Friday was the second layover day of the trip. My plan to was to hike from Bridger Lake to a waterfall on Cliff Creek in Yellowstone National Park. The hike would take us through a small part of the legendary Thorofare, which is generally considered to be the most remote place in the contiguous United States. We started out by following the trail around the south and east sides of the lake. We enjoyed some nice views of the lake and surrounding mountains before heading into scrubby forest. Before long we reached a junction with a trail marked by an ancient sign. The trail to the right leads to another fork, with one branch leading back to Hawks Rest and the Yellowstone River and the other heading upstream along Thorofare Creek. We turned left and followed the trail to the Yellowstone National Park boundary and on to a ford of Thorofare Creek. Thorofare Creek is really a small river, but the crossing wasn’t too bad. The current was pretty strong, but the water was only a little over knee high in the deepest spot.
Larry fording Thorofare Creek
It was a sunny day, and the hike was through a mixture of meadows and woods. I decided to hang one of my solar panels on the back of my pack to start charging one of my power bricks.
We hiked on through the woods, passing near the Thorofare Ranger Station. A few minutes later, we reached a junction with the South Boundary Trail. That trail heads west to Falcon Creek, and eventually the Snake River. Here we were startled to run into other backpackers for the first time. It was a family with a 7-year old boy. Incredibly, they had started from the South Entrance Road in Yellowstone – a route that requires several major river fords. They can be challenging at any time, particularly early in the season when water levels are higher. They had brought a rope to help with the crossings, but it sounds like the difficulty was a lot greater than what they had expected. Still, they had made it this far. Now they just had to finish the second half of their loop. I was impressed with the seven year-old, who seemed to be handling his first week-long backpacking trip.
We continued on to Escarpment Creek, where we briefly lost the trail. We eventually figured out that we had to walk downstream along the creek to regain the trail. After that, we emerged in a vast meadow that was somehow only a small part of the greater Thorofare. It was a pleasant, partly cloudy day, and we had great views of the meadows and surrounding mountains.
Cliff above Cliff Creek
As we hiked north through the meadow, the spectacular cliffs on either side of Cliff Creek came into view. I first heard of the waterfall on Cliff Creek in “The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery” by Paul Rubinstein, Lee H. Whittlesey, and Mike Stevens. It’s a comprehensive guidebook, covering the entire park. Many of the waterfalls are extremely remote. The waterfall on Cliff Creek is a good example. It’s 28 miles from the nearest trailhead. Although there is a good trail most of the way, the final stretch to the waterfall requires a short but difficult bushwhack. The waterfall on Cliff Creek is one of many that the authors discovered, or at least first documented. They named it “Mist of the Trident Falls”.
My original plan was to leave the trail a bit south of Cliff Creek and contour over to the falls. It was a good plan, but we entered the woods a bit before the optimal jumping off spot. The forest was thick, and wet from numerous springs and small streams. In short, the route that looked ideal on the map didn’t look ideal in reality. We decided to stay on the trail and followed it all the way to Cliff Creek. We rock hopped across, and the bushwhacking on the far side of the stream looked reasonable. The waterfall was less than a ¼ mile upstream, so we decided to head straight for it. This was a mistake.
Later on, we discovered that the best route is to continue on the trail beyond Cliff Creek. The ridge north of the creek has open meadows, offering a much more pleasant approach. That route does require a very steep final descent though.
We headed upstream, avoiding the thickest forest and the occasional patch of willows. We made good progress on the River Right side at first, but then a cliff blocked our route. We were forced to cross the creek into the jungle. The bushwhack from there was horrible, though still nowhere near as bad as Yellowstone Point. At least the terrain was flat. Still, we had to zigzag around piles of fallen trees, bushes, and thick brush. Progress was painfully slow. It took us almost an hour to go less than a ¼ mile.
When we got close, outcroppings of volcanic rock blocked our path. Oddly, it was easier to scramble over them than to wade through the jungle. From the top of one, I finally got a glimpse of the waterfall. The bushwhack had been terrible, but it was worth it! Mist of the Trident Falls is spectacular. It starts with a hidden initial plunge, followed by an 80’ freefall over jagged cliffs of black volcanic rock. It then runs through a boulder garden before a final 20’ sliding cascade.
Larry at Mist of the Trident Falls
Mist of the Trident Falls
Larry caught up with me, and we followed the base of a jagged cliff to reach the bottom of the slide. We took a long lunch break there, enjoying a rarely visited waterfall and taking photos. During our break, I discovered that my solar panel was still hanging on the back of my pack. Oops. That was a mistake. I’d forgotten that it was back there when we started bushwhacking. Somewhere along the way, the electronic connector had broken. I was now down to one solar panel for the remainder of the trip.
Neither of us wanted to return by the same route. I eyed the steep hillside across from us, which was mostly open. It looked like easy walking on the ridge above if we could climb it. But first, I wanted a closer look at the main part of the waterfall.
The route directly upstream was blocked by giant boulders. I backtracked a bit to rock hop the creek and passed a small cave. I then climbed a bit, before sidehilling through thick forest towards the waterfall. I then descended steeply to the edge of the pool right at the base of the main drop. Wowee! I thought the view from downstream was spectacular. This was incredible! An easy scramble brought me to the base of the cliff. It would be possible to walk behind the waterfall, but there was moss and flowers and other greenery everywhere. I didn’t want to trample anything, so I contented myself with the view from there.
