Wednesday morning was a little warmer, but I still had breakfast up on the hill in the light of the rising sun. We packed up afterwards and hiked back down past North Fork Falls. From there we backtracked another 3 ½ miles to the junction with the North Buffalo Two Ocean Trail / Continental Divide Trail. Just before the junction we ran into a group of horsepackers at a campsite packing up. They had a dog that trotted towards Larry while growling, but Larry didn’t flinch. They turned out to be a very friendly group of family and friends from somewhere in Montana. It was their first visit to the area, and they’d enjoyed their trip despite the disappointing fishing in the Yellowstone River. They told us that the bridge over the Yellowstone was in fact being repaired. The ford would be chest deep, but they were confident that we’d be able to cross the bridge. We would just have to climb up one of the supports to get on it, as the ramp from the ground up to the bridge hadn’t been built yet.
We hiked another quarter mile to the junction and another campsite. As we approached, we spotted a large bird squawking and strutting back and forth across the trail. It acted like a grouse, but it was large. Perhaps a pheasant? It wasn’t happy with us, but we needed water, so we stopped for a break there.
My strategy on this trip was to only carry 20 ounces of water at a time to reduce my pack weight. I used Aquamira tablets each time I filled up so that I wouldn’t have to constantly dig out my filter and water bladder. That strategy worked well, and it is one that I’ll use going forward.
We turned north on the CDT and endured a grueling climb up to the ridge separating the North Fork Buffalo and Pacific Creek. It was a hot, sunny day, and we baked in the mid-day sun. Most of the trail was through meadows, so there wasn’t a lot of shade. At the top, we found a shady spot on the edge of a meadow with a nice view. The flowers were fantastic along here, too/ We had lunch there, before starting down the trail towards Pacific Creek.
Along the way, we passed a small but pretty waterfall on Trail Creek that would’ve been unexpected if the guidebook hadn’t mentioned it. There is nothing on the topo map to suggest that there is waterfall in that spot.
After a short break we resumed the descent. At some point we joined the Pacific Creek Trail, but I didn’t notice the junction. That caused some confusion later on. A gradual climb through the meadows along Pacific Creek led us toward Two Ocean Pass. The pass is actually a giant wet meadow / willow swamp right on the Continental Divide. We arrived a junction with a fork to the left and right. There is an old sign here, and it indicated that the Pacific Creek Trail was to the left. That confused me, because I’d missed the earlier junction when we had initially joined the Pacific Creek Trail. I checked the map and GPS, and it looked like the trail to the right would take us to Atlantic Creek, while the trail to the left would go to North Two Ocean Creek and The Parting of the Waters.
Our route was to Atlantic Creek, but we didn’t want to miss The Parting of the Waters. We took the trail to the left, which followed the edge of a willow swamp. Before long we reached a ford of Pacific Creek. There used to be a bridge here, but half of it is gone, and most of the rest is submerged. I took my pack off to change shoes and noticed a faint path heading up the hill above. I decided check it out, and I found a nice campsite with a pleasant view down Pacific Creek. It was late afternoon, and we didn’t have a specific place to camp in mind. I was worried that Two Ocean Pass would be buggy, but there was a nice breeze up on top of that hill. I mentioned it to Larry and suggested that we camp there and hike without packs over to The Parting of the Waters. He took a look at the campsite and agreed.
We set up camp, but there was one mishap. We needed to hang our extra food or carry it with us. Larry had a fancy bear bag cord attached to a small pouch. The idea is that you put a rock in the pouch and toss it over a tree limb. I found a promising limb – actually a fallen tree that was leaning steeply against another tree. It looked ideal, so I dropped a rock in the pouch and tossed it over. It didn’t work quite as planned. Instead of dropping over the other side of the tree, it wrapped itself around the limb several times. Oops.
It was thoroughly stuck, and there was no way to budge it. It was way out of reach, and there was no safe way to climb up there, either. What could we do?
