Yellowstone Through The Back Door

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Bechler is Yellowstone’s second-busiest backcountry area, yet in a day you won’t see more than two dozen people there.
 

Union Falls is a twenty-two-mile roundtrip hike from the Bechler Ranger Station. Wood and I agreed that was too long for a single day, so we drove out of the park and west, then south, then east to the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road. We took a badly rutted Forest Service road to the alternate trailhead near Fish Lake; from there Union Falls was about eight miles away. It was all easy going except for three river crossings, swift and cold and up to my thighs even in late August. Along the way Wood and I traded stories of Bechler past and present.

Hiking to Union Falls was all easy going except for three river crossings, swift and cold and up to my thighs even in late August.

The Bechler District, like all of Yellowstone, has a sketchy human history. There is no record of Native American settlement in the park’s southwest corner, although several tribes used the region as hunting grounds. John Colter, a veteran of the Lewis and Clark party, was the first white man to see the interior of Yellowstone, in 1807, but there’s no indication that he reached the Bechler region. Osborne Russell, who spent a decade from 1834 to 1843 trapping in the Rocky Mountains, made the first recorded visit to the Cascade Corner. On August 10, 1838, Russell and his party were traveling just southwest of the present Yellowstone boundary when, his journal recalls, “we fell on to the middle branch of the Henrys fork which is called by hunters the Falling fork for the numerous cascades it forms whilst meandering through the forest previous to its junction with the main river … we ascended this stream passing several beautiful cascades for about 12 miles when the trail led us into a prairie seven or eight miles in circumference in which we found the camp just as the sun was setting.” Even though they were but a few miles from even more impressive falls than the ones they had seen along the Fall River, the main Bechler waterfalls hidden in the park’s interior went undiscovered for another half-century.

 
 

In fact the Bechler area remained unexplored for many years after Russell’s brief visit. The first major park survey, undertaken in 1869, apparently skipped over the southwest corner, but it paved the way for the ambitious 1872 survey, led by F. V. Hayden, which did find and name the Bechler River. Hayden’s party persuaded Congress to name Yellowstone the first national park in 1872, setting it aside as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and guaranteeing its “preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”

In 1885 surveyors led by the geologist Arnold Hague traveled widely in the Bechler region, discovering and naming Iris, Colonnade, Ouzel, and Union Falls. The last was the most remarkable find, considering its location high up Mountain Ash Creek, far from the region’s other landmarks. As we neared Union Falls, I wondered aloud to Micah Wood how Hague and his men ever came across it. “Just out of curiosity,” he said. “They probably just followed the creeks to see where they’d lead.” Wood added that he’d done it himself one day, shunning the easy Union Falls Trail to trudge along Mountain Ash Creek, following every meander and riffle to the base of the falls. But he wouldn’t be seeing Union Falls today. To his distress Wood spied a pot of stew simmering unattended in a backcountry campsite a mile from the falls, forcing him to wait for the campers’ return. If they didn’t have a damn good excuse for leaving food in bear country, he would issue them a ticket. “You might as well go on up,” he told me.

Until now the trail had been flat, but the final approach to Union Falls was a sturdy climb. When I arrived at the falls overlook, I was blessedly alone. There was a small ledge that reminded me of a balcony box at the opera; it was the perfect perch from which to watch a ceaseless performance. Union Falls got its name because it is actually the marriage of two creeks joining at the plunge, the torrents cascading into tendrils as the water spills over a broad cliff. The effect is mesmerizing, like tongues of flame in a campfire, and I sat staring at the spectacle a long time before the buzz of a fly snapped my reverie.