Yellowstone advice: Lamar River - Pelican Valley - Mirror Plateau loop this summer

beaver-one

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Hi there, first time poster - been digging through many of these forums as I plan my first backpacking trip in Yellowstone, you all have been so helpful! Special shoutout to @scatman and @TheMountainRabbit for the wealth of information provided in your posts, and the awesome trip report-backs with beautiful pictures.

My husband and I are heading to Yellowstone for the first time this summer - we love wildlife and are therefore very drawn to the Lamar Valley - Pelican Valley - Mirror Plateau area. We're in our late 20s/early 30s, in good shape, plenty of backpacking experience, but haven't gone off-trailing before.

Here are my questions:

Question 1: Folks here with off-trailing experience: Are we out of our minds?? Or do you think with some good training and practice, the Mirror Plateau area is doable for first-timers? I'm a cartographer so I am very comfortable with GIS and reading maps, and my husband has basic compass skills. We'd definitely plan on doing a bunch of shorter hikes in the coming months to prepare and strengthen our orientation, GPS, and compass reading skills.

Question 2: I read in a Yellowstone backpacking guide that there are old, abandoned trails on the Mirror Plateau (Mirror Lake Trail and Opal Creek) - they are not maintained, but bisons over the years have continue trucking through the area, so the guide points out that there is a semblance of a trail in some places. Is this true?

Question 3: I also read that camp site 3O1 is opened for a small window of time during the summer (July 1 - August 14), which would help break-up the off-trail section of our trip into shorter days. Is there a recommended time (July vs. August) to do this trek? We're particularly excited about seeing wildlife. I know mosquitos can be pretty bad in some parts of Yellowstone in the summer - I don't know if that would be a concern.

Here is the general itinerary we're thinking of (for now just indicating campsites). Any advice, thoughts on the general itinerary, recommended campsites, trail tips, viewpoints, etc welcome ! Thank you!!
 

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Hi there, first time poster - been digging through many of these forums as I plan my first backpacking trip in Yellowstone, you all have been so helpful! Special shoutout to @scatman and @TheMountainRabbit for the wealth of information provided in your posts, and the awesome trip report-backs with beautiful pictures.

My husband and I are heading to Yellowstone for the first time this summer - we love wildlife and are therefore very drawn to the Lamar Valley - Pelican Valley - Mirror Plateau area We're in our late 20s/early 30s, in good shape, plenty of backpacking experience, but haven't gone off-trailing before.

Here are my questions:

Question 1: Folks here with off-trailing experience: Are we out of our minds?? Or do you think with some good training and practice, the Mirror Plateau area is doable for first-timers? I'm a cartographer so I am very comfortable with GIS and reading maps, and my husband has basic compass skills. We'd definitely plan on doing a bunch of shorter hikes in the coming months to prepare and strengthen our orientation, GPS, and compass reading skills.

Question 2: I read in a Yellowstone backpacking guide that there are old, abandoned trails on the Mirror Plateau (Mirror Lake Trail and Opal Creek) - they are not maintained, but bisons over the years have continue trucking through the area, so the guide points out that there is a semblance of a trail in some places. Is this true?

Question 3: I also read that camp site 3O1 is opened for a small window of time during the summer (July 1 - August 14), which would help break-up the off-trail section of our trip into shorter days. Is there a recommended time (July vs. August) to do this trek? We're particularly excited about seeing wildlife. I know mosquitos can be pretty bad in some parts of Yellowstone in the summer - I don't know if that would be a concern.

Here is the general itinerary we're thinking of (for now just indicating campsites). Any advice, thoughts on the general itinerary, recommended campsites, trail tips, viewpoints, etc welcome ! Thank you!!

Hope you're wearing green today! Otherwise, I shouldn't be responding. :)

First off, welcome. Second, you'll have no trouble with the off-trail travel on the plateau. We did hike through some old burn a couple of times, one of which was right before reaching Mirror Lake, but those stretches were relatively short, and if you are a better navigator than I am, then you might be able to avoid them all together. :thumbsup: From Mirror Lake, we picked up a bison trail and followed it all the way to campsite 5P7 on Upper Pelican Creek. You will have to step over downfall along this trail as for some reason the bison refuse to maintain it. :) There is an old trail up Opal Creek, that I tried to locate this past summer while camping on Cache Creek. I wasn't successful in finding it down near the Lamar River though. Once you get higher up the Opal Creek drainage, it opens up and the trail is clearly visible on Google Earth. If you are heading down Opal Creek, you shouldn't have a problem picking it up. Please let me know where it dumps out at the bottom of the drainage. :) If you don't trust that old trail, then head cross country to the Specimen Ridge Trail and take it down to the River.

