Bison crossing a road and stopping traffic in Yellowstone National Park

You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd

Day 121, Cache Creek Ford South Campsite to Hellroaring Creek Campsite

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Where Top O' and I camped each night in Yellowstone was determined by the campsite reservations issued by the park. It was up to us to figure out how to get from one site to the other. There was only one logical route to walk yesterday, resulting in a short hiking distance of about 14 miles.

We had the opposite situation today. The distance to walk was much farther, and there were a couple of options for getting there.

Weather Mostly sunny with less smoke; temperatures from low-40s to mid-70s
Trail Conditions Easy trail sections sandwiched with a long road walk
Today's Miles 23.4 miles
Trip Miles 1,758.2 miles

One route was more than 25 miles long. The longest stretch would follow the Specimen Ridge Trail. I found a warning for that trail in the files we downloaded for the Gaia mapping app. It said, "Carry extra water for this section! It's dry, hot, and exposed."

Our other option for getting to the next campsite involved a long road walk, which is not usually my preferred choice. This route only saved one mile of hiking, but it came with an advantage we noticed right away. The road was a route tourists drove through the park.

The presence of tourists always increases the potential for trail magic.

Top O' crosses Cache Creek

Top O' and I figured we needed to start early because of today's long mileage, so we left our campsite at 6:15 a.m. Beer Goddess and Butters were just waking up when we departed.

We had to cross Cache Creek as soon as we reached the main trail. The stream was wide and it looked like crossing it without getting our feet wet would be tricky or impossible. Small rocks were scattered across the creek bed but not spaced well for rock-hopping across.

We enjoy challenges like these. They can be as physical as they are intellectual.

Top O' made it cleanly across and cheered when he got there. I was almost as successful but dragged the toe of one shoe in the water when I was almost to the other side.

An almost-clear sky in Yellowstone National Park

The morning started chilly in the Lamar River Valley. The sun had only just risen and was still below the surrounding mountains.

The sky was nearly clear, which was a change from the last few days. We didn't have puffy clouds today, just a few wisps. I also didn't notice much smoke. The sky at the horizon was tinted brown, so I figured some smoke was lingering.

Lamar River Valley

The farther we walked, the wider the valley stretched. We were entering an expansive grassland that is sometimes called the American Serengeti. The name is reasonable because of the variety of animals that roam the area.

I mentioned yesterday that wolves have successfully resettled in Lamar Valley. The National Park Service says this is home to the largest herds of bison and elk in North America. Deer and pronghorn antelope also live in this sagebrush-steppe range.

Walking on Northeast Entrance Road

In the early years of Yellowstone National Park, this area was called "Secluded Valley." The Northeast Entrance Road brings tourists into the valley from Cooke City, Montana, so the valley is now far from being secluded.

We arrived at the road at 8 a.m. and now had to follow it for 14.5 miles. There wasn't usually much of a shoulder to walk on, but this didn't feel like an unsafe route to walk. The speed limit was 45 mph.

Still, I tried to stay alert the whole time we walked on the road. I was wary that a driver might be distracted by the sight of wildlife.

Tourists watch wildlife in Yellowstone National Park

Wildlife was the reason the tourists were here. Many are driven here in vans by tour guides. We saw several groups that stopped to stake out a place to watch for bison or wolves.

Top O' and I heard wolves howling this morning. Some tourists told us they saw wolves eating a dead bison, but we were unable to see them.

So far, I only saw some very distant bison, plus a few ducks and a garter snake. We were able to score our first trail magic, however.

When Top O' arrived at a pullout where some tourists had stopped to watch some faraway bison, he was offered soft drinks and beer. He made sure I got an IPA.

The time was only 9 a.m., but I was not going to let that stop me from drinking a beer. This was as good a time for extra calories and hydration as any.

While chatting with the tourists, I asked them about their car rental. I had heard it was difficult to rent cars lately because COVID-19 had disrupted the business. This was a concern for me because Kim and I were starting to plan for her to meet me when I reached the Canadian border. The tourists confirmed what I had heard, that rental fees had skyrocketed.

Later, I got some more trail magic. A car pulled up next to me while I was walking along the road by myself. A woman rolled down the window and offered me an apple. She also offered me some water, but I had plenty.

Top O' walks far ahead

So far, the road walk was a little underwhelming. The traffic wasn't as bad as I expected, and the wildlife sightings weren't as good.

There was nothing for us to see when we walked past Lamar Buffalo Ranch. This facility holds an important place in the history of Yellowstone.

