Camping, Hiking, Montana, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Waterfalls, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Caldera Tales – Day 1: Trout Lake, Lost Creek Falls, Petrified Tree, & the Lamar Valley

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

September 6, 2021… the day had arrived to head back to one of my favorite places ever, Yellowstone National Park. After spending five days/four nights in the park in 2020 in what was my first trip in 29 years, I just knew I had to go back and conquer some hikes I wasn’t able to do then and explore even more. Chase unseen geysers, nerd out over volcanic tuff, forget about the world for eight days in a land of limited cell phone service. And boy, did I need this!

My body was rearing to go at 5am, thirty minutes before my alarm. I putzed around getting ready and finished packing up my car at Buffalo Bill’s Antlers Inn in Cody (not a bad place at all to stay – clean and reasonably priced for summer tourist season). I thought I’d get Starbucks when they opened at 6am in the local Safeway, but alas, they were closed (maybe for Labor Day?) so I settled for some Red Bull. Also, my hotel was old school enough that I had an actual key, and they had no drop box… luckily I swung by about 6:15am and someone was there early that I could hand my key to. I know, I’m weird, there’s no sleeping in on vacation!!! (Yet, I’ll hit snooze five times and barely crawl into work on time most days…)

I decided to enter Yellowstone through the northeast entrance outside of Silver Gate, Montana, and took the scenic Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Wyoming State Highway 296) out of Cody. I had extensively debated looping up around to Red Lodge to take the Beartooth Highway, but I wanted to arrive in Yellowstone reasonably early to get a head start on the record crowds and traffic. Regardless, Chief Joseph was well worth it in both scenery, driving fun, and geology!

Smoke filled views towards Heart Mountain as I ascended the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
The view from Dead Indian Pass (terrible name, I know!)

I stopped for a decent amount of time at the overlook for the Sunlight Creek Bridge, which is the highest bridge in Wyoming. Let me tell you, it is high, and can really be nauseating looking over the edge! There’s great viewpoints on both sides of the road of the canyon, and it was nice to stretch my legs for a bit as the sun struggled to rise.

Sunrise at Sunlight Creek
Wyoming’s highest bridge!
Sneaking in a photo of Fozzy during our stop
The bridge is not the only views at this location!
Definitely not a view of those with a strong fear of heights!

On down the road I went!

This stunning roadside scene did a lot to cleanse my mind! Sometimes its not about the planned destinations or marked attractions.
There were a LOT of signs warning about cows on the road….
Found the cows!
Pilot Peak (11,699 feet) peaking out in the hazy, smoky skies. This peak is a “glacial horn,” which was eroded on three sides by glaciers, leaving this pointed peak.

Can we talk about how there is no Montana sign at the border on US Highway 212 – Beartooth Highway? Ruined my plans for a sweet ‘gram reel with “Meet Me In Montana” playing… or a simple photo with my car, Fozzy, and the Adventure Dinos (none of which, car or dinos, had been to Montana before). Alas, I grabbed a quick video of the towering mountains, and kissed cell service goodbye as I descended into Cooke City and onward to the entrance to Yellowstone. After a quick stop at the entrance sign, I breezed through after maybe waiting only two minutes for cars in front of me. I realized I’ve gotten quite the use out of my American the Beautiful annual pass since buying it last year… $175 in national park/monument entrance fees and $30 on a pass for my local national forest all for $80 total!!

The sun wasn’t ideal for photos, but we made it!
The quaint northeast entrance station
Barronette Peak (10,354 feet)
Barronette Peak often has a lot of waterfalls in the spring months rolling off its face. Mountain goats can also be spotted here.

I wasn’t in the park long until coming to my first stop of the day, the trailhead to Trout Lake. This is a highly ranked hike, though quite short – which makes it family friendly and also great for those who just don’t want to hike long (like me, on this first day!). I stepped out into the chilly 30-something degree air, and debated my clothing choices while throwing on several bike locks (I’m use to NOT leaving a bike unattended on my car, so that was a bit of anxiety for me this trip… luckily my bike remained safe and under my ownership all week!). I eventually ditched the heavy lopapeysa (Icelandic wool sweater) which was a very good idea as the hike was all uphill and the temperature warmed quickly as the sun rose higher.

The hike is about 1.2 miles total if you loop around the lake, which you should!
Heading up the hill to Trout Lake. There were still some wildflowers, and plenty of wildfire smoke.
Trout Lake! I am not use to water being this still in Wyoming thanks to our ever present wind, so already stunning scenes were made that much better with the reflection!
There is a small log bridge on the southeast side of Trout Lake
I couldn’t get enough of the reflections!
Singletrack to happiness
Like what?!
The only fish I saw in Trout Lake
This was the trip to take duck photos. Last year it was geese… this year, ducks!
Last one, I swear!

After my hike, I cruised through the Lamar Valley, stopping to grab some bison photos, and also getting caught in one “bison jam” as they ran down a hill to cross the road.

