In October, my brother Leland and I went to the area where the Montana, Idaho and Wyoming borders meet to check out the southern terminus of our assigned portion of the Continental Divide Trail. What had we gotten ourselves into? To begin with, there was no place to begin with. When we were there, there was no trailhead in the area; and most of the roads that used to be roads had been blocked by the Forest Service (the roads are now walking trails, or snowmobile trails in winter). In an eight-mile line just west of the Yellowstone Park border were ten locked gates.The closest we could get to the southern terminus of the Idaho/Montana CDNST was about 2.5 to 3 miles west of the Yellowstone National Park boundary line. From there, as the Ranger we spoke to suggested, we walked cross country to intercept the trail.

    I think this Ranger must not get out much. Her "only two miles" on the map was really about 3 miles of steep up-and-down, hiking through dense lodgepole pine forests and traversing bogs. It’s possible to get onto the correct ridge eventually and then search for the trail, but you'd still face bushwhacking back to your vehicle, assuming you could find the vehicle.

    We eventually found a better access point for the Continental Divide Trail, see the excerpt from the guidebook near the end of this page.

Island Park, near the western border of Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of Leland Howard.

On the positive side, we saw three moose and did not, thankfully, see any of the "troubled" grizzly bears that have been paroled to the area, ousted from Yellowstone. In the summer, this section would be mosquito heaven—it's replete with bogs.

    Judging by the section of trail south of Highway 20, the estimation of about 800 miles total would be short by as much as 200 miles. According to my calculations, they've shorted the first fifty-mile segment of our assigned portion of the trail by about 12 miles in the official trail description documents. Extrapolate that out over the whole trail and it suggests quite an increase in mileage.

    Most of the trail that we have investigated so far is sub-alpine (7,000 to 8,500 feet). But trail markers and signs for snowmobilers are 20 feet high, giving one a graphic idea of the depth of the winter snows. My best guess is that spring will come between mid-June and early July to the first 100 miles of our assigned section of the CDNST. Other parts of the trail may be snow-free earlier, even though they are at a higher elevation. Lemhi Pass, for example receives less snow than does the Island Park area.

    Although the correct route was difficult to find, we had more luck after we crossed into Montana on the north side of Highway 20. The trees thin out there and are more varied, including a few excellent specimens of white pine. The potential for good photos also increased dramatically. We were reassured to find an old, metal survey marker with "Ida." on one side and "Mont." on the other.

    We saw white-tailed deer in this more open section of the trail, and the Continental Divide itself was plain to see as it ran about 1/4 mile west of the trail for several miles. This section of the trail heads generally north/northwest, following the Divide closely until it rounds Targhee Peak, heading west to intercept Highway 87.

    The next day, in lighter snow, we covered the ten-mile section of trail between Highway 87 and Red Rock Pass. This is the section where the Continental Divide doubles back on itself, so trekkers will be heading south here if we keep the south-to-north hiking route. This is one area where I really like the south-to-north idea because hikers following the double-back loop will see the impressive Centennial Mountain Range before them for miles as they walk towards Red Rock Pass along a rolling plateau. Wide open spaces give one a 360 degree view, but the Centennials to the south are so impressive that they command most of one's attention. These mountains run in an east-west line for more than 40 miles, comprising the border between Montana and Idaho.

    By the following morning, the snow storm had cleared and the landscape was perfect for photography, a real Faery Snow Queen day, with the rising sun reflecting off millions of ice crystals. It was so cold that we had trouble with camera shutters and batteries.

    We walked 3 miles of the official trail leading from Red Rock Pass to Blair Lake, climbing the ridge west of Hell Roaring Canyon in about six inches of snow. Horsemen use this area and, in places it is a confusing nest of looping and intersecting paths. Some of the paths are marked with faded wood placards that read "C↑D" with a directional arrow between the two letters. Other trails are marked only with blazes on the trees.

