Off Trail to Yellowstone's Aster Lake and Upper Witch Creek -- September 13, 2021


Aug 21, 2018
In September 2020 @scatman and I ventured to Yellowstone's Heart Lake for three backcountry nights. One of the ideas for/during that trip was to hike up Witch Creek to Aster Lake then back to the trail on the way out. That route never materialized so I promised Hugh that if he let me hang out with him again this year we'd give it a go as a day hike. A sucker for punishment, Hugh agreed and we planned the hike for the day after I arrived in Yellowstone.

Before jumping into the hike I'll mention that Hugh can be a tricky guy to contact outside of BCP as he does not usually carry a cell phone. Knowing this we agreed that if we did not find each other by 7pm on Saturday the 11th we would meet by the flag pole in front of the visitor center (at 7pm). I had arrived into the park a bit earlier than expected, did some exploring, and once settled into the cabin rented for the night I headed to the flag pole around 6:45pm. And I waited. I people watched, called home to let them know I arrived safe, and I waited. At about 7:15 I began to wonder if Hugh had finally succumbed to the wrath of a Grizzly; I also began to get a slight chill as the sun was going down. I walked back to the cabin to grab a heavier shirt.

On the way back to the flag pole a strange number called me on the cell phone. I answered and sure enough it was Hugh -- he said he'd been waiting by the flag pole but he was getting hungry so he went back to his car to see if he had any left over pop tarts. I told him I was headed his way and not to run off. A couple minutes later I was back at the flag pole. And I waited. After about another ten minutes I was starting to realize that my brilliant plan may have been compromised. I tried calling the strange number back but no answer. Then I started to peruse the parking lots looking for the trusty red tinted Subaru that likely brought Hugh into the park. My efforts were in vain. At this point I began to wonder if there was another flag pole in the OF area. I walked out to OF Geyser, walked in front of OF Inn, and finally to OF Lodge. No extra flag poles that I was not aware of.
Finally the strange number calls me back again. Its Hugh. He said he'd been waiting by the flag pole but now he was really hungry. I now specifically asked him which flag pole he'd been standing by. He replied that it was the one in front of the OF Arts Center (sits between the Visitor Center and OF Lodge). Some how we had gotten our flag poles crossed. I told him not to move and worked my way over to where I thought he was. . . then finally had a visual.

In all fairness there was a flag pole in front of the building that Hugh was waiting at. I will say that the flag pole in front of the visitor's center (where I was standing) was much bigger though. :) Of course I had to keep pointing out that bigger flag pole the rest of the trip!

Anyway, on with the hike. Up and early we set off for a morning start at the Heart Lake Trailhead.


The map with our approximate route in red. The red scallops between the trail and lake are because Hugh had to keep telling me to head back left as we were hiking off trail (and I was off route!)


The beginning part of the trail felt very familiar (probably because I forgot to lock the car again this year and had to head back/catch up with Hugh once again). The sky looked free of smoke and the sun was starting to warm us up.


September Colors of golds and reds were present.


Hugh was beginning to look at all the downfall and get excited.


Soon we reached our turnoff point. Scatman says we go this way!


A view of what he was pointing at.


Soon we were trekking thru heavy downfall and thick new pine growth. . . and loving every minute of it.

If I could envision a picture in the dictionary that would define the "Scatman" I think it might look something like this.


Hugh was moving so fast that it was difficult to keep the pleats of his kilt in focus!


We had about two miles of downfall between us and Aster Lake. Every now and again a small meadow would give us a break from the scrambling. It was at one of these meadows that I mumbled something about heading back into the "Horizontal Lumber." Hugh thought that would make a great BCP name.


A couple GoPro Pics.




I believe Scatman is emerging from under a log here. I don't recall any bathroom breaks needed on this trip. . . at least not the sit down type. ;)


An author's view looking down on "the trail."


Eventually we caught a glimpse of water thru the trees.


What do you know. . . there really is a lake out there!


Aster Lake sits down in a bit of a bowl/crater like depression so we had to scramble down the bank and over a few more trees to reach the waters. I'm not very good a stitching pictures together, so here are three side by side to give you a view of the lake.


Or I can just use the GoPro again.


I imagine this picture could be in the Yellowstone Archives one day. . . :lol:


We celebrated with a victory lunch. Mine consisted of quite an assortment of flavors.


