If you enjoy wilderness riding, hitch up your trailer, load up your horse, and head to Wyoming’s Turpin Meadows Trailhead, gateway to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
This vast ecosystem encompasses Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, portions of five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, state land, Bureau of Land Management holdings, and private and tribal land. While the ecosystem’s core lies in Wyoming, its boundaries expand into Idaho and Montana.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems is the largest wilderness block of land in the continental United States and one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth.
Equestrian adventurers may explore a total of 2.5 million acres of wilderness, 2,500 miles of trails, and 200 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which spans 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada.
With pack-animal support, you can ride into the most remote place in the continental United States in terms of being in the center of a circle situated the farthest distance from a road in any direction.
Grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, deer, antelope, eagles, and a slew of other wild creatures roam these rugged mountains and expansive meadows. Included in this wilderness are the headwaters of the Yellowstone, Snake, and Green rivers.
For trail riders, a convenient access point to this area is the Turpin Meadows Trailhead, located just east of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. To get there, enter the park, and go about three miles east of Moran Junction on Highway 287. Turn left on Forest Rd. 30050, and go about 10 miles to the trailhead.
The campground across from the trailhead offers two sets of corrals that can be divided into eight separate equine areas. The camp at the trailhead features water and a primitive toilet, but no other amenities. Dispersed camping is available on either side of the highway along the last several miles before the trailhead.
We arrived in the fall, a few days before hunting season opened, so the trailhead was packed full. However, this area is so vast, we saw very few people on our subsequent riding days.
We parked near the main trail entrance, which proved to be an interesting and entertaining location. From the comfort of our lawn chairs, we watched hopeful hunters and their pack strings, one after another, head into the wilderness.
From the Turpin Meadow Trailhead, you have a choice of five separate trails. Our first ride was to the South Fork Buffalo River on Trail #53. We rode our trusty Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate.
After a mile or so, the trail starts to work its way uphill. We rode through pines and cottonwood trees. The golden leaves of the cottonwood danced in the breeze.
Behind us, we could see the distant Teton Range, which towers more than 13,000 feet. As we rode along, we encountered several downed trees, casualties of recent windstorms. Two of these were obstacle-course material!
After about four miles, we came to a pack bridge and a huge flat where the North and South Forks of the Buffalo Rivers join. We crossed the pack bridge and rode through the forested flat to Bear Cub Pass, where the river flowed through a narrow stretch of mountains, eventually reaching Terrace Meadows.
On our return, we stopped by the pack bridge for lunch and to savor the scenery. This wide valley is a visual treat: incredible mountain views and the river, which meandered like a curving blue ribbon carelessly flung over the meadow.
Our second ride was up Clear Creek. To find this trailhead, ride out of the parking lot to the north, then go through the gate in the fence. Ride the trail through the meadows going straight north. In about three-quarters of a mile, you’ll cross a road with a signed trailhead marking the way to Clear Creek.
Prepare for climbing! The trail gains 800 feet in elevation during the first mile. Much of the trail is straight up; our horses would’ve appreciated a few more switchbacks.
After gaining elevation, we followed the trail about five miles, weaving our way through swatches of intermittent pine forests and small meadows. Finally, we stopped for lunch in a huge meadow, more than a mile long, referred to as Onion Flats. Beyond Onion Flats lays Divide Lake.
In the distance, we could see vast stretches of an evergreen sea with floating islands of golden aspen.
Our favorite ride was over to Soda Springs, located 7.1 miles from the trailhead. We began this ride from the same trailhead as the first ride, but at the first trail junction we went left instead of right.
This was an easy ride on a good trail, with a gentle gain in elevation. A few days earlier, it had rained fairly hard, so there were muddy bogs to navigate. Nate and Cowboy slopped through them like resigned troopers.
About five miles in, we reached the junction where Soda Fork Creek comes out of the mountains. The stream was lined with brilliant red brush. This was pretty but it caused us be on guard for any grizzlies that might be engrossed in a fishing expedition.
We continued following Soda Fork Creek as the valley stretched and widened. The sparkling stream crept through a bronze meadow dappled with crimson and gold. Distant mountains rose, stretching for the sky; the highest peaks wore crowns of ice and snow.
We arrived at our destination: a terraced, orange-colored hillside covered with rivulets of water. This is Soda Springs. There are two large areas where cold mineral water seeps up out of the ground, creating travertine terraces from dissolved mineral deposits.
Turpin Meadow Ranch
Turpin Meadow Ranch is located in Moran, Wyoming, about a half-mile from the trailhead camp. Nestled near the Buffalo Fork River with distant views of the Teton Range, this spot can only be described as achingly beautiful.
With millions of acres of wilderness outside the ranch, guests can enjoy a wide array of outdoor recreational opportunities and an especially well-designed horse program. The ranch offers luxury guest cabins, a cozy lodge, a rustic bar, and a first-class restaurant.
We saddled up the boys and headed out of camp. The end of our ride found us tying up our horses to the rail fence in front of Turpin Meadow Ranch Lodge. This is one of those cozy, romantic, hunting lodges — just the right size and tastefully decorated. It’s a fun place to have a drink and dinner.
Here are five tips to know before you head into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (Keep in mind cell-phone service will be spotty to nonexistent.)
· Ride rugged terrain. For your safety, accustom your horse to rugged trails, muddy conditions, fallen trees, grouse explosions, wildlife, pack bridges, and other wilderness conditions.
· Practice packing. If you’ll be leading a pack animal, practice the necessary skills at home, so you don’t end up on the trail with balky pack and saddle horses.
· Guard against grizzlies. Be “bear aware.” Grizzly sightings are frequent in the area — we even saw fresh tracks in camp. Grizzlies are unpredictable and can attack without warning, running at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Their 10-inch paws harbor sharp claws. These claws, along with strong jaws and long, sharp incisors will make quick work of any prey. Off your horse, stay alert, especially in brushy areas. Carry pepper spray and a firearm, if desired.
· Play dead. If a grizzly attacks and you don’t have time to deploy a defense, it’s best to play dead. Running generally triggers a furious charge.
· Avoid hunter kill sites. Grizzlies in this region equate gunshots to dinner bells, so it’s best to avoid hunter kill sites. We know of one hunter who was killed by a grizzly while working on his downed elk.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at [email protected]
Bridger-Teton National Forest
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
Grand Teton National Park
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Turpin Meadow Ranch
Yellowstone National Park