The GYT – Greater Yellowstone Trail

December 10, 2015
Teton Peaks in Summer

First of all, at present, the Greater Yellowstone Trail is in no way ready. Skip to the problems below to find out why. For the full route, skip to the end.

The Premise of the Greater Yellowstone Trail

I’ve had a dream for several years now of finding a way to hike through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a long-distance thru-hike. After spending a few weeks staring at both physical and digital maps, I think I’ve finally gotten something potentially laid out.

Though the hike doesn’t hit every corner of the ecosystem, it does hit a number of highlights that I thought were fairly mandatory in such a journey. Here’s a short list of the most prominent highlights:

  • Wind River Mountains
    They’d be easy to exclude, but it’d be tragic to attract people to the area and skip over them.
  • Gros Ventre Wilderness
    Though overshadowed by the Tetons, the Gros Ventres provide jaw-dropping mountain vistas.
  • Teton Crest Trail
    It repeatedly shows up in Backpacker Magazine for good reason.
  • Parting of the Waters
    Pacific Creek and Atlantic Creek go their separate ways at a unique anomaly on the Continental Divide.
  • The Thoroughfare
    It’s the most remote natural area in the lower 48. What more needs to be said?
  • Beartooth Mountains
    Like the Winds, the Beartooths are an often overlooked natural treasure that beg exploration.

Problems to Resolve

In its current state, the trail would be very risky to attempt. Since I’ve only just mapped it out, I haven’t yet visited with the different forests, parks, and various departments needed to ensure that this could be done successfully and with as little hassle as possible. For example, I know that currently, a backcountry permit from Grand Teton National Park can only be acquired in person. I’m assuming it’s the same situation with Yellowstone. I’m hoping that they would be willing to accommodate thru-hikers via the phone in the same way Saguaro National Park does with the Arizona Trail, but that remains to be seen. With the trail stopping in Victor before heading into the park on the Teton Crest Trail, this could prove to be very inconvenient, so I’m going to see what the options are before attempting to hike the trail.

Twilight Over Mountain Peak

Another problem is that I’m not 100% sure that I’ve successfully avoided private property, especially in the Dubois area. I’ve done my best according to the maps I’ve used, but that may not be entirely accurate when translated onto a digital map. Similarly, I’m also not sure about the status of some of the trails. Some were unofficial at best. Other places could potentially require excellent route-finding skills. I’d expect that some officials won’t like the idea of an unofficial route becoming a main route for the public.

In terms of the total mileage, I’ve only guessed based on what Google Maps said the mileage for each route is, then added a mile or two here and there to account for any inconsistencies and elevation change. Google Maps could have it completely correct as labeled, or it could be very far off. As a result, I have no certain idea if my estimates are close, and therefore, if some stretches are simply too long to haul the necessary amount of food and supplies. I don’t expect to know until I actually test out the Greater Yellowstone Trail in its entirety myself. Currently, it’s roughly about 684 miles.

Finally, I’ll need to check with post offices and various lodges, particularly those east of Yellowstone’s East Entrance, to see if they’re willing to cooperate with hikers mailing items to general delivery. In the hopes of finding remedies for these issues, I’m going to try to meet with all post offices, lodges, and public land agencies by the end of June to see about necessary permissions and potential reroutes, if necessary.

Lizard Head Peak and Bear Lake

Ideal Hiking Times

The trail will begin in Lander and will pass through a plethora of towns between the unparalleled natural features for resupplies and rest days, if desired. From Lander, Wyoming, it will head to Pinedale (WY), Dubois (WY), Jackson (WY), Hoback (WY), Victor (ID), Flagg Ranch (WY), Wapiti (WY), and Cooke City (MT) before ending in Red Lodge, Montana.

Assuming the mileage is fairly accurate, this trail can be started in late-July from Lander. This would hopefully allow for enough snow to melt out of the Wind River Mountains without being too much of an obstacle. Ideally, I would prefer to avoid carrying any extra gear, such as crampons and ice axes.

A late-July start should also allow for hikers to follow alpine and mountain wildflower peak seasons through the Gros Ventre, Snake River, and Teton Mountains. This should put hikers on the Teton Crest Trail by mid-to-late-August, which tends to be the wildflower peak there.

Successful timing should also get hikers through the Thoroughfare and out of Yellowstone’s high country before too many grizzlies begin entering into hyperphagia. This should avoid any grizzly conflicts in high alpine environments, such as in the eastern border of Yellowstone, where bears will begin to guard or become defensive around moth sites.

Lastly, this should hopefully avoid any significant or early snow storms in the Beartooth Mountains, getting hikers to Red Lodge, Montana by mid-September or so. If weather is looking good on the last leg, it’s recommended that hikers take a few spurs here and there in the Beartooths to see more of the mountains. It would add a day or two, but it’s well worth it.

The Reason for the Routes

Throughout much of the planning process, I debated whether or not to have it pass through more populated areas. Originally, the route used resupply routes through Old Faithful, Canyon Village, and even passed through the most populated part of the valley of Jackson Hole itself. This reluctantly made frequent use of busy roads. After a lot of consideration, I eventually decided that the purpose of the Greater Yellowstone Trail should be to avoid roads and populated areas as much as possible. Most people that visit the region see these areas easily. Very few people see beyond the roads, and that’s what this trail should highlight. If anyone interested hiking the trail wants to see the more populated and easily accessible areas, that can be achieved in just a few days of driving around. This trail is meant to highlight backcountry that often goes unnoticed.

The trail currently passes through towns only for resupplies. Each is separated by what is hopefully enough time to restock on food and any necessary gear, and also allows the options of rest days should anyone want to take them. A few towns will have libraries for internet access and brewpubs (among other restaurants) for a well-deserved meal to break up trail food. Jackson is the biggest town that the trail passes through and enters town immediately at two different restaurants at the base of Snow King, with many more a few blocks away. The trail passes through a bit of the town to allow easy access to a major grocery store with others only an extra few blocks away as well. This will be considered one of the major checkpoints where new supplies can be easily acquired, as well as Victor, Idaho.

Shuttles will need to be arranged to get to and from the starting and ending trailheads. I know of shuttles that operate out of Red Lodge, but I’ll have to check to see if anything goes to Lander, and ideally, the trailhead west of town.

Twilight Over the Cathedral Group from Greater Yellowstone Trail

General Warnings

First and foremost, bear spray should be carried at all times. In fact, it would be a good idea to carry two cans of bear spray in case one gets used up in the backcountry, then buy another at the next developed area. Carrying it is half the requirement. Knowing how to use it is just as vital as carrying it. I’m also not yet 100% sure if every campsite will have tall enough trees to hang a pack from, so expect to make use of a bear canister for food and scented supplies.

Likewise, know how to act around wildlife. This means not causing them any added stress. If you’re hiking this trail or sections of it solely to get close-up shots of wildlife, it would be best if you didn’t hike it. This trail demands that you respect the natural world around you, and that includes the wildlife. Always give them their space. There will be no shortage of animals both near and far, so don’t encroach on them for a photo. If you want to capture their presence, do so at a respectful distance with them acting naturally in their environment. Enjoy them as part of the scenery and not as a commodity strategically placed to add to your ego. The latter will not go over well on the Greater Yellowstone Trail. Likewise, give every animal on or near the trail the right of way, whether it’s a marmot or a herd of bison.

Barring any major setbacks, this is something I hope to begin testing this summer. It’s possible I may have to make use of a crowdsourcing campaign to make it happen. Only time will tell. At this point, I’ll be ecstatic if I can have a finalized route by the end of June and the resources to hike parts of it at least.

The Proposed GYT Route

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