Backpacking Yellowstone's Heart Lake down to the Snake River

Joey

walking somewhere
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Apr 1, 2014
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878
This is a 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip I did in Yellowstone National Park. Saturday, October 25th through Monday, October 27th, 2014. I hitchhiked up to the Heart Lake Trailhead, hiked in to Heart Lake, then down to the Snake River, and followed that out to the South Entrance. It was roughly 24 miles total. I saw one grizzly bear, a bunch of elk, and no people. I had both lightning and snow. Enjoy!


Heart Lake Trailhead

I got to the ranger station at the south entrance around 10am. I pulled my backpacking permit, then spent about an hour getting my backpack organized. My tent was still wet from a previous trip, so I had to let it dry out. Around 11am, I left my van parked at the South Boundary Trailhead, and walked out to the entrance station. I had made a sign that said “Heart Lake Trailhead, 15 miles ahead”. I sat on the ground holding my sign for about 20 minutes, watching what few cars were coming through the south gate. A large RV appeared, and I didn’t bother holding my sign up for him, since there was no way he would pick me up. I was wrong. The RV pulled over, and out pops Mario. Mario was from Austin, Texas, and on a joy ride to Seattle. Really cool guy. He put my bag underneath his rig, and we headed north into Yellowstone, talking about college football. I had never been in a big RV like this before. This thing was huge, bigger than my last apartment. It even had a second story. I almost didn’t want to get out, and considered asking Mario if I could ride along with him to Seattle.


We reached the Heart Lake Trailhead around noon, completely blocking off the small entrance with the parked RV. I said my goodbyes to Mario, who honked as he took off. No one was parked at the trailhead. I wasn’t surprised. I had looked at the backcountry ranger’s computer, and saw that not one single backcountry campsite was being used in the entire area I was heading. Nothing reserved in the coming week either. I was all alone out here. I headed down the Heart Lake Trail, which is mostly level hiking through forests and meadows, along with lots of new growth trees from the 1988 fires. Less than a mile in, I noticed fresh bear tracks on the trail. They were in the dust on top of the trail, which meant they were from that morning. These tracks stretched all the way to Heart Lake, 7.5 miles away. I would end up following bear tracks for the rest of my trip.




Views along the Heart Lake Trail the first few miles



Lots of bear tracks everywhere

After a few miles, I climbed a small ridge, where I had my first views of Heart Lake. I passed through a thermal area, with steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs scattered around. I took a small break to look around, before getting back to the trail. Huge, beautiful vistas and open meadows were visible as I dropped down towards Heart Lake. I passed a few more thermal pools. There is a nice group of hot springs off trail here, but I didn’t have time to go explore. I continued through the meadows a few more miles before reaching the lake.


Along the top of the ridge


My first view of Heart Lake


Heart Lake and its meadows



Thermal pools along the trail




Heart Lake Meadows


Heart Lake



The lake is a few miles round, in the shape of a heart, surrounded by wooded ridges, mountains, and meadows. Today it was windy.


I followed the trail around the western shore, underneath Mount Sheridan and its open slopes, before reaching my campsite 8H3. The campsite is down by the lake, a few hundred yards from the main trail. It is side by side with another campsite, 8H2. After exploring the area, I decided to camp in site 8H2 instead. It‘s food prep area had a better view of the lake, and its fire ring was in tack. (The fire ring at site 8H3 appeared to be dug out). I set my tent up to the south, in a strand of new trees not far from the shoreline. The wind was really picking up, and this site offered some protection. I noticed a few elk above me on the slopes. Some of them seemed spooked by something, and I wondered what had them on edge. Soon I realized there was a whole heard of elk, at least 50 of them. It was getting dark, so I hurried up and cooked pasta. Then I retired to my tent. In between the strong gusts of wind, I could here elk bugle above me. Then I fell asleep. (Note: I only switched campsites because I knew I was the only one out there. I don’t normally do this, and strongly discourage this to anyone else backpacking in Yellowstone unless you know for sure you can.)


Views of Heart Lake along the trail


Mount Sheridan


The trail down to camp


My tent


Heart Lake


Sometime during the night, I noticed it started to rain. Then I remember hearing thunder in the distance. All of a sudden, BOOM!! I was awake. BOOM!! Thunder was echoing off the mountains. I opened my eyes, and saw a flash of light with a BOOM at the same time. The storm was right on top of me, and it completely caught me off guard. Another bolt hit somewhere on the lake, I think I heard the thunder before seeing the lightning. Lightning is my Achilles heal in the backcountry. I fear it more than anything else. I always feel exposed. I closed my eyes and put my head under my sleeping bag (this also works for monsters, bears, aliens, and pretty much anything). The lightning moved past, but the rain and wind were just beginning. Hail battered my tent, and then it turned to a hard rain. Eventually I fell back asleep.


