Into the zone of death: Four days spent deep in the Yellowstone National Park backcountry
This part of Idaho is rugged and remote, with no roads, a place where the trail grows faint and grizzly bears or cascading waterfalls could be just around the corner, writes Idaho Capital Sun reporter Clark Corbin.
Idaho Capital Sun reporter Clark Corbin navigates a crossing of the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy of Heath Druzin)
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, IDAHO – The ranger warned us before we attempted to enter the “zone of death.”
Millions of people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, but one of the least visited parts of the park, the so-called zone of death, lies in Idaho.
It’s rugged and remote, with no roads, a place where the trail grows faint and grizzly bears or cascading waterfalls could be just around the corner. Nobody lives there, and almost nobody camps there overnight. There are even rumors that you can get away with murder there.
Most of Yellowstone is located in Wyoming, but small portions extend into Montana and Idaho.
The narrow slice of Yellowstone in Idaho is situated in the roadless, southwest corner of the park. It sees few human visitors because of how far it is from the main park roads and because it is overshadowed by the more popular, Instagram friendly waterfalls, rivers and geothermal features located relatively close by in the Wyoming section of Yellowstone.
It is truly one of the last wild places in the American West.
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“Other than a few changes, improvements in trails and some of the backcountry cabins, most of which were built in late teens and early ‘20s, most of the backcountry is just the same way people would have seen the park 150 years ago when the park was established,” Yellowstone backcountry ranger Michael Curtis told the Idaho Capital Sun. “That is what is pretty unique. You can go and get a sense of what people saw 150 years ago and experience it and know that it is largely unchanged.”
Another ranger warned us that the Idaho section of Yellowstone we planned to access off the Robinson Creek Trail saw so little traffic that the trail grew faint and overgrown and could be hard to follow. Rangers even had a hard time finding the Robinson Creek backcountry campsite when they traveled that way to clear trails and inspect backcountry sites earlier in the spring.
It sounded perfect.
So earlier this month, I set out with Boise journalist Heath Druzin, host of the Extremely American Podcast, to leave the crowds behind and backpack deep into Yellowstone’s backcountry. We hoped to see a side of Yellowstone that few tourists see, and we planned to finish our trip with one night in the Idaho section of Yellowstone.
We took the hard way, backpacking a total of 52 miles in just under 72 hours.
Day 1, Wyoming: A gushing geyser and a long slog over the Continental Divide
There were a lot of logistics that went into planning our hike, which we staged as a sort of through hike rather than an out-and-back or looped trip. We mapped out our route and applied for the required backcountry permit and campsites months in advance. We practiced leave no trace principles, including packing in and packing out everything we needed and used, especially our trash. We stashed one vehicle at our finish line, the Bechler Ranger Station near the Wyoming-Idaho border, the night before we started backpacking.
We drove the other vehicle into the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park at West Yellowstone, Montana, early on our first morning. We stopped at Old Faithful but quickly jumped back in the car when we learned it wasn’t predicted to erupt for more than an hour. A couple miles later, we left our remaining vehicle at the Lone Star Trailhead, shouldered our 35- to 40-pound packs, holstered our bear spray and began walking south, saying goodbye to roads and motorized vehicles.
We followed the Firehole River for the first couple of miles, swatting away the first of thousands of mosquitoes that would feast upon us for the remainder of the trip.
After 45 minutes, we reached the Lone Star Geyser and encountered a small crowd of about 20 hikers waiting with anticipation.
The Lone Star Geyser is a 12-foot cone that erupts about once every three hours, according to Yellowstone National Park. By comparison, Old Faithful erupts about every 75 to 90 minutes.
Lone Star is just far enough from the road and takes just long between eruptions that it doesn’t draw near the crowds of Old Faithful, which regularly attracts hundreds of people to its viewing platform.
Our trip was already starting strong.
“You’re just in time,” a child yelled out as Druzin and I approached and Lone Star Geyser began churning and splashing, belching a melange of steam, sulfur and hot water from its geothermal cone.
Within 15 minutes of our arrival, Lone Star was in full eruption, blasting scalding hot water more than 45 feet into the air.
After photos and a snack, it was time to hit the trail and begin climbing toward the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide stretches from Alaska down through Mexico and beyond, a crest following high mountain ranges that separates the waters that flow to the Pacific Ocean from the waters that flow to the Gulf of Mexico. The Continental Divide frequently crosses trails and roads through Yellowstone National Park and can be thought of as an invisible line, where raindrops falling on one side will eventually flow to the Pacific Ocean and raindrops falling on the other side will eventually flow to the Gulf of Mexico, as Annie Carlson, a research coordinator for the Yellowstone Center for Resources previously wrote in the Sun.