Hugh much preferred the Circus Peanuts over the Mussels.


After lunch we walked along the shore to the Easterly end of the lake. A view looking back as we progressed.


Then it was up the steep bank once more and back into the trees.


We had about a half mile more of forest/downfall to work thru.


But every now and again we'd hit another impressive clearing. We were glad to be walking across this grassy area in September vs. June.


Soon the forest began to thin out.


See those papers emerging from my waistline? Those are overhead views I had printed out and laminated for this hike. I like to be prepared. That is Factory Hill behind us.



Some waist high willows to wander through.


We began to see what we thought were the upper reaches of Witch Creek.


A fun looking "pond" off to the side of our route.


Views looking forward as we headed down the Witch Creek Drainage.



Witch Creek flows thru/around part of the Heart Lake Geyser Basin and we began to see evidence of thermal activity ahead.



Hugh said this was perfect Grizzly country. They must have all been taking a nap.


As we walked further down the drainage we were treated to a compliment of colors and topography that were a treat for the eye.


An unexpected surprise! A decent sized waterfall. I was not aware of this one in the water fall book that I had studied before hand. . . therefore I think Hugh and I should get to name it. :) Bubbling Cauldron Falls? Wart Falls? Broomstick Falls? (because its on Witch Creek!)




Looking forward down the drainage.


And back towards Hugh.


We could help but keep looking back at the view!


Eventually we descended down to where the thermal areas were becoming more prominent. From what I had read this area has/had become less thermally active since the early 2000s, but there was still plenty to take in and admire. . . and plenty of dangerous areas to step! Factory Hill looms large to the right.




Nope, that is not Bigfoot you see. . . much too pale! :roflmao:





As we walked on we came to an area I had seen from above on Google Earth -- two large turquoise pools. Here they were in real life!


One of the pools was more of a muddy green color.


The other had the pale blue color I had been looking at for months (on the monitor).



Some interesting pool scum accumulating at the watery edge.


Beyond the pools I was convinced I had seen the remnants of an old park trail or at least a decent game trail on GE. A few minutes of searching and I think I had found it!


We followed the trail across this brilliantly colored "Fern Valley."



One of my goals on this hike was to get to see a couple of the geysers along upper Witch Creek. At least what was left of them anyway. I was very excited to spot Spike Geyser.


The cone sits on the edge of a sinter bridge over Witch Creek itself. Previous pictures I had seen of it did not show the downed tree near the cone.



Spike Geyser has been dormant for a number of years. The cone had some steam rising from around it but no significant water was present. Sadly it looks like it might even be starting to cave in. Glad we were able to see it in person after looking at pictures for over a year!


A look back at Spike as we continued down the drainage.


More thermal goodness was to be seen as we walked on.



Springs may not have been bubbling but the colors were nice to look at.





Change is constant in Yellowstone. New geysers form and existing geysers go dormant. I think these next pictures are of Deluge Geyser, which at one time was a star performer in the basin. Now the geyserite formations look to be crumbling and water level has dropped down quite far into the crater. It has also taken on the color of tomato soup!




At about this time we decided it was time to make a left turn and head up the hill to the official Heart Lake Trail. A lot more was planned for the upcoming days and we did not want to push too hard on day one. Along the route was a nice view of Heart Lake itself.


It amazes me the likeness between Scatman and his BCP emoji: :scatman:


Climbing up the hill I noticed one of my favorite flowers along the way -- a magenta paintbrush. . . in September!


A quick ascent took us right to the main trail. Which way do we go Hugh?


On the way out we caught the view from Paycheck Pass. We took in this same view from this very spot last year but had a lot more smoke to deal with. I think we even sat and had a snack on that nice sittin' log. :)


The walk back on the main trail was a nice way to spend an afternoon. I figure that you have seen enough pictures of Hugh and myself hiking by now so I'll just finish up with us back at the trail head. Don't look at the whiteness of my legs too closely. . . even the Scatman looks tan compared to me!


Thanks for reading if you've made it this far.

