Backpacking Hoodoo Basin (NE Yellowstone) 8/4-8/11, 2012

by Sitmowm on Tue Aug 14, 2012 2:42 pm

The Hoodoo Basin, in the northeast part of the park, is beautiful but remote. From the Soda Butte hikers’ trailhead in the Lamar Valley, it takes around 17 miles of hiking up the Lamar River and Miller Creek, and then a 2,000 foot climb and an additional six miles or so to reach the actual Hoodoos. It’s beautiful country, and not seen by many people. Over the six days I was on the Miller Creek trail and exploring the Hoodoo Basin beyond, I saw two backpacking couples and one horse party. And for one three-day period, while I was on the most remote part of the route, I didn’t see anybody at all.

The first couple of miles of the route crosses the sagebrush-covered Lamar Valley. As I neared the junction with the Specimen Ridge trail, two bison began moseying toward the trail ahead of me, in a slow-motion, “head em off at the pass” maneuver, requiring me to detour up a somewhat steep and very sandy hill to keep a safe distance from them. From the top of a higher ridge, a lone pronghorn monitored my progress. By the time I’d climbed over the sandy rise, a few more bison had drifted toward the trail to gather in a small draw, which held some of the things bison apparently love most—loose dirt, water, and several widely-spaced tree trunks. I bypassed them all as a few drank, a couple wallowed in the dust, and one scratched his colossal head on the barkless trunk of an old snag.At Cache Creek I passed the first two backcountry campsites along the route, both of which had “Warning: Bear Frequenting Area” signs attached to the markers. That has to be an unsettling feeling, reaching your campsite and discovering at least one bear has been hanging around regularly. But then again, all of Yellowstone should be regarded as a bear frequenting area, so it shouldn’t make much of a difference in how you manage your campsite. From Cache Creek, the route followed the upper Lamar River for about six more miles to the confluence with Miller Creek. My first campsite was on Miller Creek at site 3M1, a beautiful spot with large meadows on either side of the food area. The next morning, as I was breaking camp, a cow moose ambled through the grass and trees about 100 yards away, across the creek. I moved a little closer for a better look, staying on my side of the creek, but soon lost sight of her. Then I saw her head sticking up from the tall grass where she had bedded down about 75 yards away. I snapped a few quick photos and left her in peace.Farther upstream, the Miller Creek trail alternates between open forest and meadows, crossing several small side streams and passing below a petrified tree stump and what looked to be a piece of petrified tree limb encased in rock. At the unoccupied Miller Creek patrol cabin I paused for a Power Bar break. Nearby, a chipmunk displayed acrobatic moves as it gathered seed heads from the tall plants around the cabin.

About halfway up the 2,000 foot climb toward the Hoodoo Basin, a fierce wind arose, blowing a cold rain. I don’t mind hiking in the rain, but a blowing, driving rain is a different matter, so I stopped for another break in the lee of a small stand of subalpine fir trees in a mixed forest of much taller trees, both alive and dead. The wind eventually calmed, and the rain slacked off to a chilly drizzle, so I resumed the hike toward Parker Peak and the Hoodoo Basin beyond. The route crossed a high, rolling terrain, over ground covered with a profusion of wildflowers, some pieces of petrified wood scattered here and there, and, in one place, an assortment of obsidian chips once worked by some of the Native Americans that once lived in the area.

The high saddle on the shoulder of Parker Peak looks out over the upper Hoodoo Basin. No Hoodoos are visible from this high vantage, but the view of the high mountain valley is beautiful. About a mile farther are the rocky formations for which this basin was named. Oddly enough, “hoodoo” is a geologic term that refers to eroded columns of rock. Despite the same names, the formations here are very different from the “hoodoos” along the road just south of Mammoth, which are actually not hoodoos at all, but a jumble of travertine boulders that tumbled down from Terrace Mountain.

The eroded rock columns in the Hoodoo Basin anchored a strikingly beautiful area that seemed full of contrasts, so high in the mountains, but nestled in a shallow valley. The surrounding ground was speckled with patches of wildflowers that were watered by tiny rills trickling down from two lingering snowfields, and when I arrived, the setting was capped by an expansive blue sky softened with white cumulus clouds, all framing the improbable rocky shapes of the Hoodoos. It was a scene both rugged and delicate, ancient and new, and it was hard for me to leave.

Just beyond the Hoodoos, campsite 3M7 sits near the top of a ridge with a grassy expanse. The area is separated from a bird’s-eye view of the Hoodoos by only a thin line of subalpine firs and whitebark pines. (You know you’re at a high elevation when there are whitebark pines in camp; the map confirmed this site is near 9,700 feet.) Several gaps in the trees provide spots where you can walk through and sit at the edge of the ridge overlooking the mesmerizing shapes of the rocky formations below.

About a quarter mile beyond 3M7 is the eastern boundary of the park, set on a high, grassy ridge with a view of Hoodoo Peak to one side, and a series of rolling grassy peaks on the other. I had reserved 3M7 for two nights, and on the off day, I set out to climb Hoodoo Peak. Instead of doing what I should’ve done and detouring around to walk up the gentle ridge on the eastern flank, I took the more direct and adventurous, i.e., stupid, route up a spur near another collection of hoodoos on the lower slopes of the peak. With a bit of scrambling I got most of the way up, but then the slope got steeper and the scree looser until I couldn’t go any higher without risking a slide all the way back down the mountain. I made my back down and returned to camp, where I sat and watched the sky fade with the sunset over the Hoodoos, the lights and colors intensified by smoke from wildfires in the area.

The next morning a lone elk bugle rang out of the pre-dawn twilight, and a few moments later, a small clatter of hooves moved past my tent. I peeked out at a cow elk followed by two older fawns moving toward the direction from which the bugle had come.

Later, I broke camp and began the return trip. From the saddle beneath Parker Peak I decided to hike to the summit, skirting a large snowfield and climbing above an open area where a herd of elk was resting. I tried to look nonthreatening as I climbed high above them, but after watching me for a few moments, they spooked and thundered off toward a nearby forest edge. The summit of Parker Peak offered impressive views, limited on this day by smoke and more gathering storm clouds. I quickly descended and made my way down to Miller Creek and my next reserved campsite at 3M2, a beautiful site nestled in a wooded oxbow of Miller Creek. As I stood watching the flow of the water, a belted kingfisher flew upstream and rounded a bend out of sight. But beautiful as the site was, I knew I couldn’t camp there. Too many large, dead trees stood leaning in the forest, threatening to fall on any spot I might find to set up my tent. So I moved farther away from the creek and the forest and made a rough camp in an area of tall grass not far from the trail. The following day, I hiked back out to the trailhead, having to detour twice to get around more bison in the vicinity of Cache Creek.

Photos :
Part 1 of 3:
2 of 3:
3 of 3:

I forgot to warn everyone last time. These were all taken with my backpacking camera, a five-year-old Panasonic point-and-shoot ( Lumix DMC-FZ8). I love this camera, partly because it has 12x optical zoom, but mostly because it has survived many long backpacking trips, hikes, and cross country ski outings.

Thanks for reading!

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