PHILMONT 2018: Plan B to Yellowstone!

For several months in 2018, our crew of Scouts from T128 prepared for an August trek at the Philmont Scout Ranch.  Just weeks before departure, however, Philmont cancelled all backcountry treks for the summer due to the Ute Park Fire, which burned over 36,000 acres, including 26,400 inside the ranch.  Like many units across the country, we had to scramble to salvage our preparations and plans for high adventure.

The crew considered many options for Plan B, but agreed that a western adventure that used our airline tickets to Denver was their first choice.  Our crew advisor – this really was a task for an adult – found a helpful hand from Camp Buffalo Bill (CBB).  CBB is the high adventure base sponsored by the Greater Wyoming Council of the BSA.  Although their trek programs were closed for the summer, they offered their guidance and facilities to our group so we could plan a backcountry trek in the world’s first national park: Yellowstone!

The Trip to Yellowstone and Altitude Acclimation

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After landing in Denver, our crew who lives at 320 ft. above sea level (ASL), needed a few days to adjust to the altitude.  We first stayed in Casper, Wyoming, camping in the yard of the local BSA District Offices at 5,400 ft.  The staff members enthusiastically welcomed us, and the Scouts provided the color guard for the Round Table held that night.  The next morning, we ate at a delightful local breakfast diner called “Sherry’s Place.”  Our twelve crew members hardly went unnoticed as filled about half the seats in the restaurant.  In response to a question by one of the Scouts, Sherry herself came out of the kitchen to prove that “she really exists.”  She made us feel welcomed and served up the biggest sweet rolls that we’ve ever seen. After breakfast, we purchased food and supplies at a local grocery, and we headed to CBB.

CBB is a few miles outside the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The Ranger and staff at CBB welcomed us and provided invaluable support.  In the weeks before our trek, they accepted a delivery of several boxes backpacking meals that we purchased from the Philmont Scout Ranch.  The meals were ready for us when we arrived, and CBB also provided bear spray and white gas to fill our fuel bottles.  With easy parking, a campsite at 6,400 ft. ASL, picnic tables, and showers, we were set for a night of easy camping before our big adventure.  One of our Scouts, gunning for Cooking Merit Badge, prepared a fantastic Spanish meal of fresh, tasty chicken with saffron rice.  After clean-up, reviewing our plans for the next day, and dealing with “smellables,” we willing fell asleep on our first night in grizzly-country.

Our Five-Day Backcountry Trek

Electing to trek in grizzly-country is a great way to avoid the millions of people who visit Yellowstone each year.  In fact, 4.12 million people visited Yellowstone in 2017, but once we hit our stride, we saw only six other people on our five-day, backcountry adventure.

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Starting essentially a mile from the famous Artist Point, our rough and tough boys waded through waves of tourists taking snapshots of the famous falls on the Yellowstone River.  Clearly, we were a group of Boy Scouts, and visitors young and old wanted to talk.  Cub Scouts proudly told us that they too were members of the BSA.  Scout leaders, disguised as mere tourists, disclosed their secret identities as Scoutmasters or Eagle Scouts.  Moms with boys in other units thanked our adult leaders for giving this kind of opportunity to youth.  Folks with no clear relation to Scouting were fascinated (and maybe somewhat awed?) that a group of boys ranging from 14 to 17, where going off the paved surface to spend the week in one of the wildest places in the continental US.  Undoubtedly, to many of them, our boys lived up to the iconic Scouting image of brave outdoorsmen competent in a forest.

The image did not last long.  As we hiked every higher along the rim of the Yellowstone Canyon, the effects of minor altitude sickness set in.  Now at 8,000 ft. ASL, and carrying 40 to 50 lbs. packs, the headaches started.  The crew chief, who had a similar feeling in Montana last year, felt nausea and vomited.  Fortunately, the initial standard treatment of ibuprofen and LOTS of water helped and we had no difficulties for the rest of the trip.

