. I dropped down and walked through the valleys, which meant the additional obstacle of water crossings.

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I was on a well-traveled trail for a change, following a creek, warm sunshine at my back, when the trail disappeared into the swollen creek, making impossible what would have been an easy crossing later in the summer. I was looking across the water and reluctantly accepting that I’d have to bushwhack along the shore instead of crossing, when it started to pour rain. In a matter of minutes I had gone from strolling along a sunny trail to struggling to stay upright on a steep, overgrown slope while getting pounded by rain as the sun was setting. On July 10, I finished my second section as I crossed highway 20 at Shoshone Lodge, where a friend had mailed my resupply box. After a couple meals at the lodge restaurant and a shower that was generously offered to me I continued into the third section: the Northern Absaroka. My route through this section followed the bottom of several drainages and water crossings continued to be an obstacle, though there always seemed to be a log jam or braid in the river where I could cross. I strolled along Clarks Fork Canyon and then slowly climbed my way into the next section.

I crossed the Beartooth Highway on July 14, and entered the Beartooth Range, a huge granitic plateau carved with deep canyons. I hitched three miles west to the Top of the World Store, scarfed down several ice cream sandwiches, and crammed my resupply box into my backpack before hitching back to where I left my route. I set out with a full pack late in the day along the Beartooth Plateau and was treated to a spectacular sunset that foreshadowed the temperamental weather that I’d be walking through in this section. The days were beautiful, with large rain clouds building and moving across the big sky as I snuck along ridges and over peaks and passes though a rainstorm turned me around just 200’ below the summit of Granite Peak, Montana’s highest at 12,799’. Later that day, I came around Iceberg Peak to a charged-up cloud blowing into my face. When I saw it strike the mountains across the valley and then the bottom of the valley I was about to walk into, I abandoned my path and ran straight down the slippery talus until the cloud was nearly on top of me, tossed my trekking poles and huddled in the fetal position, until the cloud finally passed over. The next day I had a closer call as I watched a lightning bolt strike no more than 100 yards from me, but I was crouched below a large cliffband and felt protected so I didn’t really get a scare. The mountain weather I experienced in this range made it a highlight of the hike. On July 19th I hitched into Big Timber, MT to resupply and close out the section.

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The fifth section was the Western Beartooths, and from the maps it looked like I was going to be on a maintained trail almost the entire time, but the area has seen many devastating burns and almost the entire section had me navigating a maze of blowdowns—lodgepole pine scattered like pick up sticks for miles and miles, covering what used to be a well traveled trail, fragmenting it and making it difficult to follow. It would have been easy to go crazy in a situation like this, but I didn’t see any other route options, and I had learned 10,000 miles ago how unwise it is to get mad at the trail or circumstances. So I got a little cut up and beat down for the next few days making my way through. I entered Yellowstone National Park for the first time on the hike on the beautiful Hellroaring Creek Trail, then followed the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River to the town of Mammoth Hot Springs for a resupply.

I took a day off on July 24 in Mammoth Hot Springs to eat copious amounts of ice cream and cafeteria food, while waiting for my new shoes to arrive in the mail, my first pair was essentially destroyed after 500 miles. After a much needed rest day, I entered the Gallatin Range, by summiting Electric Peak and then following the supremely pleasant Gallatin Ridge Trail for 30 wildflower-laden miles north to Hyalite Canyon just south of Bozeman. I broke west down Storm Castle Creek and crossed the Gallatin River, entering the Madison Range in the Spanish Peaks. On July 30 I resupplied in Big Sky Resort for section 7 and charged up the southeast ridge of Lone Mountain, then connected it to the Sphinx, a prominent mountain about 20 trail miles away in a single day. I continued south along the Madison Range with some beautiful ridge walks and summits, though these days had a haze carried over from California wildfires.

