The Road Less Travelled

To state the obvious: there are many ways to get to Yellowstone National Park. It is a huge tract of land (over 3,472 square miles) lying at an odd-shaped joining of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Most guide books recommend that if you have time, and trust me, you will want to set aside a bit of time, then plan to spend a few days in the different parts of the park with accommodation nearby. This will cut down on travel time and allow you to immerse yourself in the experience a whole lot more.

After much research, our plans took us from LAX through Denver and on to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This has to be one of the most breathtaking airports in the world, with a backdrop of the Grand Tetons and the Snake River only a short hike away. Touching down we knew our adventure had begun.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One of the most spectacular airports in the States.

One unavoidable fact about America’s great outdoors is that they are much loved the world over, and with its moniker of “America’s first national park”, Yellowstone is no exception. Jackson itself is everything that you would expect of a western gateway town… it fairly bristles with Western motifs, curio shops, and art galleries celebrating all that a tourist would expect of the “real” west. This sometimes over the top desire to please is only topped by West Yellowstone, Montana, an even busier gateway town right near the Western Entrance to Yellowstone. (If you are curious about the difference between Jackson Hole and Jackson, have a quick read.)

The food was great and the hospitality outstanding.

Trying to avoid the crowds and, hopefully, squeeze a little fly fishing in were two of the objectives of our trip – minor objectives compared to the more obvious ones like see a bear, a bison, a wolf; don’t get eaten or charged by said wildlife and of course watch Old Faithful erupt.

Although Jackson lies to the south of the national park, our plan was to travel up to the Western Entrance station, exit out the Northern Entrance, staying in the town of Gardiner, Montana and eventually return to Jackson Hole via the South Entrance.

Yellowstone has five entrance stations. Make sure to carefully read about access at each station at different times of year and remember that stations (and roads) are weather dependent. This was the National Parks Service warning and we were confident that our plans would work out given that it was June. Nevertheless, weather can change and its best to be aware of weather conditions at any time of the year.

The only sign that lets you know you are entering Yellowstone National Park

Checking out online maps and using the web to the best of my ability, I was drawn to a road off the beaten track. A route that would take us to a little known part of Yellowstone National Park through a secret entrance and would bypass a lesser known trout stream rumored to be full of pure strain Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This certainly appealed and the fact that there was affordable accommodation available for our overnight stay sealed the deal.

Grabbing the keys to our rental car and a short stop at the local grocery store (who knew what facilities may be available off the beaten track), we followed the trusty satnav in the direction of the Teton Pass. We had landed late in the afternoon and didn’t really know how long our drive would take but summer days are long in this part of the world and besides, we were on an adventure. We need not have feared as the drive up over the Teton Pass and down into the Teton Valley was uneventful and taken at a leisurely pace. The pass rises to about 8,400 ft and is open in summer. The top of the pass offers a fantastic view into the Teton Valley and our destination, Victor. As I write this in winter, a quick look at the WYDOT webcam reveals a very different picture.

Accommodation, Victor Idaho. My kind of city.

Victor, Idaho with a population of 1,800 (and growing) was more like the kind of place that I was looking for. I don’t know what it takes to be a city in Idaho but having a fly fishing shop certainly counts in my books!

The Teton River, besides being a fantastic fishing resource has another more dubious claim to fame. On Saturday, June 5, 1976, the controversial Teton Dam burst and flooded the valley only seven months after the dam was completed. Sadly 14 people lost their lives in communities downstream of the reservoir. Occasionally the topic of building a dam is raised but for now, the Teton flows free and wild. Victor is close to the headwaters of the Teton, there is also a great pond (Trail Creek Pond) that is stocked by Idaho Fish and Game and offers a great location to take the kids and introduce them to fly fishing.

Young flyfisher on the Teton at sundown. Reflective strips on the neoprene gloves make for interesting contrast.

By the time we had settled in, there was precious little time left for fishing. Undeterred, I took off for the local fly shop, picked up a few flies and asked for some advice. My son with me, we rode a few miles out of town and found the road to Fox Creek. The creek itself was closed to fishing and it was so frustrating watching rising fish and knowing they were untouchable. I must admit that I was sorely tempted for about a second or two.

One big difference between a line on a map and the real world is that what looks like a short walk on the map can in fact lose all perspective at ground level. We were about to call it quits and go seek out an easier access point when a pickup rolled into the parking lot and a guy hopped out fairly exuding confidence from his every pore. For one thing, he was already kitted up in waders and for another, his rod was strung up faster than a gunfighter’s draw! He strode off purposefully, then turned and asked us if we would like to follow him. It did involve a bit of a wading through icy water but if we were OK with that, he could show us a great spot and even gave us some flies which he was sure would work. Turns out that this fellow fly fisher was a guide and this was his local off duty relaxing spot. It also turned out that he had spent some time in Australia playing professional basketball – small world indeed given that we had traveled from Australia to visit Yellowstone National Park.

This was my son Matt’s first introduction to fly fishing for trout in a stream, something which I have written about elsewhere. As introductions go, it was a steep learning curve – the light was fading and the temperature dropping. The fish were rising but always seemed to be a little farther out than our casts. I have no doubt that we had the right flies but a combination of jittery nerves and lack of experience meant that we did not connect with any of those wild native cutthroats. Still, it was enough to be sharing the experience.

Early next morning we set off for the next stop along our road less traveled. Cascade Corner is the name given to the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. The area boasts more cascades and waterfalls in close proximity than any other section of the park. Bechler, Union and Cave Falls are just a few. Cave Falls is considered to be the widest falls in Yellowstone at 250 feet. Sadly, the cave for which the falls are named has collapsed and a signpost marks where the cave once was.

Cave Falls, the cave was on the left.

The road to Cascade Corner is not signposted but neither is it too hard to find. Cave Falls Road (E 1400 N) forks off Highway 47 just east of Ashton. You basically follow this road all the way into the national park (where it becomes the 582) and on until you reach Cave Falls itself. The area is like none other in the park – Bechler Station started life as a solider station over 100 years ago and served the United States Army for 30 years until it was taken over by the National Parks Service in 1916. The buildings have changed little over that time. It is off the beaten track so that means that few folks the time to explore. The area offers great wilderness camping experiences and while we were in the ranger station, two hikers reported not just one but two sightings of different bears including a sow with cubs!

Bechler River Soldier Station.
A glimpse of the Fall River, Cascade Corner, Yellowstone.

Something else that makes this area unique is that the roads are quite undeveloped and there is only one real link to the rest of the national park. This unsealed road runs northeast and eventually exits at Flagg Ranch just south of the South Entrance. Known variously as Reclamation Road or Grassy Lake Road, it’s probably better suited to an SUV – an adventure for another time perhaps.

Having taken loads of photos and burning the images, sounds, smells and feelings into our memory banks, reluctantly we headed back to Ashton and onwards to West Yellowstone. Although hardly the road less traveled compared to where we had been, this route along the Henrys Fork was no less spectacular and as I looked at the fly fishers plying their art on these hallowed waters, I smiled. I too had fished in these waters, only briefly and many miles away but all things being what they are, we are all connected and our shared experiences make our lives richer. I hope this blog encourages you to take the time out to seek the road less traveled and add the occasional detour. I have found it to be immensely rewarding.

Written by Len Olyott

Born in South Africa, Len has fished for trout on four different continents and chased many different species in both fresh and saltwater. A trained fisheries biologist, Len has written numerous scientific articles on fisheries biology as well as several magazine articles and book chapters on fly fishing. Len lives with his wife and two kids in Brisbane, Australia. Twitter: @lenolyott1

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