CDT 2021: Day 124, Gardner’s Hole Campsite to Specimen Creek Trailhead

I'm in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set

walking on Fawn Pass Trail

You may be familiar with the Appalachian Trail's white and blue blazes. Perhaps you've also heard of a few blazes hikers have invented, such as yellow blazing (skipping sections of the trail by hitchhiking) and pink blazing (chasing a female hiker).

There's another term derived from the AT's blazes that is less commonly used. It's called platinum blazing, and it's used to describe a luxurious style of hiking. If you're platinum blazing, you're not roughing it. You're staying in nice hotels and eating in better restaurants.

Although most of the time I'm hiking in honest-to-god hiker trash mode, there were times on the AT and PCT when my hike was closer to platinum blazing. These happened when I was joined on the trail by my long-time friend, Polecat.

DateSaturday, August 14, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy with a late afternoon thunderstorm and hail; temperatures from upper-40s to mid-80s
Trail ConditionsOne long climb and descent, followed by a highway walk
Today's Miles20.8
Trip Miles1805.5

He wanted to hike part of those trails but not a full thru-hike or long section hike. Instead, he met me at a trailhead, hiked for a day or two, then hiked back to his truck. He would then drive to another trailhead to repeat this, or we would go into a town to resupply.

Our platinum blazing took place in town. Because Polecat had a truck, we weren't limited to staying in the closest town. If the selection of motels, restaurants, and grocery stores weren't great, we went someplace better.

An example of this was in Washington on the PCT. When Polecat and I arrived at Snoqualmie Pass, we could have stayed there. Instead, we drove to Issaquah, where we stayed in a nicer hotel and shopped at an REI, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s. We also convinced another hiker (without much arm-twisting) to come with us.

When I told Polecat I intended to thru-hike the CDT, he asked to join me again as he had done before. I was delighted, of course. He initially said he would like to hike with me in Wind River Range, but that didn't fit his schedule. We then agreed to meet when Top O' and I finished hiking through Yellowstone.

That happened today.

crossing Gardner River

When Top O' and I started hiking this morning at 6:40, the air was already smokier than yesterday afternoon. This may have been because we were getting closer to the fires on the Montana/Idaho border.

We only walked a short distance from our campsite before we had to cross Gardner River. There were several rocks in the stream. We thought we could cross without getting our feet wet until we discovered they were slippery. Top O' slipped and got his feet wet. I took my time and made it across a little better but still got my toes wet.

Electric Peak

I saw only a small tip of Electric Peak two days ago when I entered Lava Creek Canyon. The whole prominence of the mountain was visible today, even if it was somewhat obscured by the smoke.

The mountain stands on the Montana side of the park and has a majestic, classic appearance. When members of a survey team made the first ascent in 1872, they said they felt dangerous electrical discharges during a severe thunderstorm.

Fawn Creek

Our next stream crossing came just 10 minutes after the first. We had to cross Fawn Creek this time and would cross it again later in the morning. Although I had managed to keep my feet mostly dry at the river crossing, there was no way to do that on the two creek crossings.

A sign identifies a bear management area

After about a mile, we came to a sign nailed to a tree that said we were in a bear management area. Perhaps it would be better to call this a hiker management area.

Hikers are prohibited from going off-trail in this area from May 1 to November 10. Park rangers also advise hikers to keep a minimum group size of four or more in this area, but there was nothing we could do about that.

We were following the Fawn Pass Trail, which bisected one of the largest bear management areas in Yellowstone. Park naturalists established these wildlife protection areas after observing a high number of elk and bison killed by bears.

Walking along Fawn Creek

After seeing that sign, I thought for sure I would see a bear as we walked along Fawn Creek. That didn't turn out to be the case, and I confess I wasn't entirely sorry. I would be glad to see a grizzly if it were a long distance away, not at a stream ten yards from me.

Crossing Fawn Creek again

The last crossing of Fawn Creek looked promising to rock-hop across. There were many exposed rocks in the stream. We discovered, however, they weren't spaced and arranged well enough to walk across without getting our feet wet, so we had to ford the creek.

A pond near Fawn Pass

Most hikers follow the Sportsman Lake Trail across the northern edge of Yellowstone when they are on the Big Sky/Super Butte Alternate. When we were unable to reserve the campsite we wanted on that trail, we saw that we could still get across the park on the Fawn Pass Trail.

This turned out to be a better route because there was more water available. The Fawn Pass Trail climbed nearly 2,000 feet in the first seven miles. The only disadvantage of going this way would come at the end with some extra road walking.

We took a break near the top of Fawn Pass. While we were there, I received a text message from Polecat, who said he expected to arrive at the trailhead at 3 p.m. The timing seemed about right for when we would get there.

