- Dec 23, 2013
Trip overview map
Day 1 – Soda Fork Trailhead to campsite 3O1 on Opal Creek
I awoke on the morning of July 7th at 6:30 am at the Bridge Bay Campground in Yellowstone. I was hoping that I could sleep in just a touch after completing a twenty two mile day hike the day before and today was the day our group would start a seven day backpacking trip that would take us across the Mirror Plateau and down the Lamar River. Well, no such luck! The reason for my awakening this morning was a chewing sound along with a few noise clearing blows coming from outside of my tent. As the sun was just hitting my tent, I could see the silhouette of a giant bison head. A bull bison was grazing not more than a few inches from my tent. I lay there just hoping that he would not crush me. Needless to say, I couldn’t get back to sleep even after he wandered off to another campsite. It turns out that there are a few bison that hang around the campsite throughout the day.
After breakfast, we all drove to Canyon to pick up our official backcountry permit. Now our permit included two campsites that are not all that well known, they were campsites 3O1 on Opal Creek and 5P7 on upper Pelican Creek. These two sites are both off-trail sites and can only be occupied for fourteen nights (combined) between July 1st and August 14th for the year. These two sites were grandfathered in when the Park created the Bear Management Areas and are used mainly by outfitters bringing folks into the backcountry. After receiving our permit, the lady at the backcountry office supplied us with the GPS coordinates for each site and then we were off for the Soda Butte Trailhead located in the Lamar Valley. The trip would take us from the Soda Butte Trailhead along the Specimen Ridge Trail and up onto the Mirror Plateau. We would then proceed to bushwhack across the plateau and down to Pelican Creek. Next, we would off-trail travel down Raven Creek, then up and over Lovely Pass and into the Mist Creek Drainage. We then would follow Mist Creek down to the Lamar River and hike along the Lamar back to the trailhead.
Day 1 overview
Arriving at the trailhead, we quickly realized that this pullout was a pretty popular place and a couple of us had to wait for people to leave so that we could park our vehicles. This probably put us on the trail around 1:30 in the afternoon and we had two miles to go before our ford of the Lamar River.
Getting our gear ready at the Soda Butte Trailhead
Looking northeast up Soda Butte Creek
Trail junction sign for the Specimen Ridge Trail
The Lamar River
The river ford turned out to be a tricky one. While the water was between the knee and the waist, the current was fairly strong and the rocks on the bottom extremely slick. We took our time and eventually everyone made it across without incident though there were a few close calls. With our boots back on, we began our 2600 ft climb up to the top of Specimen Ridge. On our way up, and actually for the entire trip, the wildflowers were in full bloom. Lupine, paintbrush, penstemons, blue bells, geraniums and buckwheat were all showing off their colors for us.
@McGimpkins, @Joey and @Keith R. beginning to cross the Lamar
@Keith crossing the Lamar
Lupines and Paintbrush on our way up Specimen Ridge
As we made our way through the first major switchback, Joey alerted us of a bear. It turns out that we had roused a sow and her cub off of their day bed next to the trail. The sow seemed to be extremely unsure of what she should do as she moved back and forth across the hillside. I believe that our group size of six people discouraged her from being more aggressive towards us. She and her cub eventually dashed up the hill and into the trees and out of our sight. We took a break under a nearby tree to discuss the encounter and fuel up for the rest of the climb.
Making our way up Specimen Ridge with Soda Butte Creek in the distance (upper left)
@Joey on bear alert
Grizzly dig on Specimen Ridge
View from Specimen Ridge
Once we finally made it to the top of the ridge, then we began our off-trail portion of our trip. Be broke off the Specimen Ridge Trail about one mile from Amethyst Mountain and began travelling towards an unnamed pond so that people could refill their water bottles if they wanted to. It turns out that the wind was blowing pretty hard up on the ridge and it had stirred up the water in the pond to where it was all muddy looking so we ended up passing on the refill. We then turned southeast towards the headwaters of Opal Creek. At this point we still had 2.5 mile to go to our campsite and the day was beginning to get a little long in the tooth.
The off-trail adventure begins - @McGimpkins is approaching an unnamed pond
Just after leaving the pond, we ran into a large herd of bison that we had to negotiate through. After the bison, there was a herd of elk, then more bison and then more elk. The wildlife viewing up top, at least to this point, was tremendous and nearly nonstop all the way to camp.