We hiked about nine miles that first day, mostly on the Wapiti Lake Trail.  We had tremendous views of the canyon before heading into the pine forest.  We passed the tranquil Ribbon Lake and filled our canteens from an unnamed stream.  Our forested campsite, 4M2, overlooked Moss Creek.  Upon arriving at camp, our crew of experienced Scouts acted as a team, placing the needs of the group before individual considerations.  Breaking into buddy pairs or trios, they gathered firewood, filled water bottles, hung the bear bags, and set up the gas stoves.  Only then did they set up tents and pay attention to personal needs.  After a well-earned dinner, some fun around the campfire, we turned in at about 9:30 PM.  Sleep came easily.

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Our hike on Day Two extended only five miles, but it reached our highest elevation at 9,200 ft. ASL.  Continuing on the Wapiti Lake Trail, we passed a group of four backpackers having a trailside breakfast.  We continued pass some sulfury hot springs (Orange Rock Springs) and through a forest heavily damaged by fire a few years ago.  After passing Fern Lake Trail, we ascended to a mountain pass, rested, and then hiked upward to a nearby summit for lunch.  Our summit lunch spot was ideal. Fresh mountain breezes cooled our sweaty bodies as we munched on high-calorie, salty Philmont lunches.  The fire-burned forests allowed views of our destination, the Broad Creek Valley.  We descended the pass, and soon found ourselves off-trail, hunting for campsite AB3.

The campsites on the Broad Creek are not on a well-defined trail, likely because Broad Creek is a surrounded by marshes and tall grasses stretching away from both banks.  Those grasses grow rapidly and obscure the evidence of any trail that existed. After determining that we would not find the site quickly, we decided that most of the group would stay in one place, while two would venture forward (but in sight!) down the valley to investigate the likely points of high ground where the campsite might be.  With signal whistles in hand, they slushed their way through the marshy grass toward a stand of pines about a quarter of a mile in the distance.  One long whistle blow would mean they found the site; three short whistles meant they had to keep looking.  Our smiles erupted when we heard ONE long blast!

We stayed two nights at Broad Creek because stringing together a backcountry trek late in the season for a group of twelve is not easy.  In fact, we consider ourselves lucky to have mapped out a trek for five days, in a world famous park, with only a few weeks to spare.  All of the credit goes to our adult trek advisor and the rangers at Camp Buffalo Bill and the National Park Service rangers who helped him.

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Having established our set-up and eating routine, we were finished with dinner by about 7:30 PM, and the Scouts relaxed around their campfire.  About this time, we met the only other folks we encountered in the backcountry.  They were two friends who had met while through-hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  One was from Alabama, and the other from Colorado. They were heading up the Broad Creek—with its invisible trail—to camp at site 4B1, which we knew was about four miles away.  Given the distance, the late hour, the conditions of the trail, and the fact that the grizzlies become more active at dusk, we offered that they could set up their tents in our site for the evening.  They decided to press on.  At 9:30 PM, however, they were back.  Apparently, they trudged through wet marsh in fading light for an hour before realizing that the better decision would have been to accept our offer. Upon returning, they gladly accepted our renewed offer and set up their tents nearby.

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Our plan for Day Three was to use our site as a basecamp for our gear, while we bushwhacked up the Broad Creek to find the Whistle Geyser and nearby hot springs.  According to our guide books and maps, these natural wonders would be about four miles away, near the campsite that our friends could not find the night before.  On an ideal trail, a one-way, four-mile hike would take about 1.5 hours.  These conditions, however beautiful, where in no way ideal.  We never found the two campsites shown on the map, and any trails we may have found were most likely made by elk. Steep mountain faces on both sides of the creek forced several water crossings using fallen trees as bridges.  By 2 PM, although likely near our goal, we elected to turn back.  It had taken over four hours to go 3.5 miles, and we did not need to risk ending our hike at night.  Shortly after 5 PM we walked into our campsite, tired but in good spirits.  Even though we missed the geyser, we thoroughly enjoyed our adventure.