    On the ridge above Hell Roaring Creek, we saw a creature climbing a tree like a portly gentleman, working its stubby "arms" and legs in a deliberate hand-hold, foot-hold ascent, pausing to look us over now and again. This antideluvian apparition was just a porcupine, but its lichen-green spines and humanoid demeanor, combined with the remote setting in the snowy forest, gave the encounter an other-worldly feel.

    Rowdy winds came up by mid-afternoon and forced us off the ridge. The winds blew new snow off the trees and up into the sky. It was snowing upwards. Huge streams of light-struck crystals were being flung upwards, where they took on the shape of the wind. I watched one stream of airborne snow slowly curve in on itself until it had formed the shape of a snail shell, or the eye of a hurricane. A long scarf of snow blew directly off the top of Nemesis Mountain so that the mountain looked like it was in motion—a jaunty aviator with a silk scarf half a mile long. We found a good camping spot north of Red Rock Pass, in a grove of spruce trees. We lit a small fire in there and huddled around it.



Segment: Yellowstone National Park to Targhee Pass • Length in miles: 35.6 • Difficulty Rating: Easy •

Elevation Gain: 2564 feet


TRAIL OVERVIEW

This segment begins at the western border of Yellowstone National Park, where the Continental Divide Trail enters Idaho's Island Park area. "Island Park" was reportedly named by early settlers for islands of timber on the high sagebrush plain. It looks quite different today due both to tourism and to forestry.

    Island Park is the world's largest recognized caldera, a collapsed volcanic chamber about 18 to 23 miles in diameter, shaped like an enormous shallow bowl. Roughly half a million years ago, a large shield volcano erupted in what is now eastern Idaho. After the eruption, the volcano's magma chamber collapsed to form the caldera. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) traverses the plateaus that form the eastern edge of the caldera. As far as we know, the Yellowstone and Island Park volcanos will remain docile while you walk their edges, but there are no guarantees.

    Water percolates westward from the Yellowstone Plateau, ending up in Island Park. CDT trekkers will see their first instance of such springs about 4.5 miles west of the Yellowstone Park border, near the trailhead where the Idaho/Montana CDNST begins.

    Speaking of trailheads...there isn't one. Trekkers planning to hike the Idaho/Montana portion of the Continental Divide Trail really have no place to start. In one way, it is entirely appropriate that even finding a trailhead should be difficult. The search for a place to begin will be your initiation into the prevailing character of the CDT's northern sections. The skills you use to find the trail in Island Park will come in handy for the next 900-plus miles as you hike this work-in-progress, the Continental Divide National Scenic Dream of a Trail, that will someday be a completed reality.

    Most of the trail in this segment follows snowmobile routes that, in the summer months, look like roads or what I call "trodes"—trails that used to be roads. Hikers will find the trek relatively easy, with only a few steep climbs in mellow terrain. Two Top, in the Henrys Lake Mountains near the end of the segment, offers the best views. Trail crews have recently signed most of the intersections with wooden CD placards. If any of the signs are missing, it is easy to get lost in the maze of trails. Make sure you have all the suggested maps, and this guide.

    This is the only portion of the Idaho/Montana CDT that has speed limits. I hope you obey them. We wouldn't want any hikers getting tickets for exceeding the 45 mph speed limit, or the 25 mph limit in the steep sections. Of course, these signs, and the "street signs" along the trail, apply to snowmobiles— a fact that you might deduce from the twenty-foot height of the signs.

    Winter recreation is a big industry in Island Park, where hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails criss-cross the terrain. What this means to hikers is: A. The snow doesn't completely melt out of the trails until mid-July, though it is possible to hike them earlier if you don't mind crossing some packed snow fields; B. The trails are wide and gentle, with very little summer traffic, and; C. You need a snowmobile map to find all the trails (see MAPS below).

