by Rick Lamplugh
Oct. 21, 2015
Basking in the Bechler
Shouldering into 40-pound packs, we trudge away from the historic Bechler ranger station. On a narrow timber, we wobble across a small creek. This is the first of many water crossings and fords that Mary, Brenda, Fred, and I will face in the next four days.
Bechler Meadows, our first-time destination, in southwestern Yellowstone is a water wonderland. With 80 inches of annual precipitation—the most in the park—much of the area is under water through early July. Year around, it has sloughs, marshes, ponds, creeks, hot springs, and rivers. Bechler has the highest concentration of waterfalls in Yellowstone—some well over 200-feet high.
Our real entrance into this wonderland is Bartlett Slough. The way over this 30-foot wide pool that confronts us is on a log someone has placed there. The log is about four inches—one boot—wide. I grab a couple of branches from the ground left by other hikers, step onto the log, and push a stick into the water on either side of me for balance. This works until I reach the middle, which is bouncy and wobbly and over deeper water. To touch bottom with my sticks I have to bend forward at a right angle. That heavy backpack and the bouncing log want to send me into the water. Why didn’t I accept Fred’s offer a moment ago to use his hiking poles? I stop, take a breath, concentrate, and reach the other side, dry and wiser.
Mary, Brenda and Fred cross successfully, each bent over. That posture is comical now that I’m across. As we sit on the ground and stare at the pool, sharing our fears of failing and falling, ten young hikers arrive. They greet us and approach the log in a long straight line. Without hesitation, the leader walks quickly across the log standing tall and without poles. As the rest of the group crosses upright and pole free, the four of us look at each other with chagrin. Mary sums it up, “I’m glad they didn’t arrive when I was bent over on that log. I would have been embarrassed and probably fallen in.”
We recover from our embarrassment and continue along the edge of a forest, shade on our right, sun-drenched meadow on our left. We reach the next ford, put on sandals, roll up pants, and wade across. The water is knee deep, chilly, refreshing. We joke and laugh. Now that’s the way to cross a creek!
Just before we reach our first campsite, we come to a crossing of Boundary Creek. There’s a log above it, about eight inches wide. Fred and Brenda cross with no problem. Mary climbs on, takes two shaky steps and slips off into still-shallow water. I meet her when she walks out of the creek. We sit on the bank, remove our shoes, put on sandals, and wade across together.
Mary and I set up our tent near the meadows edge. During the night, I worm free of my sleeping bag and unzip the tent flap which is stiff with late-September frost. I crawl out, hands and knees chilling. I stop, look up at the sky, and all discomfort fades. The moon is full, the sky clear. A few stars even shine through. I stand, exhale, and watch my breath slowly rise toward the moon. The meadow’s golden grass glows, the frost sparkles. It is so quiet that I can hear the whisper of Dunanda Falls a mile and a half away.
Early the next morning, Mary and I stand and admire Boundary Creek as it snakes quietly through the meadow. I have read that this area supports deer and elk, black bear and grizzlies, wolves and coyotes, moose and muskrats, beavers and otters, bald eagles and osprey. But so far we have not seen or heard any evidence of this wildlife.
A howl from the Bechler wolf pack would make my trip. The Yellowstone Wolf Project says there are six adults and four pups here. Where they are today—or any day—is a guess since none of the wolves are collared.
Hoping for an animal sighting, I join Mary, Brenda, and Fred for a day hike to Dunanda Falls. We pass through part of the 8,000 acre Robinson burn that swept through here in 1995. We find lots of yellow aspen bright among young lodgepole pines. As the trail climbs gradually, the willows get thicker. We round a curve and there’s the first sighting: a young bull moose chomping willows. He swivels his big head, studies us, swallows, and returns to eating. We stand and watch and then slip quietly up the trail, trying not to disturb him further.
We reach Silver Scarf Falls, a 250-foot cascade that roars and sports full-sized logs piled up like twigs. Only 200 yards later, we reach Dunanda Falls. Dunanda, according to Lee Whittlesey, is a Shoshone word for “straight down” and that fits. But it’s the rainbow at the base of the falls that captures me. When I finally pull my gaze away, I take in the distant view. No crowded geyser basins, no buildings, no roads, no noisy motorcycles, just the rumble of the falls, purr of the wind. What a refreshing change from summer along the Grand Loop.