I am assuming you will be putting in your trip request for a permit here before April 1st? If not, you will want to. Like you said, those two campsites on the plateau are only available for the first 14 requests (between both campsites). For example, seven reserved nights at 3O1, seven reserved nights at 5P7, or 4 reserved nights at 3O1 and 10 nights reserved at 5P7. Anything that adds up to 14 and then no more. Outfitters are competing for these sites too, so it is best to put in and see if you can get them when they do their random drawing on April 1st.

The wildlife on this trip from my group was tremendous - almost non stop. The best wildlife trip I have ever done in the Park.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you need any further clarification and have a great trip!
 
Hope you're wearing green today! Otherwise, I shouldn't be responding. :)

First off, welcome. Second, you'll have no trouble with the off-trail travel on the plateau. We did hike through some old burn a couple of times, one of which was right before reaching Mirror Lake, but those stretches were relatively short, and if you are a better navigator than I am, then you might be able to avoid them all together. :thumbsup: From Mirror Lake, we picked up a bison trail and followed it all the way to campsite 5P7 on Upper Pelican Creek. You will have to step over downfall along this trail as for some reason the bison refuse to maintain it. :) There is an old trail up Opal Creek, that I tried to locate this past summer while camping on Cache Creek. I wasn't successful in finding it down near the Lamar River though. Once you get higher up the Opal Creek drainage, it opens up and the trail is clearly visible on Google Earth. If you are heading down Opal Creek, you shouldn't have a problem picking it up. Please let me know where it dumps out at the bottom of the drainage. :) If you don't trust that old trail, then head cross country to the Specimen Ridge Trail and take it down to the River.

I am assuming you will be putting in your trip request for a permit here before April 1st? If not, you will want to. Like you said, those two campsites on the plateau are only available for the first 14 requests (between both campsites). For example, seven reserved nights at 3O1, seven reserved nights at 5P7, or 4 reserved nights at 3O1 and 10 nights reserved at 5P7. Anything that adds up to 14 and then no more. Outfitters are competing for these sites too, so it is best to put in and see if you can get them when they do their random drawing on April 1st.

The wildlife on this trip from my group was tremendous - almost non stop. The best wildlife trip I have ever done in the Park.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you need any further clarification and have a great trip!

Thank you so much at @scatman !! This is so so helpful. Yes, I am planning on putting my permits request in before April 1 to have a chance of reserving these sites through the advanced reservation lottery (I saw that I have to either fax or snail mail my request over to the rangers).

If I am available to get the necessary permits, I will for sure report back about how this trip goes :thumbsup: Thanks again for the advice ! And Happy St Patrick's Day :)
 
I may end up echoing @scatman, but I figured I'd give you some input as well.
Question 1: Folks here with off-trailing experience: Are we out of our minds?? Or do you think with some good training and practice, the Mirror Plateau area is doable for first-timers? I'm a cartographer so I am very comfortable with GIS and reading maps, and my husband has basic compass skills. We'd definitely plan on doing a bunch of shorter hikes in the coming months to prepare and strengthen our orientation, GPS, and compass reading skills.
The Mirror Plateau is a great option for amateur navigators - you have to learn somewhere and it's pretty forgiving. There is very limited tree cover and fairly easy to identify high points. A little practice ahead of time certainly wouldn't hurt though - the terrain/navigation isn't difficult, but you'll probably be very alone up there.
Question 2: I read in a Yellowstone backpacking guide that there are old, abandoned trails on the Mirror Plateau (Mirror Lake Trail and Opal Creek) - they are not maintained, but bisons over the years have continue trucking through the area, so the guide points out that there is a semblance of a trail in some places. Is this true?
We followed the unnamed drainage south of Opal Creek uphill and it wasn't a problem - I imagine going downhill on any of the drainages would be even more straightforward. And - especially if you stay at the Opal Creek site - you can always take the well-traveled Specimen Ridge trail off the plateau.

