Hiking Mt. Washburn

[Guest Post by Meghann K.]

When the idea of this trip came up I was instantly excited. Anyone who knows me knows that I will try anything once, and am always up for a good adventure. The fact that I have a degree in Earth Sciences only made the idea of going to see Yellowstone National Park even better. My biggest concern was that I have never been much of a camper, but I was lucky to be going with two people who took care of all that for me.

Heading out on what turned out to be the first of many hikes, I was filled with the same sense of excitement and dread. I love to hike, but was concerned that Ray would think I wasn’t in good enough shape to keep up with him. I hated the idea that I would slow him down, or make a fool of myself in some way.

As we headed up the trail, I quickly realized that I was fine, and started to enjoy myself. We had chosen the Mount Washburn Spur trail. The first section of the trail takes you to the top of Mount Washburn at over 10000 feet above sea level. It is one of the most popular hikes in Yellowstone, and even though it is all uphill, it is totally worth the trip to the top for the view alone.

at the top
heading up washburnOn the day that we did the hike is was clear (at the start) and we could see forever. From the top it gives you an idea of the size of the caldera that exploded and formed the landscape that we see today (note: Yellowstone is on top of a super-volcano). Our trip to the top of Mount Washburn took us about an hour, but the recommended time is at least twice that.  We made it up quicker than expect, passing almost everyone else, as well as a family of mountain goats. At the top we had some lunch, took some pictures, and then realized that we didn’t have our map. The lack of map, along with our decision not to bring bear spray, would be things we would eventually regret, but at the time we were happy to continue on our journey, onto what was described by Yellowstone as an “unmaintained trail”. Living in British Columbia, trails often have branches and trees across them and this is what the ranger said was meant by “unmaintained”.  Turns out what it really means is that you enter a field, or open area of steaming ground, and search until you see a trail marker. By the way, the trail markers change colour from pink to yellow to orange to red along the trail. (It’s possible more research could have been done before hand, but where’s the fun in that?)

hikingAlong the spur trail portion we met only two groups of people. A couple who we passed early on, and a group of guys near the end, but for over 2.5 hours it was just the two of us in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. We followed the trail, and were very thankful for the trail markers because as I mentioned, when they say “unmaintained” they are leaving you to enter an open field and hope that you notice the trail marker on the other side.  Thankfully we did!  The start of the “spur” portion of the trail is not easy. It drops considerably, quite quickly and we often found we needed to walk one foot directly in front of the other. Other than that we walked along and enjoyed the undeniably beautiful scenery around us.

When you look on the Yellowstone website there are some safety tips that all hikers are meant to follow (see here).  Ray and I had decided to not follow many of these rules including: “hike in groups of at least 3”, “carry bear spray and know how to use it”, “carry a map”, “carry a first aid kit and water proof jacket”, and although not a rule, we realized along the hike that neither of us had brought any form of identification either.

We regretted no map when the trail forked. There was only one area where the trail forked along the entire 11 miles and luckily we picked the right direction! Bear spray had been an issue of contention between us and Alyssa prior to the trip. We had looked at it at a local outdoor store prior to the trip, but had agreed we didn’t want to spend the $40.00 if it wasn’t essential. (Alyssa interjection:  Note – at the time of their hike I asked MANY times if they are SURE I shouldn’t buy them bear spray, because I really thought they should have it.  They insisted it wasn’t necessary, and I assumed I was projecting my intense fear of bears on to them.)

As we walked along the trail, we joked about bears and how we would take pictures when we came across them. Even about which one of us would survive the bear attack. (Hint: Ray is both faster and can run longer distances than I can, so it wasn’t looking good for me). It was all fun and games until we saw what we determined to be a bear track along the trail. That definitely changed my attitude a bit. We were also in what seemed like “bear country”.  As I started to ponder what seeing a bear would really mean, the weather started to change. That storm that we had seen way off in the distance was suddenly directly above us. To people living on the west coast we aren’t really accustomed to thunder storms of this nature. This was like nothing I have ever experienced, and of course, it was directly above us. The thunder began in front of us and rumbled directly above and over us. I was convinced that I was going to get struck by the many lightning strikes we were seeing.  As if this wasn’t enough, Ray  had just pointed out a LARGE fresh pile of what he suspected, and we later confirmed, to be grizzly bear poop. I could hear the fear in his voice and we trekked on through the intense rain for about 5 minutes in silence before deciding to try to make as much noise as possible while we walked. It was then that Ray uttered one of my favourite quotes of the entire trip (because I was feeling the exact same way), “I would pay $500.00 for bear spray right now”.

stormWe continued on through the rain in our non-waterproof gear (in fact I didn’t bring anything waterproof on the entire trip), our heads on a constant swivel for bears (if I had been able to rotate my head 360º, I would have). I was seeing bears everywhere. Every single tree looked like a bear, every movement of grass I thought was hiding a bear. Just when I thought out trip couldn’t get any scarier, the rain started to hurt. Thats when we realized it was hailing! Again, hail isn’t something we are used to so we hid under a tree to avoid it….in a thunderstorm.  In bear country.

fieldsLuckily, the hail and rain stopped almost as quickly as it began, and right about the same time the forest became less dense, and our fear of bear attack subsided. The sun came out and we began to laugh about our “near death experience”. The trail opened up and we ended up walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The views were amazing!

gcoyIn terms of the trail, it was tough but the biggest elevation gain is the first section when you climb to the top of Mount Washburn. You need strong quads for the 2+ miles of straight down you will do, but after that the trail is pretty flat. Watch out for hot springs, and random steam vents, but that could be said about anywhere in Yellowstone. Check the weather and be prepared! (That sound you hear is the pot calling the kettle). The trail suggests 6-8 hours. We did it in about 5 hours, which stopped for lunch at the top and break to hide from the hail. You come out right near Inspiration Point along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon so it is a great place to get your ride to pick you up.

This hike cemented what was from them on known as the “Rayghann rules for hiking.”  Because the Rayghann rules fly in the face of common sense and safety, it has also led to a per-hike list of ways to die on the hike.  So without further ado:

Ways to die on this hike: 8

  • Heart Attack on the way up Mount Washburn
  • Falling and hitting your head on the steep down hill segments
  • Random crack in the earth if you step off the trail (A hazard anywhere in Yellowstone) – this could include breaking a bone or scalding your skin in boiling hot water or steam
  • Getting off trail and getting lost in the wilderness
  • Death by Thunderstorm/Lightning
  • Tree being hit by lightning and falling on you
  • Falling into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

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