Hiking: 7.1 mi / 1400 ft. climbing
Biking: 18.9 mi / 7.1 mph / 2719 ft. climbing
Home: Canyon Campground hiker/biker site at Yellowstone National Park
This morning’s alarm was closer to “last night’s alarm”, waking us at a record-early 3am. But it was an exciting 3am, not a forced-march 3am: we were getting up to watch the Perseid meteor shower! Even more exciting for me was that it was Rett’s idea; I’m much more of the astronomy/science/cool-shit-in-the-sky nerd than she is, so when she suggested the idea and did all the research to determine the best time to watch, that was almost as awesome for me as the meteor shower itself!
We knew the sky would be moonless, and that even in this tiny bit of civilization in Yellowstone, light pollution wouldn’t be a problem. But what we didn’t know is if it would be cloudless, so there was a chance we’d just be going right back to sleep. I pulled aside the curtain next to the bed, and even through the window, whoa…let’s get ourselves outside!
“Meteor watching in Yellowstone” might conjure the image of us silhouetting the starfield atop an isolated hill, amidst a ring of sleeping wolves, but in reality we were just laying flat on our backs on the asphalt of the Roosevelt Lodge’s empty parking lot. We initially brought out our camp chairs, but even their low-slung recline didn’t point our eyes sufficiently skyward, so we got our EVA foam mat, some of the cabin’s pillows, and blanket, and hoped there would be no 4am SUV arrivals running us over in the black.
The sky conditions were absolutely ideal, and the gazing would have been perfect even if all the lights in the sky were static. But we saw streaks of light almost immediately, and our retinas collected probably 20 or 30 in the hour or so we lay on our backs. None were night-to-day fireballs, but I at least doubled the number of shooting stars I’ve seen in my life, and loved simply lying there with my wife doing nothing but watch the cosmos perform for us.
Once the moon came up, we retreated back into our cabin to eat yesterday’s grab-and-go breakfasts, augmented with ice-bucket-chilled iced coffees we’d purchased from the Roosevelt mini-store yesterday. The “wood” burned slightly better in the stove today since I figured out how to create a better airflow, though it was still a struggle. A 60-degree cabin isn’t exactly warm, but it was warmer than the parking lot, and warmer than yesterday’s 53F (despite a colder outdoor temperature this morning), so I guess it did something!
We rolled out of the cabin at a near-record 6:15am, probably not much earlier than we would have left even if the Perseids hadn’t provided that happier excuse to get us up. Because the less-fun task of the morning involved climbing 2400 ft. of mountain on the narrow, busy Yellowstone road, so the Perseid show turned out to be a nice coincidence that let us make the rest of our day more comfortable.
Before starting the real climb though, I showed Rett all the most-worthy viewpoints along this part of the Yellowstone canyon that I had scouted yesterday. This was actually the third time I had seen some of these sights (I had ridden this part of the road, in the opposite direction, in 2007), but being able to park our bikes and walk to the Tower Fall viewpoint without seeing a single other person was far better than the two previous times. I realized we could hear a river (or second waterfall) roaring far below in the trees, a sound that hadn’t even registered yesterday afternoon over the voices and footsteps of the crowds.
We finished the morning sightseeing and began the real climb to Dunraven Pass at 7am. It’s 2400 feet of standard Western 5%-grade mountain-climb over 9 miles, so our main concern was having lines of traffic backing up behind us (and then dangerously passing) as we inched up the hill at 4.5mph. But our early start was successful at making the traffic nearly non-existent. We roughly matched the 1000 feet per hour (breaks included) rate of climbing that I’d noted during our climb of Beartooth Pass, so that’s now a useful metric. During the last 400 feet up (around 9am) traffic finally started picking up, but it only reached annoying-level and not dangerous-level. So by 9:30am we had reached the top, and ate a second-breakfast at the Mt. Washburn trailhead.
We’ve been awake for six-and-a-half hours, we’ve made it to the top of the pass, it’s time to roll back down, right? Nope, not for us! The road has taken us up the western shoulder of Mount Washburn (while the Yellowstone River splits away and goes around the eastern shoulder before we rejoin it later), so why not go all the way to the top? It was a 7.1-mile round trip (despite signs giving oddly multiple different incorrect distances in the 5-to-6 mile range), with another 1400 ft. to go up in addition to the 2600 ft. we already climbed on the road from our starting point. Plus the 6300 ft. we’ve ascended from Seattle sea-level over the last couple months, which means we will have genuinely climbed to the summit of a 10,000 ft. mountain from its base, under our own power, something almost no peak-baggers actually do.