Establishing the national park in 1872 did little to stem the mass extermination of bison. By 1901, only 25 remained within the boundaries. That year, Congress appropriated $15,000 to buy an additional 21 bison from private owners, and they were brought here.

Thanks to those initial recovery efforts and the work that followed at the ranch, the herd has grown to as many as 5,500 bison.

Bison cross the road in Yellowstone National Park

We had already walked more than half of the road walk before we finally saw some bison up close. Put more accurately, they were a little too close for comfort.

Top O' and I had just stopped for lunch when several bison started walking toward us. Although bison aren't normally aggressive, they were so enormous that their presence made us uncomfortable, and we decided to move away.

We were unable to go far, however, because more bison were blocking the road. A traffic jam resulted.

Using a car as a shield

The only way for us to keep moving and stay clear of them was to walk close to moving cars. We used the vehicles as a shield to escort us past the bison.

Many bison grazing in Yellowstone National Park

We passed dozens of bison for the next hour and didn't stop again until we found some shade that felt comfortably beyond them.

By now, the Lamar River had turned away from the road. It would flow into the Yellowstone River a short distance to the north.

Yellowstone River

The road took us west over a bridge across the Yellowstone River on the way to an area called Tower Junction. The river wasn't as placid here as it was when we crossed it on Day 116.

Roosevelt Lodge, a hotel built in 1919-1920, was located at Tower Junction. I was hoping for a chance to see it and eat a meal there. Before reaching the hotel, however, I met Top O'. He had already learned the lodge didn't have much food service because of staffing problems resulting from COVID-19.

Sinclair gas station in Tower Junction

We wound up stopping at a gas station near the entrance to the hotel. This turned out to be a good decision because we were offered a free soft drink. We also bought slices of pizza that had just come out of the oven.

Top O' and I relaxed in a shaded area next to the building while we recharged our phones and batteries. We stayed for nearly two hours.

Walking on the chuckwagon road

With less than four miles to go before reaching our campsite, we no longer had to walk on a paved road. We weren't done with road walking, however. When we left Tower Junction at 5 p.m., we followed a dirt road used by a park concessionaire to take tourists around in stagecoaches and other horse-drawn wagons.

Site of the chuckwagon show

The road led us past a nightly chuckwagon dinner show. Several wagon-loads of tourists were brought here to be served steaks, baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, cornbread muffins, and cobbler. Then they were entertained with a performance of cowboy songs.

As a thru-hiker, I was duty-bound to attempt to yogi some food, so I tried to look hungry as I walked by. Unfortunately, we were never close enough to the food line for anyone to take pity on me.

The chuckwagon dinner show was held at the site of a hotel and stage stop. It was operated from 1884 to 1903 by a man named Uncle John Yancey. Some maps still identify the spot as "Yancey's."

Up to 20 guests could stay in the five-room hotel, which cost two dollars per day, including meals.

Walking across a meadow in Yellowstone National Park

Once we got past the dinner show, we began walking on a single-track footpath for the first time since 8 a.m. This area is sometimes still called Pleasant Valley.

The trail took us across a meadow before entering a wooded gap, then continued along Elk Creek. The creek flowed into the Yellowstone River, and we followed it most of the way to the river.

A footbridge over Black Canyon

A suspension footbridge crossed the river high above a deep gorge.

Black Canyon

The gorge was called Black Canyon. The river continues from here in a northeast direction to Montana. It will eventually drain into the Missouri River in North Dakota.

Although it's easy to assume Yellowstone National Park is named for yellow rocks found in the area, that's not the case. The park's name comes from the river.

A meadow of tall grass

The trail on the other side of the river passed between two hills before entering a broad, rolling meadow of tall grass and sagebrush. We were now heading toward Hellroaring Creek, a tributary of the Yellowstone.

The meadow seemed to be a likely area for grizzly bears. If true, they wouldn't be easy to see in the tall grass. Nevertheless, we crossed the meadow uneventfully.

Hellroaring Creek

We arrived at our campsite on the creek shortly after 7 p.m. There was still plenty of daylight left to set up our tents, fetch and filter water, cook dinner, and hang our bear bags.

Hellroaring Creek

Butters and Beer Goddess were scheduled to camp at the same site, but they didn't arrive until 9 p.m. They hiked the ridge instead of the road and told us it was as hot and dry as we expected. That wasn't the worst part of their hike, however.

They didn’t arrive at the gas station at Tower Junction until 20 minutes after it closed, so they were unable to get free soft drinks and buy pizza. I could hear the anguish in their voices when they said this.

You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd
You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd
You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd
But you can be happy if you've a mind to

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