We hiked uphill through the hottest part of the day on one of the hottest days of the summer, moving slowly under heavy packs, seemingly inching forward up to an elevation of about 8,600 feet before the trail leveled off and then quickly turned downhill.
By the time I reached our destination and first backcountry campsite, Gregg Fork, I was exhausted and my shoulders burned with a searing pain.
Neither of us ate a full dinner, but just before dark we slung our heaviest pack high up a tree to lighten our loads and set out on another exploratory hike. The extra mission brought our total mileage for the day to 20 miles, but it also led us to confirm the location of one of the true highlights of the trip, a backcountry hot spring nestled deep in a geothermal zone.
Day 2, Wyoming: A magical backcountry hot spring, big river crossings and an unrelenting thunderstorm
Even though the secret is out, there is no sign pointing the way to Mr. Bubbles hot springs, our first destination on our second day in Yellowstone’s backcountry.
At one point along the Bechler River Trail, there is a fork offering three different directions hikers can travel. A sign points to destinations in two different directions. Take the third option, an unsigned spur trail that looks like a spot to rest horses. Follow it for about half a mile and the steam from a geyser basin soon appears. Continue to follow the trail, stepping carefully over and across shallow pools and creeks of geothermal water until reaching Mr. Bubbles, a large swimming pool-sized hot spring where cold waters from a nearby creek mix with a bubbling geothermal feature that gives the hot spring its namesake.
Yellowstone prohibits bathing, soaking or swimming in water entirely of thermal origin, but the cold waters of the creek mixing with the hot geothermal water make it safe and legal to soak in Mr. Bubbles.
Our second day on the trail started off cloudy with much cooler temperatures and the threat of rain. We had fewer miles to cover, so we soaked lazily for about 90 minutes in Mr. Bubbles’ warm waters. As we waded waist-deep nearly up to the bubbling water at the center of the pool, we felt the ground at the bottom of the pool subtly rock and shift, almost as if a small earthquake was concentrated right under the hot spring.
As we soaked, steam rose from the much hotter nearby geothermal features and their orange prismatic pools. We felt as though we’d left civilization behind for the warm waters of an alien planet.
As tempting and relaxing as Mr. Bubbles was after a long first day in the backcountry, we knew we had to get moving. Our day’s agenda called for covering another 15 miles along The Bechler River Trail, a journey that we knew would include at least three river crossings.
We ended up getting a bonus river crossing.
The trail crosses rivers and creeks several times, but many of the crossings feature bridges, strategically placed logs that span the gaps or large stones arranged to enable a hiker to hop across and stay dry. Sometimes, there was no bridge, log or stone path, and we had to ford the river, wading across at what we hope is a relatively shallow spot.
The first crossing allowed us to ease into it. A footbridge over a modest creek had washed out. We took our boots off and slipped on river sandals and water shoes, respectively, unbuckled the straps on our packs for safety and waded gingerly across the 40-foot creek. It was barely knee-deep and not as cold as we were warned to expect following spring snowmelt and runoff.
We felt alive and rejuvenated as we crossed.
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Our confidence continued to increase just as the weather turned bad and the river crossing became bigger and burlier. We navigated two more crossings of the Bechler River, crossing 60-foot sections of river where the water reached the top of our thighs.
Descending through the Bechler Canyon, thunderclaps began to boom and lighting flickered overhead as a cool rain started to fall. The canyon section of our hike was full of lush, leafy vegetation that absorbed all the rainwater and soaked us thoroughly as we hiked. We trudged through the unrelenting thunderstorm for almost four hours, quickly passing by scenic landmarks such as the 45-foot Iris Falls. With about five miles still to travel and lightning overhead, we lingered just long enough to snap a few photos of the waterfall and complain about how quickly our Gore-Tex boots became soaked and squishy.
Every hour we consulted our map, and every hour it seemed like we still had another three or four miles to go.
Finally, I smelled smoke and we came across a group of horses tied to a hitching post below some trees, just off the trail. Just around the corner we came across a camp of cowboys who were beginning a multi-day guided horseback trip through the Bechler Meadows.
“Lovely weather we’re having,” I called out in the most cheerful voice I could muster up.
“Care to join us and warm up for a bit?” one of the cowboys responded.