I walked over to the fallen tree and pushed on it. It had a lot of give, so I pushed harder. Incredibly, the whole thing crashed to the ground. Luckily I was able to retrieve the bag. Obviously it wasn't a great choice for hanging our food anyway. If I could push it over, a bear certainly could.
With the fallen tree out of the way, the main tree limb was an ideal target. I decided to try again, for some reason. My throw was perfect, but this time the cord wrapped itself around a small branch and got stuck. Unbelievable. Once again it wouldn’t budge, and pushing this tree over wasn’t going to work.
I decided to try the “just throw a rock at it” method of problem solving. I threw a rock at the little stub of a branch where it was stuck. And another. And another. Larry was an amused spectator. I must have thrown over a hundred rocks at it. It was comical, yet unproductive. Then, incredibly, I got a direct hit. The branch broke, and the bag fell. It would’ve been perfect, except there wasn’t anyone holding the other end of the cord. The whole thing went over the limb and landed in a pile at the base of the tree.
I told Larry that I was quitting while I was ahead, and I suggested that he give it a try. His first throw went over the limb, but the cord got wrapped around a little protrusion on the tree. It was wrapped tight. Throwing a million rocks at it wouldn’t have solved the problem. It looked like that cord would be stuck there forever. Between the two of us, we were 3 for 3 on getting that cord stuck.
Disgusted, I walked down into the woods and found another tree branch. It was less ideal, but I managed to get my cord over a limb in less than a minute. I hung our food, and we packed up for our hike over to The Parting of the Waters. I had originally hoped to extend the hike up to the waterfalls on North Two Ocean Creek, upstream from The Parting of the Waters. Unfortunately they were a good distance away, and we didn’t have enough time.
We waded Pacific Creek and followed an obvious trail over to North Two Ocean Creek. We missed the trail at an unmarked junction, which was hidden by a fallen tree, but eventually stumbled upon it. We followed it to a crossing of North Two Ocean Creek, which is just upstream from The Parting of the Waters. It’s a fascinating spot. There, North Two Ocean Creek splits. The branch to the east runs down to Two Ocean Pass, where it joins the east fork of South Two Ocean Creek to form Atlantic Creek. From there, Atlantic Creek runs to the Yellowstone River, which joins the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf of Mexico. The branch to the west runs down to Two Ocean Pass, where joins the west fork of South Two Ocean Creek to form Pacific Creek. From there it runs west to the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean.
If you read that carefully, you’ll note that South Two Ocean Creek also has a Parting of the Waters. It’s less famous, and less accessible, but equally interesting. Those two creeks are the only ones known to do this in the world.
The spot is fascinating, but a bit underwhelming to visit. It’s also not terribly photogenic. We spent a few minutes there before hiking back to camp. When we returned, we discovered that the breeze had died, and the mosquitoes were horrible. At least we enjoyed a nice sunset over Pacific Creek before going to bed.
We packed up Thursday morning and were about to return to the trail when I glanced at Larry’s bear bag stuck in the tree. I hated to leave it there, for a number of reasons. For one, it didn't conform to the "Leave No Trace" mindset. Also, I was pretty sure that Larry wanted it back. I decided to try a new technique. I grabbed the cord and ran full speed away from the tree. It didn’t come free, but that did loosen it. Then I started snapping my wrist, kind of like a fly fishing motion, to see if I could get it loose. Incredibly, that actually worked. It popped off and fell to the ground in front of us. I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or Larry.
We returned to the trail and backtracked to the junction of confusion. We turned left there, and a few minutes later arrived at Two Ocean Pass. The pass looked just like the Pacific Creek valley – a sea of willows bordered by a cliffy ridge in the distance. On the far side of the pass, Atlantic Creek offered up more of the same, though a beaver pond, dam, and lodge offered some visual interest. We enjoyed some easy hiking on a good trail with only a few muddy spots. At one point we passed over a small wooded hill with some nice campsites. A bit farther on we spotted a huge bird out in the meadow. I’m not certain, but I think it was a crane.
