Travel to the unpeopled fringes of America’s first national park.
The staccato calls blare out of the mist, startlingly loud. We scan what little we can see of the wide valley for the source of the noise. It sounds prehistoric, a remnant of a wilder epoch, which perfectly describes what we’ve seen so far: To explore the far northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park is to travel back in time.
In early fall, the roads through this part of the park are as busy as you’d expect. Herds of tourists gather to observe herds of bison, elk, and antelope from the road that winds through the Lamar Valley, while fly fishers line the waterways. But my hiking partner and I wanted to escape the crowds for a true Yellowstone backcountry experience, where we could find the spirit of America’s first national park. Upon checking in at the Tower Ranger Station we learned that we’d have our pick of campsites along Slough and Pebble Creeks—if we could rise to the challenge of the seldom traveled trail over Bliss Pass.
From Pebble Creek Campground trailhead we started up the Pebble Creek drainage to a view over the Lamar Valley, its scythe of grassland peeking out between forested ridgelines. With the road now out of sight and earshot, the park was suddenly brooding, quiet, and empty—capital “W” wilderness.
We worked our way from the forested valley edge to its grassy, flat-bottomed center, and when we stepped out of the trees and into the sunshine, the vale revealed itself: 20,000 years ago, glaciers ground out a wide, U-shaped dell braided by Pebble Creek and guarded by blocky peaks—Hornaday, Baronnette, Cutoff—now frosted with snow in mid-September. This being prime grizzly country, we “Hey bear”-ed our way up the path, my heart racing at every blind turn before we broke out of the trees at the valley bottom. After 6 miles and a few easy fords we reached the campsite, perched above a bend in the creek. Mountain views, easy access to water, and a flat space to pitch tents—what more could we ask for?
The next day we hiked up and over Bliss Pass, where we’d been warned deadfall and other obstacles might lurk. When you get this far off the normal Yellowstone itinerary, you never know what you’ll find. But besides the stiff grade—1,600 feet gained in about 1.4 miles—the path was easy to follow, and the reward even better: a view back over the broad upper half of the Pebble Creek valley, with the serrated tops of the Beartooth mountains in the distance. It’s a vista that’s changed little for tens of thousands of years. This timelessness is Yellowstone’s special offering. The gear is lighter and the trails improved, but by and large, hikers standing on the brink of such vastness have always felt the same thrill. The world outside this wilderness simply ceases to exist.
Mist fuzzes the valley the next morning, amplifying the eeriness. Suddenly, crazed cries sound from just off the trail. A minute passes as we hold our breath. Then the source of the noise reveals itself: a pair of sandhill cranes strutting through the sagebrush. They fly off into the mist that always seems to envelope this place, as if its past and present are mingling together beneath the snow-capped peaks.
DO IT Trailhead Routes depend on the availability of campsites (reserve via mail or phone only for the 2020 season). Leave one car at the Slough Creek trailhead and drop a second at Pebble Creek trailhead. Season Late June to October Permit Required ($3), available from the park’s central backcountry office