We have come to accept the summer noise and record-breaking crowds along the figure-eight road by which everyone tours the park. I’ve read that all the development—the roads, buildings, and parking lots—cover only about five percent of Yellowstone. But when I hear how sound travels, I figure that human noise ends up covering much more of the park’s wild land. Since the Bechler is one of the rare areas not accessible from the Grand Loop, peace and quiet reign.
Upon returning from Dunanda Falls, we load our packs, break camp, and head for our next site. The trail passes through thick forest and enters an expansive meadow with wide wet areas that we must avoid or get sucked into. Surrounded by this meadow, I am reminded again of the animal-filled Hayden or Pelican Valleys. This meadow is as big as those. This meadow is as full of grass. This meadow has a creek running through it. Where are the elk? Perhaps in winter the snow is too deep. In spring and summer there is too much water and mud. And by now, the elk are up high enjoying the remaining green.
Reaching the meadow’s edge, we encounter the Bechler River ford. Since Mary has been hiking in sandals, she simply rolls up her pants legs and walks right in. The water, she says, is cold and clear and she can see well ahead. She tracks the shallow ford created by the buildup of rounded gravel on the bottom. Near the middle of the crossing, the water almost wets the bottom of her pack. As she continues, the danger fades. We three follow her lead. My feet are burning from cold by the time I cross.
We set up camp in the forest and have a warmer night’s sleep. Awakening to a second Bechler morning, I meander to the river and plop on the grass, still moist with dew. I listen to the trickle of the one riffle in this stretch of river. I stare at the clouds and sky and conifers reflected in slow moving water. The reflection looks like an oil painting, the ripples create the strokes of an artist’s brush.
Mary, Brenda, and Fred arouse me from my art appreciation and we start our hike to Colonade Falls. We quickly arrive at a sign that points toward the Bechler River Canyon and says that Old Faithful is 24 miles in that direction.
Standing by the sign, I say, “A herd of bison lives near Old Faithful and 24 miles would be nothing to them. They walk 20 miles along the Mary Mountain trail to travel between the Hayden Valley and the Lower Geyser Basin.”
Brenda says, “That’s true, but here there are miles of canyon they would have to go through to get from Old Faithful to here.”
She’s right. The Bechler River Canyon is seven miles long. And as we hike into it, I see that the trail is mainly a one-person wide path between steeply sloped jumbles of volcanic rocks or cliff edges on one side and the Bechler River on the other. Why would a bison even enter the canyon without food to draw it in? Maybe the canyon is a natural barrier.
Climbing gradually, we pass many big, old Douglas firs. The Bechler has the largest Douglas firs in the park, another result of all that water. And these giants escaped the devastating fires of 1988.
Continuing on, we hear the roar of the upper and lower Colonade Falls. Falls like Colonade and Dunanda abound in the Bechler region in part because of the area’s unique lava flow, according to David Rodgers, a geologist at Idaho State University. Here, the lava from ancient volcanic eruptions did not soar into the air and crash to earth. Instead, the lava—as hot as 1500 degrees Fahrenheit—oozed across the ground, forming two volcanic plateaus from which waterfalls and cascades now descend and pour into the meadows below.
Our trip out of Bechler along a different trail was easier than the trip in, though it wasn’t any drier. But by our fourth day in this water wonderland, we were old hands at wading and balancing. And that wide suspension bridge over the last creek helped too.
A few days after our return, as I read about the history of the Bechler Region, I realized how lucky we are to have this wet and wild part of Yellowstone. All that water that we traipsed through once attracted people who coveted this area for something other than a “useless” park. In the 1920s Addison Smith, a representative from Idaho, introduced a bill into the U.S. House to turn the Bechler region into an irrigation reservoir for his Idaho constituents, But, according to historian Aubrey Haines, after William C. Gregg explored the Bechler and “found more falls and cascades than in all known parts of the park.” Smith’s bill died the death it deserved. But Smith didn’t give up. A few years later he tried to have the boundaries of Yellowstone Park changed so that the Bechler would no longer be in the park. Thankfully, that attempt failed, too.
To view a four-minute slide show with music and my original photos of the Bechler area.
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Rick Lamplugh lives near the north gate of Yellowstone and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.