What a relief to arrive back at our cabin in Silver Gate after traveling for most of June. Marie and I pulled into our garage without much gas left in the tank, literally and figuratively. The symptoms of the bug we picked up overseas were reaching their peak, and we spent our first few days at home coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, and sleeping. Marie took two more rapid COVID tests and both came back positive. We wondered how much worse we would have felt if we weren’t double-vaccinated and boosted.
All around town we could see the impact of the historic flooding that happened while we were gone. Our cabin, thankfully, made it through fine, but many of the buildings and roads and bridges in the area weren’t as fortunate. Some parts of the lodge across the creek from us were flooded, and the water gouged large craters out of their main entry road.
Much of the worst damage occurred inside Yellowstone. The road from Gardiner to Mammoth is simply gone in a few places, which forced the park to close its north entrance to regular traffic. The northeast entrance – less than a mile from our cabin – also had to be closed, with several big wash-outs on the road between us and Tower Junction. The damage is so severe it will take years to fully repair.
The park is working hard to restore access. An old stagecoach road between Gardiner and Mammoth is being upgraded to handle regular traffic, and some park employees and commercial guides have already been able to use it. In late July a construction firm began working on the northeast entrance road, attacking it from both sides. The goal is to have a temporary roadway in place by October.
In the meantime the park opened the north and northeast entrances to hikers. Early on the morning of July 2nd, the first day hiking was allowed, I walked from our cabin to the entrance gate. “You’re our very first customer!” said the ranger on duty. It felt amazing to experience Yellowstone that way, on foot under a beautiful summer sky, with an entire corner of the park all to myself. I’d hardly made it past the entrance gate when a black bear crossed the road in front of me.
“Maybe the road being closed to cars isn’t so bad after all,” I thought, feeling a little guilty. Cutting off Gardiner and Silver Gate / Cooke City from the park is a terrible blow to the local businesses that depend on tourism, but selfishly I was beginning to see some silver linings. Walking from my door along an empty highway into one of my favorite areas of the park was a fun and unique way to spend a morning. And the town of Silver Gate – normally pretty busy in the summer – was delightfully quiet.
I reached Warm Creek and continued walking to Upper Barronette. Despite a week of convalescent inactivity my legs felt fine and I was enjoying myself too much to turn around, so I kept going until I reached the first major wash-out, effectively the end of the road, just north of the Soda Butte Picnic area. I’d heard the road was in bad shape, but seeing it in person really brought home the scale of the damage. It looked like a space alien used a destructo-ray to vaporize 40-50 yards of pavement and dirt, which had then been replaced by Soda Butte Creek’s new post-flood channel.
I began walking into the park early every morning, usually turning around at Warm Creek or Upper Barronette instead of going all the way to the wash-out. The weather was perfect, cool but not cold in the mornings and warm but not hot in the afternoons. Often I’d spot a black bear, most of them so skittish that they’d bolt back into the woods as soon as they noticed me. Were the animals along the road already becoming accustomed to the absence of humans? Giving the wildlife a break from the relentless Yellowstone summer crowds might be another of the flood’s silver linings.
On my way into the park one morning I ran into Rick McIntyre, a fellow Silver Gate resident, former park employee, and author who – according to many – has spent more time watching wild wolves than any other human, ever. I’d been wondering how Rick was handling the road closure, given that going into Yellowstone every day to watch wolves continues to be his primary focus. He said he planned to make some trips into the park through the east entrance, and if the road stayed closed for an extended period of time he’d likely relocate to Gardiner for a while.
Before we parted ways I reminded Rick that I live nearby and encouraged him to let me know if there’s anything I can do to be helpful. “Yes, can you build us a bridge?” Rick quipped, not missing a beat.
After about a week the park opened the northeast entrance to bicycles. When Marie and I heard the news we dusted off our bikes and pedaled to the wash-out, passing black bears, deer, bison, a fox, and a moose along the way. I still preferred being on foot, but it’s nice to mix it up sometimes.
One morning Marie and I had barely left our cabin to walk into the park when we heard branches snap and realized a moose mom with a very young calf were heading towards us, no more than 20 feet away. We froze for a second, backed off slowly, and watched as the mom calmly escorted her kid across the road. The pair was even generous enough to stop and pose on a hillside before vanishing back into the trees.
In mid-July Marie and I decided it was time to tackle Guitar Lake. We’d heard locals speak of the hike to the lake with such an unusual reverence that, in my mind at least, it acquired an air of mystique. Reaching Guitar Lake began to feel like a rite of passage, something that would nudge us closer to being “real” Silver Gate residents. We had to give it a try.
The lake is tucked at the base of Ampitheater Mountain, a nearly-vertical peak that dominates the view from the main windows of our cabin. The trailhead is so close we started the hike from our front door. Initially the trail was well-marked with only moderate elevation gain, but after a few miles it became difficult to follow in spots, and before long we came to a steep incline covered with loose rocks. Climbing up wasn’t too challenging, but we knew that climbing back down might be a different story.
After the scree field the trail became increasingly difficult to follow. In some spots big patches of unmelted snow hid the ground completely, forcing me to use my phone’s GPS as our primary guide. We didn’t feel lost, but the odds that we were taking the most efficient route seemed very low.
We thought we’d almost reached the lake when the terrain became alarmingly steep. Marie and I are both clumsy, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine one of us losing our footing and breaking a leg. “Are you sure you want to keep going?” I asked, thinking there was a good chance Marie would say no. But she wasn’t ready to quit.
“I figured if we turned around I’d probably never make it back for another try,” Marie explained later. Eventually we were able to cut over to a slightly less-steep section with more vegetation for traction, and after another round of climbing the terrain finally leveled out. Soon Guitar Lake came into view, almost completely covered in ice. We made it!
In some ways the hike back down was the most stressful part. We descended the sheer section just below the lake very slowly and carefully, and when we reached the scree field one of us may or may not have resorted to sliding down the steepest parts on her butt. We lost the trail again (more than once) but managed to find our way back. By the time we reached home we were both pretty frazzled. “I’m really glad to have done that once but I’m never doing it again,” Marie concluded.
About a week later Marie and I spent a night inside Yellowstone at the Canyon campground. We drove in through the east entrance (by Cody) and spent the afternoon hiking to the summit of Mount Washburn, a popular trail that was new to me. At the top we spotted a pika and spent some time watching a herd of bighorn sheep.
On the way out of the park the next morning we joined a crowd of wolf-watchers at Grizzly Overlook. Thanks to a friendly wolf-watcher named Stu we were able to spot two puppies of the Wapiti pack playing with an adult wolf, much too far away for photos but fun to watch through our scope in the golden morning light.
Back home we continued to feel like we won the neighbor lottery with Jill and Greg, the couple who sold us our cabin and live next door. On the 4th of July they invited us to watch Cooke City’s fireworks display with them, and later they took us on a great hike to a creek where you can find petrified wood. I’ve lost count of the number of times they’ve patiently answered questions about our place and the community. Our only complaint is that Jill and Greg do us so many favors it’s beginning to feel impossible to even the ledger.
For the rest of the month I walked or biked on Yellowstone’s northeast entrance road almost every morning. In the past I’d thought how amazing it would be to have summer weather in Silver Gate without summer crowds. Turns out my wish was granted, but with a classic “Monkey’s Paw” twist of unanticipated downsides outweighing the benefits. I feel terrible for the local businesses that are struggling, the tourists whose plans have been spoiled, and the area residents who now have transportation headaches. But wow has it been fun to have the northeast corner of the park all to ourselves.