Wednesday, October 7, 2015

CDT - Wyoming and Tapon's Teton Route

Southern Montana and the Idaho border seemed to drag forever so we ended up taking our first shortcut - the Mack's Inn alternate.  It would cut out one of the many U shaped swirls the continental divide takes, saving us over 30 miles and getting us to Yellowstone over a day faster than the official trail.  Unfortunately, the route started by way of a bushwack through a beaver pond...

Naturally, the way I decided to go was the wrong way and we ended up spending way too much time in thigh deep icey water covering ankle deep muck.  We made it out of the pond after what seemed like forever and followed a stream up to its source on the divide - the most remote source of the Missouri River.  There was even a giant cairn and geocache near the divide with a 12 page laminated article on how it was located which we really didn't feel like reading.  After that was a hitch hike down the dirt road to the Sawtelle Resort, where we camped and ran into our friends Andy and Leah and Action and Shortstack - two couples we have hiked on and off with since Glacier.  

The next day was another CDT road walk but we managed to camp only a few miles from the Yellowstone National Park boundary.  The trail comes into the park from the west and beelines straight to Old Faithful where a post office, lodge and general store are located among throngs of tourists. The walk into the park was mostly flat and forested with the occasional smell of sulfer and bubbling mud pot.  The real fun came when we got within a few miles of Yellowstone as the crowds of tourists out for sub 2 mile hikes started to thicken.  We got on the upper basin area right as a thunderstorm hit, drenching us and the unprepared tourists with rain and clearing the boardwalks that line the geothermal pools and geysers.  A gas station convenience store next to the Old Faithful lodge served to dry us out and we warmed up with hot coffee before getting dinner next door.  

Old Faithful at dawn

The next problem was where to sleep!  It was almost dark so hitching out to the town of West Yellowstone would be tough, and the Old Faithful lodge was both booked and far far out of our price range. We did stop in the bar for a drink and met Brice and Whitni - owners of the Knotty Pine Dinner Club in Victor, Idaho.  They were super interested in our hike and offered to host us when we passed through the Jackson area! This was huge since all the lodging in Jackson is crazy expensive and it had been several hundred miles since our last zero day or day with no miles hiked. They bought us a beer, exchanged phone/email contacts and we parted ways to figure out where to sleep. I decided the best option was to stealth camp away from the lodge, so we made our way back into the wet bushes and found a secluded spot.  

The next morning we packed up and wandered back to the lodge for an all you can eat buffet - a literal magnet of any thru-hikers within a dozen miles! Sure enough, we ran into Patch, Grits and Raven who all wanted to do the Teton Route that I had mapped over the winter.  They even had copies of my maps!  We decided to team up since there are a lot of unknowns and I seemed to know what I was doing (not actually true).  After breakfast we got on the same permits and made our way out of the Old Faithful area (after a geyser eruption of course) and to our first designated campsite.  Naturally we stopped for as soak in two separate hot springs en route, only making our campsite after dark.

Hot Stream!

The next day we had to hike out of the park boundaries but I didn't know how many miles it was since the Yellowstone park map doesn't show it, turned out it was more than we could do in a day!  We ended up about 6 miles from the park boundary so we stealth'd again in an empty designated site - making sure to get out early before any rangers would be out on patrol.  The weather turned foul again and it started to rain within an hour of our feet hitting the ground.  Raven started finding chanterelle mushrooms so we dreamed of cooking them up that night and soaked our cold feet in a steamy thermal stream.  We got to a junction just out of the park and made a wrong turn onto a horse trail that ended up taking us close to where we wanted to go, but the trail wasn't on the map so we weren't quite sure when we would get there.  From the trail head we walked a mile on the road to Flagg Ranch - a ranch, hotel, RV park that was booked for the night but let us dry out in their lobby and stuff our faces with frozen burrito's from their convenience store (despite the smell...).

That afternoon we left as the skies seemed to clear and made our way to Polecat hot springs, only a mile or two from the ranch but completely deserted since you have to walk there.  We soaked for an hour or so in the 104ish degree water before finally hiking out down Grassy Lake Road to the next trailhead into Teton National Park - our 5th national park of this trip!  We found decent camping about a mile past the trail head and set up for the night, again almost at dark.  Raven's chanterelle's were delicious cooked in olive oil and added to our dinners and we continued to find more of them the next few days along the snake river and nearby drainages.  

The next day we continued our hike to the Teton's and eventually reached the crest at Jackass Pass - a mellow pass along the border between the national park at Targhee National Forest.  The northern  Teton Crest Trail (TCT) continues to follow the crest of the ridge which is also the east-west border between national park and national forest.  No permit is needed to camp in the national forest so we tried to camp on that side of the crest.  As we hiked Raven, Grits and Heartbreaker and I got ahead of Patch by a few minutes.  We were looking for a junction to a trail that would take us along a traverse of  Young's Point and Red Mountain but didn't see it.  All the other junctions were well marked with aluminum national park style signs and fairly obvious.  We realized we had blown past where the junction would be by over a mile, all downhill.  Rather than backtrack, we decided to continue down to another junction and take a different trail back up to the TCT.  When we got there, that trail quickly disappeared and we were forced onto a bush wack up the ridge to find the TCT.  

Heartbreaker was struggling with the grade, the blow-downs and the chest high grass so Raven and Gritz pushed ahead, assuming we would catch up, which we didn't.  We ended up missing the faint TCT and heading up to the edge of a small cliff.  I knew the TCT would have to go above or below the cliff and it wasn't above, so we headed back down to the bottom where Rachel spotted a blaze on a tree.  We were back on the TCT which picked back up somewhere between us and the missing junction.  It was almost dark but we continued to find a good campsite.  As we sat and figured out how much longer to hike, we saw Patch approaching in the gloom of dusk.  He had searched and searched for the missing junction and eventually determined that trail didn't exist anymore and followed our route.  

We continued on up towards Nord Pass for a while but Rachel and I were pooped, so we made camp among some elk bugles a little ways before the pass while Patch pushed on to catch Gritz and Raven.  He promised to wait at the next lake if he didn't catch, where we found him the next morning.  We hiked on together to finish the northern part of the TCT and to the start of the cross country portion that would connect back into the national park and the most popular portion of the trail.  Originally I had planned on doing this northbound, but we were headed south.  This meant that the talus and scree fields we had to cross would now be on the downhill portion of the segment instead of uphill, which makes them much slower and sketchier to cross.  

We got to the end of the northern TCT in granite basin around 5 pm, right past our cutoff time but a little too early to quit.  There were also several small thunder cells that were passing through to the north.  We talked about it and decided to push on anyway with the option of camping up high on the ridge.  This turned out to be a fantastic idea since we climbed up to the crest in the golden light of dusk, rounded Littles Peak and BAM! There was the Grand Teton mastiff in all its glory.  This was easy cross country and beautiful views, now to find where to camp!  I led the way, scouting ahead as we skirted the cliffs to the west of Solitude Lake and over some short class 3 sections.  Just below us, on the way down to the lake were several large grassy pads with small streams nearby.  We had water for camping but wouldn't need it.  The grass made a perfect campsite and we were protected from the wind by the cliffs above an below us.  We even had a perfect view of the Grand at dusk.  It was the greatest campsite of my life. 

Our first full view of the Tetons!

Greatest campsite of our lives!

The next morning we started the slow process of navigating our way down the talus slopes and short scrambles to solitude lake.  Rachel was having a tough time of it and our progress was frustratingly slow.  We eventually made it and hit hordes of day hikers out to see "solitude" lake.  We then started the rest of the TCT while Patch made his way to Jackson to resupply.  