On day 2, I woke up around 7am. I continued laying in my sleeping bag until almost 9am, since the sun really doesn’t pop up until then this time of year. I was warm. My main sleeping bag’s zipper is broke, so it doesn’t zip up at all. Therefore it doesn’t trap in body heat. So I brought two sleeping bags this trip. Problem solved. I climbed out of my tent, and immediately noticed Mount Sheridan was dusted with snow. As I looked it over, I noticed a large dark figure meandering on the slopes. A grizzly bear. He was grazing just above the Heart Lake Trail, several hundred yards from camp. I watched him for a while, as snow flurries started falling. I packed up my tent, and had breakfast at the food prep area. All the while watching the grizzly, who never seemed to move far from his spot. He was moving all over the place, just always on the same hillside. When it came time to hit the trail, the grizzly suddenly disappeared. Rather than hike back up the campsite trail to the main trail, which was going directly towards the bear, I decided to angle across open meadows to the south until meeting up with the main trail. Soon I spotted the grizzly again. I sat and watched him for several minutes as he played in a gully.



Watching the grizzly bear from my tent. The bear is the dark spot near the center of the lower picture. He is on the side of a slope.


Heart Lake the morning of day 2

Large snowflakes started falling, blowing directly into me as I hiked south. After rounding the lake, I headed through woods, passing Sheridan Lake, before climbing a ridge on what seemed like a newly constructed trail. Not many views through here. I passed the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, and the snow picked up even more, becoming very wet. The wind was blowing hard, making my visibility poor. My bear spray was basically worthless. I started making noise as I weaved in and out of several meadows. Lots of grizzly bear tracks and scat along the way. The trail became extremely muddy, and I stopped to put on my long gaiters. I reached Basin Creek Lake, which has a campsite near it. This small lake was beautiful, surrounded by high grass, meadows, and trees, squished between unburned ridges. The snow continued. From the lake I climbed over to another meadow, this one quite large. Just when I was about to lose my patience with the blowing snow, it stopped. Just a beautiful place.



Views of Heart Lake as I headed south


Sheridan Lake



Near the trail junction with Basin Creek Cutoff Trail



Lots of beautiful meadows



Basin Creek Lake



The big meadows


After the meadow, the trail drops down a few hundred feet, into a narrow canyon that eventually opens up. About a mile later I dropped down to the Snake River, which I had to cross The water was only knee deep, but chilly. From the river it was about 10 minutes of hiking to my campsite, 8C1. (Personally I think campsite 8C7 is a nicer site) This site sits right along the Snake River. The Snake Hot Springs are here, but I didn’t have time to explore. I set up my tent quickly as snow started to fall again. I ate dinner in the dark, and retired to my tent.


Views along the trail a few miles before reaching the Snake River


The trail dropping down into the Snake River drainage


The Snake River




An elk on the ridge


Reaching campsite 8C1

Day 3 I woke up around 8am. Snow covered my tent. A few inches covered the ground. I packed up fast, and headed west down the trail.



Views around camp the morning of day 3


Views along the South Boundary Trail

It is just over 5 miles to the South Entrance. I was in a hurry, so I could get back to Jackson to work later in the day. Snow continued to fall as I trekked through the forest, the trees all white. The muddy trail was frozen over. This stretch of trail is all through the woods. A few uneventful hours later, I popped out into some meadows, and reached the Snake River. I had to cross it again to reach my van. I decided to just leave my hiking boots on for this, since I would be able to dry off soon. This was a cold crossing. The air was cold, and so was the water. I crossed 3 times, once on video, then 2 more times to go back and retrieve my camera. My feet and legs were numb when I finally got out of the water for good. Thankfully my van was only a few hundred yards away.



The last few meadows before reaching the Snake River


The Snake River at the South Entrance into Yellowstone National park


I headed back to Jackson, and went right to work with my feet still frozen. The end!

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Bob

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Mar 3, 2013
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Excellent time to go........
 