Herd of bison we encountered on the Mirror Plateau
Only way through is straight through. Image courtesy of McGimkins
We arrived at camp as the sun set. This campsite 3O1 on Opal Creek is not to be missed. The view to the northeast looking up Soda Butte towards the northern boundary of the Park was tremendous, with the northern end of the Absarokas thrown in for good measure. There was no signpost for this campsite but the bear pole was obvious upon approach. As for the meadows surrounding our site, we had two lone bull bison to keep us company while we set up camp. As we ate dinner and turned in for the evening, we had the pleasure of hearing wolves howl.
Dropping down into the Opal Creek Drainage
Day 2 – Campsite 3O1 on Opal Creek to Campsite 5P7 on Upper Pelican Creek
On our second day in the backcountry, we would be heading off-trail across the Mirror Plateau before passing Mirror Lake and then dropping down to Pelican Creek. We set off in a more or less southerly/southeasterly direction towards Mirror Lake. Most of the route on this day would take us through dead trees and downfall but once again, wildlife would be plentiful along our way.
Day 2 overview
View from campsite 3O1 in the morning
Bear poles at campsite 3O1
After making our way out of the Opal Creek drainage which was pleasant enough, we came upon some small fenced in areas where it looks like someone might be doing a study on native vegetation without any grazing pressure. Small chance that we would stumble upon them out in the sticks. After the enclosed area, the going got more difficult as we made our way along the plateau but we did get to see numerous elk and a couple of bull elk that were close by.
Leaving Opal Creek. Image courtesy of McGimkins
A small fenced in area on the Mirror Plateau
@Jon Carbaugh on break taking it all in
@Joey heading trough the downfall
@McGimpkins showing off his balance beam technique
Bull elk in the burn
Making our way
After a few hours, we began our descent towards Mirror Lake. I had bushwhacked up to this lake back in 2009 from Wapiti Lake and I was finding it hard to fathom that I was going to get to see it for a second time. I’m not sure what my backpacking partners thought of the lake but I found it quite charming and its remoteness gives it a bit of panache.
Heading down the ridge towards Mirror Lake
Unnamed pond just before Mirror Lake (this one is for you @Artemus !)
Mirror Lake back in 2009
Lupine along Mirror Lake
Film crew setting up at Mirror Lake
We worked our way around the east side of the lake, crossed the outlet which wasn’t much and then made our way along the southern end. Along the southern shore of the lake there is a small grassy corridor that runs in a southwesterly fashion where we picked up a bison trail that would take us all the way down to the meadows along headwaters of Timothy Creek. This trail though goes through some nasty downfall along its entire length and it wore me out to be constantly stepping over downed logs. Once we were at the headwaters of Timothy Creek, we crossed a small saddle to the Pelican Creek drainage and then it was just about a mile to our campsite.
Other side of Mirror Lake
Working our way down to Pelican Creek
Elk herd and bison grazing in the meadows near the headwaters of Timothy Creek
Elk carcass near our next campsite
Once at camp (5P7), we quickly noticed four rather large piles of bear scat strategically deposited throughout the site. One by the bear pole, another near the eating area and a couple where one would set up their tents in the trees. We chose to avoid these and set up our tents on the edge of the meadow. It turned out to be a rather uneventful evening so after eating, I went to bed while the others enjoyed a nice campfire.
Campsite 5P7 on upper Pelican Creek
One of four large bear scat piles located throughout our campsite
So we set up our tents at the meadow's edge
Day 3 – Day Hike from Campsite 5P7 to the Fern Lake Patrol Cabin and an off-trail Mud Pot
On day three, we were supposed to hike to the top of Pelican Cone but after the grueling previous day’s route we decided to do something a little easier so we hike down Pelican Creek to the Fern Lake Patrol Cabin and then a mile beyond the cabin to an off-trail mud pot.
Day 3 overview
Earlier that morning, a group of elk passed next to our campsite. We could hear then doing what I term as a “short bugle” while they tried to figure out what our tents were or why they were there.
There is actually a trail down Upper Pelican Creek and it ends just short of the official Pelican Creek Trail. We hopped on the trail which requires a number of creek crossings and followed it west. The willow thickets along the way were pretty and I hoped that we might get to see a moose but alas, no such luck. The trail ended abruptly just before reaching the Pelican Creek Trail and we had to descend a small grassy hill to pick up the maintained trail that leads to the Fern Lake Patrol Cabin.
