Yellowstone Heart Lake September 2022

shredhiker

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Feb 14, 2023
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21
We began planning this trip around the end of 2021. August of that year, we did a 4 day hike in Lamar Valley, which ended with an epic wolf sighting. A few days later we had a 5 day trip out to the Bechler River, where my girlfriend was able to check Mr Bubbles off of her bucket list. Immediately afterward she swore she was done with multi-day backpacking trips, but a month or two of being back home and in our normal groove of sitting in traffic & going to work every day, she reluctantly agreed to give it one more shot the following year. We looked at a few route options on the map, consulted a guidebook & a few web resources, and arrived Heart Lake as our first choice.

We entered the new backcountry lottery in March, and got selected to choose our backcountry sites on April 2. Thankfully for us, that meant we got to pick the exact sites we wanted for pretty much the entire trip. I still have mixed feelings about the new system, it does make things a little easier and simpler, but I came to enjoy mailing in a permit request and the excitement that came when we got that email from the backcountry office.

We flew into Idaho Falls on Sept 19, due to a flight reschedule, we arrived quite late. We were able to get a ride to our Airbnb that night, pick the rental car up the following morning, grab some breakfast, camp fuel, & bear spray, and head toward Yellowstone. I stopped by the welcome center there to grab our backcountry permit. I was quite pleased to speak with a ranger who'd been on the job for several years, and had quite a bit of knowledge about the trails & campsites. I picked his brain for a bit, and then we headed into the park, where we enjoyed an afternoon driving around Yellowstone Lake, and camped at Lewis Lake Campground for the evening. We could hear the echoes of elk bugling across the lake through night, which was pretty exciting.

Day 1

We arrived at the Heart Lake Trailhead around 11am, September 21. Talked to a couple of guys who were hiking out, who told us they'd gotten reports of grizzly & wolf sightings, in the general area we'd be camping in. The first 4 miles or so are flat pleasant hiking, mainly through forest re-growing from the 1988 fires, but occasionally there are some openings in the trees. Then you finally come to a few thermal features, and that big epic view looking down at Heart Lake and into the backcountry we'd be spending the next few days in. We took a bit of time to walk around and enjoy the upper section of the geyser basin, then hiked downhill to the next set of hot springs and thermals, where the trail really opened up into some big impressive wilderness. Around 2pm we noticed the blue skies turning to grey, then somewhere around mile 7, we felt some light sprinkles that immediately turned into pea sized hail. We took cover in the trees, threw on our rain gear, and after about 20 minutes the hail let up and it was once again a light sprinkle. We continued on toward the nearby patrol cabin, where we took shelter under the front porch and ate the last of our snacks for the day. We were still all smiles then, as the initial storm had passed quickly and the weather was momentarily warm & cozy.

Even though the rain stopped temporarily, the sky looked ominous as we reached the shoreline of Heart Lake, where we headed east toward the Beaver Creek campsite. We made it there around 6pm. Amber hung the bear bags, while I found a spot to set up the tent that would offer us some degree of cover from weather that was certainly on it's way. By 6:45 we were getting absolutely dumped on with heavy rain & hail, and quickly took refuge in our tent, and it rained heavily through the entirety the night. We were cold, wet & miserable. Our tent got pretty well soaked, to the point that heavy rain drops on the end near my head result in an ice cold mist hitting me in the face. Neither of us slept well that night. I had to talk Amber into not bailing on the entire trip, reminding her that this was the only day that rain was in the forecast, and as soon as we were back out in the sun she'd immediately feel better. The majority of my hikes are solo trips, she joins me about 40% of the time. So even being a lot more accustomed to lousy weather on the trail, this was a memorably tough start of the trip. We had covered around 9.5 miles, with a 700' descent.