The trail was essentially a gravel road switching back up the mountain, so it was a relatively easy climb. Another thing that made it unlike our climbs at Glacier was that maybe only 25% of the people we saw were carrying bear spray (vs. 95% at Glacier). It’s interesting how different the culture is, even with a woman being killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone just a few weeks ago (I remembered to strap ours in this time!)
Just like I don’t really think of Yellowstone as a “hiking park”, I also don’t think of it as a “mountain park”. Since you’re already basically on top of an enormous supervolcano, there isn’t much more room to go up. Even Mount Washburn, one of the tallest in the park, isn’t particularly prominent or picturesque, so while I thought it would be a nice thing to explore, I didn’t have particularly high expectations.
Which is why the mountain was able to easily blow away those expectations. The distant views, with mountains in every direction, were tremendous. The sense of truly being on an isolated peak towering over everything is something I’ve rarely experienced, and it was augmented here because we were above the treeline.
There was a multi-level concrete observation tower at the top, festooned with radio equipment (including Verizon antennas that had been giving me my first cell service in days, ever since I exited airplane mode after spotting the tower through my zoomed-in camera while we were still riding up to the pass!) The combination of its construction and location made it feel like it came from “Battlefield: Earth”; it’s a place that primitive humans will re-discover in a post-apocalyptic future, a repository of forgotten technology and weaponry that will help jump-start the long-awaited counteroffensive against the alien invaders. Or, they will simply see it as a mysterious ancient temple to be feared and revered, with the red lightning-bolt symbols on the giant round antenna covers indicating that they were devices the old mystics used to communicate with (and soothe the temper of) the Electromagnetic God.
Or, maybe the thin air at this altitude was just getting to me.
We didn’t find any weapons inside the bunker, but it did contain the most advanced vault toilets we’ve ever seen. The upper level was closed, but inside on the lower level we could sit out of the cool wind and eat lunch while letting the informational graphics sort out which distant mountain peaks we were looking at. We probably should have woken up at 11pm (or never have gone to sleep) to watch the meteor shower from here.
As we were re-sorting our gear from our backpacks onto our bikes back at the trailhead, we waved at another loaded bike tourer (the first we’ve seen in Yellowstone) as he went by. To our surprise he actually stopped on the downhill and circled back, and we had a nice chat with Ray, who was broadly doing the Great Divide on his heavily-loaded Surly. We were both heading to the hiker/biker site at Canyon, so we said we’d likely see each other there too.
As we rolled down the 5-mile hill to end our day, I was thinking “Ray…Ray…how many Asian-looking bike tourers named Ray can there be in the world?” Because we had met another one almost two years ago in Humboldt County, California. But I recalled the first Ray being a real roadie-type guy, carrying almost nothing with him, so I figured it was unlikely this second Ray was the same guy, and didn’t even think to ask when we met him again at the campground registration office (it’s a totally different setup here than at Glacier, with no online reservation of hiker/biker sites. You need to show up in person, which virtually eliminates the site-stealer problem that’s endemic in Glacier, and the clerk was aghast when we told her about it. “If that happens here, call the police!!”)
As we arrived at our site (the first hiker/biker site I had ever stayed at in my life in 2007, and I was proud that I remembered its many-tent-pads running down a hillside structure), I went to compliment Ray on his fast tent-pitching and he said “I think I’ve met you guys before…” Holy shit! It was the same Ray (actually spelled Rey)! We had met him (and Annie and Ahmed) in October 2021, a month into our nomadacy, and shared a hiker/biker site with him in the Humboldt redwoods, and here we were sharing a hiker/biker site with him again, 1000 miles and 22 months away. What are the chances?!? Pretty good, apparently, because it’s getting weird how often this sort of thing happens to us. He hadn’t been out full-time since then like us, but was currently in a relatively long-term mode, having started north on Pacific Coast route in spring and now heading south via the Great Divide. We had a nice catch-up chat while he cooked up a fancy dinner for himself on his Whisperlite Stove (the same model as ours, and Rett reminded me that he hadn’t been carrying a stove at all the first time we met him!), and while I don’t think we can take too much credit for his transformation, it was cool to hear that a thing or two we had talked about on that October night had stuck in his memory. We certainly remember that he had passed along a big bag of weed to us from a Humboldt pot farmer!
For ourselves, we walked over to the shopping-mall-like Canyon Village (and across its giant parking lot), and got some burgers at a 50s-style fast-serve diner setup for an insane amount of money. The food wasn’t too bad actually, but it was the first time we’ve really felt ripped off by National Park prices. The mall also had by far the hugest National Park grocery store we’ve seen this summer though, so taking advantage of that over the next couple days will hopefully make up for it.