Words and Photos by Michael Polletta
How one man’s story lead me on a chilling four mile hike in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley
Reality sets in when you start a hike with bear spray in one hand. That reality is the realization that you are heading into a landscape that is more wild than anything else in the lower 48 states. A landscape that is one of the last few homes to some of the most feared predators in the U.S. A landscape that is one of the last few ecosystems of its kind that is still almost completely in tact. It’s a landscape that is unlike any other, and because it is so unique, it demands some extraordinary precautions.
It was a story that Mark Jenkins wrote that peaked my interest in Yellowstone. He described his hair raising journey into Yellowstone’s Thoroughfare, complete with tales of finding grizzly bear scat 100 yards from his camp one morning and the Delta wolf pack howling in song to each other during the night. The Thoroughfare is geospacially the most remote place in the lower 48 states. It’s the only place where you can be more than 20 miles from a road in every direction. So since my friend’s parents own a cabin outside of Red Lodge, Montana, and we’ve been given access to it, my wife and I loaded up the car for the 10 hour drive last fall and left the Denver madness behind for a week.
It’s getting pretty difficult to find places in Colorado where you can feel like you’re disconnected from civilization. I’ve lived here for 12 years and have been to some of the most remote places in the state, yet I’ve only seen two bears. I still haven’t seen a mountain lion. It’s getting difficult to find anything other than elk and deer in Rocky Mountain National Park. It just feels like Colorado is missing some of its wildness.
But Montana? Montana has the elusive and vicious wolverine! Montana has mammoth sized grizzlies! Montana has Yellowstone’s keystone species; wolves! And all three of these feared predators that once roamed “colored red” can be found in Yellowstone. There’s only been one documented wolverine spotting in person in the U.S. during the last several decades, but Yellowstone has plenty of grizzlies. They even have grizzly management zones. So I decided to take us into the heart of grizzly country, Pelican Valley.
The park limits access to these grizzly habitats during the bears’ prime seasons. It was October and the bears were prepping for their long winter’s nap, so access to Pelican Valley was restricted to 7am-7pm.
Yellowstone is incredibly massive. The landscapes are so immense they’re hard to fathom. The park is practically a ghost town too once schools are back in session, unlike Rocky Mountain National Park. So we parked the car, dined on various olives, cheeses, meats, crackers, and fruit, and started up the valley.
We were completely alone in grizzly country. The trail leading up the wide open valley was soon winding its way through dense pine forests. We also noticed we weren’t alone anymore.
Now this is wild! It’s also freakin’ terrifying! Grizzlies! The bear spray was in hand. The trail snaked it’s way through the forest, and we slowly inched our way into each hairpin turn and toward the top of each hill on this obvious grizzly super-highway. It was the most exciting yet hair raising hike of my life. We were the only people within several miles of Pelican Valley, but were clearly not the only ones here.
We made it through the forest and into another massive clearing in the valley, where we discovered a few bison grazing. We took in the scenery for a while and headed back down the grizzly highway. Much to my disappointment we never saw a bear. We even headed back to Yellowstone Lake to see if any would come out to catch their evening meal, but they never showed up.
It’ll take a lifetime to explore Yellowstone and learn about the true history behind how this land became a national park. To put things in perspective Yellowstone is about 9 times the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. Bivy’s new Bivystick makes it even safer to venture off the beaten path and explore the more remote areas of these beautiful places. So pick a park, do some research, learn the real history behind these magnificent places, and go experience something wild…and don’t forget to hit that track button on Bivyapp!