There’s a hike in eastern Yellowstone that I’d always wanted to do. It follows the original East Entrance road, now long-abandoned, from where that route splits off from the modern day blacktop and leads to Turbid Lake, a 143-acre, highly acidic, roiling body of water that once was a noted visitor attraction, but now sits virtually unknown to most park visitors.
I’m an old road sort of guy, so the allure of walking along the original park corridor, seeing Yellowstone from the vantage of early travelers, holds a high degree of attraction. The trek also would allow me to eyeball a section of the lower Jones Creek trail, a path which only appears on about one-third of my park maps. Simply getting confirmation of its existence took the better part of a day and visits with multiple National Park Service officials and offices last summer. It ended with the admonition that “whatever you’re going to do back there, I guarantee you’ll be the only one doing it.”
The Jones Creek trail, incidentally, was the route of the first-ever wagon party to enter Yellowstone from the east, a feat originally thought impossible. It was also a candidate for the path of the East Entrance road before that corridor was finally moved to Sylvan Pass. Like I said, I’m an old road sort of guy.
Thursday’s plan, though, was to simply walk to the lake and back from the east, performing a little Jones Creek recon along the way. According to my trail guide, it was to be roughly a five-mile round trip. Nothing too technical, or so I thought.
My first indication that things weren’t going to be as planned probably should have come when it took me three tries at driving past where I knew the trail to be to actually spot it. If not, the number of times the trail simply dissolved into knee-high grass and wildflowers in the first mile, forcing me to scan the distance for Yellowstone’s telltale orange trail blaze markers certainly should have.
In both cases though, I rationalized that route-finding would improve once I got on the old road, and I was correct. Even after several decades of non-use, the telltale canyon of clear cut carved through forest in a gap just wide enough for two cars to pass unmistakably testifies to the route of the former park road.
Obvious is not synonymous with easy, however. To say there’s a bit of deadfall lurking in the fire-scorched eastern side of the park is an understatement. While the route was obvious, travel was painstakingly slow.
I soon found myself on what could best be described as an Army fitness course on steroids. My progress forward was repeatedly reduced to a prepositional series of over, under and around fallen trees, some of which were propped atop still more fallen trees. At times, the entire maze stretched side to side across the full width of the roadway.
The good news was that the oft-heard suggestion to make noise when hiking through the forest was rendered moot. Any bears within earshot likely thought a pachyderm was marching by. Those that listened closer learned muttered new uses for the English language.
My GPS eventually informed me that I had traveled 2.5 miles, albeit in a time frame nearly double what it would normally take me to cover such a dsitance. The lake should have been right there. Only it wasn’t. Trail guides, it seems, can lie.
So two and a half miles became three. Three stretched toward four. My wife frequently (and correctly) accuses me of being blind, but overlooking a 143-acre lake seemed extreme, even by my standards. Clearly it had to be just ahead.
Just how far ahead, I’ll never know. Four miles from road and civilization, the forest gave way to meadow, still strewn with the cluttered skeletons of fallen trees. Here, there were no trail markers. There was no telltale gouge of old road to follow. There was only a man-maze of twisted branches and trunks littering the ground like a toddler’s Tinkertoys.
After hopping the first layers of the obstacle, I realized the folly. With a chainsaw and a full day, I may have been able to progress 200 yards in my intended direction of travel. Armed with a shrinking supply of water and trail bars, this was my turnaround point. Like it or not, the lake would wait for another day.
Wandering back required the same painstaking sequence of over, under and around. More exhausted, each fallen tree seemed just a little taller, each crawl just a little longer than it had been coming in. I finally returned to my car with the scrapes, dirt, soot and sweat-stained clothing to testify to what turned out to be an eight-mile, five and a half hour day of solitude in America’s first national park.
In the wake of the trip, I have subsequently fired my trail guide. I’ll be going back this week to again hike to Turbid Lake — this time from the more-common western approach. After all, I’ve already paid my dues. I deserve to see it.
As for Jones Creek? That has been crossed off my list permanently. I might be an old road sort of guy, but I’ve had enough fun in deadfall to last a decade.