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A Different Kind of Quiet: Finding Solitude in Yellowstone’s Wilderness

backpacking tent set up to enjoy the setting sun on a Yellowstone backpacking trip

Quiet. Solitude. Wilderness.

As I tightened the last few straps on my backpack and hit the trail for three days deep in the backcountry of Yellowstone, I contemplated these three words and what they mean to me. It is becoming increasingly challenging to find quiet, solitude, or wilderness in our ever-modernizing world. But in places like Yellowstone, with vast expanses of mostly untouched and natural landscapes, it is still possible to connect on a deeply personal and spiritual level with our fundamental nature. 

With each step away from the road and into the wild, I can feel myself becoming more in tune with my senses and the world around me. The agitated chatter of chickadees is no longer a subconscious background noise but a lively conversation informing me that there is likely a kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, pine marten, or other small predator in the area. The coolness of the clouds passing periodically in front of the sun is a reminder to keep an eye on the southwest for a sign of the thunderstorms forecasted to pass through later in the day. The smell of lush grass and wildflowers is a clue that this area has some ripe, nutritious forage, and I should keep an eye out for bison, elk, and black bears.

a tree with a mountain in the background as the sun sets in Yellowstone's backcountry

We enjoyed a spectacular sunset from camp on our first night of the trip.

The family of four I am guiding has never been backpacking before, and I want to make their first trip a unique and memorable experience. With both nights at the same campsite, I decided to spend the middle day taking them on an off-trail day hike to fully experience what “wilderness” truly feels like. 

High up on the slopes of the Buffalo Plateau, we encounter a small group of pronghorn — North America’s fastest land animal — who give us a curious glance before going back to grazing. The sound of the gushing Yellowstone River recedes below us in the distance, and the road a mile beyond the river feels like a distant memory. I am taking them on a route I first explored over ten years ago, and though I haven’t managed to hike this particular area since then, I still feel a strong personal connection to the landscape and my memories there.

We often watch bison, elk, and wolves traveling through this area from spotting scopes set up along the distant roadway. Up on the road, looking out at this vast hillside, even the mightiest bison looks like a tiny ant in the distance. It is hard to truly wrap your mind around the way the landscape unfolds from that long-distance view. But standing here amid that wild expanse, we become intimately familiar with every rise and dip of the hillside, every small drainage gushing with fresh snowmelt, every rock and antler dotting the landscape. 

A pronghorn in a green grassy field

We encountered several pronghorn on our hike. These creatures are known to be somewhat skittish when approached, but by keeping a respectful distance we were able to observe them without disturbing them.

Cresting the ridge, we level off into a small marsh tucked into a low spot in the mountainside. Out in the reeds, a pair of sandhill cranes are being chased around by a feisty blackbird, no doubt for the crime of trespassing too close to a nest. The juxtaposition of the tiny songbird making the four-foot-tall crane flee for its life is rather amusing. 

Closer to the edge of the marsh, a cinnamon teal sits on a nest of eggs, and a couple of soras — small marsh birds that are easy to hear but frustratingly difficult to see — call tantalizingly from the long grass. I am tempted to spend the next hour trying to catch a glimpse of one, but I know that is a futile mission, and the storm clouds to the southwest are inching ever closer—time to start heading for lower ground. The birds in this marsh seem unperturbed by our brief intrusion into their lives, and I am confident they won’t spare us a second thought after we move on. It is refreshing to know there are still places in the world where we are an unimportant aside in the lives of the native fauna.

Buffalo Plateau with Hellroaring Mountain in the backgroundHigh up on the Buffalo Plateau, almost level with the summit of Hellroaring Mountain and miles from the nearest road or trail, we felt a true sense of quiet, solitude, and wilderness.

We opt for a different route back to camp, traversing a steep hillside with incredible views of the upper reaches of Hellroaring Mountain. Along the way, we spook a small bachelor group of bison bulls and decide to head further uphill to give them a wide berth. After almost ten miles of off-trail wandering, there is a certain sense of tameness when we eventually link back up with the trail for the last mile into camp. But that’s not to say some small modern comforts are bad — I am thankful to relax with a couple of marshmallows roasted on a stick over the JetBoil after dinner.

roasting marshmallows for s'mores on a Yellowstone backpacking trip

Roasting some well-deserved marshmallows over the stove after a long day exploring the backcountry of Yellowstone.

After s’mores, my group heads into the tent to play cards while I elect to relax and watch the last hour of daylight go by from my trusty camp chair. I sit in silence, listening to the rush of Hellroaring Creek (muddy and bulging with spring snowmelt) and watching a family of bighorn sheep gently picking their way across the talus slope in the distance. A last dash of color illuminates the clouds from underneath, and then dusk’s muted blues and grays take over. In the morning, we will pack up camp and return to the hustle and bustle of the outside world. But for now, I am content to sit and enjoy the quiet and solitude of an evening in the remote wilderness of Yellowstone.

backpacking tent set up to enjoy the setting sun on a Yellowstone backpacking trip

The last rays of sun dashed the clouds over our camp with bits of pink and orange just before dusk.

 

Blog text and photos courtesy of Yellowstone Wild Lead Naturalist/Photo Guide  Rob Harwood.

To learn more about Rob H. and the rest of the Yellowstone Wild team, visit our “About Us” page

a group of people in a field with a mountain in the background

 

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2025 Workshop Dates and Instructor

Workshop 1:   9-Days: 1/5/2025 – 1/13/2025 ~ Led by local photographer Evan Watts  ONLY 1 SPOT LEFT!

Workshop 2:   7-Days: 2/9/2025 – 2/15/2025 – Led by local photographer Rob Harwood