By JOE CARTWRIGHT
Special to North Palm Beach Life
Photos by Joe Cartwright
The Mount Washburn hike is a very unusual trail for Yellowstone. Beginning in 1931, an auto road led up the north side of Mount Washburn and down the south side. Many years ago, the “downhill” south half of the road was closed to auto traffic and reserved for foot traffic only. The “uphill” side of the road was left open, first for two-way auto traffic, then later for small tour buses to take sightseers to the summit. Now, the “uphill” side from the north is closed to the public and only sees a sparse amount of Park Service traffic. The trail head is at Dunraven Pass between Tower and Canyon junctions. The parking lot, however, has a very limited number of parking places. For our last visit we got to the trail head before 9AM. When we returned to the trail head that afternoon, there were at least 4 cars waiting for a space to open up.
Since the original road was built for auto traffic, grades are relatively gentle and the trail very wide and accommodating. From Dunraven Pass on the Grand Loop Road the trail winds 3½ miles up the slopes of Washburn. The trail follows a route filled with switchbacks. Views at the switchbacks are very impressive. There are sweeping views to the south, almost all the way up to the summit. As usual with Yellowstone, wildlife is everywhere – but not always visible. Bear can be anywhere, but the trail is so heavily traveled that bears don’t usually come near it. Deer and elk are seen on the slopes, but the highest reaches are the domain of the bighorn sheep and, more infrequently, mountain goats.
Instead of a small cabin, as in some lookouts on bald mountains, or a building on a tower, the Mt. Washburn lookout is a large concrete building that is over two stories tall. Besides that large fire lookout on the summit, for years the whole area has been treated as, well, not exactly wilderness. Besides the road, power lines were laid to the lookout on the summit. The power lines first were for the Park’s ranger radio system and its repeaters, then for microwave equipment for telephone communications. Now, cell phone system antennas bristle from the lookout tower building. For decades, Washburn was the only fire lookout with a pay phone in the base.
On one visit a few years ago, we hiked from the summit over to a shoulder of the mountain with a group of other hikers. We had watched the ranger on duty hurry that direction to warn a few hikers to stay away from a flock of bighorn sheep grazing. The ranger returned and stayed to talk to our group about the animals in the area. Surprisingly, the flock of bighorn sheep began to gather all around and among our group. The ranger told us just to stay put, make no sudden moves, but take all the photos we wanted. The animals were close enough to reach out and pet, but of course we didn’t.
That brings up one observation about Yellowstone wildlife: If you try to follow them for photos, they will either move away or attack. You want neither of these results. If you just stand still and let them approach, it means they aren’t seeing you as a threat. This approach is best modified if bears, moose, or bison are involved. Those particular animals are the most dangerous, especially the bison. Keep a large distance between you and them. “Large distance” meaning at least 100 yards from the carnivores (bears and wolves) and at least 25 yards from the large, tourist-stomping animals (bison, moose, and elk, especially).
Black bear on the roadside near Mt. Washburn trail head.