    When we hiked the trail, we were entertained by a huge black bear that resembled Orson Welles. This bear ran from us, churning up a cloud of old ash and dust on the trail, his bulk not deterring him in the least. At the time we thought, "Oh yeah, that's what they're supposed to do. They run from humans." We were naive. As it turned out, that black bear was one of the few, the proud and the swift. Eleven out of the thirteen bears we met on the CDT stood their ground or pressured us off the trail. Read the bear and animal avoidance tips in "Safety Concerns" in the introductory material before hiking this segment.

    Water is a problem for about 13 miles of this segment. Most of the water courses shown on the topographical maps are now dry, in part due to the 1988 fires. (This is also true of the trail where it enters Yellowstone National Park. Going east into the Park, it is nine miles to the next water source at Summit Lake.) Don't pass up the spring in the newly-constructed portion of the trail (see trail description) near the Park border. Water is adequate, but not plentiful in the remainder of this segment. Notes in the trail description direct hikers to water sources.


MOUNTAIN BIKE NOTES

Yes, the trail is open to mountain bikes, and yes, the "easy" rating has been chosen for this segment ... but the "roads" are several inches deep in fine gravel and cinders in many places so it is like riding through sand. The trail requires maximum effort but offers few technical challenges. The ride up Two Top is the steepest and most challenging section.


LAND ADMINISTRATORS (see Appendix A in the guidebook)

Targhee National Forest, Island Park Ranger District

Gallatin National Forest, Hebgen Lake Ranger District


MAPS

USGS Quadrangles: Buffalo Lake NE, Latham Spring, Reas Pass, Madison Arm, Targhee Pass

USFS: Targhee National Forest, Island Park/Ashton; Gallatin National Forest, West Half

OTHER: Winter Guide to Yellowstone Country: West Yellowstone Snowmobile Trails (This map is available free of charge from most West Yellowstone businesses.); Targhee National Forest Island park Ranger District TRAVEL MAP (free from the Forest Service)

IMPORTANT NOTE: All of the Forest Service maps show the CDT crossing US-20 east of Targhee Pass. This is not correct. The FS maps do not even show a trail going south from Targhee Pass where the CDT is actually located. Only the snowmobile map shows that trail, but of course the CDT is not mentioned on a snowmobile map. Forest Service maps also show the CDT descending into Tygee Creek Basin north of Two Top. The trail has been rerouted around this sensitive riparian area. It now stays on the Divide briefly and then descends on the Montana side instead. The trail is signed correctly on the ground, and if you combine information from all the maps, you can find it.


BEGINNING ACCESS POINT

[bumpy road, 14.4 miles; hike 2.7 miles] Forest Service Road 078, Targhee National Forest.

This approach begins on US Highway 20, south of the small town of Island Park/Ponds Lodge. From US-20 go east on Chick Creek Road 291 for 14 miles. The road climbs to a plateau and ends at an intersection with Forest Service Road 082. Turn left (north) on 082 and drive 0.4 miles to an intersection with Forest Service Road 078. It is 0.3 miles east on 078 to a locked gate that blocks motorized travel. There is no place to park at this gate and barely room for hikers to squeeze by in the young lodgepole pines that grow close to the gate. Hike another 2.4 miles eastward and uphill on road 078 to intercept the Continental Divide Trail. A blue and white CD sign marks the entrance to newly-constructed tread that leads north. To actually begin at the beginning of this segment, hikers must proceed south 3.9 miles on 078 to reach the western border of Yellowstone National Park, then turn around and hike back along the same trail. Rangers are hoping to get enough funds to establish a trailhead here in the future.

    If you have a support or shuttle crew, supply them with a Forest Service map and a "Travel Map" (see MAPS above). On the ground, road signs that look like regulation street signs show the miles and direction to other intersections, but many of these roads cannot be accessed by motorized vehicles in the summer. It can be extremely frustrating if you plan an access route that is blocked by locked gates. Get a Travel Map so you can easily see all the gates that close approaches to the route of the CDT.


