Backpacking the Thorofare: Yellowstone, 8 days, 75 miles

I knew nothing about the Thorofare until my grizzly-loving, backpacking-addict friend began to plan a 75-mile trip into this remote grizzly mecca of Yellowstone. The Thorofare is the furthest place from any road in the lower 48. I was definitely in on this remote and wild adventure.

Bonnie, my friend heads Grizzly protection for the Sierra Club here in Bozeman and is always cooking up amazing backpacking trips into grizzly-country, when it is not winter. I love going on trips with her because she backpacks a lot, and thus sees and understands how land connects. She knows places intimately. Wilderness is her church. The Thorofare showed me how landscapes connect; even if it gave me stress fractures in my feet and I lost both big toenails. It’s like taking a road trip, but far more intimate when you’re on foot for 75 miles. This trip is a once in lifetime opportunity for most people. It requires a permit and backcountry campsite reservations well in advance, as well as a strong competency in the backcountry. When you are in there, you are in.

Day 1: Heart Lake Trailhead to 8J6

The reality that our much-anticipated trip into this rugged wilderness might not work out sank in as we drove into the smokey haze of Mammoth. Fires surrounded us in the encompassing wilderness areas that authorities don’t contain.  We kept driving, not willing to give up yet.

The road was closed 3 miles ahead of our trailhead at Heart Lake. We decide to settle into our hotel for the night and plan for an early start, ignoring yet another opportunity to turn back. I’m nervous. I have asthma and had not backpacked regularly for years. Seventy-five miles in eight days is a big trip for anyone, particularly if something goes wrong.

In the morning we drove around the roadblock, at the advice of the visitors center, and reached our trailhead. We agreed to hike in the 12 miles for our first day and decide then whether or not to continue based on the air quality at the first campsite. Once we hit day two, we would be 24 miles in and would not turn back.

We were headed to the most remote place in the lower 48, the Thorofare. When you are in, you are 30 miles away from a road in any direction. Despite its remoteness, outfitters and backpackers do frequent this place. We saw four people while in the Thorofare. A good book on the area is Gary Ferguson’s Hawks Rest. He spent a summer in the Thorofare at an old forest service cabin, called Hawk’s Rest.

First day hiking into the Thorofare from the Heart Lake parking lot in Yellowstone.
First day hiking into the Thorofare from the Heart Lake parking lot in Yellowstone.

Probably three miles up the trail there was “an incident.”  Kate, making sure that I have my bear spray handy as we are in major Grizzly territory, asks me where my bear spray is. As I reach for it on my pack, it released right into my side and face. The safety must have dislodged in transit when the Subaru was overflowing with people and gear. Thank God I was wearing sunglasses. That stuff is hot! Bear spray is cayenne. It is meant to give a bear a bad association with people, but not do any real damage. I can vouch for the bad association! It took me an hour and a half to be able to hike again and the burn did not go away for a day and a half. My skin and eyes were on fire! Again, an opportunity to turn back, but on we go.

We reached our first and only ranger about 10 miles in. He had been waiting for us. Apparently, the trail we are on had been closed due to a recently relocated juvenile male grizzly routinely pouncing tents. The ranger had set up a “test” tent the previous night in a campsite near ours, and the grizzly pounced it!  This young male was trying to find space for himself and was most likely being pushed around by the other male grizzlies in the area. Luckily, he was pouncing in the morning and during the day, not at night. The park service had tried to find us that morning to let us know that we could not proceed with our trip. However, the ranger allowed us to continue.

Classic Yellowstone thermal pools on the way to Heart Lake.

I was nervous about this, but my group was not. I had not done a lot of backpacking in such dense grizzly country. Bonnie’s expertise put my mind at ease though. She understands their behavior and is most at peace in their territory. Thankfully, my confidence increased in Grizzly country as she dispelled myths and I became more aware of my behavior, as well as theirs. The campsite we stayed in that night was still closed as of a month later because of this young grizzly. I hope he finds some space of his own.

We met two people from Sweden on the trail who had to change their plans as they were supposed to stay in the campsite that the bear had pounced the night before. We reached our spot on Heart Lake as the smoke settled in, making for a beautiful sunset.

Smokey sunset at Heart Lake
Smokey sunset at Heart Lake.

Day 2 to campsite 8C9

In the morning we decide to proceed based on the Bluebird day seen below. Our next stop was Mariposa Lake. It was more of a climb than I expected and another 12-mile day. My boots had become a problem. I had blisters everywhere, and my feet were killing me. I knew this day would be among the most challenging due to my pack being at its heaviest and me still adjusting to the mileage, but I did not foresee my feet being such an issue.

Bluebird day morning at Heart Lake.

Below, coming on to Mariposa Lake, our second campsite. This little lake inspired me, it seemed so simple, humble, full and pure. A creek FULL of fish fed into this little lake and we were able to listen to bugling elk, owls, and wolves that night.