Bison skull along upper Pelican Creek
Elk skull and antlers along upper Pelican Creek
I thought this cloud looked pretty cool
@Keith R. hiking along upper Pelican Creek
The cabin sits on a rise across Pelican Creek and after hiking up to it, we all took a long break on the front porch. I’ve always thought that it would be a lot of fun to stay at a patrol cabin for an extended period of time. While at the cabin, we decided to hike down the trail and see a large mud pot which was located about 50 yards off the trail. We had also contemplated hiking to Fern Lake or Tern Lake and White Lake but the mud pot ended up winning out.
Fern Creek Patrol Cabin
Chillin' at the patrol cabin. Image courtesy of Jon Carbaugh
It was only just over a mile down the trail until we left it and made our way to the mud pot. I don’t believe that it has a name but it was quite impressive to watch. Everyone seemed to enjoy taking pictures and video of it.
Off-trail mud pot
@Joey filming the mud pot
Our return trip to camp was uneventful but I did take some GPS points on the trail for future reference. At some point, someone had sewn some logs along the way. I thought it would be interesting to know how long ago that had been done.
Making our way back up Pelican Creek
Eating dinner after returning to camp, things began to get interesting. First, on a small hill to the east of us and on the north side of the meadow, a lone wolf made his way across the hill and towards our campsite. Once it caught wind of us he stopped for a short period of time then continued on up the hill and out of sight. Not twenty minutes later, two coyotes following the same path as the wolf appeared. Of course they too stopped when they noticed us but at least they stuck around a little longer than the wolf had before they headed up into the trees.
My shadow in the meadows along upper Pelican Creek
Thirty minutes after the coyotes had passed, a grizzly bear made its way out of the trees on the other side of the meadow. We watched him from the food prep area for a good ten minutes before he too became aware of our presence and strolled off into the trees. We wondered if this was the bear that had left his calling cards in our campsite. I think his presence made for a restless night ahead for a few of us.
Grizzly bear on the opposite side of the meadow - maybe it is the one that was leaving deposits at our campsite. Image courtesy of McGimkins
Day 4 – Campsite 5P7 to Campsite 3T2 on Mist Creek
Day four turned out to be a real doozy. I awoke at 7:30 in the morning to sunny skies over Pelican Creek. To the west of us though was a different story - large black ominous clouds were approaching. Keith was just finishing up his breakfast and I thought that I had time to eat and then pack my tent away before the storm hit. Of course, I was wrong! I got in between the two and both my breakfast and my tent got soaking wet.
Our route on this day took us all the way up Pelican Creek at which point we would head over to the Raven Creek drainage, follow the creek down then jump over to the Buffalo Fork before heading up and over Lovely Pass. Once over the pass, we would drop down to Mist Creek and our campsite.
Day 4 overview
As we made our way up Pelican Creek in the rain the going was quite marshy. Up until now, all of the bison that we had encountered on the plateau were very unsure of our group and would take off from us on approach. As we reached the high point between Pelican and Raven Creeks, there was a lone bull that would have none of that. He stood his ground and made us detour to get past him. Not before too long, we stopped in a stand of trees for a quick break. The trees offered us some protection from the driving rain but the longer I stood around without moving the colder I became. I needed to eat and keep moving.
Hiking along the headwaters of Pelican Creek
Mushrooms near the headwaters of Raven Creek
Elephant Heads along Raven Creek
Fifty minutes after break, we spotted a grizzly bear grazing on the east side of Raven Creek. We stopped and watched him for a minute or two before he noticed us and headed off.
Watching grizzly on Raven Creek
At 3.5 miles down the creek we broke off and headed east towards Buffalo Fork. This bushwhack took us through downfall and new growth all while pouring a cold rain. We summited what I termed “Deadman’s Knob” and from there we got our first glimpse of Lovely Pass in the distance - only a couple of miles away! As we broke out of the downfall, we were confronted with large marshy meadows just below Lovely Pass. We crossed the meadows and began our slow but steady hike up to the pass. While there was not much new growth to contend with on the northwest side of the pass, there was plenty of downfall to step over. Finally, we made it to the top and took a group picture before heading down the southeast side.