ENDING ACCESS POINT

[paved highway] Targhee Pass on US-20

This segment ends at Targhee Pass on US-20. Lionshead Resort is one mile east on the highway, and the town of West Yellowstone is nine miles east. Macks Inn is about 15 miles southwest on US-20.


TRAIL DESCRIPTION

Where the Continental Divide Trail exits Yellowstone National Park and enters Targhee National Forest , the trail is not signed as the CDT, however it is easy to find for both north and southbound hikers. As soon as it crosses the Park border, the CDT turns north on trail 078.

    Southbound hikers take care that you do not go too far south on 078. To find the correct turn eastward into the Park, look for an orange, fluorescent piece of metal hung on a tree. Near the metal, there is a Yellowstone National Park sign that is down on the ground. The sign lists the Park regulations.

    At mile 2.6, there are excellent views from trail 078 of the Island Park caldera, of the Island Park Reservoir, and of the Centennial Mountains. Both Targhee and Gallatin Forest Service maps show this first section as trail 078, but hikers on the ground will not see a trail number unless they walk out to the approach road.

    Trail (trode) 078 passes through a combination of new growth, some unburned sections, and areas that were burned in the 1988 fires. It was here, about fifty feet from the Continental Divide Trail, that a firewood cutter started the 1988 North Fork fires with a cigarette.

    It is 3.9 miles from the Yellowstone border to new trail construction built to connect 078 to 066, the Black Canyon Loop Road. The new trail leaves 078 at an intersection that is marked with a large blue and white CD sign. However the sign is turned so that it is visible only from the approach to the trail, and not for either north or southbound hikers. Someone used a marker to write CDT on the back of the sign for southbound hikers to see, but you have to watch carefully to see this turn.

    The new trail is 446, a number that appears on the Travel Map, but not on any other maps. It is one mile long and boasts a series of three bog bridges. When we hiked the trail, only one of the bog bridges crossed running water, and that was a trickle. The section of planking furthest north has a spring that runs all season.

    As was mentioned in the Trail Overview, every other water course shown on the topographical map is dry except during spring runoff. Don't pass this spring up, you'll need the water. It is about thirteen miles to the next reliable water source. Mountain bikers are likely to encounter some deadfall here.

    At it's northern end, trail 446 climbs to meet road 066. There is a CD sign at the intersection. An intersection with a spur trail on the east side, 075, is also signed with a CD symbol that keeps hikers on the right track.

    This 6.1-mile section of Black Canyon Loop Road 066 is closed to motorized traffic during the summer months. The trail crosses Thirsty Creek at mile 7.7, but it is not a reliable water source. Spur trails that enter Black Canyon Loop Road can be ignored. The road is the trail for about 13 miles. There is a gate on road 066 at mile 11. North of the gate, the road is open to motorized traffic.

    The higher elevations (8135 feet) of Black Canyon Loop Road may remain snowed in until mid-July, but the drifts are packed hard by snowmobiles and easy to walk over. Once hikers pass the gate, there is a seven-mile-long downhill section that loses enough altitude to leave the snow behind (see elevation chart in the guide book). At the next CDT intersection, Railroad Trail, the closest water source is 1/2 mile off the trail, in Reas Pass Creek. For water, continue on the road toward Big Springs, which is also the access road to Macks Inn. There is a culvert where the road crosses the creek. The next water source is about three miles east, over Reas Pass, at the Madison River.

    At mile 18 for this segment, hikers turn east on "Railroad Trail" to cross the Divide at Reas Pass. South-to-north hikers will not be able to read the sign until they walk around to the other side, but there are two CD signs where you turn onto Railroad Trail off of Black Canyon Loop Road. This is the best access/exit point for the town of West Yellowstone. From this intersection it is 14 miles to the town, and 2.8 of those miles are on the CDT.

    From the turn east on Railroad Trail, it is 1.8 miles to the first CD sign and another trail intersection. Watch for the speed limit sign that says 45 mph, and bear left (northeast). At mile 20.4 for this segment, the trail crosses the Divide at 6941 feet elevation, so low that it is not really noticeable.