They had a huge, crackling fire roaring in their camp.
“Thanks! We’ll be right up,” Druzin said.
Standing beside the fire our pants and boots began to dry out and our spirits were buoyed. One of the men on the horseback trip identified himself as a Ukrainian minister, and told us of his unwavering belief in the goodness of people. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, members of Russian churches immediately stepped up and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Ukrainian people, the man said. No matter how bad things get, he told us, continue to have faith in people’s capacity to do good.
Sufficiently warm and full of a new optimism for life, we thanked our cowboy hosts, wished them luck on their adventure in Yellowstone and jumped back on the trail to finish the remainder of our day’s hike in the rain.
Our optimism continued unabated for about half an hour until we encountered the remaining members of the cowboy posse at our final river crossing of the day.
Starting out from the opposite river bank that we were standing on, two cowboys leading a team of pack animals crossed the river on horseback. Initially, the crossing looked smooth and easy, with the water never rising above the horses’ knees. But as they neared our side of the bank, the water became much deeper, rising above the horses’ knees and touching their bellies.
As soon as the first cowboy reached dry land, we exchanged greetings and he began to complain about being wet and cold.
“Not as wet as we’re about to be,” Druzin said, motioning to the river.
“You’re crossing here?” the cowboy said in disbelief.
All we could do was nod and say that our campsite was on the other side of the river. The cowboys left us behind, with the first cold, wet cowboy saying he would keep his ears open for any high-pitched screaming coming from this direction.
We were intimidated by the depth of the water and spent 20 minutes looking for a shallower spot to wade across. Druzin initially set out cautiously on a precarious log that was balanced a little too delicately over deeper, fast moving water. Druzin noticed the danger in time and backed slowly off the log.
With darkness about to settle in and our campsite, Lower Boundary Creek, situated on the far side of the river, we regrouped and headed back to the spot where the cold cowboys and their horses had just crossed. We hoisted our packs entirely over our head in an effort to keep our packs, tents, sleeping bags and remaining clothing dry and waded into the water. The water reached the top of our thighs and soaked our behinds, but it was calm and the riverbed wasn’t too slippery. Before we knew it, we had safely walked across.
It took a total of 16 miles to reach camp on our second day, and the mosquitos set upon us immediately. I was cold and wet and knew my clothes and boots wouldn’t dry until the sun came out the next day. My sleeping pad was soaked and unusable for the night. My frustration and self pity didn’t subside until my second healthy pull off the whiskey in camp.
I perked up just before crawling into my tent, knowing that next day’s adventure would lead us into the zone of death.
What is the zone of death?
Michigan State University’s College of Law professor Brian C. Kalt wrote a 2005 research paper published in the Georgetown Law Journal called “The Perfect Crime,” which suggested Yellowstone’s zone of death might be a place “where one might commit felonies with impunity.” The idea behind the theory is that nobody lives in the roughly 50-mile section of Yellowstone that lies in Idaho. Therefore, prosecution for certain federal felonies could become tricky if a defendant evoked their Sixth Amendment right to be tried by a jury from the state and district where the crime occured.
The Idaho Legislature even debated the issue and adopted House Joint Memorial 3, which calls on Congress to close the zone of death “loophole,” during the 2022 legisltive session.
State Rep. Colin Nash, the Boise Democrat who sponsored House Joint Memorial 3, told the Sun on Friday that he has not heard any feedback or received a response from Idaho’s congressional delegation on the matter.
For their part, Yellowstone officials aren’t worried that there is a loophole to close.
“We don’t talk in theoretical terms,” Yellowstone spokeswoman Linda Veress told the Sun. “If a crime occurs there, we will treat it like a crime occurred anywhere else in the park.”
Veress and Curtis, the backcountry district ranger, said the United States government has exclusive jurisdiction in Yellowstone and the states don’t even get involved. Yellowstone has its own law enforcement rangers, and there is also an investigative services branch within the National Park Service that focuses on more complex crimes, Curtis said.
“All crimes that are either detected when we are out on patrol or get reported, we investigate through the law enforcement rangers assigned to the park,” Curtis said. “If they are felony-level cases, a lot of times those are investigated with the National Park Service.”
Once a potential crime is investigated, law enforcement rangers or agents with the investigative services branch of the National Park Service work with an assistant U.S. attorney. Curtis and Veress said they aren’t aware of any issues or concerns with the current practices.