A boulder lying across a trail

After we began a long descent from the pass, we made a startling discovery. A huge boulder was sitting in the middle of the footpath. It looked completely out of place, as if it had been dropped from the sky and intentionally put there to block the trail.

The rock had rolled here from a higher spot, which must have happened recently. The grass around the rock was barely trampled.

A larger boulder lying across the trail

A minute later, we came upon a larger boulder. This one was also sitting in the middle of the trail and had crashed into some trees before stopping.

The boulders were a reminder of how frequent earthquakes happen in Yellowstone.

A distant view of mountains in Montana

I could see in the smokey distance a range of mountains. At first, it looked like they were topped with snow, though I soon realized the tops were just treeless. The mountains weren't high enough to still have snow in August.

The mountains I saw were all in Montana. If the sky were clearer, I probably could have also seen some in Idaho because we weren't far from that state. The closer mountains included Redstreak Peak (10,384 feet) and Sage Peak (10,653 feet), which were part of a range called Skyline Ridge that stood about 15 miles away.

While descending from Fawn Pass, we ran into some hikers we met in Atlantic City on Day 101. I don't think we saw them since then until today.

Yellow wildflowers on a grassy hill

The trail didn't make a direct descent. Instead, it went up and down, though mostly down. We knew the first part of this section was dry and were glad we had access to water before reaching the top.

There weren't many trees on the descending side of the pass, at least not at first. Most were killed by the mountain pine beetle.

Trees burned in the Fan Fire of 1988

Farther down, the trail entered an area burned in the Fan Fire of 1988. That was the first of several fires in Yellowstone that year. Because the fire was started by lightning and not by a human, the park service allowed it to burn without attempting to suppress it.

The Fan Fire started near Fan Creek on June 30, and fifteen days later, only 8,500 acres had burned in the area. Trouble began a week later. By then, more fires started, and about 17,000 acres had burned. They quickly grew beyond the capacity of firefighters to control. Civilian firefighters and 9,500 military personnel were brought in to assist. By August, fires were burning in every section of the park. They continued to burn until September 11, when snow began to fall.

Approaching the Fawn Pass Trailhead

The last section of the trail before we reached the highway and the park's boundary was flat. We weren't able to get there by 3 p.m., but Polecat didn't have to wait long for us.

Gravity and Top O' drink beer

Polecat handed us cold beers when we arrived at the trailhead. Whether you want to call that trail magic or platinum blazing, Top O' and I were happy to accept it.

Rain falling over Fawn Pass

As we stood at the trailhead talking to Polecat, we happened to look east in the direction we had just walked. A large thunderstorm was flashing lightning and pouring rain over Fawn Pass.

The storm didn't appear to be heading our way, and we still had plenty of daylight left. We decided to continue walking a few more miles. Polecat offered to carry some of our gear in his truck so we could slackpack 4.7 miles up the road to the next trailhead.

Platinum blazing didn't excuse us from hiking the whole trail in connected footsteps, so we would have to walk these miles. We figured we might as well knock them out today while we had the time.

Walking on U.S. Highway 191

The road walk with a lighter pack seemed to be a simple task. When a few raindrops began to fall, however, the extra miles started to seem a little questionable. Then the rain quit, and we kept going.

A downpour is about to happen

We had completed more than three miles of our walk on U.S. Highway 191 before our decision became questionable again. More rain appeared ahead, and it wasn't just a few raindrops this time.

Polecat drove back to check on us, and we told him we didn't need to stop. Shortly after he left, pea-sized hail and rain began to fall. Before long, we were being pelted by marble-sized hail.

Top O' got some protection with his sun umbrella, but I had none. The hail pummeled me for two or three minutes and it hurt. When the hail finally stopped, the rain continued until about the time we arrived at the Specimen Creek Trailhead.

We were now ready to find a place to camp, and that was a little tricky. We couldn't camp in the park because there were no campsites nearby. Even if there had been any, we didn't have a permit. Lee Metcalf Wilderness was on the other side of the highway, and there was no road in that direction to find a campsite.

We continued driving north until we found a trailhead about a mile outside the park. The area was flat and far enough away from the highway to get away from road noise.

Unexpectedly, a hiker arrived at 7:30 p.m. and joined us at our makeshift campsite. His name was Caveman, though he wasn't the same Caveman who left some trail magic outside of Twin Lakes in Colorado.

Getting pounded by hail and sleeping a few yards from a highway wouldn't qualify as platinum blazing, but I didn't mind. I appreciate the occasional luxuries that are available when I hike with Polecat, but I don't expect them.

What's important now is I'm in Montana, the last state of my CDT thru-hike. It's starting to look like this improbable quest to complete the Triple Crown is going to end successfully.

Get back
I'm alright, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack
It's a hit
Don't give me that do-goody-good bullshit
I'm in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set
And I think I need a Lear jet


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.