Our fourth day of hiking included a side trip to Wapiti Lake.  Having eaten three days of food, our backpacks were lighter so the hike UP to the lake was not too much to ask.  Located at 8,400 ft., away from any crowds, we had this beautiful pond to ourselves.  With time to spare, we hiked to the other end and had a leisurely lunch on the shady bank.  With even lighter packs and full stomachs, we happily turned around for our descent to find the Astringent Creek Trail.  About two miles later we arrived at campsite 5B2, nestled between two rises and near a field that widened into the Broad Creek flood plain.

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We arrived fairly early at this site.  It gave the Scouts time to relax in the shade and play cards.  It also gave us time to do laundry by rinsing clothes in the creek (no detergent!) and hanging them in the sun to dry.  The downside to this site was that it was clearly popular with the horsey-set.  “Evidence” of horses pervaded the site, even around the campfire.  Moreover, the field was the best site to set up our tents that night, but the ground was very lumpy due to horse prints formed when the ground had been muddy.  Regardless of the lumps, we did our best to get a good night sleep. Recognizing that our last day would be the longest hike, we were in bed by 9:30 PM so that we could awake at 5:00 AM.

At 5:00 AM, our watch alarms rang but nobody willingly left their sleeping bags.  This day was the coldest morning we had experienced, with the temperature near 25o F.  Icey dew coated our tents and our hands numbed as we rolled up our sleeping bags and tents in the dark.  Everybody layered up with all the clothes we had—wool hats, mittens, fleeces, rain jackets, etc.—until the sun peaked into our valley and the day warmed up.  With a 12-mile hike planned, we elected to have a cold breakfast so that we could move-out at first light.  An unexpected health concern delayed us for a brief period, but nevertheless we left our site at about 6:45 AM, still in the cold morning shadow of our mountains.

Our hike on the last day carried us from headwaters for the Broad Creek (flowing north toward the Yellowstone Canyon), pass Tern Lake, and to the headwaters of the Astringent Creek. The Astringent Creek, by comparison, flows south through a wide-open plain known as the Pelican Valley.  Of all places in Yellowstone, Pelican Valley is known for wildlife and especially bears.  In fact, no camping is allowed in the Pelican Valley and tourist without backcountry permits are not allowed to leave the southern trailhead before 9 AM. Although we did not see any bears, on this last day we encountered buffalo, a strafing by a bald eagle near Pelican Bridge, and a coyote near our trail.  In the last mile or so, we also encountered the scariest beasts of all: tourists with Hello Kitty water bottles, strolling in flipflops.  Clearly, our high adventure was over.

Return to Civilization 

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Our last two nights near Yellowstone were at Camp Buffalo Bill, where we enjoyed the use of the dining hall kitchen, dried out our tents using the flag poles, and sent volumes of dirt down the shower drains.  On the day before leaving the region, we joined our Hello Kitty crowd by visiting Tower Junction, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Norris Geyser Basin.  We also hiked the Beaver Pond Trail.  On the second to the last day, after departing CBB for the last time, we sat on a long bench with hundreds of others to watch Old Faithful erupt, toured the Old Faithful Inn (the largest log structure in the world!), and hiked a mile to view the Grand Prismatic hot spring.  After lunch at the Old Faithful Village, we stuffed ourselves into the van for a long ride to Rawlings, Wyoming.  Along the way, we drove through Grand Teton National Park and viewed the peaks.

On Saturday–after one Scout burned his toast and set off fire alarms in our hotel—we drove to Denver, had barbeque for lunch, and boarded our flight at about 5 PM.  Happy parents met us at Dulles Airport’s baggage claim, seeing their sons arrive home, safe, sound, and a little bit more confident in their abilities. All told, we hiked about 38 miles in the backcountry and another seven in the front country, in one of the most famous parks in the world.  Our tally of animals – elk, deer, grizzlies (from the road!), big horned sheep, coyote, and buffalo—was impressive.  Best of all, our shared experience reinforced our bonds of friendship and the brotherhood of Scouting.  We thank all who helped us with Plan B!