Saturday, November 14, 2009

Yellowstone Backcountry - Buffalo Plateau Trail - Part 3

Got up at 7:30 and Tom was already getting the packs and food down from the bear pole. Breakfast of coffee and oatmeal that had a tinge of Ya Ya flavoring. The "Yard sales" are getting smaller and more organized and the pack up is getting quicker and quicker. Passed a backcountry milestone by digging my first cathole.

We backtrack to the intersection with the Buffalo Plateau Trail and as we climb from 8,400 feet we, having lost some macho from the day before, both agree to take frequent breaks as, the Hawaiians say, we "talk story" on the climb. Conversation takes our minds off the climb and keeps us going.

The trail is still not well defined, but we're not having trouble following the ruts from previous hikers.

We only have to climb to about 8,900 feet when we find the Buffalo Plateau Partol Cabin. Tom Had been wanting to get rid of some extra food since Hellroaring Creek, and I convinced him not to dump it somewhere - that we'd leave it at the Patrol Cabin, with the occupant or in their bear box. Unfortunately, the cabin appear unoccupied and there was no outside bear box. Tom decided against dumping the food in the latrine so on we went.

As we continued to climb, the trail was getting less and less distinct. Luckily, like mariners, we were able to sight from carin to carin and convince ourselves we weren't on a wildlife path. We made it to the topographic crest of our trip at around 9,200 feet. It seemed almost as challenging only climbing 800 vertical feet vs. 2,400 the day before so we must've been "feeling" the altitude. We busted out the tripod and took a group photo.

After our "summit", we had lunch and started down into the tricky part of the day's hike - finding the east-west Poacher's Trail. I had used Orville Bach Jr.'s Exploring the Yellowstone Backcountry to plan my trip. It also recommends that for the circuit hike of the Buffalo Plateau, one purchase a 15-min topo map of the Mt. Wallace, Montana area. I bought the Rocky Mountain Surveys Backcountry Waterproof Topomaps: Gardiner-Mt. Wallace Quadrangles. Both these sources showed the trails connected, but other books I purchased showed the trails not connected. Google Earth topo maps showed them separated and I could not discern the trail on the Google Earth aerial photos. I knew the connection between the end of the Buffalo Plateau Trail and the Poacher's Trail could be trouble, so I had 4 different trail maps, topo maps, the Mt. Wallace quad topos, and (turns out most importantly) a compass.

We descended and started to get nervous because the carins and the trail distinction seemed to disappear. We'd see two rocks together, but not necessarily a pile on not in a way that didn't look natural. Trails were not worn, but just visible places where vegetation had been pushed aside - wildlife trails?

Where's the trail ??????

We referenced the maps and made out landmarks. We were in the neighborhood, but couldn't find a clear trail, intersection, or trail markers. We circled around for about an hour looking for something that gave us confidence. Worried that were were losing daylight and we could see storms brewing in the east, we pulled out the compass and decided to start bushwhacking toward Buffalo Fork Creek. Luckily, we spotted the creek and valley on our descent from 9,200 feet and a distintive volcanic/hot spring face to guide us to the creek below.

We used the compass to work our way east and tried to wind our way along the easiest topo. At one point we found a clearly delineated trail (Poacher's ?) and followed it until some downed trees forced us off the trail and we lost it again. More bushwhacking to the east with the compass...

There were lots of large treefall (from the '88 fires?) so we were watching or step as we climbed over large whole trees and navigated down some steep slopes. We found moose and elk antlers and spooked to large elk traversing the same slopes. We kept a sharp eye for bears since we were off trail.

Bushwhacking through the deadfall.....

One of the great things about the Rocky Mountain Surveys topo map was that it showed wetland features. During the planning phase, and having poured over the Google Earth aerials trying to find the trail, I knew the Poacher's Trail should pass through a large wetland complex on its way to Buffalo Fork Creek. As we descended, I could see a large wetland area and we made a beeline for it.