Overall hike was about 10 miles or so. Hugh received a few new scratches on his legs. . . but part of me believes he enjoys punishing himself this way. I kept my pant legs on until we were back on the official trail. We drove back to the Old Faithful area where we were to meet up with @wsp_scott as he headed up after his trip in the Winds. We did not arrange to meet at any landmarks. :)

Hugh , @wsp_scott , and I have more adventures coming from the rest of the week. Keep an eye out for more reports/photos/tales of grandeur of the days that followed in Yellowstone!
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Scat never could resist a pile of jack strawed downfall.......... or a big pile of boulders and talus to hike thru.....!!
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Looks like a great day. You process photos a lot faster than I do. It will be forever before I'm able to post my photos of the following trip :)
Deluge Geyser in 2016. It looks so different today sadly.
Would have loved to see it with the clear blue waters.

I'm sure the Park Service dreads the thought of something similar happening to Old Faithful!

Looks like a great day. You process photos a lot faster than I do. It will be forever before I'm able to post my photos of the following trip :)
I'm not sure how good of a processor I am -- I'm mostly resizing/scaling down so as not to break the internet. I need to get better at all the tweaking/finessing that all of you here are so good at!

Its ok if you post your version of things later. . . everyone will have forgotten about these reports by then! ;)
Hope you don't mind Dave, but I'm appending my pics to your report.

What Tractordoc didn't tell you was that it was somewhere around 26 degrees at the trailhead when we shoved off at 8:30ish in the morning. Scat's knees were a knocking I tell you! Little did I know that things would get worse five days later. It took this old dog about 30-45 minutes to finally get some blood running through my veins.

Another thing to know is that Tractordoc is a "Thermal Guy" while I am more of a "Lakes" kind of guy. So is you put a lake and a thermal area together in one hike, what could possibly go wrong? By the way, there are 97 named lakes in Yellowstone for those who are interested.

It was about two miles down the Heart Lake Trail before we turned off towards Aster Lake, and Dave got to experience his first real Scatman hike. We slowed down pretty good heading through the downfall, so it probably took us a couple of hours to reach the lake. The small opening in the trees were a godsend though. Probably the only reason I reached the lake was due to those openings.

We enjoyed a fine lunch at the lake - tuna for me, and muscles for Dave.

Once we left the lake, I could sense a giddy-up in Dave's step. Being "Thermal Guy," he had put it into another gear and made a beeline towards upper Witch Creek and the thermal features that awaited. I really liked the willows on the upper part of the drainage, and I really thought we had a reasonable chance of seeing a grizzly, but alas, we had no such luck.

After exploring the thermal area along the creek, we bounced back up to the official trail and headed back to the trailhead.

A very fulfilling day hike indeed. Here are some of my shots of our hike.

You know this guy doesn't know what he is getting into. :thinking: At least he was smart enough to dress for the occasion.

About time to head cross country

Dave turned out to be pretty good at this. Total falls - Dave 0 Scatman 2 :)

Halleluiah, an open area

Sittin' on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.

Yeah, I still see you :)

I really think he is getting the hang of this.

Could it be? Why yes it is!

Aster Lake in all its glory

With the Red Mountains beyond

Dave, taking it all in.

Nothing like Aster Lake water to quench your thirst. It was actually quite good.

Heading up and out of the basin where the lake sits and on to Witch Creek

I love meadows, even it this would a swamp in June, July and perhaps August

The willows! Factory Hill stand above them

Nice pond

Starting to get a whiff of the thermal areas below

Now what could he be doing? :)

Lots of thermal features in this are looked like tomato soup

A look back up the drainage from whence we came

Thermal feature

Dave will need to tell us what their names or numbers are

Pretty blue

I remember this one - Spike Geyser

More thermal pools

Discussed in Dave's writeup

Heart Lake and Mount Hancock in the distance

Another shot of the lake along with Chicken Ridge and Hancock

Factory Hill - need to climb this in the future. Look at all those sticks down @Bob

Fall colors along the trail. Does anyone know what the red-leafed shrubs are? Huckleberry maybe?

Love it.

Dave, way up ahead. By this time, my mosey gear had really kicked in.

Back at the trailhead.

The End
Next year Scat .....
Hope you don't mind Dave, but I'm appending my pics to your report.
All good Hugh.

We can have dueling trip reports for the next portion of the week. :thumbsup:

I'm sure you'll probably get to yours first as much catch up as I'm having to do at work. . . but that is ok as I'll be able to correct your mistakes in mine. :p
I just love how Scatman color coordinates his kilts to compliment th landscape! Having experienced this mastery of color coordination first hand, I, for one, cannot wait to hike with him in the snowy wintertime just ta see what kilt shows up!
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