One of the best-kept secrets lies just north of the Yellowstone National Park boundary in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. Not far away, roads bustle with the summer tourist invasion of Yellowstone Park. Traffic stops at every area where elk and buffalo stand, and multitudes of cameras snap photos of the same animal seemingly unmindful of their intrusion. Time stands still in the wilderness where no roads exist, just trails established by the hardy people who've passed through so many years before. The howl of a lone wolf protests our invasion, and the roar of a waterfall washes it away. The rattling of panniers and clinking of the mule chains are the only man-made noise that breaks the silence of the valleys we pass through.
Our week of excellent riding started at the Hell's A-Roarin' Ranch nestled in the mountains above the old mining town of Jardine, Montana. Jardine is located just east of Gardiner, the northwest entrance to Yellowstone Park.
The ranch, owned by Warren and Susan Johnson, is at the end of the road. Just beyond their property line is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area's 950,000 acres and the attached Yellowstone National Park. "We only own 40 acres but it's like owning a million," Susan says.
Excitement mounted as we watched the wranglers wrap our duffle bags in canvas panniers and load them upon the mules. Half of our group was to take the 22-mile high route across the mountain divide from the Hell's A-Roarin' Ranch with the mule string. The rest of us trailered our horses to a trailhead along the northern edge of Yellowstone. With promises to see the rest of the group at the camp, we loaded our horses for the short drive to the trailhead. Having two routes into the camp gave us a good chance to see a larger part of the wilderness, and we'd take the other route back home.
Mules are used to pack in everything needed for the backcountry camp located northeast of the Johnson ranch. A special trip to the camp is made in June to haul up the essential supplies, such as tents, stoves and cots and kettles. This includes two 400-pound cook stoves that are carried in at the start of the season and back out again in the fall. "It takes a big mule to carry them," says Warren.
One mule carries a stove halfway up the mountain to the divide where four men unload it, then place it on the back of another mule for the remainder of the trip. For every group that stays at the backcountry camp, a string of mules carries in the food and clothing for the week. On this trip - sponsored by Hell's A-Roarin' Outfitters, and Mike and Laurel Easton of Five Star Equine Products - eight mules packed in the essentials for a total of 15 people.
At the trailhead, we loaded our saddlebags with our water and lunch. Anxious to start, we mounted up. Not far into our journey, we crossed a long, narrow suspended bridge high over the Yellowstone River.
The water was high for the time of year due to the ample rainfall received in the area. I was thankful for the bridge; the power of the water below was obvious. We continued on along Hellroaring Creek, equally loud in announcing its presence far below the trail.
The meadows were washed in a multitude of shades of purple, yellow, white, and red wildflowers, and the air was heavy with their scent mingled with the aroma of pine. We rode in and out of dense forests, the cool shade welcoming us in the heat of the July sun.
Along the trail, halfway to our destination, the horses alerted us to a pair of grizzlies running up the hill. Luckily, they were far enough away to enjoy watching them with no threat to our safety. After they ambled along their way, we headed down the trail once again. Our exhilarating ride ended 14 miles into the wilderness area at our backcountry camp nestled along Elk Creek that became my home for too short of a time.
The next day, the avid riders in our group rode to Hummingbird Peak, which is 10,016 feet above sea level. The climb is long along switchbacks that wind back and forth across the rocky mountainside of the Absaroka-Beartooth Divide.
We rode through lingering patches of snow that lay in the higher altitudes even in the July heat. From the top of Hummingbird, the view is astounding in all directions. The wildflowers were abundant, but in miniature form. In a square foot area, you could find at least 10 different species of plants. Our wrangler, David Roach, a biology major, did his best to identify as many plants as he could.
The following day, we took an easier ride to Carpenter Lake, while quite a few men in the group chose to go fly fishing in Hellroaring Creek. The devastating fires of 1988 hit this area hard, and the ghostly remains of charred trunks stood sentinel along the shore. But wildflowers carpeted the ground, and new pines were already stretching toward the mountain skyline.
The burnt-out areas allowed us to see evidence of the Sheepeater Indian tribe that inhabited this area many years before. We found an old fire pit, and places where they sat and made arrowheads and other stone tools. The trout swimming in the lake's crystal-clear water made us wish we'd packed in our fly rods.
Sadly, our time in the backcountry had to come to an end. After assembling our gear and watching expert hands pack the gentle mules, we left on our last ride of the week. Just out of camp, we were treated to the sight of Sandhill cranes and their babies as they ran to hide among the creek brush.
The thrill of watching the pack mules as they followed Warren across streams and along narrow trails softened the disappointment of having to leave. On the 22-mile ride "over the top," we enjoyed breathtaking views from a 10,000-foot-plus elevation along the Great Divide. We buttoned up our jackets and pulled on gloves to ward off the chill.
The deep valleys echoed with the roar of waterfalls as my horse cautiously picked his way across each rapidly flowing cold stream. Columbine blossoms cheered us along our way as clematis climbed amongst the deadfall.
After crossing a wooden bridge over a rapidly flowing creek, we entered a quiet meadow where a ranger's log cabin stood. Visions of a hot pot of coffee cooking on the woodstove made me long to go knock on the door and ask permission to stay just a few days more.
We came upon the emerald green-waters of Fawn Lake and stopped to eat our lunch until sprinkles of rain made us head down the trail once again. The majestic rumble of thunder echoed across the mountains signaling an approaching storm. Soon, the fresh, gentle rain dripped off our hats and ran down our slickers, but even that didn't dampen our spirits. It was just another piece of heaven deep in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.