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Day 2

Around 8am, the rain finally passed, and we scrambled out of the tent cold & tired, eager to scarf down some hot food as we never even made it out to eat dinner the night before. Around 10am the clouds that were looming around Mt Sheridan across the lake moved our way, we got hit with another round of rain & hail that lasted about an hour. By noon we finally had some sunny skies, and were able to lay our sleeping bags & tent body across some logs to dry as we finally got to enjoy that beautiful campsite we'd hardly noticed was so nice, having been confined to the tent for most of our stay. Luckily we had a short day planned, so we spent a couple of hours enjoying the spectacular view across the lake, and took our time packing up camp & hiked out around 1pm.

The skies overhead were mostly grey, with occasional patches of bright blue, and the wind was blowing steadily. It felt like it was going to rain again through most of the afternoon, but we never saw anything beyond a light mist. We hiked through a mix of dense willows, nice open forest, the occasional open meadow, and had a few easy crossings of streams that were un-named on our map. We followed the Trail Creek Trail to the East Shore campsite, where we arrived around 2:30. By that time the sky was looking more blue than grey, and we were happy to have the rest of the day to relax in the warm sun & enjoy the scenery around the lake. This was where I really fell in love with the awesome view of Mt Sheridan across the lake. We were both hungry enough that around 3pm, we devoured the dinners that had gone uneaten the previous night. It had been an easy 3.5 mile day, on pretty flat terrain. Then around 7 we had our actual dinner, retired to the tent around 8, absolutely exhausted from not sleeping the night before & certain we'd get a good night's sleep...

But around 4 am I woke up to the sound of waves on the lake. That seemed odd, I couldn't hear any wind blowing around us or through the trees, and the water was dead calm the last time I'd stumbled out of the tent to pee. I soon realized Amber had woken up as well, and realized the sound of waves was getting closer. It was definitely something walking through the water along the lakeshore, something big. Then there was a few seconds of dead silence, followed by the sound of branches snapping. My heart was racing as I tried to keep still and quiet, debating on whether I should make noise and attempt to scare our visitor off or just hope it passed on by without incident. Then it got completely silent again, so I laid there contemplating why in the world we'd chosen to come out there. Shortly after, we heard the sound of branches rustling and snapping yet again, but this time they were moving away from us, followed by the splashing sound in the water again, moving further away still. All was quiet for a minute or two, as we both laid there with adrenaline pumping & bear spray clutched in our hands, and we heard a loud elk bugle echo across the water. We finally calmed down enough to doze back off for a few hours.

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Day 3

I crawled out of the tent somewhere around 7:30am, feeling much better rested, and happy to see peaceful skies over the lake. We took our time eating breakfast with an awesome view, and I enjoyed some Irish cream in my coffee. We spent a bit of time studying the map before heading out. The plan was to get back on the CDT and head south to the first trail junction, and then follow the Heart River Trail southwest to the Snake River, and eventually reach another junction where we'd go north to our camp at Basin Creek. There would be a lot of water crossings that day, I lost count after 6. Most of them were across the Heart River, with two fords of the Snake River, followed by one more of Basin Creek right before camp.

This was my favorite scenic day of the trip by far. The view from camp alone was worth the price of admission, but the 3 miles along the Heart River just had this undeniable charm. Big open country, with beautiful forest across the river and towering hills & canyon walls on either side. Eventually our route took us away from the river, and through some nice tall grass meadows. Everything about the scene just screamed Yellowstone, and it looked & felt like big wildlife territory even though I was a little shocked we didn't see or hear any. While I always love the photos I get while hiking in Yellowstone, the scenery isn't as dramatically photogenic as some of the other places I've been. One thing that no pictures can capture is the immense feeling of being out there, I think that makes the experience special to anyone who's actually been. It was another day with no people. Somewhere around 2pm we reached our big Snake River crossings, which were a little tricky to navigate and maybe knee deep. We stopped for lunch soon after.

By 4pm we arrived at our camp overlooking a pretty meadow and bend on Basin Creek. The views weren't as grandiose as what we'd had the previous two nights, but it was a great campsite. There was a nice food prep area with some great sitting logs & a fire ring, not far from the short scramble down to the creek. We found a good place to set our tent back in the trees, which were nice and open. This would be the first night we'd actually be able to have a fire, which we thoroughly enjoyed as the days were getting shorter and the nights very cold. That was the coldest night of the trip, our water bottles didn't freeze completely solid but were definitely more slush than liquid by morning. We covered just over 6 miles, no substantial change in elevation, just a lot of water crossings which honestly felt nice in the warm sun.

