Of the five primary entryways into Yellowstone, the Northeast Entrance is the least traveled, making this a great place to escape the hordes in midsummer. It is also one of the few places to see tall mountains in Yellowstone. The road heads east from Tower Junction and immediately enters Lamar Valley, an area of grass and sage along the sinuous Lamar River. Osborne Russell, who trapped this country in the 1830s, described it with affection:
We descended the stream about 15 mls thro. the dense forest and at length came to a beautiful valley about 8 Mls. long and 3 or 4 wide surrounded by dark and lofty mountains. The stream after running thro. the center in a NW direction rushed down a tremendous canyon of basaltic rock apparently just wide enough to admit its waters. The banks of the stream in the valley were low and skirted in many places with beautiful Cotton wood groves. Here we found a few Snake indians comprising 6 men 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy?.... We stopped at this place and for my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to rein in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders?.... There is something in the wild romantic scenery of this valley which I cannot...describe; but the impressions made upon my mind while gazing from a high eminence on the surrounding landscape one evening as the sun was gently gliding behind the western mountain and casting its gigantic shadows across the vale were such as time can never efface from my memory.
Yellowstone River Picnic Area
Picnic areas don’t generally merit a mention, but this one—1.5 miles east of Tower Junction on the Northeast Entrance Road—is an exception because of its proximity to a grand view. A two-mile trail takes off from here for Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The hike is easy and provides a good chance to see bighorn sheep, but be careful to stay away from the canyon rim. For a loop hike (four miles round-trip), continue to the Specimen Ridge Trail, where you turn left and follow it back to your starting point.
Yellowstone Association Institute
The nonprofit Yellowstone Association Institute (406/848-2400, www.yellowstoneassociation.org) offers many classes out of Lamar Valley’s historic Buffalo Ranch, approximately 10 miles east of Tower Junction. To augment the park’s small wild herd, bison were brought here in 1902 from private ranches. The bison stayed in pens at night and were herded during the day. After 1915, they were allowed to roam freely in summer, although all of the park’s bison were rounded up and driven here for winter. After 1938 the roundups ended, but the bison were fed hay every winter in Lamar Valley. Finally in 1952, even this practice was halted and the bison were allowed to roam throughout the park. The historic buildings are worth a look, or better still, take one of the institute’s excellent classes.
Just east of the historic Buffalo Ranch is a turnout across from Specimen Ridge, where explorers discovered the standing trunks of petrified trees that had been buried in volcanic ash and mudflows 50 million years ago. Through the centuries, the trunks literally turned to stone as silica entered the wood. The process was repeated through the centuries as new forests gradually developed atop the volcanic deposits, only to be buried by later flows. Scientists have found 27 different forests on top of each other, containing walnut, magnolia, oak, redwood, and maple—evidence that the climate was once more like that of today’s Midwestern states. Erosion eventually revealed the trees, many of which are still standing. It’s one of the largest areas of petrified trees known to exist.
There is no trail to the petrified forest, but during the summer, rangers lead hikes into the area. Check with the Albright Visitor Center for upcoming treks. Mark Marschall’s Yellowstone Trails provides a description of the 1.5-mile route if you want to try it on your own. A lesser-known petrified forest in the northwest corner of Yellowstone is accessible via U.S. Highway 191.
The Northeast Corner is still one of the best places in Yellowstone to view bison, with a gorgeous backdrop of open country and wooded mountains. Elk and mule deer are also commonly seen, and the reintroduction of wolves has added another dimension to wildlife-viewing. The valley contains several small ponds created when the retreating glaciers left large blocks of ice that formed “kettles.” Erratic glacial boulders are scattered along the way. There are campgrounds at Slough Creek and Pebble Creek, and there is very good fishing in Slough Creek. But look out for one other critter: the ubiquitous ground squirrels that dart into the road, playing chicken with your tires.
Between the Slough Creek and Pebble Creek Campgrounds, wolf aficionados fill roadside turnouts each morning and evening, waiting patiently for members of the Druid Peak Pack (and other packs) to appear. Bring your binoculars and spotting scope! During the wolf denning season, the Park Service prohibits parking or walking along certain stretches of the road, but two turnouts are available.
At the east end of Lamar Valley, the park road heads northeast up Soda Butte Creek and between the steep rocky cliffs of Barronette Peak (10,404 feet) and Abiathar Peak (10,928 feet). Stop at Soda Butte, where you’ll find a substantial travertine mound similar to those at Mammoth. Although the springs are no longer very active, the air still reeks of hydrogen sulfide, the “rotten egg” gas. South of Soda Butte and several miles up a backcountry trail is Wahb Springs, found within Death Gulch. Here poisonous gases are emitted from the ground, killing animals in the vicinity. Early explorers reported finding dead bears that had been overcome by the fumes. Less than one mile north of Soda Butte is a pullout where a 0.5-mile trail leads to pretty Trout Lake. It offers a nice afternoon break from the crowds elsewhere in Yellowstone.
North of Pebble Creek Campground, the road squeezes through beautiful Icebox Canyon, past Barronette Peak, and into the (unburned) lodgepole pine forests. As befits the name, you’re likely to see snow and ice here when surrounding areas are carpeted with greenery and flowers. The road follows Soda Butte Creek all the way to the edge of the park, crossing into Montana two miles before the park border. The Northeast Entrance Station is a classic log building built in 1935 and now designated a National Historic Landmark. The twin towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City are just up the road.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition