Sitting in the snow on the bank of the Bechler River struggling to dry my feet and wriggle my ski boots back on, I have to pause and marvel at the absurdity of the moment. Groaning in frustration my partner Taylor Phillips fights with me for a little elbow room as he pulls his wool socks back on while simultaneously trying to keep from sliding off our awkward, snowy perch into the frigid water. Minutes earlier we had come to an impassable spot on the south side of the canyon forcing us to ford the river to the other side. This involved bare feet, cold water, and a mini excavation project of the snowy river bank in order to ferry our party of 2 across. We look at each other and burst into laughter, a moment of clarity and pure joy agreeing that we will never forget this moment…
Nestled in the SW corner of Yellowstone National Park is the Bechler Region one of the most remote areas of the park. Punctuated by the Bechler River, this area is known for amazing waterfalls, thermal features, and the incredible remote wilderness we are so lucky to have as part of “America’s Best Idea”. I have called Jackson Hole home for nearly 13 years and have done a fair bit of adventuring throughout the region including Yellowstone. But until recently I had never seen our first national park in the depths of winter. I can not recall exactly how the pitch went but I am certain it involved a few beers and a little bravado. “TP” and I had been discussing possible adventure ideas from biking across Spain to paddling Chilean fjords. As reality brought us back to the fact that we neither had the time nor the funds to go so big I threw out the idea of something more local. Several summers ago I hiked the Bechler River trail to visit Mr Bubbles, a hot spring feature in the Ferris Fork geyser basin about 15 miles from Old Faithful. I only recall small bits of that trip but one thing for sure is that Mr Bubbles is a world class hot spring in a very special location. So why not repeat that same through hike on skis in winter?!? If I’m gonna experience YNP in winter then lets really EXPERIENCE it in winter! Sounded pretty straightforward to me and TP was sold before I could even finish describing how awesome of an idea this was. We had no idea what we were getting into…
Essentially the trip breaks down like this: Shuttle into Old Faithful, ski tour roughly following the Bechler River summer trail for approximately 32 miles crossing the continental divide, stopping at Ferris Fork and Mr Bubbles which marks the halfway point, then continuing down the Bechler River Canyon and ending at the Bechler Ranger Station. Here is our story…
Our journey started in West Yellowstone, MT. Because Winter traffic in Yellowstone in limited to a handful of tour operators we had to hop a shuttle to Old Faithful. Grabbing a gigantic high calorie breakfast before departing was in order.
TP inspecting his sled harness before loading up to shuttle in.
The posted temps the day we started were relatively mild. That changed pretty quickly. The first two nights we saw temps of -25 degrees F. (photo Taylor Phillips)
Parking lot gear explosion.
Despite it being winter with very little traffic in the backcountry you are still required to register with the Rangers. While securing our proper permits we caught an eruption of Old Faithful through the visitor center windows. Soon after we were on our way. The trip begins with a few miles of skiing the main road. Encountering a couple of snow machines only hardened our resolve to reach the forest trail quickly so we could leave the noise of the motorheads behind.
A Coyote crossing the road in the distance pauses to give us a once over.
Our calculations put the trip somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 miles, with the first 4 being groomed. We figured this would be a nice warm up to ease into the trail breaking we would soon be doing. Overall we thought it would be fairly straightforward. Load our gear on sleds and just pull all that stuff behind us. It will just glide right across the snow. We greatly underestimated how difficult it would be.
Skiing past Lone Star Geyser, where the groomed trail ends and the real work begins.
A bison forages in the meadow where the snow is shallow near thermal features in the Lone Star Geyser area. These guys have it tough in the winter. They use their broad heads to brush snow away from the ground and munch on what little grass and nutrients they can find.
Yes I brought my tripod. Turns out that was a mistake. It’s heavy. But hey at least I was able to make this photo. It was a crisp -20F this first night out.
We started out with a leisurely morning taking photos and gawking at the beauty around us. Assuming we would cruise our way up and over the Continental Divide, we took our time and enjoyed the moment. A mileage post on the trail reminded us of how far we had to go, 27.6 miles, piece of cake! And soon after we began to realize just how wrong our assumptions were. To back up a bit a huge winter storm hit the GYE region one day prior to our departure. The Tetons saw 21+ inches over 36 hours and who knows how much the Yellowstone backcountry received. No way to measure properly but I can assure you it was a lot. As we started our climb up to Grant’s Pass it was evident this was not going to be a casual cruise through the mountains. The deep powder pulled at our sleds causing terrible resistance as they submarined through the snow.
It wasnt all pow though. In some of the thermal zones we actually had solid ground. About 10 feet of it… (photo Taylor Phillips)
After a whopping 4 miles of travel we were totally spent and the the sun was setting so it was time to make camp. It was pretty clear by now that we were in for a much more difficult journey than we had anticipated. Looking back on our leisurely morning we realized it had cost us precious time. It would be pre-dawn wakeups from now on.
The snow melting begins…
Winter backcountry cuisine recipe:
Add soup mix or whatever dehydrated meal you have
Add anything else you brought – jerky, cheese, nuts, etc.
In addition to this being my first winter visit to Yellowstone, it was pretty much my first serious winter camping trip. I did plenty of research prior to heading out and felt pretty good about our supplies. I think the most surprising thing was the amount of calories you need to consume to keep yourself going. Many estimates say 4-5K a day. That’s a lot of food and it can get heavy. You also need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated which is really difficult to do when you are constantly moving and relying on melted snow for your H2O. You also need fuel, a lot of it, b/c in the cold it takes a lot of energy to make heat.
Originally our itinerary had us arriving at Ferris Hot Springs at the end of day 3 with plenty of time to enjoy a soak. Still hopeful we got going early. We had camped somewhere between Grant’s Pass and 2nd Divide. The climb up through the two passes comprised our only real elevation gain of the trip, a huge 500 feet! Doesn’t sound like much but with the demon sleds playing tug of war with our hips 500 felt more like 5000. We had clearly underestimated the difficulty. The only option was to push forward and at this point I was questioning whether we could actually do this thing as intended.
My partner Taylor Phillips is owner and lead guide of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures in Jackson Hole. The beauty of traveling in the mountains with a naturalist is that you get to learn about things you would otherwise walk right by. With TP in the lead breaking trail he noticed this indentation in the snow which turned out to be where a dusky grouse had burrowed for the night. You could see where it landed, then tunneled through the snow, and once morning came exploded out leaving wing patterns in the fresh powder. I would have walked right by this without a second thought. There are so many wonderful things to see and learn if you just pay attention.
Bear claw marks in an Aspen tree. (photo Taylor Phillips)
The sun breaks through as we finally crest 2nd divide. It was essentially all ‘downhill’ from here. If only it would feel that way…
Crossing the meadow up high beyond the divide was pretty amazing. There was so much snow the trees were completely frosted like big icy mushrooms. It was otherworldy.
This was a sight I became very familiar with, TP breaking trail with his sled, which we affectionately called the snow turtle, trailing behind. Just beyond those trees on the horizon about another mile was where we would camp for the night. Unfortunately b/c of our timing we could not make Ferris Fork on this day as planned. This is where our mistake of not getting going earlier on day 2 came to haunt us. But so it goes. An evening soak in the hot springs was not in our cards.
Atlantis Found! Well… we made it to Mr Bubbles anyway, the motivating goal of this crazy idea. With an early start and a direct line picked out for descending to Ferris Fork, we made our way. This is where we realized the repercussions of our poor timing from 2 days earlier. It only took us about 1.5 hours to reach the mark from our camp, meaning that precious 2 hours from day 2 we spent kept us from arriving at the springs on schedule. Oh well, lesson learned…
TP on the final descent in Narnia better known as Ferris Fork Geyser Basin. Our direct line in landed us almost directly into Mr Bubbles.
One of the thermal features along the Ferris Fork.
Here you can see the entire span of Mr Bubbles with the Ferris Fork river on the left, Bubbles at center, and the feeder hot spring on the right. It is illegal to enter hot springs in Yellowstone NP. The reason Mr Bubbles is an option is b/c it is actually a part of the Ferris Fork river with a hot spring feeding hot water into the feature. The name comes from an air vent in the center of the feature that constantly bubbles air. We were so fortunate to experience this place in these conditions. Light snow, the sun peaking in and out. Very few people get to see this and it was worth every bit of effort to be there.
All smiles and foggy lenses
This marked almost the exact halfway point and we had no idea what lay ahead for us in the river canyon so after an hour of soaking it was time to keep moving.