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Day 4

It was a painfully cold morning when I woke up at 7:30. The ground was covered in frost all around us, and we weren't well positioned to get much sunlight coming through the trees. I wasted no time getting some hot breakfast & coffee going. Once again, we didn't have a huge day ahead, so once the sun made it's way through the canopy overhead we took our time packing up. I kept scanning around the creek hoping to see some wildlife, but had no such luck. We hiked out around 11am, going north on the Basin Creek Cutoff Trail, toward our next camp on the western shore of Heart Lake.

We had an ice cold water crossing right of the bat, which I failed to see was clearly marked on the map. Then we were into some beautiful meadows with a far off view of Mt Sheridan through the trees. We had a gradual climb up to a ridge that looked down on Basin Creek, another sight that felt like great wildlife habitat but none to be seen that day. Around 3 miles in, we stopped for lunch near Sheridan Lake, where I got off trail a bit to walk down and get a better view. I'm glad I did, it's a really beautiful spot, very marshy as you get near the water, not unlike a lot of lakes we've visited in Yellowstone. As we continued on the terrain went from being grassy to rocky, as we approached the southwestern portion of Heart Lake. The frigid morning had turned into a fantastically warm sunny day. The trail strayed away from the water for a bit, and traversed a hill side, giving us some pretty awesome views for the next mile or two. We hiked along in no rush, and enjoyed the near perfect weather & scenery, eventually making it to camp around 4pm.

The views on this side of the lake weren't quite as awe inspiring as the eastern shore, but still very enjoyable. We found a nice tent site that sat up a bit, looking down toward the lake, which would give us a spectacular view of the clear starry night. I got my fly rod and waded out into the lake to make a few casts, unsuccessfully, but it was too beautiful a setting to even care. We finished off my last little bit of whiskey with dinner, and then sat on the log by the water while the sun went down. No fires allowed at this camp. I'd definitely say this was the most pleasant day of the trip. It was a 6 mile day, with 700' of uphill.

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Day 5

We woke up to a dense fog that morning, so thick we could hardly see 20 ft down the lake shore in either direction. Thankfully most of it burned off within an hour or two, and around 10am we began our hike out. I'm always bummed to hike out of the backcountry there, no matter how much I may be looking forward to some better food and a hot shower. Where would I be if I didn't have Amber there, ready to get out of the woods ASAP motivating me...

As we left camp, we found ourselves on a nice stretch of trail following the shore of the lake on our right, with the mountain peak towering over us to the left. Way off through the meadows toward the base of the mountain, we could see steam from the geysers. Soon we crossed paths with a hot spring whose run-off formed a small creek that dumped right into the lake. Shortly after, we were on the sandy beaches of the lake that we'd crossed on day 1. This time was all sunny blue skies, and we took a few minutes to soak in the last up close view of the lake we would get.

Around 11am we reached the Heart Lake patrol cabin once again, and much to my surprise, there was someone home this time. I've probably came across 10 patrol cabins in Yellowstone, and this was the first time I'd ever seen a ranger at one of them. We had a really great half hour chat, with a semi-retired backcountry ranger and his wife. They were doing end of season prep-work on some of the campsites on the west end of the lake. As they headed out to take care of their chores for the day, it occurred to me that they were the only people we'd seen since our first day. As we left the patrol cabin, headed back toward the geyser basins and our up-hilll climb, the surrounding scenery felt so much more enjoyable without the storm clouds overhead. It hardly felt like we were hiking that section for the 2nd time. The hot springs were much more vibrant in the sun. By 1:30 we'd reached the top of our ascent, where I turned around for one last look down at Heart Lake before heading back into the woods and toward the car.

