Yellowstone and North Absaroka Wilderness: Sunlight Basin to Lamar Valley

August 25, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

We planned this trip for a couple years after hearing great things about the east side of the park and Hoodoo Basin. There's not a ton of alpine terrain in Yellowstone that's easily accessible, so I was excited at the prospect of exploring above tree line in the backcountry. We had a couple friends from Utah, Will and Susan, come up to join us for the trip.

We dropped a car at Lamar River TH and shuttled around to Sunlight Basin. We were able to get within a mile of the Wilderness boundary. There seemed to be a trail crew who had come through recently, but there must have been a recent wind storm after that effort because there were downed trees everywhere! It took us about three hours to go two miles. In places we would have to climb stacked jackstraw that would be 8-10' high with full packs. It was fun but challenging.

20210817-jwf-001420210817-jwf-0014NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-001620210817-jwf-0016NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Eventually we reached our Sunlight Creek crossing, the last water on the route for the day, so we stopped for lunch and filtered water before we started our climb to the park boundary.

20210817-jwf-002520210817-jwf-0025NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-001820210817-jwf-0018NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Once we climbed out of the trees, the views were spectacular. It was a little hazy that day from fires to the west of us, but it wasn't so bad that it totally obscured views or made it hard to breathe.

20210817-jwf-004320210817-jwf-0043NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-004920210817-jwf-0049NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-004520210817-jwf-0045NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-004820210817-jwf-0048NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-006020210817-jwf-0060NPS / Jacob W. Frank

At the boundary we decided to take a break and enjoy the views in all directions. 

20210817-jwf-007420210817-jwf-0074NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-008020210817-jwf-0080NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-007820210817-jwf-0078NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210817-jwf-008220210817-jwf-0082NPS / Jacob W. Frank

The next day our plan was to hike from the eastern boundary of the park to Miller Creek. This section would also take us through Hoodoo Basin, which is the area we were most excited to visit. The only issue was that there was a low cloud ceiling, and since we were at 10K feet elevation, we were hiking in the clouds.

20210819-jwf-018220210819-jwf-0182NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-020020210819-jwf-0200NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-020420210819-jwf-0204NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-020220210819-jwf-0202NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Even though we were in the alpine, it was still extremely slow going because the trail was only marked with cairns and blazes every so often. We tried a handful of strategies to navigate, including one person standing at the last known trail marker while the other three people wandered into the clouds to look for the next one. This did work, but since we had such a long day of travel, we ultimately decided to break out our GPS to get us through the clouds until the trail was more well worn again.

After a little while longer, hiking through trees and still more clouds, we decided to take a break in what appeared to be a small clearing. As we hydrated, the clouds parted slowly revealing that we were actually sitting in Hoodoo Basin. We decided to take advantage of this serendipitous moment and explore the area a little more closely.

20210819-jwf-022520210819-jwf-0225NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-022720210819-jwf-0227NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-025320210819-jwf-0253NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-023220210819-jwf-0232NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-026020210819-jwf-0260NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-026320210819-jwf-0263NPS / Jacob W. Frank

As we were getting ready to leave the clouds started rolling back in. As we hiked out of the basin the hoodoos were once again completely obscured. It was one of those Yellowstone magic moments. Had we been there any earlier or later, we may have walked right through the area without realizing it. As we walked through the pass near Parker Peak we noticed lithic scatter everywhere, which makes sense that people would sit there and lookout for wildlife to hunt.

20210819-jwf-029620210819-jwf-0296NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-030620210819-jwf-0306NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-030920210819-jwf-0309NPS / Jacob W. Frank

After the pass the trail was mostly flat or downhill, which finally took us out of the clouds. 

20210819-jwf-028620210819-jwf-0286NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-031620210819-jwf-0316NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-032320210819-jwf-0323NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-032820210819-jwf-0328NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Eventually we could see Miller Creek below us, we just had to hike down the switchbacks on the feature colloquially known as "Parachute Hill." It was a little muddy so we had to take our time. We rolled into camp, made dinner, and hit the sack not long after.

20210819-jwf-033820210819-jwf-0338NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210819-jwf-033220210819-jwf-0332NPS / Jacob W. Frank

The plan for this day was to hike out of the Miller drainage to the confluence with Lamar River. It was overcast, but at least it wasn't raining. The views along Miller Creek were mostly in the trees but occasionally we did get some views of the creek, and to our surprise a HUGE petrified redwood tree stump. We also came across some fairly fresh bear tracks.

20210820-jwf-040520210820-jwf-0405NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-043120210820-jwf-0431NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-042420210820-jwf-0424NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-044920210820-jwf-0449NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Eventually we made it to the confluence and both Miller Creek and Lamar River were extremely turbid from all the rain. The sliver lining is that it knocked any smoke out of the air we had the couple days before.

20210820-jwf-047120210820-jwf-0471NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-048220210820-jwf-0482NPS / Jacob W. Frank

We made it to camp, set up tents, and shortly after we were visited by this bison. We were able to watch him from our camp as he used this tree as a scratching post. We were also treated to a nice sunset along the river.

20210820-jwf-058020210820-jwf-0580NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-061020210820-jwf-0610NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210820-jwf-062120210820-jwf-0621NPS / Jacob W. Frank

The last morning of the trip we woke up to clear skies along the river. We packed up early and hit the trail, headed back to our car at Lamar River TH.

20210820-jwf-063720210820-jwf-0637NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-069620210821-jwf-0696NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-069920210821-jwf-0699NPS / Jacob W. Frank

We made it to our final creek crossing of the trip, Cache Creek, and it was basically a bison highway. The trail through the trees was like 12' wide. Once we were on the other side we found ourselves in Lamar Valley proper with the thousands of bison in the valley for the rut. It was a pretty awesome way to end the trip, watching the bulls chase cows throughout the valley as the sound of their bellows filled the air.

20210821-jwf-071320210821-jwf-0713NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-072520210821-jwf-0725NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-075320210821-jwf-0753NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-075420210821-jwf-0754NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-074220210821-jwf-0742NPS / Jacob W. Frank 20210821-jwf-074120210821-jwf-0741NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Trip notes: the total trip was just over 36 miles and 6,200' of elevation gain. This is a really cool route because of the diversity of ecosystems you get to walk through. Hiking the eastern boundary in the alpine and Hoodoo Basin were my two favorite parts of the trip. If we had better weather, it would have been fun to explore more in the alpine. Even though we were hiking on "trail," I'm glad we had backup navigation tools for when the weather didn't cooperate. Some of the longer days hiking through the mud, we did encounter some type-2 fun, but overall this was a great trip and is now one of our favorites that we have done in Yellowstone.

Screen Shot 2023-12-29 at 6.58.38 PMScreen Shot 2023-12-29 at 6.58.38 PM Screen Shot 2023-12-27 at 8.30.16 PMScreen Shot 2023-12-27 at 8.30.16 PM


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