Printed on: October 31, 2013

Yellowstone's 30-miler

scenery, soaking pools, wildlife

By JERRY PAINTER
jpainter@postregister.com

After five hours of hiking Saturday, we reached the halfway point of our trek at a hot springs called Mr. Bubbles. We were surprised that no one else was there.

I was hiking with Idaho Falls friends Jason Walleser and Johanna Oxstrand. We were supposed to meet another group of hikers coming from the other direction. They told us they would probably beat us there, perhaps by as much as an hour. Had they run into trouble? Were they eaten by bears, chased by bison or carried away by sasquatch? After all, we were 15 miles into the Yellowstone National Park backcountry, and our imaginations could dream up 100 possible situations -- most involving mayhem.

About 10 minutes later, I heard voices coming up the trail and four women appeared. It was our friends -- happy and well.

Our two groups were starting at opposite ends of the same 30-mile trail and meeting at the middle.

One challenge for hiking 30 miles in one direction in a day is transportation at the end of the trek. We decided to exchange cars. Here's how the deal went down: At 6 a.m., we all met at Big Juds diner in Ashton and made a car swap. One car went to Bechler Ranger Station on the southwest corner of Yellowstone and its people began hiking north. Our group drove to the Lone Star Geyser trailhead just southeast of Old Faithful in the park and began walking south. Keys to the cars were left at the vehicles in hidden spots. Our group started hiking at 8:14 a.m.

This popular trail is usually done as a backpacking trip in three to four days. There is lovely backcountry wilderness and beautiful waterfalls and lots of thermal features along the way. The weather was nearly perfect, but the temperatures were on the chilly side at the beginning and end of the day. In typical American fashion, we wanted to see it all and do it quick.

Because the southern half section is mostly mellow hiking and the Bechler Ranger Station is closer to Ashton, the ladies expected to arrive at Mr. Bubbles before us. "We might be there as much as an hour before you," said Julie Geng of the north-bound group, "but don't worry, we'll wait for you."

Two things worked to even things up. One was that the women had three wet crossings of the Bechler River that slowed them down (one was nearly waist deep), and the second thing was that our group jogged the downhill sections of the trail for a faster overall pace.

Our hike started walking down the old road to Lone Star Geyser in freezing temperatures. Shortly after the geyser, the trail heads south out into the wilderness. To underscore the wild nature of the place, we passed a bison standing a dozen yards off the trail.

There were times during the hike that the gorgeous scenery would stop us in our tracks and we couldn't go on until we got out our cameras and snapped a few photos. I particularly enjoyed the rising sun behind a footbridge over a stream and the setting sun in Bechler Meadows.

I remember thinking how different the area was than when I had attempted this trail in March on skis. Oxstrand was dialed into her fuel consumption. She had five meals carefully measured to the gram with fruits, vegetables and chicken packed in plastic zipper bags. To stave off the grumpiness, she had a handful of Snickers bars.

"I'm only allowed to eat candy because I'm hiking 30 miles in one day," she said of her diet regimen.

My fuel consisted of a banana, an apple, a bagel and several Odwalla food bars. The north to south route of the trail loses about 1,500 feet during the 30 miles, but there are some uphill sections. Most of the elevation loss comes just before Mr. Bubbles, where the Bechler River drops off the southern edge of the Yellowstone Caldera. The trail crosses the Continental Divide twice and throws some hills at you each time. The country consists of lodgepole pine forests interspersed with large, grassy meadows. The first big hill was made more beastly because of snow left behind from storms earlier in the month. Some of our tracks sunk well above our ankles.

I found it interesting to guess the animals making the tracks in the snow and frozen mud. We saw the tracks of elk, deer, wolves, coyotes, fox, moose, squirrels, bison and others.

A couple of miles past Mr. Bubbles, we came across fresh bear tracks. We knew they were fresh because at this time of day, the mud was no longer frozen. We stopped and Walleser dug his pepper spray from inside his pack and holstered it on his belt.

I'm not too proud to say that at mile 25, I was ready for the hike to be over. It was here that we arrived at the endless Bechler Mea-dows. Crossing the meadow required wading the river one last time and marching for a couple of miles of grassy -- sometimes marshy -- flatland. My legs' batteries were wearing out and my feet no longer had any spring left. Mentally, I was ready to be done, but we still had at least an hour of hiking to go. The sun dropped behind the forest and we hiked the last 2 miles in the dark.

"Are you afraid of the dark?" I asked Oxstrand.

"No, but I am afraid of dinosaurs," she said seriously. "It would be very bad to see a velociraptor."

We arrived at the Bechler Ranger Station at 7:40 p.m. -- about 11 hours after we started.

"It was an awesome adventure," Oxstrand said in an online post. "Way more fun than I had dared to hope for. Will I do something this crazy again? Absolutely!"

For those interested in taking the 30 miles at a slower pace and spending the night along the way, you'll need backcountry camping permits.

For more information, go to www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm.