Yellowstone Through The Back Door

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Of the 3,000,000 people who visit the park each year (compared with the mere 79,777 who crowded in with Gregg in 1920), about 5,000 find their way to Bechler on a day trip and another 3,000 or so spend a night or more there. Most of them arrive in August and September because earlier than that the Bechler Meadows are indeed a swamp, made soggy from snowmelt and rainfall. As the waters recede around the Fourth of July, wildflowers carpet Bechler’s meadows and woodlands, but so do thick clouds of mosquitoes. Finally, by early to mid-August, chilly nights and gloriously warm days prevail, and Bechler is at its prime. Even then, however, subtle pleasures set the region apart: Take it from Ken Stepanik, an outfitter who leads trips into the region with his Montana-based company, Llamas of West Yellowstone. “Small things happen in the Bechler, but it’s the smaller things combined that make it a special trip, like being out under the stars and watching a moose in the moonlight, or sitting at Three River Junction with a cup of coffee, or coming on a mile and a half of huckleberries along the trail.” Gary Ferguson, who hiked five hundred miles through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to research his 1993 book Walking Down the Wild , says he had one of the greatest wildlife experiences of his life in the Bechler Meadows, where a steady stream of creatures—first moose, then trout, then swallows and cranes and tanagers, then beavers, and finally muskrats—visited his riverside camp for what he later described in his book as “the Mardi Gras of animal parades.” “There are places in the backcountry where you just feel like you’ve stumbled into Eden,” Ferguson told me, “But I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that as strongly as I did in the Bechler.”

The Bechler District is actually Yellowstone’s second-busiest backcountry area (after Shoshone Lake), yet in a day you’re unlikely to meet more than two dozen people on its trails. That’s because like all of Yellowstone, it’s big country, encompassing about two hundred square miles—which is probably why the Idaho legislators figured no one would miss the twelve-square-mile parcel set aside for a reservoir. “There is absolutely nothing in the way of unusual scenery or other interesting features in this part of the park, but the entire area contains only the ordinary Western mountain landscape scenes, such as may be seen along the lines of travel for many miles by any tourist approaching the park from any direction,” Rep. Addison T. Smith of Idaho told Congress in pushing for the reservoir. To this assessment Gregg responded, “I am compelled to say this does not square with what I found and saw there.”

Gregg and other early enthusiasts saw the waterfalls that give this area—named for Gustavus Bechler, a topographer with the 1872 U.S. Geological Survey party—its much more poetic nickname, the Cascade Corner. Two factors combine to make waterfalls especially abundant in this part of Yellowstone. First, the Bechler area receives the park’s highest precipitation, about eighty inches annually. Second, the broad meadows are surrounded by dramatic plateaus and ridges that provide plenty of steep drops for cascading rivers and streams. While preparing a book on Yellowstone’s waterfalls, the modern-day Yellowstone explorers Lee Whittlesey, Mike Stevens, and Paul Rubinstein catalogued fifty-four falls and cascades. There are the 250-foot Union Falls and 260-foot Albright Falls, tied for second place in height behind only the park’s far better-known 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. (Silver Cord Cascade, a slender ribbon-like fall plunging more than 800 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, generally is put in a category by itself.) There are also Dunanda Falls, a veil-like 150-foot drop on Boundary Creek; the thundering Cave Falls, Yellowstone’s widest at nearly 300 feet across; and Ouzel Falls, 230 feet, visible from miles away across the Bechler Meadows. “In any other place on earth, whole parks would be built around any one of these,” says Whittlesey. “Here, many don’t even have names.”

 

On my own visit to the Bechler, I had time for only one long day hike, so I had to choose between seeing just Union Falls, by most accounts the most spectacular, but set off by itself, or going for quantity in the Bechler Canyon. I finally settled on Union Falls. Since this is grizzly country, I persuaded a Bechler subdistrict ranger, Ann Marie Chytra, to let me accompany one of her seasonal rangers, Micah Wood, on his patrol hike back to Union Falls, and I was happily astounded when Wood told me that during his summer he had not seen one bear prowling the backcountry.