In Hot (and Cold) Water: Backpacking Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon

By Michael Lanza

I step off the grassy riverbank into the slow-moving Bechler River, in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, and the shock of the cold, calf-deep water makes me gasp unconsciously. After a few careful steps forward—with the mucky, silted river bottom threatening to either make me slip or suck a sandal off my foot—the river rises above my knees and feels really cold. At midstream on this ford that spans 60 feet or more, the frigid water reaches the tops of my thighs and not even the warm sun and lack of wind keep me from feeling the chill cut to my bones.

My friend Jeff Wilhelm and I are about two hours into a five-day backpacking trip up and back down Bechler Canyon in mid-September, the very tail end of summer—which happens to be a good time to backpack in this southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. For not only did we avoid having to pay the backcountry camping fee by arriving after Sept. 10, but more importantly, we’ve come after the close of the notorious mosquito season of early to mid-summer, when dense clouds of hangry skeeters (that’s not a typo—I do mean “hangry”) rise from the boggy Bechler Meadows and inflict misery on any and all blood-filled creatures who pass through here.

Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.

But the real reasons this trip has been on my “want to do it” include the abundance of waterfalls along this route, and a certain famous hot springs pool in Bechler Canyon. Called Mr. Bubble, that broad pool forms where hot water bubbling up from a boiling fumarole mixes with the cold water of a Bechler River tributary creek to create a perfect, large, hot soaking pool.

It sounded like the height of backpacking decadence, and Jeff and I were all in for that.

Reaching the river’s opposite bank, we both shake off the chill—and I wonder if Jeff is contemplating, as I am, that we have several more opportunities to wade across the Bechler.


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Minutes beyond the ford, we walk into our designated campsite for our first night. It’s after 6 p.m.—we started hiking around 4 p.m., after driving several hours to get here—and the sun hangs low, signaling to us that days are shorter at this time of year. We also have a forecast for our first four days of sunny, pleasant days in the 50s and 60s, and clear nights dipping to around freezing. The forecast warned that rain may dampen our final night and day, but we expect to hike only about four hours to our car on that last day.

The temperature drops quickly right after the sun, but by 8:30 we’re ready to crawl into our sleeping bags, anyway. One of the great pleasures of sleeping outside at this time of year is the long hours of darkness for getting plenty of sleep.

Occasionally during the night, an elk bugles not far off. At one point, I hear its heavy hoof steps clomping right outside my tent.

Bechler Canyon

In the morning, a few miles upriver from our first campsite, we turn onto a short spur trail leading steeply downhill, following the sound of continuous thunder grow steadily louder. As we reach a clifftop overlook of the two-level Colonnade Falls, Jeff exclaims, “Oh, wow!” The high-volume Bechler River plunges a vertical 35 feet over the upper falls and another 67 feet over the second drop into a wide basin flanked by dark cliffs.

Not far up the canyon from Colonnade Falls, we reach Iris Falls, where the broad and muscular Bechler River takes a 45-foot leap. Named for the Greek and Roman goddess of rainbows, Iris pumps a steady cloud of mist down canyon, creating a rainbow when the light is right.

The southwest quadrant of Yellowstone, including the Bechler River, Falls River, and their tributary creeks, harbor at least 14 notable waterfalls and countless other falls and cascades that rumble deafeningly over rock- and boulder-strewn riverbeds, earning this corner of the park the name Cascade Corner. This remote area of the park—the Bechler River Trailhead and Bechler ranger station are reached via one gravel road off ID 47, a rural highway out of tiny Ashton, Idaho—also sees more than twice Yellowstone’s average annual snowfall of 150 inches. (Read my story about a weeklong ski tour two friends and I made through Bechler Canyon, during which several feet of snow fell over three days.)

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Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the lower Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.

With much of the Madison and Pitchstone plateaus that drain into the waterways of Cascade Corner lying above 8,000 feet, that enormous snowpack lingers well into summer, melting slowly and seeping even more slowly through the earth, keeping these rivers, streams, and waterfalls roaring throughout the relatively dry summer and autumn seasons.

That combination of meteorological and geological influences adds another dimension to Bechler Canyon, above and beyond the mental picture that forms when we think of Yellowstone. In addition to an abundance and range of wildlife that’s rare in the Lower 48, and our first national park’s unique-on-the-planet preponderance of geysers and other thermal features—which prompted the various native American tribes who populated this region to give Yellowstone names like “land of the burning ground,” “land of vapors,” and “many smoke”—in Bechler Canyon and its surroundings, water assumes a lead character role.

Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone.
Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone.

The Yellowstone River is much better known, but the Bechler River is also a beauty, varying in character from a gentle, quiet, tree-lined waterway with world-class trout fishing to a raging torrent where some cascades tumble for hundreds of feet.

And if you’re backpacking here, you will get to know the Bechler River intimately.

At the first—and the spiciest—of today’s three fords of the Bechler, the icy water turns my feet instantly cold with my first step into the river. By midstream, with the water at mid-thigh, I’m once again panting heavily and my heart pounds, despite moving at a crawl because the cobblestone riverbed prevents me from succumbing to the urge to scurry quickly across.

