trip report: Yellowstone National Park – Hellroaring Creek, Yellowstone River, Black Canyon, & Blacktail Deer Creek, June 2021

Early season in Yellowstone National Park means snow melt. Many of the creeks and rivers are swollen and most likely impassable. The trail may also become a marsh. I didn’t think of this when I originally sold the idea of backpacking here to Brenna and Bradley (pictured below),

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specially the idea of hiking around Shoshone Lake and down Bechler River trail. But it became clear after a quick look on the backcountry situation report on the Yellowstone NPS webpage was that our plans would have to change for the beginning of June. So sometimes the lesson here is just going with what’s available or take the advice of a ranger. That’s how we ended up following the early season roars of the well names Hellroaring Creek and Yellowstone River for a few days. We were even joined by a local.

Note from John (website editor & author) on 2022/12: When I started to writing this report earlier in the year, the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park flooded knocking out several roads including the portions between Gardiner, MT and Cooke City, MT (NPR). While the road that’s part of the Northern Loop where the trailheads for this hike are located on has reopened, I don’t have exact information about the backcountry conditions and bridges status. Please check with the Yellowstone backcountry status report for more up to date information (NPS). So this report is most likely dated already… which is part of the reason I had stopped working on this series. But back on the saddle I go. 

This is the third entry of our 2021 Wyoming trip series covering our backpacking trip up Hellroaring Creek, Yellowstone River, & Blacktail Deer Creek (3). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

click to expand
1 planning & research
2 Yellowstone National Park – Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
3 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking Hellroaring Creek & Yellowstone River
      3.1 backpacking gear list & preparations
      3.2 hike information
      3.3 video
      3.4 report
            3.4.1 Hellroaring Creek Trailhead to 2H9
            3.4.2 exploring Hellroaring Creek
            3.4.3 2H9 to 1R1, Yellowstone River
            3.4.4 1R1 to Blacktail Deer Trailhead
      3.5 fauna on the trail
      3.6 final impressions
4 Yellowstone National Park – Mammoth Hot Spring
5 Yellowstone National Park – Grand Prismatic Springs
6 Gallatin National Forest – Lava Lake
7 Bridger-Teton National Forest – backpacking Gros Ventre Wilderness, 3 days
8 Bridger-Teton National Forest – Crest Rim
9 Bridger-Teton National Forest – backpacking Cirque of the Towers, 3 days
10 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, 2 days
11 Yellowstone National Park – backpacking Lamar River & Mirror Plateau, 5 days
12 Wyoming final impressions, top 5, & budget

gear list & preparations

My gearlist for the hike was my typical loadout for a 4-5 day trip.

gearlist

For the 2021 season, I had a couple changes to my big 4. Specifically, my backpack and sleeping bag. I addressed my gear in the planning and research post in this series

For my pack, this was my first trip with the Zpack Arc Zip (see my review here). This trip was with it in its base configuration without add-ons and I learned a lot about it and what I need to fix on this trip. You can actually see my and meg’s old backpacks on Bradley and Brenna as I sold it to them for cheap in my efforts to get them out to the trail. 

For my sleeping “bag”, I bought an Enlightened Equipment stock 10°F quilt (see my review here). I got it because it allowed for open toe box or zipped, had vertical stitching so that the down doesn’t fall to the sides, and was in stock to shipped right away. I had a very light 40°F quilt that wasn’t a bit too cold for me in the Rockies.  This is my go to quilt for everything and I found it very versatile and comfortable. 

One things I didn’t bring that I could of used was my umbrella. This trail was in the open A LOT and a moving shade would made the hike more comfortable. I used it to our advantage on a later hike in this series in Yellowstone.

food

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For my eating habits, I prefer large meals rather than snacking so I typically start off and end the day with large meals. Yes, I will eat that chili mac (or in this case spaghetti) for breakfast. With our originally plan of 5 days and 4 night, I planed for 8 meals that is a combination of pre-made dehydrated Mountain House meals, some dehydrated egg mix I bought online, and random dehydrated meal packs from Trader Joes. I brought plenty of food to experiment with on this hike since our days were not going to be strenuous. 

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hike information

  • Hellroaring Creek, Yellowstone River, & Blacktail Deer Creek
  • distance: 25.4 miles (40.9 km)
  • elevation change: 4247 ft (1294 m) ascent & 4081 ft (1238 m) descent
  • time: 4 days & 3 nights (10:55 hours moving)
  • location: Hellroaring Creek Trailhead, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA (google map directions)

For our hike, we camped 3 nights in the Yellowstone backcountry. 2 nights up Hellroaring Creek at 2H9 and 1 night along the Yellowstone River at 1R1. We originally had planned to continue another day along the Yellowstone River to camp at 1Y2 and exit out toward Gardiner.  