Ben

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Sep 12, 2014
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some good pictures there. early snows is one of my favorite times to go backpacking
 

Vegan.Hiker

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Jul 5, 2014
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Awesome report. I saw it this morning but had to get to work. I literally looked forward to my lunch break all morning so I could relax and read it. I see you took my advice on interviewing your driver on the hitch lol! Mario's ride was baller. Great job, thanks.
 

scatman

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Two sleeping bags and a neck gaiter! That's not the @Joey I've become accustomed to backpacking with! :) I hope you hung that gaiter up the bear pole before turning in for the night. I wonder what the temperature rating for a grizzly cuddled up next to you in your tent is. :frantic:

Wow, another great report! I enjoyed the picture of Sheridan Lake since I have not seen it in person, and the view when you first look down on Heart Lake is special. Did you get a chance to check out the game trail that skirts the southern end of Heart Lake? It's a great little hike even if you have to detour off your planned route.

Do you remember a big rock on the northwest portion of the meadow just after (south of) Basin Creek Lake? It's just out of view in your images and video. I dubbed this rock "Contemplation Rock." One day, I am going back to this area and just sit on that rock all day to contemplate life and see what wanders by.

Normally, after my Columbus Day Weekend trip, I like to slow down and rest a banged up body for a few months before planning next years adventures. Your reports are awakening the urge/itch to get back into the backcountry now, which is way to early! Thanks a lot :) and thanks for sharing.
 

Nick

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Aug 9, 2007
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Awesome trip report. So cool to see winter starting to settle in. And as usual, your descriptions/photos/videos do an amazing job of letting us all get a feel for it.
 

Joey

walking somewhere
Joined
Apr 1, 2014
Messages
878
Awesome report. I saw it this morning but had to get to work. I literally looked forward to my lunch break all morning so I could relax and read it. I see you took my advice on interviewing your driver on the hitch lol! Mario's ride was baller. Great job, thanks.
Thanks @Vegan.Hiker ! Yep that interview was definitely your idea. I almost tagged you in the post, but wasn't sure if you wanted to be mentioned. I even told Mario that someone (you) had mentioned to me to interview the driver. I think it adds character to my reports. Great idea, thanks!

And thanks for reading! I always sort of wonder if anyone reads these things. Thanks!
 

Joey

walking somewhere
Joined
Apr 1, 2014
Messages
878
Two sleeping bags and a neck gaiter! That's not the @Joey I've become accustomed to backpacking with! :) I hope you hung that gaiter up the bear pole before turning in for the night. I wonder what the temperature rating for a grizzly cuddled up next to you in your tent is. :frantic:

Wow, another great report! I enjoyed the picture of Sheridan Lake since I have not seen it in person, and the view when you first look down on Heart Lake is special. Did you get a chance to check out the game trail that skirts the southern end of Heart Lake? It's a great little hike even if you have to detour off your planned route.

Do you remember a big rock on the northwest portion of the meadow just after (south of) Basin Creek Lake? It's just out of view in your images and video. I dubbed this rock "Contemplation Rock." One day, I am going back to this area and just sit on that rock all day to contemplate life and see what wanders by.

Normally, after my Columbus Day Weekend trip, I like to slow down and rest a banged up body for a few months before planning next years adventures. Your reports are awakening the urge/itch to get back into the backcountry now, which is way to early! Thanks a lot :) and thanks for sharing.
How did you miss Sheridan Lake? Did you just not hike that section of the trail?

No, I didn't see the rock, where was it. Basin Creek Lake was beautiful, and I want to camp there next time I go.

I didn't check out the game trail at the southern end of Heart Lake. I knew it was there, because I know you've done it. But there just isn't enough daylight this time of year to do that much. 10 miles is a long, long day right now.

As I've told you, I haven't been a big fan of Heart Lake. But its interesting how perception changes over time. I really loved it this time. It was just beautiful out there, I could go back tomorrow.

I'm heading up to meet Keith tomorrow in the park. I'm hoping to backpack Saturday, but lots of rain/snow is coming in. Not sure how it will turn out.

Thanks for reading Hugh!
 

Joey

walking somewhere
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Apr 1, 2014
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878
Thanks for the replies everyone! As you guys are noting, this is really such an awesome time to be out there! Thanks for reading!
 

Keith

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Nov 2, 2014
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I really want to do Heart Lake and Mount Sheridan. I really enjoyed your pictures of the lake in the distance. I understand Witch Creek is interesting as well.

That was a sweet ride for sure!
 

Joey

walking somewhere
Joined
Apr 1, 2014
Messages
878
I really want to do Heart Lake and Mount Sheridan. I really enjoyed your pictures of the lake in the distance. I understand Witch Creek is interesting as well.

That was a sweet ride for sure!
We definitely need to explore Witch Creek. Lots of steam venting out of the drainage. The entire Heart Lake area is full of all types of thermal activity
 
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