Steam rises above Grand Prismatic Spring just before a snow storm swallows the beautiful light.
By Robert Earle Howells
It’s a mighty high claim to call one backpacking trip in our archetypal national park the best, but it’s hard to top this traverse of the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. Factor in a hot soak or two with a hike beside burbling hot springs, steaming fumaroles, streaming waterfalls, a grand finale at the park’s signature attraction and you’ve got plenty to back up the boast.
The 27-mile (43-kilometer) hike starts at the Bechler ranger station, a long haul in itself, reachable via Idaho Highway 47. It crosses expansive Bechler Meadows, where an early-season crossing would be one of America’s worst adventures—they’re underwater in June and under bug siege in July, so wait till August or September when they’re in their wide-open glory. Then comes a spectacular series of waterfalls in the cool, damp, forested embrace of Bechler Canyon—Ouzel, Colonnade, Iris—and even more cascades outside the canyon in Continental Divide country. But enough of all this cool mist—time to get into hot water.
Near the Three Rivers Junction is the redoubtable Mr. Bubble hot spring, conveniently cooled by the flow of the Ferris Fork River, so it’s an ideally tempered spot for a soak. Take the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) side hike to Shoshone Lake and camp by the park’s largest backcountry lake and find a remote geyser basin and some trailside hot springs. Then, time the exit hike to pass by one of Lone Star Geyser’s eruptions, which happen every three hours. Ironically, after three to five nights on the trail among some of the park’s most remote water features, you emerge right at Old Faithful, feeling like a prune-skinned version of Jeremiah Johnson.
Need to Know: Get more information about Yellowstone attractions at www.nps.gov/yell.
Originally published in the March/April 2009 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine