When clownfish Marlin sets out to find Nemo he has a great deal easier time of it than we do in our quest to find the Cougar Creek patrol cabin this past summer. However, our next effort at finding the cabin at Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park is practically effortless. Of course, it does not hurt that we have our own personal regal blue tang Dory who remembers where we can find this cabin and that it does, in fact, exist where it is supposed to exist.
Anticipation of staying in another lap of backcountry luxury burbles through our psyches like a bouncy bubbling West Thumb mud pot. The hike to Heart Lake is around eight miles one–way. Initially the trail contours up and down and around forested rolling hills and small grassy meadows for several miles. Any hoped–for views of the Yellowstone Plateau are concealed by a curtain of dead, spindly lodgepole pines surrounded by a dense thicket of 10–15 foot–high growth, new since the fires of 1988. This is grizzly and wolf habitat, but since the four of us are noisier than elk bugling in the rut the chances of any wildlife sightings are slim.
|Heart Lake trail|
After nearly five miles we emerge from the forest at Paycheck Pass where the scene changes dramatically. We are now on the edge of a deep valley, overlooking the thermal features of the Heart Lake geyser basin. We drop our packs to pause and refresh just above White Gulch hot springs. Our gaze follows the steaming green valley of Witch Creek down through the springs. All eyes are drawn to the hazy blueness of Heart Lake, about three miles distance. White sinter deposits from the hot springs dot the valley’s length all the way to the edge of the lake. Beyond this beguiling view, elongated mountain ridges of the continental divide obscure from sight the fifty–million year old volcanic rocks of the Absaroka Range farther away on the eastern boundary of the park.
|Sinter deposits at White Gulch hot springs|
|White Gulch hot springs near Factory Hill|
We take our time as we drop down to the cabin at the edge of the lake, frequently lingering to consider the mind–bending beauty and power of what is displayed before us. A remnant of what is now known as the Red Mountains stretches towards the cloud-flecked blue sky, straddling the 640,000–year–old rim of the Yellowstone caldera. Foot bridges take us back and forth across Witch Creek as our path weaves its way through the Fissure, Middle, and Lower groups of the geyser basin.
|Taking a moment at Heart Lake geyser basin|
|Middle Group, Heart Lake geyser basin|
|Lower Group, Heart Lake geyser basin|
Soon the path leads us directly to the lake and our home sweet home for the night. We unlock the door, unload our packs, remove out boots, and check it all out. After a leisurely 6 1/2 hours on the trail, we have arrived.
|After 8 miles - Heart Lake patrol cabin!|
|Post-hike respite at Heart Lake|
My helpful resource: Bryan, T.S., 2008, The Geysers of Yellowstone (4th edition).