Hiking the Morrison Jeep Trail

This year, my old friend Springer and I decided to hike from Pahaska Teepee (near the East gate of Yellowstone) to the headwaters of the North Fork River in Silvertip Basin and then up and over into Sunlight Basin. But a heavy snow year plus unseasonable temperatures conspired to make July creek crossings unusually dangerous. After scouting the final (scary) creek crossing on our intended route, we decided to switch gears and do the Morrison Jeep Trail instead.

Since Springer was coming directly from sea level and we were starting at around 10,000 feet, we agreed to take a leisurely pace and simply enjoy the journey. We ended up taking four days to hike the trail, but it could definitely be done in three. On the first day, we shuttled a car, then drove up to the trailhead on the Beartooth Highway. We hiked about 5 miles in and camped at Sawtooth Lake. The terrain forced us to camp right on top of the lake, which was full of trout.

First camp

First camp

The second day, we woke up late, sat around drinking coffee for way too long, then started the 1000 foot ascent onto Dillworth Bench. We’d seen snow patches on the bench from the Chief Joseph Highway and planned to use those for water. The concern was that the trail would be dry from the bench all the way back down to the Clark’s Fork.
view of Sawtooth Mountain

view of Sawtooth Mountain

Thanks to the unusual conditions, we found plenty of running water high on the bench and so decided to keep hiking instead of camping there. The views were majestic and the wildflowers were abundant.
We hiked six or seven miles, descended from the bench and found a pretty meadow to camp in, not far from a creek. After pitching our tents, we crossed the meadow to go cook dinner on the edge and walked right past a gigantic pile of fresh bear scat. We kept our eyes peeled as bear-thirty rolled around. A rain storm finally drove us into our tents. That night something chewed a couple of holes in my food bag (which was well hung in the trees on the edge of the meadow). Luckily it gave up before actually reaching my food.

Camp 2
The next morning, we woke up to stormy skies and a bit of rain. We packed up and followed the trail into deep timber.
From then on, the terrain alternated between pretty forests and beautiful open meadows. The views of Sunlight Basin were spectacular.
Thunderstorms came and went all day and we hiked through steady rain for a while.
I was hoping we could camp up high, but we eventually ran out of water. The creeks lower down were all dried up, so we had no choice but to descend all the way to the Clark’s Fork river.

The switchbacks down were steeper than I expected and very loose and rocky. We both got a pretty good quad workout as we descended.

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks

Looking down at the mighty Clark's Fork

Looking down at the mighty Clark’s Fork

Halfway down, I almost stepped on this baby rattlesnake. He was coiled up in the middle of the trail, just like a grown-up rattlesnake, ready to strike and darting his tiny head at me. It was a good thing I saw him because baby rattlesnakes are actually more dangerous than their parents.
Baby rattlesnake

Baby rattlesnake

After ten miles of hiking, we made it down to the river. At that point, we were only four miles from the car, but we decided to camp there anyway. Our feet were sore from the pounding on the switchbacks and we’d been looking forward to another night in our tents.
Looking down the Clark's Fork canyon at river level

Looking down the Clark’s Fork canyon at river level

The next day we hiked out before it got too hot. We crossed paths with a black bear and were glad we’d hung our food on the one available tree the night before. We had to go back up to the Beartooth Highway to retrieve the other car, so we detoured to Cooke City and pigged out at the Beartooth Cafe, which has come to be my go-to restaurant for post-adventure pig-outs in this area. The smoked trout alone is worth any extra drive.

Overall, this was a beautiful and very easy hike: roughly 25-26 miles and about a thousand feet of elevation gain if you start on the Beartooth Highway side. You could start on the Clark side, at lower elevation, but it’s a long haul up to Dillworth Bench from there. This hike is best before July 15th, when the road opens to jeeps and ATVs. Doing it the second week of July, we had the entire trail to ourselves. I’m not sure there’d be any water on the bench in normal years, though you might find small lingering snow patches.

My favorite new piece of gear on this hike was my Marmot Pulsar Tent
which I’ll review thoroughly in a separate post.


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