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On August 4th I hitched into the town of West Yellowstone from Targhee Pass for my next resupply and after spending the night in the hostel, the owner drove me back to the trail for a long section eight, about 140 miles, the first 85 of which led me across a high flat plane, mostly covered by lodgepole, an extension of the Snake River plain, created by the North American Plate drifting across the Yellowstone hotspot, the only break in the ring of mountain ranges surrounding the ecosystem. I then climbed into the Tetons and followed the main divide 25 miles south, a boulder strewn ridge that was fun to scramble over as I slowly approached the Tetons from their backside. I had to ration my food the last couple days of this section and ended up having to do the last 20 miles in seven hours from Death Canyon Shelf to Teton Pass on a single ProBar.

After a day off in Jackson on August 11 to eat food, I started on an overnighter through the Snake River Range to Hoback Junction, where they have slushy machines—alcoholic slushies. I sat outside the gas mart, my shorts and shirt falling apart, my legs and arms as cut up as they’d been the entire hike, after a particularly bad bushwhack out of the Snakes, drank slushies and ate pickles for most of the afternoon, before buzzing up into the Wyoming Range for a beautiful sunset over Jackson Hole and the Tetons. I followed the rim of Willow Creek drainage for two days, through gorgeous layers of red and gray smeared tilted fault block mountains, to cross the Hoback River again, only about seven miles upriver from where I crossed the first time.

On August 16, I started on the final section through the Gros Ventre Range. I struggled to follow the overgrown trails that led into the range, including the deteriorating Granite Highline Trail, which led me a pass where I gained the ridge and left the trail to camp for the night. The next day, my last full day of the hike was a blissed out walk along the ridge that connects Pyramid Peak (11,107’) to Antoinette Peak (11,407’), then across open expanses and wide benches of slabby sedimentary rock, spotted heavily with oceanic fossils. On Palmer Peak (11,404’), my last summit of the hike, I walked out of sight of my backpack for some alone time and fell down as a grateful belly laugh consumed me. I rolled around for at least half an hour, my palms open to the sky, and alternated between uncontrollable laughter and tears, though it all flowed from me with a deep sense of connection to all things and gratitude for the experience, for my body, and for our planet. I wandered off the summit and into the night, as I came down from the climax of my two month “hiker high”—similar to a runner’s high, except more clear headed, more sustained and perpetuated by constant new experiences, and natural beauty. The next day was my last, and I hiked 28 miles from the Gros Ventre Range back to Union Pass in the Wind River Range, where I crossed my tracks from the first section and closed the lollipop loop.

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The wildlife on this hike was consistently more abundant than anywhere else I’ve been and absolutely deserves mention. At least one but usually two raptors were constantly circling overhead. I chased goats and bighorn off of nearly every mountainside, deer and elk out of every valley, watched coyote, moose and black bears. I had my first wolf sighting—a big beautiful lone black wolf who I watched as he ran away from me across an open valley. I saw six grizzlies, three of them mothers with cubs, all in the Absarokas, and thankfully all at safe distance. The meeps and screeches of marmot and pika were ever present as well as grouse and ptarmigan. I only saw one bison, but I hadn’t anticipated seeing many, because my route didn’t traverse their preferred habitat. The wildlife was the best company I could have asked for on this hike.

The route that I had planned from home ended up being almost exactly what I hiked, with only a few minor deviations. In total, the hike spanned 53 days, with two zero-mile days. I summited 45 named peaks and countless other highpoints. It’s impossible to give an exact distance to the route, but a conservative estimate is 1,020 miles with 200,000’ of total elevation gain. An exploratory route like this is best taken on solo. I knew there were going to be challenging sections, whether gnarly bushwhacks or ridgewalks that I couldn’t be sure would go, and feeling responsible for someone else’s safety or comfort would have just been unnecessary stress for me. Places that had been unknown to me, that I studied from topo maps and Google Earth are now inextricably connected to memories and experiences that live inside of me and give me a stronger connection than I previously had to the place we all call home.