I was determined to hike up a mountain when we were in Yellowstone National Park. I especially had my eyes on something higher than 10,000 feet. The most commonly hiked mountain that met my requirements and wouldn’t scare Jayne off is Mt. Washburn. We set our sights on Washburn and were adamant about summiting it.
The previous day we toured geysers and hiked Elephant Back. Jayne struggled some on Elephant Back with her first day at elevation, so I told her we could take our time and do breaks as often as she needed for our Washburn hike. We had only been in the park for less than 48 hours, but with two nights of sleeping at over 7000 feet, I was feeling confident that Jayne was now acclimated enough. Before we had even reached the trailhead we encountered a large gathering of people on the side of the road. Turns out they were watching a black bear. I decided we needed to continue down the road to the parking lot that was only about 100 feet away so we could get a spot before they all moved in for wildlife viewing. Sure enough Mr. Bear continued on his merry way right along the beginning of the trail and soon the parking lot was packed. Once said bear departed we started up the trail to Mt. Washburn.
It’s hard to really call this a trail. It use to be a road for wagons and carriages to the fire tower on the summit. While it is gravel it still is wide and not even remotely technical. I have never been on a trail up a mountain that was so easy. Since it use to be a road the grade was never very steep and there were some wide switchbacks. This was quite literally a walk in the park! Neither of us had any issues with the hike and were mostly focused on spotting wildlife. I was hopping to see marmots and big horn sheep, but all we found were grouse and one pika.
We started early enough in the morning that exposure to the sun wasn’t an issue. The trail offers little to no shade from the midday sun so it’s important to keep that in mind when planning your hike. The good thing about the exposure is all of the amazing views you get as you hike along. You also catch glimpses of the summit fire tower guiding you to your goal.
In under an hour and a half, we were at the summit. The hike up was about 3.5 miles and gained 1400 feet of elevation. It was such a delightful hike. Being use to rocky, rough New England trails the hike up from the Dunraven Pass Trailhead seemed like nothing. Our first stop at the summit was to the summit sign to get pictures. This was Jayne’s first time hiking to over 10,000 feet and she crushed it. The views are just spectacular. Walking around the summit you get 360 degrees of views. It’s pretty obvious why the Park Service has a fire tower up here with these lookouts. We could see multiple fires burning in the distance with the biggest visible one in the background behind the summit sign.
My favorite view was looking back in the direction we had just hiked. Here you could see the path that we had just traveled, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Lamar Valley, and out to Yellowstone Lake. The sky was hazy from fires, but on a clear day, I believe you can see the Grand Tetons.
During the summer months the fire tower is staffed 24/7 by a park ranger. He had some visitors that were up doing repairs and seemed to be having a field day talking to them. This particular Ranger stays up there the entire time and has a living area inside the fire tower. There are also public restrooms and both an indoor and outdoor observation deck. The indoor one had diagrams of the surrounding mountains and their names. The outdoor deck had information about wildfires in Yellowstone, in particular, the fires of 1988. That year almost 800,000 acres burned. It’s sometimes hard to witness such destruction, but the lodgepole pine trees that make up 80% of the park trees need fire to open up their pine cones. The pine cones will sit on the tree for years until a fire occurs. The heat from the fire opens the pine cones and the seeds drop down to the blackened ground. This means fires are often managed to protect important places but left to burn in others so nature can take its course. When asked how long it would take for the fires to go out the ranger responded October when the snow really starts to fall.
Our hike back down Mt. Washburn saw the trail start to fill up. Many more people were heading up to the summit as we headed down. I noticed that the grouse all appeared to be hiding from the crowds now. As we made our way down we noticed some threaten clouds approaching. We upped our pace and ended up meeting up with another lady hiking by herself. Natalie was moving out to Oregon for graduate school and her mother had no interest in doing the hike with her. We joined forces and warned her about bear activity at the trail head. The three of us also had to break out our raincoats as claps of thunder echoed above.
Besides a little rain intruding on our hike it was a great time. Jayne was gushing (and still is) about how much she liked the trail and the hike. All went well and we now had the whole afternoon and evening to continue to explore the park.