Lovely Pass in the distance. Viewed from Deadman's Knob
Large marshy meadows at the headwaters of Buffalo Fork
Heading up towards Lovely Pass
The Wrecking Crew on Lovely Pass
The southeast side turned out to be much worse than climbing up the opposite side plus everyone by this time was tired, cold and soaking wet from head to toe. About halfway down, Joey, the point man, spotted another sow with a cub right in the middle of the burn. The bears took off and left us to figure out how to proceed from there. Finally, we staggered out of the burn and found the Mist Creek Trail which would lead us to our campsite.
As we approached camp, @Jon Carbaugh ran into a grizzly about 30 yards off the trail. This would be the bear that would keep us company at our campsite for the next two days. As we were spread out on the trail, he sat down like a dog and proceeded to watch us go by before retreating into the woods.
Signpost for campsite 3T2 on Mist Creek
Once at camp, with a lull in the rain, we set up our tents just before it let loose again. I crawled shivering into my sleeping bag and it took an hour for me to warm finally warm up. At the next break in the storm, I reluctantly left my sleeping bag and cooked dinner. We made a decision that if the weather was bad the next morning we would just hunker down and stay at this campsite.
Day 5 – Hunker Down and Stay Put
Woke up this morning at 8:30 to rain. Finally made it out of my tent around noon to eat some breakfast while there was a lull in the rain. According to Jon, it was a balmy 37 degrees. It had snowed just above us during the night and Lovely Pass was covered.
Snow on Lovely Pass
While our down day offered us the opportunity to dry wet clothes and gear, the real treat was being able to observe the grizzly bear that was nearby our campsite grazing along Mist Creek. As the afternoon went along, he was slowly making his way to the meadow’s edge which corresponded with our campsite. Of course this gave us all a wonderful opportunity to get some excellent photos and video as he continued to approach. At one point, we all had our bear spray drawn as he looked us over before going back to his usual routine. He never showed signs of being nervous or agitated towards us and he clearly hadn’t left any sign in our campsite so we just let him be. After seeing the grizzly try and run down elk in Hayden Valley six days before on our day hike, I couldn’t believe that I was getting another opportunity to observe a grizzly at such close range just being a bear. Two of the best moments in my backcountry experiences over the years.
Scatman with a grazing grizzly out in the meadow
He slowly made his way towards our tent sites.
Back to grazing
As evening approached the foul weather finally broke and everyone was looking forward to a sunny day tomorrow.
Day 6 – Campsite 3T2 to Campsite 3L9 on the Lamar River
Hitting the trail on day six, I quickly noticed that I was out of energy. We were hiking down Mist Creek towards the Lamar River and I was struggling. Since we had laid over a day at 3T2, we were going to have to extend up the Lamar River in order to catch up to our schedule. Without knowing what was in store bushwhacking up the Lamar, I decided that I wouldn’t be able to get it done, so instead we hiked down the Lamar on the trail to campsite 3L9.
Day 6 overview
Looking up towards Mist Creek Pass from our campsite
On our way down mist creek, we ran into some distinctive wolf prints in the mud along the trail. We also had wonderful views of snow capped Cathedral Peak, Pyramid Peak and Saddle Mountain as we made our way towards the Lamar. As we approached the Lamar, we first had to ford Mist Creek which had grown quite a bit from the small creek that the grizzly grazed by near our campsite. Once across Mist Creek, it was a short walk to ford the Lamar. After crossing, we took a break and enjoyed the meadows along the Lamar.
Wold Print on the Mist Creek Trail
View from the Mist Creek Trail (Pyramid Peak?)
View from the Mist Creek Trail
View from the Mist Creek Trail
@Keith fording Mist Creek
@McGimpkins and @Jon Carbaugh fording Mist Creek
@Joey in action at Mist Creek
@Jon Carbaugh and @Keith R. fording the Lamar River
View from the Lamar River Meadows
With about five miles left to camp we headed down the trail arriving at camp just before dusk.
Looking back up the Lamar River
Bear track on the Lamar River Trail
The Lamar River
Our campsite for the night
Day 7 – Campsite 3L9 to the Soda Butte Trailhead
I got up early, somewhere around 5:30. It was cold and everything was frozen so my hot oatmeal seemed especially good to me. I was leaving camp early this morning because I was hiking slow and wasn’t sure if I left later that I would be able to get out of the backcountry. I knew the others would soon catch me on the trail and I wanted to get some miles behind me while it was cool. This could have been a mistake in hindsight but I was off. Joey and the two Keiths were contemplating heading up Miller Creek towards Hoodoo Basin instead of hiking out.