Larry took one look at the thick forest above us and decided to skip it. That was good news for me, since it meant that he could watch my pack while he waited. I only carried my phone, trekking pole, and water bottle. It was a steep climb – much worse than it looked on the map. The forest was pretty thick at first, but then it got much, much worse. There were haphazard piles of fallen trees everywhere. Trying to avoid them was futile. Every route that looked slightly promising just led into another trap of massive deadfall.
I struggled on, climbing over some piles of logs, and crawling under others. Progress was slow, and the hike was brutal. To make matters worse, it was miserably hot and buggy. I was covered in blood, sweat, and mosquito carcasses.
I finally reached something of a bench, where I stumbled upon an elk trail. That was pretty incredible in itself, but of course it was running in the wrong direction. I was trying to go uphill, while the trail followed the bench on a contour around the hill. I decided to follow it anyway, as I was little west of the crest of the ridge I had intended to follow. It led to a small meadow, where I startled a large, highly agitated bird. This one also behaved like a grouse as it strutted around making weird noises. It was clearly trying to lead me away from its nest, so I played along and followed it for a bit.
At the far end of the meadow I found what I’d come for. The trees were sparse here (probably because most of them had fallen down the hill), and I had a great view. I could see the Yellowstone River winding through the vast expanse of Yellowstone Meadows, in the shadow of the imposing cliffs of Hawks Rest. Farther in the distance was Bridger Lake, the Thorofare, and the rugged cliffs of the Absaroka Mountains.
I was still well below Yellowstone Point itself, but the remainder of the route up looked horrible. I couldn’t imagine that the view would be much better up there. I decided to take a break and then head back down.
I took a slightly different route down, hoping that it would be smoother. It looked better at first, but it didn’t last. If anything, it may have been a little worse.
I rejoined Larry, and we continued down the trail towards the Yellowstone River. Before long we emerged from the woods into the vastness of Yellowstone Meadows. We were surrounded by willows, but most of the trail was in decent shape. There was plenty of mud of course, but that had been expected. We waded Atlantic Creek one more time before reaching a stretch of trail on a boardwalk. The boardwalk itself was flooded, so we slopped along, trying to ignore all of the horse shit floating around us.
The stretch along the Yellowstone River was in better condition. We walked along the river bank, with the cliffs of Hawks Rest towering above us. A few minutes later, a horse train carrying materials for the new bridge passed by. Minutes later, we got our first glimpse of the bridge, and watched the horse train ford the river.
Larry hiking along the Yellowstone River
Pack train fording the Yellowstone River
We arrived at the bridge a few minutes later. The bridge was in good shape, but the ramp up to it hadn’t been built yet. I took off my pack, hoisted it up onto the bridge, and climbed up. Larry impressed me by climbing up with his pack on his back. We crossed the river in style, before executing some more gymnastics to get down on the other side.
We followed the trail on the far side to a fence and gate. On the far side was a meadow and the Hawks Rest Patrol Cabin at the base of the cliffs of Hawks Rest. We turned north there, and the trail split into 3 forks. The one to the left headed towards the river, and campsites. I wasn’t sure about the trail to the right, but the map suggested that we should take the middle trail. We followed it into the woods and on towards Bridger Lake. 15 minutes of easy hiking led to another fork. The trail to the left appeared to head towards the river, so we went right. Before long we reached a spur trail heading towards the lake. I thought it might lead to a campsite, so we followed it. Before long it became impassable due to fallen trees, so we backtracked. We continued on the main trail, and a few minutes later we found a nice campsite in the woods across from the lake. It was a great campsite, though the path down to the water was steep. Despite that, we decided to take it.
While I was setting up camp Larry walked down to the lake. When he returned, he mentioned that it looked like there was an algae bloom in the water. We weren’t sure if it would be safe to drink, so I ended up walking 15 minutes to the river to get water for both of us. I had intended to take a dip in the lake, but I wasn’t sure if that would be safe with the algae. Instead I filled up my folding bucket with river water and use it to clean off.
We enjoyed a nice sunset over the lake that night. The bugs were pretty bad that evening, so we went to bed shortly afterwards.