Autumn is in the air
September 24, 2022


Recently changes are happening incrementally including the migration of raptors and waterfowl, movements of mammals, large and small, along with bright red rosehips and bearberries appearing. Green pigments in the leaves of broad leaved woody plants and trees are disappearing to show brilliant orange, yellows and red. We sense the turning of this planet as the seasons arrive, and give way to the next. It’s all happening here in the Greater Yellowstone right now!

Shrubs and grasses

Fall brings us shorter days, cooler nights, clear skies full of stars and constellations, and, of course, bugeling bull elk!

What I’d like to share with you takes us back a month or so, to time spent in a region just east of Yellowstone Park, the Absaroka/Beartooth landscape. Some of the oldest rocks on the planet are exposed here ( 3.7 billion years old) , along with evidence of some of the most dramatic earth movements and volcanics that have occurred in the last 50 million years (the Heart Mountain landslide and Absaroka volcanics). Since these times, the area has been carved and shaped by several large glacial periods.

The Absaroka/Beartooth wilderness area, at 944,000 acres, is one of the true gems of our wilderness system. The region surrounding it all, including Sunlight Basin and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, is equally as diverse, spectacular and geologically significant. It all plays an important role in the whole of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Beartooth portion of the Absaroka Beartooth is dominated by vast, treeless plateaus, which drop off into surrounding canyons. They are dotted with sparkling lakes. Boulder-strewn Beartooth Plateau lies between 9,000 and 10,000 feet below impressive peaks, many over 12,000 feet, streaked with red and yellow. Much of this can be under snow until early July.

view from one of our campsites in Beartooth Range, elevation 10,100 feet

The Absarokas, unlike the Beartooths, are covered with trees and mountain meadows crossed by meandering streams. These mountains reach some of the highest elevations in Montana and Wyoming. It is the Absaroka volcanics that formed some of the petrified forests found in Northeastern Yellowstone and capping the Gallatin Range of Northwestern GYE.

Giant petrified tree in Gallatin Range

The name, Absaroka, ( the range forming the eastern border of Yellowstone) was first known as the Yellowstone Range, named for the source of the Yellowstone River. The name “Yellowstone Range” dates back to 1863. The headwaters of the Lamar River, a major tributaty of the Yellowstone river, and the Yellowstone itself originate in these mountains. In 1885 United States Geological Survey changed the name to the Absaroka range. This name refers to the Crow People. The people of the Crow Nation call themselves the Apsáalooke : Children of the Large Beaked Bird. Their historical homelands extended across a large area that included parts of present-day Yellowstone Park.

Looking out at a storm over Pilot and Index peaks in the Absaroka Range.

This August, an opportunity to work with Road Scholar and 2 outstanding, long time Yellowstone legends, Gene Ball and Jim Garry, brought me to Hunter Peak Ranch for 2 weeks.
This is a very unique experience, staying at a “100+ years of ranching” guest ranch in the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone drainage of the Absarokas.

Louie Cary wrangling his mules

Shelly and Louie Cary are the finest hosts one can imagine and it is the most comfortable spot groups can base out of for multiple days of hiking in these vast landscapes.

Between the 2 weeks, Pat Musick, good friend, talented artist and scholar, and adventure buddy came up from Colorado and we backpacked for 5 days in the Beartooth region. Our days exploring were off of any trails until the last day. We experienced unmatched beauty throughout the day as clouds, lighting, vegetation and terrain changed. Long periods of hearing only natural sounds with no visible impact from human use brings one to a place of wonder. Rhythms of the day were our clock and we put our minds together planning routes that seemed safe and most approachable ( and fun!). The treasures of the natural world were visible at every turn.

Pat walking up to a pass in the Beartooth Range on a windy day

Sparkling Beartooth Lakes
Evening approaches at our first campsite
Arctic Gentian, a late season bloomer, found in alpine zones and up in Northern tundra
Fireweed, one of the first plants to recolonize burned regions. Rich in Vitimin C and favorite food for bears and other wildlife
Pat making dinner at our last campsite
sunset at the last campsite

The peace and grandeur of these remote, high mountain landscapes are not limitless . They are seeing increasing pressure from humans in recent years, with some serious impacts. This high elevation habitat is some of the most fragile in the world, with extreme temperatures, long winters, high winds and short growing seasons. It is our responsibilty to travel lightly in these places and practice a “Leave No Trace” approach to how we visit.

We have had our first snow fall in the mountains, although it won’t stay until winter. It is a reminder of what’s to come in the next months and all these areas I just mentioned will be in deep slumber under many feet of snow for a very long time.

My best to all, Leslie
“Keep it wild”

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