Rachel down climbs a short scramble after lowering her pack to me.
The southern TCT is phenomenally gorgeous and phenomenally popular with casual backpackers.  They can take the tram up to 10,000 feet, removing most of the elevation gain. As a result, we saw lots of people with enormous packs who stared wide eyed at our lightweight, minimalist setups.  The views of the Grand and Schoolhouse Glacier were epic, possibly the most scenic hiking of the trip and not on the CDT! We continued our hike and camped near Death Canyon shelf by the border with the national forest.  We still didn't have cell service, so I used Rachel's Delorme In-reach to email Brice and Whitni that we thought we'd be at the Moose Creek trail head for pickup by 4 pm the next day, about 20 miles away.  We barely made it, catching them about 20 minutes into their hike up to meet us.  Brice and Whitni proceeded to spoil us, taking us to the bar, then dinner, then their beautiful home for two days where they lent us their car and even drove us back to Jackson to start the next part of our hike into the Gros Ventre wilderness (pronounced grow-vaunt) and then the Wind River range.  

Brice and Whitney - epic trail angels!

For any would-be TCT-CDT hikers check out the Knotty Pine in Victor!  You can hitch easily from Teton Pass!

We started the Gros Ventre portion from the Cache Creek trail head.  As soon as we entered the wilderness boundary we almost missed the turn for the Granite Highline Trail, which was actually behind us and hidden in thick grass.  Patch, Gritz and Raven had left less than an hour before us and weren't so lucky, they continued straight into the maze of unmarked trails in the Gros Ventre range.  We hiked up and along the highline trail, following the high ridge in the western part of the range, going up and down side ridges branching off from the crest.  The trail was tricky to follow with many game trails leading downhill and was almost overgrown in high grasses.  I used the GPS track several times to keep us on track.  At one point we head wooping but couldn't find the source.  We continued on and at a break the trio caught us, they had spent all day trying to find the highline trail until they saw us above them.  They bush wacked up and caught us!  It was getting dark and campsites were few and far between on the trail since it spends most of the time traversing a ridge.  We had found a good one and decided to sit for the night but the trio was worried about running out of food, so they pushed on past dark without a GPS track.  I figured they had lost the trail again but found out later they stayed on track.  

The next day we made our way down to the road, debated stopping in yet another hot springs and decided to go for it.  We managed to hitch a ridge 2 miles up to Granite Hot Springs, a $6/person developed hot springs that looked more like a swimming pool.  It was nice and relaxing, worth the time but full of families.  I think I would have felt very weird as a solo hiker, so it was nice to have Rachel.

Granite Hot Springs!

We then climbed steeply up nearly 3,500 vertical feet up the Swift Creek Trail to an unnamed pass near Anntoinette Peak and the high alpine portion of the Gros Ventre range.  It was almost as good as the Teton's with easy walking and beautiful vistas.  We followed the Gros Ventre River trail immediately back down and made camp five miles or so from the Kinky Creek Trailhead, sad to have left such an incredible area so quickly.  I realized later we could have gone cross country to the Tosi Creek trail, but that's for next years hikers.  
The Gros Ventre Range!

The next day was mostly roadwalking once we got to the Kinky Creek trail head.  We met some USFS guys out grading the dirt road who suggested a bushwack shortcut, which I botched and ended up adding time but whatever. We decided to ford the Green River at the end of the day to cut off a mile or two of roadwalking back to the CDT.  It got really cold that night and all our wet stuff was frozen solid in the morning, yay!  

We then caught a ride to the Green River Lakes campground instead of 9 more miles of monotonous dirt road walking.  The Green River Lakes were beautiful but smokey due to the entire northwest being on fire.  Oh well.  The winds were pretty, but the best parts were two off-trail alternates - Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Knapsack Col!

Heading up to Texas Pass and Cirque of the Towers

Cirque of the Towers at Dusk

We left the CDT at the Seneca Lake trail and ran into two friends from my PCT hike in 2013, Fun Size and Lighthouse on their way back in.  We got an easy ride to Pinedale, resupplied and decided to skip southern Wyoming.  We met Ridgerunner and K2, who had a ride setup with their aunt from Lander to 30 miles north of the Colorado border at Battle Pass.  We arranged to tag along and skip the more desolote, monotonous portion of the CDT and get to Colorado earlier in order to avoid snowstorms later in the season.  We are section hikers after all!  

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