Day 7 overview
Lamar River in the morning light
About a quarter mile down the trail from our neighboring campsite 3L8, I had just entered a corridor of new growth when I noticed a grizzly bear heading towards me, coming down a small hill and about to enter the same corridor of trees. Just before he made it to the trees, I let out a “Hey Bear!” He stopped, put his nose up in the air to give it a smell before lowering his head and continuing on straight towards me. At this point I was beginning to get a little nervous, so still holding my ground I again said “Hey Bear!!” Now, a good distance inside the trees, he looked up and saw me, which led him to begin to sway his head back and forth. I had my bear spray ready and continued to say in a mild mannered voice “Hey Bear!!!” He began popping his jaws and salivating all while continuing to rock his head back and forth. I continued to call out “Hey Bear” while thinking that I really needed to get going or I wasn’t going to make it to the trailhead in time for me to drive back to Salt Lake. And I’m sure he was thinking another morning jaunt ruined by this ridiculous human! After a continuous stream of “Hey Bears”, he turned and went off to my left into the new growth. At this point the Lamar River is just to the left of the trail and to the right is about ten feet of burn before a rather steep sloping hillside full of downfall and new trees that I really didn’t want to have to plow through. The problem was that I couldn’t see the bear once he went into the trees so I wasn’t sure exactly where he was nor could I guess his intent. So I stood there for perhaps five minutes still calling out “Hey Bear.” After that I made my way to the right through the burn and slowly paralleled the trail until I was out of the new growth - a very tense situation. I will say this though, the encounter had shot my adrenaline way up which helped me along the trail for the next few miles.
Grizzly bear coming down the hill and finally into the trees on the trail that made for some tense moments.
View of the Lamar River from the Lamar River Trail
Just after crossing Miller Creek, I ran into a trail crew that were heading up the creek. These were the first people, besides my group, that I had seen since day one. I told them about my bear encounter and they said that they had seen a grizzly down by the Calfee Patrol Cabin which was just down the river. “Wonderful,” I thought to myself. As I got closer to the cabin, there were grizzly tracks along the trail but I didn’t see the bear. A couple of more miles down the river, @McGimpkins and Jon caught up to me and we hiked the rest of the way to Cache Creek together.
The Lamar River
Grizzly print on the Lamar River Trail near the Calfee Patrol Cabin
Calfee Patrol Cabin on the Lamar River
The Lamar River Trail
Mule train for supplying the trail crew I had run into earlier in the day
After fording Cache Creek, we were sitting along the northern bank putting our socks and boots back on when three bison began to cross the creek and head right towards us. Of course I’m pretty slow at getting my stuff back on which means I’m just ahead of the bison on the steep ascent out of the drainage. It was like I was leading three dogs down the trail. I chuckled to myself, thinking after all the bears we have run into, I’m going to get taken out by a bison near the trails end. It turns out they were more skittish than me or else I was moving so slowly at this point they probably thought I was a post.
Bison crossing Cache Creek while I am still putting my socks and boots back on
Follow me boys. Image courtesy of McGimpkins
Back to the Lamar Valley
Looking back at the Opal Creek Drainage from the Lamar Valley
Arriving back at the trailhead, we changed our clothes, loaded up our gear and heading out to Ponds Bar and Grill in Island Park for beer and pizza. A fitting end to e great trip.
Thoughts - From a wildlife perspective, this was the best backpacking trip that I have ever done. It was almost non-stop from the time we left the trailhead to the time we arrived back at it at the end. Antelope, deer, elk, bison, bears, coyotes, hawks, sandhill cranes, an eagle and a lone wolf kept us company at one time or another along the way. And the joy of being able to see the elk and bison in herds at times was special. If you count the day hike through Hayden Valley and up to Cygnet Lakes the day before this trip, I saw twelve grizzly bears in eight days in the Yellowstone backcountry. That is more grizzlies than I have seen in the backcountry in my last twenty seven years of backpacking/hiking in bear country. Truly amazing! This trip comes highly recommended.
I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to my backpacking partners on this trip. They let me lead them blindly through some tough terrain while never complaining, endure some really nasty weather on day four without killing me , not panicking when a large male grizzly decided to keep us company at our campsite on Mist Creek, and helping me along the trail the last two days when this old man was spent . Hopefully, when they get a chance, they will add some pictures/videos and their perspective of this week long adventure.