Until this summer, I had done very little hiking in the Bechler region of Yellowstone National Park. And for some unexplainable reason, I had never hiked 30 miles in a day.
So I devised a crazy plan to patch up both shortcomings in a single day.
I would start my trip at the Bechler Ranger Station at the southwest corner of Yellowstone early one Friday morning in late August, hiking through Bechler Meadows, up Bechler Canyon, over the Continental Divide three times, past Douglas Knob, over Grants Pass, and finally into the Old Faithful area.
The final tally? 30 miles, three fords, two awesome waterfalls and plenty of smaller ones, dozens of pictures, and one backcountry ranger that thought I was absolutely crazy.
Well, he was right. But there are different degrees of crazy, and this was crazy good.
The adventure started at about 7 a.m. at the Bechler Ranger Station, where I left my car. I found the trailhead and wandered through forests for a mile or two before emerging into the Bechler Meadows.
I’ve done some short hikes near Cave Falls and have been to Union Falls via all three approaches, but I’ve never been into the Bechler Meadows. Going through this region for the first time was an absolute treat. The day was clear. The meadows were a gorgeous amber color. I got to watch some large birds for quite a while (I’m not sure what they were). And the view south toward the Tetons was an awesome surprise that I hadn’t been expecting; the meadows, the streams and the Tetons created some interesting compositional opportunities for my pictures that I wished I had more time to fine-tune. It was almost embarrassing to admit to myself that I’d never been there.
I was lucky to be doing this hike in late August. The Bechler Meadows are known as a breeding ground for armies of ferocious mosquitoes. It also doesn’t take much imagination to see the trails becoming impassible early in the season due to high water. In fact, routes exist to the east and west of the main trail that bypass the heart of the meadow. If you were doing this hike early in the summer, you’d have to make some hard decisions about which route to take. Even in late August, I still met a few mosquitoes.
After a gritty ford of the Bechler River and 5.6 miles of hiking, I was ahead of schedule and nearing the mouth of Bechler Canyon. The Bechler Meadows were already pretty awesome. An even cooler surprise was waiting.
Bechler Canyon is narrow, lush, gorgeous, and packed with waterfalls. The first you see is the tall Ouzel Falls, which you only view from a distance. A couple miles beyond, you run into Colonnade Falls, which is actually a series of two wide waterfalls. A short spur trail leads to an outstanding viewpoint.
Just minutes past Colonnade Falls is Iris Falls, which is even wider and had a rainbow at its base. It looked like a postcard and seemed to be taunting me. “I’ve been here for eons, and this is the first time you’ve been here? Seriously?” I didn’t have a good explanation of my negligence for the waterfall gods.
As I wandered through the canyon, I saw plenty of berries. I’m no expert on what’s safe and what’s not, so I stayed clear. But the ones that looked like wild raspberries were oh-so-tempting. Someone who was enjoying one of the awesome campsites in the canyon probably could have augmented their stash of granola bars with some awesome fresh fruit.
As I continued up the canyon, I had to ford the Bechler two more times; I lost my footing on one of them and almost dropped my shoes, which would have presented quite a predicament. After the fords, I passed a few thermal areas and the Three Rivers Patrol Cabin. The ranger who was staying at the cabin seemed concerned about this crazy plan of mine. I was a little nervous as well; I wasn’t ahead of schedule any more. I didn’t have any overnight gear so it was Old Faithful or bust. After a quick lunch at Three River Junction near Ragged Falls (13.7 miles from the trailhead), I kicked it into gear.
Unfortunately, the challenge in trying to do this traverse in a day is that you don’t have time to explore. Near Three River Junction is a thermal area with a warm swimming hole known to some as “Mr. Bubbly.” It’s only a short detour off the trail, but I just didn’t have time to explore. Later in the hike, I passed within a couple miles of the Shoshone Geyser Basin, Shoshone Lake and Lone Star Geyser but, again, there wasn’t time for side trips.
After Three River Junction, the trail quickly starts gaining elevation as it climbs out of Bechler Canyon. After about a mile, a short spur trail leads to the intriguing Twister Falls, which literally cascades over a rock face at an angle. It was a captivating sight – and one that would have been even cooler earlier in the season when more water was gushing over it.
From there, the rest of the trip was just a grueling slog, wandering through a meadow under Douglas Knob, hopping over a creek, passing more campsites, eventually arriving at the junction with the Shoshone Lake Trail, passing over Grants Pass (the third and final crossing of the Continental Divide), and finally descending to Old Faithful at dusk via the Howard Eaton trail. Compared with the first half of my journey, the second half was basically forgettable. The five or six mile section from Twister Falls to the Shoshone Lake Trail junction was a pleasant walk through forests and meadows, but totally undynamic compared to the Bechler Meadow and Canyon. I had hiked the Shoshone Lake Trail before, so there was nothing new there, although the meadows and hot springs are definitely enjoyable sights. And I was so exhausted hiking down the Howard Eaton Trail into Old Faithful that the only way I would have liked it was if it was paved with cheeseburgers and Slurpees.
Speaking of food, I averted a narrow crisis when I arrived at Old Faithful. Most of the restaurants had already closed and it took some work to finally find dinner at the Old Faithful Lodge. My only other option was in the much-fancier Obsidian Dining Room at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and I just wouldn’t have fit in at such a classy joint until after a shower. After a delicious dinner, I checked into my cabin.
Looking back, I’d be tempted to hike as far as Twister Falls then retrace my steps, seeing the waterfalls and Bechler Meadows a second time, especially since I didn’t have time to see Lone Star Geyser or Shoshone Geyser Basin.
But would I do it again? Absolutely. It was an incredibly memorable day and a pretty cool achievement for a day-hiker. And how many people out there can say that they’ve hiked basically through an entire quadrant of Yellowstone in a day? I’ll definitely never forget my first Bechler adventure. Just after I got back, “Backpacker” magazine arrived in my PO box with a quick article about the Bechler area as a multi-day hike.
“A multi-day hike,” I thought. “Nah, that’s a day hike.”
Footnote: My plan had been to hike to Old Faithful on Friday, hang out with friends and explore the Upper Geyser Basin on Saturday, and hike back on Sunday. I was so sore that my Mom and Dad gave me a ride back to my car on Sunday instead. I just didn’t have another 30 miles in me.