It was around 3pm when we reached the car, and the trip was officially over. We drove down to the campground at Flagg Ranch, threw up the tent, showered for the first time in nearly a week, and enjoyed dinner at the restaurant. Once again, Amber swore off multi-day backpacking trips for life. Moving forward she swore would only join me on easier trips like the ones we'd done at Grebe or Cascade Lake; when we first got into backpacking. We'll see if she sticks to that when it's time to start planning this years big trip.

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Pringles

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Joined
Nov 23, 2015
Messages
358
Oooooooo... that was wonderful. Great pictures and nice narration. I love the pictures of the place in the fall.

One thing that no pictures can capture is the immense feeling of being out there, I think that makes the experience special to anyone who's actually been.

I have never hiked in Glacier. I currently have Yellowstone nearby, and while I'm sure they are different, it's hard to drive away from one to hike at the other. That statement is the best I've heard about what, to me, is really special about hiking in Yellowstone. I may not get exceptionally far from the road, but I know I could. I know that the animals that we don't see are there. There are enough mountains and hot springs and geysers and creeks and fumaroles that not all of them have a name. There are some national parks that I think *have* named everything. I'm not sure why, but that diminishes the experience for me. I guess I feel like I'm a little bit of an explorer every time I go out.

Did you ever find out what was splashing and breaking twigs in the night? I always envision a bear or a moose, but usually when I investigate, I find it's ducks or squirrels. That doesn't make for a good story, but it makes it easier to go back to sleep when I don't know what it was.

How cold did it get?

Thank you for sharing your trip report. It was great.
 

shredhiker

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Joined
Feb 14, 2023
Messages
21
You never know what you're gonna run into in Yellowstone. On my June or September hikes where I'm hoping for a big wildlife encounter, I've seen relatively little. But then in the August heat I've been shocked to see a wolf or even a moose on the trails.

I should have added, I went down to the lake to investigate first thing that following morning, but couldn't find any sign of whatever was making all that noise. I'm assuming that it was the elk we heard, it would've been some sight to actually see him moving through the water.

Days were comfortably warm the whole trip, overnight temps were usually low-mid 30's, the last night I'm pretty certain got down into the 20's. Definitely beyond the comfort limit of my 15 degree bag.
 

Jackson

I ❤️ GYE
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May 31, 2015
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3,039
Awesome take on a Yellowstone classic! I was a lot of the same area just a few weeks prior to you. Looks like the fall colors were just starting to come on. And that's great it was mostly clear skies and fair weather for your trip!
 

Bob

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Mar 3, 2013
Messages
3,640
Nice.

I know many years ago near a campsite by the Lake I stayed at had a large otter family....they made a lot of noise.
 

Janice

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I loved your beautiful photos and descriptions - you did a great job of making me feel nervous when you were hearing all those noises in the night! Glad you got those beautiful days at the end to dim the memories of the cold rainy ones at the beginning. Good luck getting Amber to join you next time!
 

wsp_scott

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May 16, 2016
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Great followup to the Maroon Bells trip

That first day sounds hard, hang your food, setup tent and hide for the rest of the night. Not fun :)
 

shredhiker

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Joined
Feb 14, 2023
Messages
21
Great followup to the Maroon Bells trip

That first day sounds hard, hang your food, setup tent and hide for the rest of the night. Not fun :)
Quite a few searches led me to this forum when I started researching that trip a year or two ago.

That was the first time I second guessed my thoughts about that tent feeling like a palace, might be time to consider a 3p for couples hikes.
 

SteveR

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Joined
Sep 22, 2016
Messages
732
Really enjoyed the fine write-up, and the pictures too. Great that you had redemption after a tough start! I've never been beyond the thermal features reachable by easy hiking in Yellowstone, and at first when seeing all the backpack trip reports here I couldn't help but think- well that's nice enough but where's the spectacular scenery, etc? Over time though I've come to realize that this is the essence that so many love about Yellowstone:

" While I always love the photos I get while hiking in Yellowstone, the scenery isn't as dramatically photogenic as some of the other places I've been. One thing that no pictures can capture is the immense feeling of being out there, I think that makes the experience special to anyone who's actually been."
 
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