When, with enormous relief, I finally step onto the sun-warmed opposite riverbank, I say, “Whoa, that was cold!” Jeff responds, “I got halfway and wondered how I was going to make it, I was so cold.”

Farther up canyon, nearing Three River Junction—where three creeks, the Ferris, Gregg, and Phillips forks, merge to form the Bechler—Jeff and I cross meadows where steam clouds swirl off the clear, shallow waters of hot springs pools and the air stinks like rotten eggs. Scalding water trickles from holes in rock marked by telltale white stains of sulphur. Those waters would scald the flesh off any animal—including humans—unfortunate or foolish enough to venture into any of them. But their colors are beautiful and it’s fascinating to see so much thermal activity in a valley carved by a cold river.

The steaming and belching ground also portends our imminent visit to Bechler Canyon’s signature natural feature.

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Soaking in Mr. Bubble

Steam rises from a shallow natural pool perhaps 30 or more feet in diameter as I wade in. The water temperature shifts dramatically up or down with each small step through the swirling mixture of cold water from the Ferris Fork creek pouring into one corner of the pool mixing with hot springs entering from another corner and erupting from the ground beneath the pool’s center—the latter heat and gas source indicated by a steady stream of rising bubbles.

I lower to a sitting position, chest-deep, and crab crawl to find a spot with the perfect, hot-tub water temperature, and plant myself there in Mr. Bubble—for a long soak.

And I’m thinking: This is quite a sweet treat on a wilderness backpacking trip. I could get used to this.

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It’s late afternoon on our second day in Bechler Canyon, with a breeze blowing through and the warm sun still high overhead. While soaking in the hot pool, we watch a nearby geyser—not close enough to represent a danger to us, but close enough for us to watch its show—erupt throughout our visit to Mr. Bubble, spewing steam and water at least 10 feet into the air.

Mr. Bubble appears to be a regular stop for backpackers in Bechler Canyon—but an etiquette seems to prevail that prevents crowding. A group of six women backpackers, having already soaked, departs soon after we arrive. Jeff and I enjoy the pool to ourselves for 30 minutes or more, until another party arrives, and we leave soon after. 

That evening, from our campsite about an hour farther up the Bechler River Trail from the spur path to Mr. Bubble, we watch the sunset paint red and orange streaks across the sky.

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Shoshone Geyser Basin

On our third afternoon, we leave most of our gear in a campsite and set out with ultralight daypacks to hike a mostly flat upper stretch of the Bechler River Trail through open forest of lodgepole pine—very quiet, pleasant, and fast hiking. Turning east onto the Shoshone Lake Trail, we follow it a couple miles to the west shore of that sprawling, 8,000-acre at almost 8,000 feet above sea level.

On the beach, we meet a couple from Lander, Wyoming, who are on a long dayhike from the Old Faithful area. They had the good luck of walking past the Lone Star Geyser as it was erupting. It turns out they and I have mutual friends in Lander. After they depart, a man by himself returns from a short hike to his touring kayak on the beach. After chatting for a few minutes, we discover that he, like Jeff and me, is from Boise, and I know his neighbors very well. We shake hands, laughing at how we live a short bike ride from one another and never met before bumping into each other on the shore of a wilderness lake in Yellowstone.

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The Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
The Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

It’s a small world. But the world of people who go into the backcountry is even smaller.

From the lake, Jeff and I backtrack a short distance and turn onto the trail looping through the Shoshone Geyser Basin, Yellowstone’s largest collection of backcountry geysers—a spot not to be missed on a backpacking trip in Bechler Canyon. We follow the narrow footpath past numerous geysers, some actively erupting, belching steam and hot water, the air stinking of sulphur.

The Last Ford

Standing on a gravel bar in his shorts and sandals, about to step into the Bechler River once last time, Jeff tells me, “I have so not been looking forward to this.”

It’s our fifth and final morning and we’ve hiked two miles down canyon from our last campsite in a steady, light rain and cold wind. A series of thunderstorms rolled in yesterday afternoon, on a day that we hiked about 13 miles back down the Bechler River Trail—once again passing the waterfalls and cascades—to our final night’s camp by the river. While hiking beside a placid stretch of the lower river yesterday afternoon, we spotted a large black bear high above us on a talus slope, who stared right back at us as we looked up at him.

Now, as Jeff and I change from boots into sandals for this grim, final river ford, the rain continues, the temperature hovers somewhere in the forties, and a wind with a November edge to it snaps like an ill-mannered dog at our exposed skin.

Dread in its purest form looks like standing on the wrong bank of a frigid river.

As with our first ford of this spot two hours into this trip, stepping into the river feels like stepping into a bathtub filled with ice water. But unlike that first day, there is no warm sunshine. At midstream, with the river at the top of my thighs and the wintry wind sucking the heat from my torso, I’m hyperventilating with the pain of the cold.

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Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.

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Gear Tips Trekking poles are indispensable for this route’s river fords and some steeper sections of trail. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.” Days are shorter in September and October, the best time of year for this trip. Carry a reliable headlamp with fresh batteries or a full charge; see my review of the five best headlamps.

The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, tent, rain jacket, down jacket, and ultralight daypacks I used on this trip.

Find the best gear, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.

See also my expert tips in these stories:

How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

 

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