Since this is a point to point hike, we would need to figure out how to hitch back to our car. Gardiner was a major town around the park and the north entrance. There is a road (new road has now been constructed after the flood of 2022, different than the canyon road available to us in 2021). So we figure it would take 2 hitches to get to our car — from Gardiner to Mammoth Caves and another to our trailhead. 

However, we had to cut our hike short as Bradley need to send in some paperwork in the real world so we bailed out of the Blacktail Deer Trail. It also made the hitch back to our car much easier since both trailheads were on the same road.

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video

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report

day 1 – Hellroaring Creek Trailhead to 2H9 on Hellroaring Creek

  • distance: 6.0 miles (9.59 km)
  • elevation change: 943 ft (287 m) ascent & 1185ft (361 m) descent
  • time: 3:44 hours (2:54 hours moving)

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Our first day on trail start late in the day, very late at 4:30pm. We didn’t get to the part until noon since we knew we didn’t have far to go on the first day and that we’d have a free day on our second, but I guess we didn’t realize how long the drive through the park would be. At lease the days were longest in June. Plus we avoided the hottest part of the day.

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With me on the first part of my trip and this hike was Bradley and Brenna, it would be Brenna’s first backpacking trip. Their backpacks might be seem familiar to long time readers here as they bought our old packs. 

We started at the Hellroaring Creek Trailhead for the Yellowstone River Trail

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and came to an opening over looking the Yellowstone River a few steps from the trailhead.

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For two third of a mile, we’d head down toward the river at an average of -12.5% grade dropping 449 ft into a patch of forest for a few flat steps. We the last of the 139ft downhill would be a quarter mile at -8.8% grade until we reached the suspension bridge across a canyon over the Yellowstone River.

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After the bridge, the trail took us through a patch of forest and then onto the edge of Buffalo Plateau. We passed the Buffalo Plateau Trail junction and continued forward on the Yellowstone Rive trail. 

As we crossed the plateau, we were serenaded by the many trills of, what I think, are Rocky Mountain Pine Martens as they stood up and to take a peak at us before running back to their holes.

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After Buffalo Plateau at the 2 mile mark on our day, we came to the ford point of Hellroaring Creek. This early in the season, the creek was roaring for sure and not a safe ford. We would be heading toward the bridge by turning right at the junction anyways since our campsite was 2H9 further up Hellroaring Creek. 

The 2 mile to the bridge was a mild uphill as we stay mostly away and up from the creek. There weren’t too much of interest other than a couple small stream crossing at the end where we filled up on water and the first of many carcasses bones we’d see on the trip.

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We reached the footbridge at the 4 mile mark of our hike and turned right at the junction on the other side for the final stretch to our campsite.

We were glad for the bridge for sure as the creek was all whitewater. The bridge is still intact as of 8/3/22 according to the NPS, but please check the park website for up to date details (NPS). 

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After the junction, we had a quarter mile to gain the bluff over the creek at 12.3% incline of 150 ft. The trail flattened out after taking us into the Montana portion of Yellowstone National Park.

Eventually the creek came up to the creek and we found rocky bluff to hang out on overlooking the roaring creek.

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We crossed an open meadow with Hellroaring Peak to our left before

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arriving at our campsite 2H9 just after 8pm. The campsite was located close to Hellroaring Creek providing for some nice rushing water white noise. Our tent sites were further into the tree behind the food prep area. Surprisingly, Bradley was able to get a bit of cellphone reception at the campsite, enough to get a text here. My dinner was the Mountain House spaghetti more for the bag, which I’d use for my rehydration vesicle for the rest of the hike. After dinner, I was glad to go to sleep early since we had been traveling none stop so far on the trip. 

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day 2 – zero day

trail information

  • distance: 4.3 miles (6.9 km)
  • elevation change: 408 ft (124 m) ascent descent
  • time: 3:06 hours ( 1:45 hours moving)

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The zero day served for a couple purposes on this hike. The first was to allow us to take it easy after traveling. The second was to allow us to explore further up Hellroaring Creek. We did decide to stretch our legs on just a short few miles. We headed up the trail following the creek just past the boundaries of the park in to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness but not further beyond that. The spring of 2021 was extremely hot in the area and we decided it would better to take a dip in the creek and relax at our camp  watching the meadows for wildlife instead.

However, we ran into the wildlife even before we reached our camp. As we crested a hill we found a black bear scrounging around a open meadow. After observing him a while, we made our presence known and it meandered up the mountain to our right. Little did we know, it was not the last we saw of the bear as they wanted a closer relationship that we had in mind. 

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After returning to camp, we found an eddy in the rushing Hellroaring Creek and took a dip. The snowmelt water was very cold, but welcoming on the unseasonably hot day. Afterwards, we lounged around our food area looking out toward the open meadow hoping to see more wildlife. We should have looked the other direction.

The scene had Bradley and Brenna in their hammock. I was laying down on my tarp with our food bag next to me. We were facing out toward the meadows under Hellroaring Peak. Our backs were toward the woods, where our tents are situated a couple hundred feet back. Bradley heard a snap of a branch and looked back. Then he said rather nonchalantly, “John, there is a bear behind you”. With his tone, I lazily turnover and from my upside down perspective the black bear we had seen earlier 10 to 20 feet from me. He was also meandering toward me in the most casual way possible, like he was trying to blend in to the environment. I reached for my bear spray, jumped up quickly, and started to make noise. The bears reaction was in the realm of “oh hey, didn’t see you there. What food, I wasn’t going near your food… just out for a stroll. Anyways moving on.

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Speaking of food, I mainly snacked and ate my pita bread, prosciutto, and general stuff that wouldn’t last long or weighed a lot. This was why it was out in the open next to me as we lounged. We spent the rest of the day hanging out and playing with the antlers and bones around the camp. We had the option of starting a campfire here, but decided against it since it was so hot. I personally turned in early with hiker midnight to catch up on some sleep.

day 3 – 2H9 to 1R1 on the Yellowstone River 

trail information

  • distance: 8.6 miles (13.8 km)
  • elevation change: 1082 ft (330 m) ascent & 1721 ft (525 m) descent
  • time: 5:52 hours (3:32 hours moving)

We left camp just after 9:30 in the morning heading south and retracing our steps on the Hellroaring Creek trail. In the 1.8 miles back to where we crossed over the Hellroaring Creek, along the way we returned to Wyoming and found a geomarker. 

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Instead of crossing the bridge, we continued on our current side of the river. It was 0.8 miles with a slight downhill until we reached the Hellroaring Creek patrol cabin.

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We took a break here and saw the first backpacker on the trail on our trip going the other way. The next 1.2 miles took us up over a hill before we came to the junction with the Yellowstone River trail. We saw more antlers along the way, which Brenna proceeded to put on her head. 

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and a couple thermal ponds that had a few ducks floating around in them. We could smell the sulfur and opted not to take water from them.

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From here there weren’t much shade and the midday sun beat down on us. 

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At the junction with the Yellowstone River Trail, we thought about heading the half mile down to the campsite or over to the ford of Hellroaring to get some water. We decided to continue on and I gave the half liter I had among Bradley and Brenna. 

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For the next third of a mile, we continued around an interesting looking mound without any reprieve in sight.

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We again had the option of heading the half mile down to a campsite 2H1, but decided to continue on.

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This was probably a mistake as the trail started to gain elevation. It was only at roughly 4.4% grade, but the sun made it feel worse. At this point, I think the heat was getting to Bradley a little bit, so I went ahead to try to find water. There was a bit of a trickle in what is typically a marshy area so we made due with that for a little, there was still no cover however. I continued ahead for just under a mile until I can to a stream with a tree close to it so we can take a lunch break.

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We were in much better spirits after the break, which was good since the trail for the next 0.8 miles continued uphill at roughly 6.5% grade. Part of the trails here was through a bit of forest, so we did our best to hop between the shades. Along the way, there were plenty of wildflowers and animal carcasses. 

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The animals, a pack of deer, we did see were even huddled under some shade. Only one bolted as we got close, the rest just stared at it as it went.

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Once we were on the downhill, we found plenty of streams. Even some that flooded a short section of trail, I’ve seen trail beta that this could have been a lot worse during a typical early season hike (youtube – My Own Frontier). The first 1.3 miles of the descent was at about -9.5% grade, with a few steps of uphill in the middle. Along the way we started to get glimpse of the Yellowstone River as well.

Finally, we emerged out from the forest to a grand overview from a bluff of the Yellowstone River starting to go through Black Canyon and our campsite for the night, 1R1. 

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Our last half mile descent was at 8.8% grade crossing a creek before a sign for our campsite. The campsite was sandwiched between 2 streams, which we could access for a splash and clear drinking water. These were much better options than the mucky Yellowstone river at this point of the season. Near the west creek was the tent area and near the east creek was our cooking area with a bear box. No fires were allowed here.

We got here mid afternoon and took our time to soak in the water and nap. Dinner for me was some Trader Joe Mac and Cheese that I used too much water to rehydrate. I added some dehydrated peppers I order on amazon and part of the summer sausage. Not sure I’d purposely get this one again, the tortellini on the other hand I would, I had that for breakfast. 