    East of the Divide, and 2.8 miles from Black Canyon Loop Road, the CDT turns left (west) on road 1727. The turn is well-marked with CD signs. A right hand turn here will take you to water about 500 yards away on the South Fork of the Madison River. This is also where hikers can leave the CDT and continue northeast to West Yellowstone. Look for the bridge over the Madison River for the route to town.

    Road 1727 bends from west to northwest. An intersection signed only as "Jct.17" is reached at mile 21.4. CDT trekkers continue straight ahead (northwest). Continue northwest at another unsigned intersection at mile 23.6 (5.6 miles from Black Canyon Loop Road). This intersection is gated, and has a CD post from which the signs were missing when we were there.

    The trail turns left (west) to climb back up to the Divide at mile 23.8 (5.8 miles from Black Canyon Loop). Watch for a much rougher track that leads steeply uphill and is marked with a wooden CD symbol. Three miles of relatively steep climbing brings the trail back to the Divide. The speed limit on the trail is reduced to 25 miles per hour.

    Two Top, reached at mile 26.6, is the highlight of this segment. The 8208-foot knoll offers a panoramic view of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, the Centennial Mountains to the northwest, and miles of the Yellowstone and Island Park areas. The topographical map shows Mount Two Top west of, and higher than, this "Two Top" which is signed as being part of the National Recreational Trail System.

    At the Two Top sign, south-to-north hikers take a right-hand turn, following the Divide northeast. It looks tempting to continue uphill on a jeep track that climbs higher, but the Divide turns downhill. This is one of the few places in this segment where there were no CDT signs or posts to keep us on the right track.

    1.4 miles northeast of Two Top, a Y-shaped intersection is marked with a CD sign and a motorcycle trail symbol. South-to-north hikers take the right fork. This is where the reroute begins that takes hikers on the Montana side of the Divide to protect Idaho's Tygee Creek Basin from summer traffic that would damage the riparian area.

    An intersection that looks like a meeting of four rough jeep tracks is reached at mile 29.1. There is no 4-way intersection on the maps, but there is a gate symbol on the Gallatin Forest Service map. The gate was open when we were there. A CD sign shows the trail continuing straight ahead.

    The trail crosses the West Fork of Cream Creek and a culvert at mile 30. The stream is a good water source that runs all summer. The two-track you are now on is shown best on the Gallatin FS map—it does not exist on the topo.

    The next intersection, at mile 30.9 (12.9 miles from Black Canyon Loop) is marked with CD symbols and directional arrows, but no road numbers. Continue downhill and more or less straight ahead (north/northeasterly). On the FS maps, this road is identified as 1703, but it was not signed on the ground when we were there.

    Intersect Forest Service Road 1720 at mile 32.2. This road crosses Buttermilk Creek and is shown as the CDNST on the Gallatin FS map. Stay on 1720 as it trends northwest and continues downhill toward US-20.

    Near US-20, watch carefully for the intersection with snowmobile trail 1710. The CDT makes a sharp left here, turning more than 90° at a gate that functions as a "closed to motorized" barrier. On the topographical maps and on the Forest Service maps 1710 appears to dead-end before it reaches Targhee Pass. Only the snowmobile trail map shows a trail continuing to the pass. With many twists and turns, 1710 passes by some private property and climbs about 300 feet to the highway. From the "closed to motorized" gate at the intersection of 1710 and 1720, it is 2.4 miles to Targhee Pass (mile 35.6 for this segment). When we were there the CD signs had been ripped off the posts south of the parking lot at Targhee Pass. The parking lot is next to an historical marker and elevation signs for the pass. Better, and safer parking can be found north of the pass about 1/2 mile up the 4WD road.




All text on this page is copyrighted material. © Lynna Howard. Do not copy or distribute without permission.



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