The first of many many many bison I’d see this week! And check out that smoke… it was bad!
Field of fluffy cows in the Lamar Valley
Stampede! Bison can run over 30mph, which is just another reason to not get too close or mess with them. The fluffy cows are fast!

My next stop was the the Yellowstone River Area Picnic Area, which is where a hike begins overlooking the Yellowstone River. I was hungry, so I fixed up a sandwich at 10:30am (rules on what to eat when go out of the window while camping!). It had warmed up considerably and I went back and forth on doing the hike to see Calcite Springs, and finally decided against it at that moment, and continued on down the road.

Most visitors to Yellowstone stop for wildlife. I stop for glacier erratics… #nerd Erratics are boulders and rocks transported by glaciers, sometimes to some far away places!
A small kettle lake in the Lamar Valley. From the NPS: “Kettles form when a block of stagnant ice (a serac) detaches from the glacier. Eventually, it becomes wholly or partially buried in sediment and slowly melts, leaving behind a pit. In many cases, water begins fills the depression and forms a pond or lake—a kettle. Kettles can be feet or miles long, but they are usually shallow.”

Another stop drive later I was at the Tower junction. The road to Tower Falls is still closed, as it was in 2020, so no chasing that waterfall. I decided to hike up to Lost Creek Falls, a rarely visited waterfall that is behind Roosevelt Lodge just a little ways. I parked at Tower Junction and walked to the lodge as the road was gated off, which added a bit to the still very short hike.

Follow this sign behind the Roosevelt Lodge
The Lost Lake Trailhead serves a couple of different hiking options. If you just want to see the waterfall, like me, it is a short quarter mile hike branching to the left. Going to the right you can do a 3 mile loop to Lost Lake.
The hike follows Lost Creek through the trees. Black bears are often spotted here, and this was probably one of my hikes I was mostly concerned about bears, so I made a lot of noise and carried bear spray. No bears spotted!
At the official end of the trail this is the view of the waterfall you get. Lost Creek Falls is much more dramatic in the spring and early summer months when runoff is stronger. As you can see, by September it is a trickle!
You can carefully continue walking to see a closer view of the falls.
What a weird looking rock!!
A small waterfall, but still amazing for some solitude!
Fall colors sneaking in

A nice short hike to a new waterfall! Since it was a hot day, it was nice to get in the shade. Extra bonus is I was completely by myself despite the record crowds in the park.

Next up was the quick drive to the Petrified Tree. This is a short detour from the main road to the most accessible petrified tree in the park. This preserved redwood was caught in a volcanic eruption of the Absaroka mountains (a volcanic system separate from the hot spot that causes Yellowstone’s historic and modern day volcanism) 50 million years ago. In case you’re wondering, redwood trees are not found in this region in modern day times, but of course Wyoming was a bit different 50 million years ago!

Ancient petrified redwood
Petrified wood is considered a fossil, and happens through a mineralization process.

I found myself out of things on the “to do” list rather early in the day. My campground for the night, Slough Creek, had an early check in time, so I headed up the dirt road. Don’t get me wrong, Lamar Valley is amazing, but it was hot, midday, and severely lacking in hydrothermal features, so I was ready to “turn in” for the day. I briefly considered going all the way to Mammoth to grab some ice and hang out for a bit, but figured I’d set up camp and see how things went.

I made a brief stop at the bridge over the Yellowstone River

Slough Creek Campground is managed by the National Park Service, and is quite basic with (very clean) vault toilets and a hand pump for water. It doesn’t have the frills of the commercially managed campgrounds, but in trade you get remote views and the perks of not having 300 neighbors! This was the first year the campground was reservable, and I’m pretty sure it sold out for the season within minutes after opening up for reservations in March. I was able to score site #6, which is right on Slough Creek, and even came with a complimentary badger!!

I. HATE. BADGERS.

I’m terrified of them actually. More-so than bears. Oh goodie. (I was chased by one as a child when I was riding my bike. No, I won’t get over that!)

Well… I had perfect 4g LTE service at my campsite, so my happy butt dragged a chair down to the river and scrolled on the internet all dang afternoon and evening. Not ideal, argh! (I did bring down my roadside geology book and learned all about kettle lakes!)

Looks like a good spot to enjoy a beer!
This duck gang floated on by
And then the ducks… ducked
I made some pasta and meatballs for dinner. I use pre-cooked pasta to shorten cooking time along with frozen, pre-cooked meatballs.
The badger hole right next to my car. Ugh.
Heading back down to the river to read after dinner. It always amazes me how fast the temperature can swing… from a tank and shorts to a lopapeysa just like that!

I was in bed, still no badger sighting (thank goodness), quite early, maybe by 8:30pm. I fitfully tossed and turned, but finally got some solid sleep. ‘Twas a lazy first day in Yellowstone, but can I really complain about that river view?!

What a perfect campsite!
Goodnight sun!
Goodnight, world!

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