Day 3, Idaho: Into the zone of death
After tearing down camp at Lower Boundary Creek and wiggling into my still-damp clothing and boots, we hit the Bechler Meadows Trail. We made a quick stop at the Bechler Ranger Station to switch reservations to the Little Robinson Creek backcountry site in the zone of death, hoping it would be easier to find than our original site the rangers warned us could be tricky to locate.
With the new permit in hand, we headed up Robinson Creek Trail, which also appears to be identified as the West Boundary Trail on some maps and trail signs.
It was immediately obvious we were stepping off the beaten path. Whereas the trail in the Bechler River and Bechler Meadows sections of Wyoming was clearly defined, cleared of debris and trodden with fresh footsteps, the Robinson Creek Trail was overgrown and lush. We had to engage in some bushwacking and a series of little guessing games to continue to follow the trail.
If we didn’t have electronic and paper maps, the ranger’s warning and know for sure we were heading the right way, we would have turned around thinking we were about to get hopelessly lost or surprise some big animal.
“It was more of a suggestion than a trail,” Druzin said.
There is no “welcome to Idaho” sign in this section of Yellowstone marking the entrance to the zone of death. Instead, we relied on GPS to figure out the boundary, deciding it was just before a large boulder situated just off the trail in a thick tangle of brush and vegetation.
We passed a huckleberry bush and ate handfuls of plump, purple huckleberries. At about that same spot, we encountered our first pile of soft, fresh bear scat.
We continued on, passing meadows the size of NFL stadiums and giant marshes covered in lily pads.
“It’s amazing,” Veress said. “People say the park is so crowded, but you don’t have to go far from the road to have solitude.”
We reached our campsite, Little Robinson Creek, by early afternoon on our third day in the Yellowstone backcountry. To avoid conflicts with bears and other wild critters, we hung all of our packs, trash and food high above the ground on trees and logs that had been specially arranged for storage at backcountry campsites.
The first thing we saw at Little Robinson Creek camp was a giant pile of soft, fresh bear scat located directly under the food storage poles.
Even though it looked like a ridiculous prank or a throwaway gag in a comedy movie, the bear scat was a fresh reminder that we were truly in the backcountry, visitors in this wild place.
“I don’t think this bear learned the lesson about not sh—— where you eat,” I joked to Druizin, partially to help alleviate my own anxiety.
Druzin grabbed his fly rod and fished for trout in Robinson Creek as I sat on the edge and let the water wash over my tired legs and feet.
We ate two dinners and finished even more whiskey that night.
I told Druzin that for as hard as different aspects of the first two days of the trip were, I didn’t want to leave Yellowstone.
This trip and this place were special.
We weren’t the only people to go to the zone of death. In fact, everybody who completes the Continental Divide Trail through-hike between Canada and Mexico (a journey that could take five months) enters the Idaho section of Yellowstone, rangers told me.
Later in the week we were there, a different crew on horseback had plans to travel through the Idaho section of Yellowstone, a ranger told us.
But for us, the whole time we were in the zone of death, we didn’t see another person. We were almost certainly the only people to sleep inside the zone of death the night we stayed and we may have been some of the only people to sleep in the Idaho section of Yellowstone National Park to that point in 2022. (The park was closed for about a week and a half in June following historic flooding and many of the river crossings outside of the zone of death that we forded on our journey are not passable until, generally, mid-July each year. A ranger at the Bechler Ranger Station told us very few people camp in the two Idaho campsites off Robinson Creek Trail, and she couldn’t remember offhand the last time someone stayed there.)
That last night in Yellowstone, I left the rainfly off my tent and stared up at the stars for a long, long time.
We were almost five miles from the Bechler Ranger Station, which meant we were almost five miles from the closest place that any other person could have conceivable been. We were even farther from any real roads or artificial lights.
Feeling that small in such a big wide open space put a smile on my face, and as my eyes grew heavy, shooting stars traced the night sky.
The next morning, we walked out of the zone of death in less than two hours without incident.
We shuttled ourselves back to the starting point of our hike, but not before stopping off for a greasy cheeseburger at the suggestion of a father from Clifton, Idaho, who was hiking with his wife and two children.
Even though we were two different people on two different journeys, I immediately felt at ease around the man and his family after he mentioned cheeseburgers and the reason he decided to go on his hike.
Years ago he started out on a simple day hike in the Bechler Meadows, where he said he encountered a sign showing that Old Faithful was about 30 miles away, just like I did. And just like I did, for years he dreamed about what lies beyond that sign — the possibilities and the adventures that would await in the Yellowstone backcountry.
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