Skiing out along the Ferris Fork to Three River Junction
Our first of multiple river crossings. This water was thermal warm so it was actually quite pleasant. That would not be the case later…
This would prove to be our most difficult and stressful day. A tricky river crossing, multiple sketchy snow bridges over deep creeks, avalanche prone terrain, crucial navigation choices. It was a lot to handle. This is where I should take a minute and stress the importance of choosing your adventure partners. Taylor and I have done a number of smaller outings which set us up well for this experience. This is not the kind of trip you would want to take on with just anyone. It takes trust, experience, and solid teamwork to safely navigate this kind of terrain. I am grateful to TP for being such a solid partner. We were able to confidently address all the challenges and have a lot of fun doing it.
For navigation we knew using regular maps would not be easy given the fact the trails are buried. There are trail blazes in the trees to help mark the standard trails but there was so much snow that we eventually stopped seeing the blazes b/c they were buried! Before embarking on this madness I found a lot of good info on using your iPhone with an app called Gaia GPS. The screenshot above is a detail from the USGS quad loaded into the app. It worked amazingly well and I honestly can not imagine navigating this trip without it. Ironically the Bechler is named for Gustav Bechler, the cartographer of the Hayden Survey that first documented this region. Wonder what he would make of our technology?
Back to the grind… Early in the day we came to a point where we had no choice but to cross the Bechler. Using the GPS we were attempting to contour the south side of the canyon and avoid crossing but we encountered an impassable side creek and had no other choice but to ford to the north side. We found a low spot in the snowy bank with a small gravel bar in the water and stepped out a spot to prep for the crossing. Once all our gear was on our makeshift platform we pulled off our boots and waded over to the far side and shoveled out a landing. After several trips we got everything back in order and started to continue towards the north side of the canyon. What we had not realized at the time is that the spot we crossed had actually put us on an island in the middle of the river! Briefly disheartened there was no time to dwell. We had to deal with it. In order to reach our goal of actually getting to the north side of the river we had to once again excavate a platform, lower down our gear, wade across with shovels and excavate the far bank. Despite the frustration of having to do it over I had to laugh at the fact that here we were in the middle of winter standing barefoot in a river hacking away at a snowy bank. What a memory to have.
The rest of this day was spent skirting the north side of the river staying just out of reach of the avalanche prone terrain from the canyon walls above us slowly making our way to the meadows below the canyon. Originally we had hoped to be cruising downhill through this section and being well within reach of the ranger station. But once again we could only go so far. And with all the terrain obstacles we encountered our progress was well behind our intended schedule. After a long grueling day our progress totaled around 5 miles leaving 7 miles of Bechler Meadows to go.
Well behind our original itinerary we had a lot of ground to cover in order to make our pickup at the ranger station. Another crucial piece of technology that we carried was a Delorme satellite communication device. It allowed us to send out text messages. If something went wrong it would be a way to call for help. It also came in handy to coordinate our pickup at the ranger station. We were able to send a message to let everyone know we were ok but well behind schedule. Given the distance we had to cover it wasn’t going to be easy. We would earn every single step this day.
TP navigates through a thermal area in the upper meadows.
TG on the far side of Slough Creek sorting out a landing. (photo Taylor Phillips)
TP grimaces while crossing the frigid waters of Slough Creek. This far beyond the thermal areas the water was barely above freezing. It was brutal.
5:15PM – Only 7 hours late! We originally intended to be at the Bechler Ranger Station the previous evening to camp before our originally scheduled 10am pickup. At this point we were just happy to have made it with a bit of daylight left.
After 6 days of struggling with heavy sleds, our last 13 miles to the trailhead and vehcile went by in a flash on the back of snowmobiles.
Ski touring this deep into the wilderness is not something to be taken lightly. It requires a lot of preparation and you better make sure you have everything you need b/c once you are out there you are a long ways from help, even if you are only a few miles from a trailhead. Something as simple as breaking a ski binding or the rivets on your sled harness could be disastrous. But that is also part of what makes any good adventure, stepping into the unknown with enough risk to keep you on edge at all times. If you are up for a huge physical challenge with the reward of true solace in pristine wilderness then a winter ski tour would be a great option. Yellowstone is seeing more and more visitors every year but winter will always be left to those who are willing to work for their access. It was a magical experience to be there and will stand as one of the great adventures I have ever done.
Images © Taylor Glenn