Mist of the Trident Falls - upper section
I made a mistake leaving. I decided to sidehill higher up, to take a shortcut to our planned exit route on the ridge above. I ended up traversing steep loose gravel that was sketchy and highly unpleasant. I eventually reached a more stable spot and saw Larry down below. Speaking was impossible due to the roar of the waterfall, but I managed to communicate with hand signals. He got the message that he needed to get a closer look at the main drop.
I waited until he started his return, and I steered him away from the nasty route I had taken. Then I started the final climb up. I had to use my hands in a few spots on the climb, but there wasn’t anything more substantial than small rocks and hard packed dirt to grab onto. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the top.
When I reached the crest of the ridge, I was surprised to find a well-beaten elk trail. It followed the ridge to the left and right. Left looked like our exit route. But what was to the right?
I followed it to the crest of a hill. Below, Cliff Creek runs through a slot canyon with several smaller falls. I scrambled down for a closer look, and I followed the creek downstream to the brink of the main waterfall. There’s a great view over the Thorofare from there. I then backtracked upstream to the base of a small waterfall as the creek exits the main run of the slot canyon. I scrambled back up to the ridge above, and I followed the creek upstream past a few more small falls, pools, and potholes. I reached the beginning of the slot canyon, and the end of the excitement.
Slot canyon upstream from the brink of the falls
From there, I backtracked along the ridge and joined Larry, who had just climbed up the slope. We followed the trail along the ridge initially, but then it began curving away to the north. That was the wrong direction, so we left the trail and followed the ridge down. Most of this stretch was through an open meadow with incredible wildflowers and non-stop views of the Thorofare. The descent was easy, and we reached the main trail just north of Cliff Creek.
View of the Thorofare from the top of the falls
The previous day, we had briefly considered taking a layover day to hike up North Two Ocean to the ridge separating Two Ocean Pass and Falcon Creek. That hike would’ve taken us past several waterfalls on North Two Ocean Creek and to views of the Tetons and the Thorofare. That would’ve been a 20 mile hike though, and it would have meant sacrificing our layover day at Bridger Lake. I can’t believe we almost skipped this incredible waterfall!
We hiked back the same way. There was one mishap. Just before the crossing of Escarpment Creek, I stopped to change into my water shoes. Incredibly, my boots were still dry, and I wanted to keep them that way. I found a log in the shade that was just out of sight from the stream. Larry was already crossing the creek, so he went ahead. I assumed that he would find a place to wait, as he had been reluctant to get ahead of me throughout the trip. I changed shoes, had a short break and a snack, and then waded across the creek. I changed shoes again on the other side, but I didn’t see any sign of Larry. That was odd. I looked around on either side of the trail, but there was no hint of him. I decided that he must have gone ahead, so I started up the trail.
A few minutes later I reached a junction with the South Boundary Trail. We had discussed taking that trail as an alternate route back to Bridger Lake. However, we hadn’t made a final decision on whether to go that way. Oddly, Larry wasn’t waiting at the junction. Where did he go? I walked up each trail a short distance, but there was no sign of him. I tried yelling his name, but that seemed futile.
What to do? He must have continued ahead, but which trail did he take? If I picked the wrong one, we would both be totally on our own. He would have to find his own way back to camp. I decided to wait a bit and see if he returned. After 10 minutes there was still no sign of him. I decided to backtrack to Escarpment Creek. Maybe I had walked by him and neither of us had seen the other one? I returned to the creek and even hunted around for him away from the trail. He wasn’t there.
This was puzzling. I returned to the junction again and waited a few more minutes. Which way would he have gone? We had discussed the alternate route, but he wasn’t familiar with that at all. He had the GAIA app on his phone, but he hadn’t loaded the maps in advance, so that was useless. I decided that he probably would have gone back on the same trail we had hiked that morning. I started heading that way, figuring that I was a good 30 minutes behind him.
Five minutes later I spotted Larry walking down the trail towards me. What a relief! It took a while to figure out what had happened. Apparently Larry had waited on the far side of Escarpment Creek for 10 minutes or so. He hadn’t seen me, so he walked back to the creek to check on me. He didn’t see me on the far side. Presumably I was still sitting on the log in the shade, just out of sight. Instead of crossing to check, he decided that I must have somehow walked right by him without either of us noticing the other. He hurried down the trail, trying to catch up with me. At that point I was crossing the creek, then changing shoes again. By the time I reached the junction, he had decided to walk to the Thorofare Ranger Station to get help. He thought I’d left him, and he didn’t know how to get back to camp on his own.
When we ran into each other, he was on his way back from the ranger station, which had been empty. Luckily he had decided to backtrack rather than pressing on. Luckily I had chosen the correct trail to follow.
The rest of the hike back was uneventful. We waded Thorofare Creek and returned to Bridger Lake. There was a group camped on the north side of the lake – the first other people we had seen between Hawks Rest and the lake. We had heard that the area was popular and to expect crowds, but we somehow had it pretty much all to ourselves. I’m guessing most people camped near the river because of the algae bloom on the lake.
Algae bloom on Bridger Lake
Our campsite at Bridger Lake
There was a ton of wildlife around Bridger Lake. On our return, we spotted ducks, geese, and a pair of swans out on the water. Back near camp, we saw a beaver splashing around. That night I saw a bat at dusk, and later I heard a bizarre bird crying out. It may have been a loon, or perhaps a crane. The next morning I heard coyotes singing at sunrise. Later, as we were packing up, we spotted an interested creature walking through the woods behind our campsite. I think it was a Pine Marten, or possibly a Fisher. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get a photo.