It was dry enough to cross without getting wet, and low and behold, at the far side, we found a distinct trail, right where the Poacher's Trail was supposed to be! There was much jubulation! Now the hard part, the trail we found was going north-south and we knew we had to head east and descend. We followed the trail south as it was trending downward. We only went a quarter mile when the trail turned back west and went swithcbacking up a steep slope. Wrong Way!

We retraced our steps, headed north, climbed a little, and then the trail turned east and down. Home free! We contniued to descend as the trial crossed dufunct hot springs and mineral deposits like we had seen active in Yellowstone. Very cool, but we hustled becasue it was getting towards dusk and the storms were still brewing in the east where we were headed.

Travertine deposits?

Defunct Mineral Springs with depsoits....

We finally popped out into the valley at 7,600 feet with the Buffalo Fork Creek laying out in front of us. Unfortunately, there were no trail signs, no markers, or directions to a campsite. Our minds immediately turned to finding a tree to hang the packs and food so we headed north towards a peninsula of trees that stuck out into the meadow.

We saw a canvas-sided “tent-cabin” near where Grassy Creek flowed into the Buffalo Fork Creek. It had lights on at night and there was a flag pole in the clearing flying the American flag. Was this a Forest Service camp? It was some official camp. The Rocky Mountain Surveys topo map showed a “Buffalo Fork Guard Station" to the north beyond Hidden Lake, but nothing where we were. Maybe the Forest Srvice moved the camp since the map was printed in 1988.

We set up the tent and made a hasty dinner (double Mountain House meals to alleviate Tom's pack burden) as the raindrops and night began to fall. While looking for a good limb, Tom spotted a bear pole and our route-finding/bushwhacking/backcountry intuition senses tingled and swelled. We covered our packs and hoisted everything up on the bear pole and beat it back to the tent for a little journaling and sleep.


A couple of folks have asked about the location of the campsite and bear pole at Buffalo Fork so here's some additional information:

Here is the map I purchased online for navigating the backcountry....

Here is the section of the Backcountry map that covers where the Buffalo Plateau is supposed to connect with the Poacher Trail It doesn't show well in this image, but on the map the connection between the Buffalo Plateau Trail and the Poacher Trail is a dashed purple line. We realized after we got home that the dashed line is described in the legend as "seldom travelled, little or no signs of a path and may be impassable for horse travel. Suggested for experienced back country users only, unless the route is marked with carins on the map" The color purple on the map signified "approximate location" God damn! (Double click to enlarge)

Here is a topo map for the same area and it doesn't even show a connection between the two trails! (double-click to enlarge)

Here is the Google Earth topo map. It shows the Buffalo Plateau Trail (highlighted in pink) hitting that 9200' high. We followed the topo line on the ground along what we thought might be a trail so that we would intersect with the Poacher Trail. We walked around the rim of this valley, but never found the intersection. We dropped down into the valley to look for the trail, but found a variety of confusing, what we surmised were, wildlife trails crisscrossing the valley. From our high elevation, we could see to the east and see the valley where the Buffalo Fork was. We also knew from the Backcountry map of Gardier/Mt. Wallace, that the trail was supposed to cross a big wetland area. So with the light fading, we started bushwhacking to the east, compass in hand, continuing downhill until we in fact found the marsh and were able to pick up the well defined trail on the downhill side.

We hightailed it to the bottom of the slope where the Poacher Trail came to a "T" as we faced the river. Because we had this Google Earth image, we knew there were trees to the north that we could hang food from if we needed to (double-click to enlarge).

With a storm approaching, we quickly made dinner on a rock outcropping at the tip of the "phallic forest" shown in the picture. On our way to pitch the tent in the clearing to the north we spotted a proper bear pole, and then right nearby we found a stone-ringed fire pit. Neither was marked as far as we could tell, but maybe that's changed since. I guess I wouldn't count on it.

The next day we fished and relaxed. The next day we rock hopped across the Buffalo Fork (as shown in the Google Earth image below) to continue on the trail back into Yellowstone an onward to the Slough Creek campground and the end of the trail for us. (Double-click to enlarge)

Hope this info helps!


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