Backcountry

Packin’ & Relaxin’ in Yellowstone National Park

A pack trip into Yellowstone National Park provides a relaxing vacation.

More and more horsemen are discovering pack trips as the complete vacation, if they enjoy the outdoors. If you don’t like camping, it probably isn’t for you; but if you like great scenery at a leisurely pace, and hearty camp cooking, and good fellowship, you can’t beat it.

Packing into Yellowstone National Park requires food to be stored in trees.
Food-packed panniers are swung high in Yellowstone, to keep bears from marauding the kitchen area.

There are all kinds of pack trips, too. Some are to cover distance, with packing up every morning, and setting up camp again every evening. Some are at a more leisurely pace, with fewer campsites and a chance to remain in a camp for a couple of days at a time. Others are set up to pack into one main camp, and make daily cloverleaf rides out of that camp. Almost all outfitters offer drop-offs, too, which means they will pack you into a campsite, leave you, and return at a predesignated date to pack you out.

Whichever kind you decide on, you also have a variety of other choices. Trips are arranged for hunting, or fishing, or photography, or any number of other specifics if you desire. You can even select the locale, if you have a preference for desert, or badlands, or high country, or just “remote.”

Campspots on streams, rivers, or lakes not only offer the bonus of fishing, but swimming or bathing. All camps offer great opportunities for loafing, or relaxing, or to observe the wildlife, or hiking or climbing, or lots of photography.

We had a memorable pack trip last year in Yellowstone National Park that offered a mixed bag of interests, and everyone has a great time doing their own thing. Brien Palmer took advantage of every camp to hike and mountain climb; Dick Ludewig ran rampant with his photography. Vel Miller sketched, painted, and took reference pictures for her artwork, while her husband, Warren, teamed up with Oregon rancher Bob Johnson to brush up on packing techniques. That’s another nice thing about a pack trip—most outfitters will let you help as much as or as little as you want to. And most people who go on pack trips discover that part of the fun is pitching in and helping wherever you can.

Pawley holds a mule during a pack trip into Yellowstone National Park.
Ken Pawley holds the mule while Bob Johnson and Warren Miller practice up on their packing technique.
Pack trip into Yellowstone National Park with mules.
When the mules come in for morning cake, you catch ‘em and tie ‘em to a tree on moving days.

Those who wanted to fish got plenty of chances, and most of the fishing was catch-and-release. We kept careful count as to just how many were needed for any specific meal, and that’s all we kept. A hot shower always feels good after a pack trip, but a brisk dip into a river, stream, or lake is zestful and invigoratin’ . . . and can make a shirt last a couple of extra days!

You don’t have to be a photographer to get good pictures on a pack trip, and even the rankest amateur can get photos that bring the pleasant memories back for years to come. Outside of national park boundaries you can hunt for antlers, bones, skulls, and other interesting items that add charm to your place . . . and drive interior decorators crazy. We toted some wonderful “finds” down from the high benches above Eagle Creek Meadows, including one big old elk antler that was brilliant with vari-colored lichen. Old antlers are usually pretty badly chewed up by porcupines, chipmunks, and field mice.

Bear sign while on a pack trip into Yellowstone National Park.
Brien holds up a couple pairs of saddlebags that had been “opened” by investigative bears on a previous pack trip.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have packed into many parts of the West, and in most western states. Every trip was enjoyable, but the lure of Yellowstone Park and the surrounding wilderness areas is strong. The variety of wildlife, the scenery, the fishing, and the many trails offer a new adventure each time. Different campsites in the various areas make for pleasant changes too.

There is always the chance that you might meet a buffalo on the trail, or moose, bear, or elk; or spot some bighorns in the crags of the high country. Coyotes singing at night, or a flock of sandhill cranes whooping it up, or the pleasant meadow music of the belled pack mules loose-grazing in the tall grass are just some of the sounds that add to the experience. Other sounds, too, add to the wild symphony—such as the high-pitched scream of red-tailed hawk, or an osprey soaring high above the sunlight, or horses snuffling and cropping grass close to your tent at night. Or it might be the soft whirr and flutter of the wings of the gray camp robber looking for some tidbit handouts when you stop for lunch.

And did you ever notice, on a warm day, the mixed aroma of horse, pine, and sage? I’d like to buy a bottle of after-shave lotion that smells like that.

Old friends are always best, and after a few days on the trail even your new friends turn into old friends. Wrangler Randy Welfl surprised everyone by sauntering into the “kitchen” and baking up a fantastic batch of Dutch oven biscuits. Old-timer Sue Pawley had some good help from newcomer Mavis Lewis in the kitchen area. Mavis had hair the color of a newly minted penny, and was a good hand on the trail and in camp. This past winter we found out the real reason Randy likes to hang around the kitchen and bake biscuits. He didn’t want to be a cook—he married Marvis!

This article was originally published in the July1987 issue of Western Horseman.

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