Mariposa Lake.
Mariposa Lake
Mariposa Lake
Kate and Chris at Mariposa Lake

Day 3 to 6M3

The third day of hiking was long and challenging again; probably around 12 miles with quite a bit of climbing. Bonnie spotted a Grizzly a few hundred yards away, on the opposite hillside, first thing in the morning. A definite highlight of the day. My feet were at their worst. I cried on the trail this day, and at our campsite, knowing I was now fully committed to the 75 miles and that my feet were going to be miserable. I took very few pictures this day because “my head was in my feet.” It’s a shame too, as the fall colors on this day, and the next, were brilliant with fuschias and yellows as we hiked up the Snake River Canyon.

Days 4 and 5 – we are in the Thorofare at 6T2

The next morning Kate helped me tape up some of the biggest blisters on my heels, and we are off. Today we enter the Thorofare! It was our shortest hiking day at 7.8 miles and the next day was a day of rest camping on the Yellowstone River. The Thorofare is a beautifully massive delta that was painted bright yellow with dense, fall willow spanning its entire belly. Meandering tributaries to the longest undammed river in the US, The Yellowstone, weave their way through this valley like ivy that has taken over a garden. Water seemed to be hiding everywhere. We had two fords across the Yellowstone River this day as well as many creek crossings. The water was low as we entered fall but still powerful, requiring us to lock arms as we crossed. The rugged mountains surrounding this valley must get massive amounts of snow.

We reached our campsite just after our second crossing of the Yellowstone. It appeared as though people brought livestock to this site as well. This was a well-loved spot made evident by the various treasures carefully left behind. There was a magic there, or maybe a kinship. It takes a certain kind of person to make it there.

I used our rest day to wash clothes, take care of my feet and stare at the massive, magical sky for hours.

Thorofare campground
Thorofare Campground
Yellowstone River
Taking care of blisters on this much-needed self-care day.
More blisters.
Big skies in Yellowstone’s Thorofare

Day 6 – The Thorofare heading to campsite 6C2

After a day without our packs on we all felt great. We were reminded again of the vastness of the Thorofare as we left the cottonwood grove of our camp and were immediately surrounded by mountains and delta. It was breathtaking.

Endless willows in the Thorofare
Bonnie in her happy place – Thorofare

After reading Gary Ferguson’s book Hawk’s Rest, I began to understand the tension between backpackers and outfitters. As seen below, these were the first outfitters we ran into on the trail. They were very nice people from Livingston, Mt, where my husband is from. I think it helped that there were more women than men involved in the meeting and that I had no judgments of them.  These two actually had a little bird that had been following them for hours, which she is looking at in the image below. Pretty cute.

I can understand why outfitters have become a contentious issue, however. As we neared Yellowstone Lake, they were everywhere, and their long string of horses and mules carrying inexperienced out-of-towners cause significant trail and waterway damage. Outfitters come from a long line of good-ole-boy mentality, according to Hawk’s Rest, and have power in numbers.  For anyone who has been through Jackson Hole, Wy., not far from the Thorofare, the Elk Refuge was created because the animal was profoundly over-hunted. I believe there are plenty of good outfitters out there, however, bringing valuable nature experiences to city folks. It actually seems like a very important, yet delicate job and if it’s done right, can aid in protecting places like this from overuse.

Outfitters in the Thorofare

We camped on the Yellowstone River again for our sixth night. It entailed hiking a total of 2 miles off trail but it ended up being worth it, although my feet disagreed at the end of each day. There is something so peaceful, comforting and cleansing about spending quiet time next to large rivers, particularly this one.  When rivers are left undammed there is a reminder that all things are somehow connected, they are profanely powerful in a confident, calm, all-knowing way.

Day 7 in route to campsite 5E3

Hiking out the next morning was surprisingly gorgeous. It had snowed on the mountain tops and we walked out of a kind of mini Thorofare. We were headed to our final campsite, though it was over 11 miles away. Today we left the Thorofare for the astounding Yellowstone Lake, and would walk through some diverse landscapes changes on our way. I love this lake. It is completely unforgiving and constantly awe-inspiring. I love that lake.

Hiking out of our campground on the Yellowstone River.


This section above brought back fond memories of my time in Idaho. There was something about following the Yellowstone River that reminded me of hugging rivers’ edges in Idaho.

Leaving the Thorofare behind

Yellowstone Lake
Sunset on a calm Yellowstone Lake with Bonnie and Chris

Day 8 – our final day

It was a sweet sorrow as we headed out. I finally wisened up and ditched my boots for chaco’s for the remaining 14 miles. We looked forward to dropping our packs but not leaving the wilderness. This was a trip to remember for sure. We had lunch at a lovely valley with a meandering stream then headed into the recently burnt forest which was actually still smoldering as we eventually made it to our car.

Lunch stop on our last day.
Yellowstone Lake, Fire in 2016. Smoldering earth as we headed to our car.









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