This is great – all the benefits of campgrounds, and none of the drawbacks. They’re closed, yet open. Fall camping in the Yellowstone Ecosystem can be just as solitary as you want it to be, thanks to the Forest Service’s practice of leaving the gates to the campgrounds open after they have closed them for the season. No more camp host, no fees, no water, no electricity, but most importantly, no crowds of rookie campers. I love it.
Last week we were in the Bighorn Mountains of northcentral Wyoming, and after six days we headed toward town for provisions (doughnuts). Town in this case is Cody, Wyoming, a thriving metropolis of 9,000 people in the middle of the Bighorn Basin between the Bighorns and the Absaroka Range in northwestern Wyoming surrounding Yellowstone National Park. After doing laundry, hitting the Walmart, and provisioning ourselves with an adequate supply of doughnuts, we headed west on US 14/16/20 – there’s a bit of a bottleneck in the Rockies, all these roads get squeezed together – up the north fork of the Shoshone River toward the Yellowstone east gate.
Theodore Roosevelt called this the most beautiful highway in America, it’s a gradual ascent between huge mountains and the wilderness areas surrounding them, past real ranches and dude ranches and just plain houses built by people who fell in love with the scenery. The Shoshone River drains the valley east of Yellowstone, and its clear, cold late summer flow is joined by side creeks coming in from the valleys between the mountains, which cut through the towering volcanic rock of the valley walls.
My favorite house in this stretch is the unfinished extravaganza near the town of Wapiti (the Shoshone word for elk) – some guy started building and just couldn’t stop. His wife left him, everyone in town thought he was crazy, and yet he kept building, a one-man crew with block and tackle, hauling surplus beams and other material up the hill and assembling it into his idea of a dream home. Tragically, he ended up dying from falling while working on it, and there it stands today, a monument to his vision.
West of Wapiti is the “welcome to Shoshone National Forest” sign, the valley narrows, your cellphone quits working because there aren't any towers up here, and the campgrounds start appearing. The season up here is over in mid-September, and some of them, like Big Game Campground, are CLOSED closed – a gate across the entrance says see you next year.
But just up the road a bit, Wapiti is also closed, but the gate is open. Drive on in, pick a spot, and set up. You’re home. The water and electricity (if the campground has it) is off, the dumpsters are padlocked, the pit toilets are open, and there’s no paperwork to do or people to hassle with. We sat there in a grove of trees and let the leaves drift down onto us. Most relaxing. There’s no dispersed camping in this valley, but sitting in a closed campground is the next best thing.
Don’t relax too much, though; this valley is full of bears. Bear boxes adorn each campsite. Fiona desperately wanted to hunt bears, and sat outside (with proper supervision) for hours looking for one, but the berries and fish are gone and there’s no reason for a hungry bear to hang around this particular spot this particular week. But they’re out there. Somewhere. I saw no bear tracks on the riverbank during our stay, which is fine with me.
We headed back into Cody for provisions (pizza this time), and then went back up the valley into Yellowstone. The fall colors were very impressive; the aspen don’t last long, but they are a bright spot in the dark green conifer forests of the Yellowstone Basin. A few tour buses and sightseers shared the road with us as we went around Yellowstone Lake, past the fumaroles and mudpots, over the continental divide, down through Teton National Park, and headed southeast on Highway 26/287 at Moran.
Up over Togwatee Pass and the continental divide again, past the Turpin Meadow campground we stayed at on the way to the Montana Meetup, where i saw my first badger, and we were headed down the Wind River Valley, one of our “gotta get back there” destinations we had blown through back when I was working and we were driving 8000 miles in two weeks on whirlwind tours of the west. This is the Bridger Teton National Forest, another of the national forests which surround Yellowstone and make up part of the six million acre greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Up near the top, at 8300 feet, we spot another brown forest service sign – Falls Campground. Hey, the gate is open! In we go, pick a spot, and set up. Plastic wrap surrounds the water faucets, but also the iron ranger camping fee drop box. Good, no paperwork. The ridgeline behind us is the continental divide – that’s Crescent Mountain, 11,370 feet. Beautiful stars before moonrise, the Milky Way high overhead, a few airplanes, some satellites, a meteor or two, and then off to sleep in blessed solitude. It might as well be called Campskunk Campground – we’re the only people here. Fiona says it's the Fiona campground. They're all the Fiona Campground.