We were all happy to turn in early for the day since we were all feeling it from the sun. 

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day 4 – 1R1 to Blacktail Deer Trailhead 

trail information

  • distance: 7.9 miles (12.7 km)
  • elevation change: 1791 ft (546 m) ascent & 766 ft (233 m) descent
  • time: 4:48hours (3:14 hours moving)

We were up early in the morning since we were getting out. That included doing post hike things like getting a hitch, booking hotels for the night, and the reason we were getting out early, for Bradley to do some important paperwork.

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Right off the bat, we had to get our feet wet by crossing the creek we slept next to last night.

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Then the next 3.3 miles was a relaxing, flat morning walk along the Yellowstone River with the birds chirping. The scene wet very well with my morning coffee.

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The bluff along the canyon walls at points seemed to be made of basalt formations. I’ve always found them interesting, from Northern Ireland to my time on the John Muir Trail to my local hike in Virginia

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We would see a few more examples of basalt formations as we went.

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At the junction with the Blacktail Deer Trail, we met our second group on the trail. We crossed the Yellowstone River here on another suspension bridge, over calmer water this time.

After a last look at the Yellowstone River, it was time for the uphill to begin.

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The next mile was our toughest at 13.3% grade all in the sun up the Blacktail Deer Canyon. The creek below in the canyon taunted us and our dry mouth. So make sure you have water before starting up.

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Our reprieve was at the top of our climb as the Blacktail Deer Creek finally caught up with us. We rested here with some closer views of the rock formations.

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The trail afterwards was a flat three quarters of a mile before another mile of uphill at 5.9% grade as we ascended further out of the canyon. 

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We would get a few more steps of flat ground as we reached the open rolling hills and crossing of Rescue Creek before the final uphill of the trip of a third mile at 8.3% grade. This might have killed some of us.

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On the other side of the hill, we could see the road and hear the passing cars. Hopefully one of them will give me a ride back to my car.

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I went ahead the final three quarters of the mile to the trailhead in order to get the hitch as soon as possible. There was an a few steps of -11.1% grade before a flat walk through the meadows.

I went across the street to the bathroom and parking area and it took me about half an hour to get a hitch.

Some reason tourists didn’t want to pick up a smelly and dirty backpacker. Thanks to Silas and Elizabeth from Tennessee who was curious enough about what I was doing to give me a hitch. I hope y’all had a good rest of your trip!

For our post hike meal, we headed to food truck just outside of Gardiner, the Grizzly Grille (trip advisor, facebook). It wasn’t the cheapest, but their unlimited refills of lemonade and food hit the spot.

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We returned to the Spring Hill Suite in Island Park, MT (trip advisor) on cash prices this time as they had come down to reasonable rates since it was no longer Memorial Day weekend. It was a place we knew and enjoyed when we got in. Brenna and Bradley would join me for a few more tourist spots over the next couple of days in Yellowstone before their flight out of Bozeman.

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fauna on the trail

During our hike, we saw plenty of wildflowers in the open meadows. Here are some of them as I try to identify them. Sorry if they are wrong, this was why I brought a couple naturalists… so they can correct me at a later time if I’m wrong.

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final impressions

ratings

The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1-5. For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.

views/experience: 2. My opinion of backpacking in Yellowstone is a really a luck of the draw. That is the reason many visitors to the park came to see the big wildlife, such as bears, moose, elk, wolves, coyotes, and bison. The open meadows and hills of Yellowstone are great for this purpose.

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However, your experience is still very dependent on happenstance of an animal showing up where you are. This is the reason I see Yellowstone as a great place to camp, hangout, and just look for animals to show up. There are some great campsites here and it is really one of the best parks to camp at. It happened to us on this trip that a black bear just wondered into our camp on our relaxing day 2. 

What this trail wasn’t great in my opinion are the vistas. They were fine, but nothing worldly, at least on this trail. There are plenty of geothermal features, waterfalls, and canyons that are very unique, which I’ll discuss in my other backpacking trips in Yellowstone as both this series or other independent trips

Overall, I thought it was a good beginning trip and does provide good opportunities to look for animals. Again we didn’t plan on this, but this was doable at the early season time we were here. I probably won’t come back to this one compared to other options in the park, unless to use it to explore north into the Beartooth Wilderness. 

difficulty: 2. The most difficult part of the hike was by far the sun of an unseasonably hot spring. Since plenty of the trail lacked cover, it roasted us.

technical: 1. The trail is well signed and mostly flat. The water crossing can get dicey early in the season with a lot of rain or fast snowmelt. As you can see in our permit above, all of our campsites had swift water advisories. However, this is typically not bad early season comparatively to others in the park, which is why the NPS recommended this hike for our time.

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