In regards to the bison paths, that's definitely true. In some sections it's basically a highway - a trail more braided than the most popular Colorado 14ers. It may not always go exactly where you want to go, but the bison have definitely blazed some of the easiest routes between drainages.
Question 3: I also read that camp site 3O1 is opened for a small window of time during the summer (July 1 - August 14), which would help break-up the off-trail section of our trip into shorter days. Is there a recommended time (July vs. August) to do this trek? We're particularly excited about seeing wildlife. I know mosquitos can be pretty bad in some parts of Yellowstone in the summer - I don't know if that would be a concern.
I crossed the plateau in mid-September, so both 3O1 and 5P7 were unavailable, but we did pass by 5P7 and it was a beautiful location. September is my favorite month of the year for backpacking in the Rockies, so I'm pretty biased. That said, choosing to go in September did have two downsides for this route:
  1. As stated, 3O1/5P7 are not available, so you have to cross the plateau in a single day. In daytime hours only, per BMA restrictions.
  2. Days are noticeably shorter - combined w/ #1 this means you have a significantly less time for navigation errors (or just resting).
My recommendation to you - based on your bio - is to probably try and grab either (or both) of the 3O1 and 5P7 spots and go inside that window. Keep an eye on the weather though - it can be quite hot and there is not much cover. Plan for a little rain most days, but it's normally short-lived. Mosquitos will be out late July/early August, but I tend to find them over hyped a bit in the Rockies - a 2 oz. head net and some picaridin is more than enough. (Permethrin treated clothes make them nearly a complete non-issue, but probably not worth it for this trip alone.)
Here is the general itinerary we're thinking of (for now just indicating campsites). Any advice, thoughts on the general itinerary, recommended campsites, trail tips, viewpoints, etc welcome ! Thank you!!
Looks like fun! I was just through there last year and I'm still jealous. Three final comments, since you asked:
  1. Pelican Valley day hike - this will require you to cross Mist Creek Pass both ways to get in and out. It's not a particularly bad pass @ <1,000' each way, but it's not particularly scenic itself and depending on how you're feeling it's worth noting. That said, the extra time in Pelican Valley is worth it and you should definitely do it.
  2. 5B1 > 5P7 - distance-wise this looks to be a pretty short day, but it's probably the most route-finding you'll need to do. That area has more tree cover than any other on your route, plus you'll be moving uphill. Very doable though - there are enough clearings to regularly stop and re-orient if needed.
  3. Plan to get wet. This is by no means the Bechler area (where you'd definitely get wet), but since you mentioned it being your first trip to Yellowstone and off-trail it bears mentioning. The river crossings aren't generally a problem, though they'll probably be higher in July/August than they were for us in September. Beware of meadows that look pristine (and green) from a distance - there's a good chance they are much wetter than they look. Aim for the edges - slightly up slope - for (usually) the best footing.
 
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Mirror plateau campsites have a very short time frame they are open..... So they are hard to get, but not impossible.

I'd suggest as a backup ... up lamar to miller Crk, up to hoodoo basin OR up hunt creek to hoodoo basin, down into lamar river, up to mist pass, pelican valley and out. Plenty of wildlife and reasonable off trail.... Fishing if you like.

You do know pelican valley is day use only?
 
Thank you @TheMountainRabbit for the very thoughtful and detailed post! So helpful. Really helpful to hear to be prepared to get wet, I hadn't thought of that and will definitely pack accordingly. Also good to know about Mist Creek Pass and Pelican Valley, I will keep that in mind!

And thank you @Bob for offering alternative routes. Yes, I saw that Pelican Valley is day use only, so was planning on hiking in and back out the same day.

I'm excited to say I heard back from the Backcountry office, and my permit application and itinerary (including 3O1 and 5P7) have been APPROVED! I'm so pumped. I'm taking a compass navigation class in May and heading out there in July with my partner - I will let you all know how it goes! I'm particularly excited to see wildlife and try my first off-trailing route.... Thank you all again for the advice and tips. Grateful for all the wisdom shared here.
 
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