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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Nov 18 2016

In Search of the Holy Grail with a Herd of Cats

Writer takes friends scrambling for petrified trees that may or may not exist

Exploring Montana, Featured

A “quest.” This is what my friend Mike called our first hike in search of some standing petrified trees in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. Someone had uploaded photos of them on Google Earth. They appeared to be on a steep but accessible hillside in the Specimen Creek drainage. But when Mike, my wife Susie, and I hiked and scrambled to the spot where the photo was supposed to have been taken, we found lots of chunks of petrified wood, but no standing trees. Disappointed, we headed back to the trailhead.

But as we were leaving, my wife Susie spotted, on a far off ridge, something that looked like it might be the standing tree. We took a photograph of it with our telephoto lens and later had a look at the photo at home. It certainly appeared to be a petrified tree. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was far in the distance, and between us and our goal was some seriously steep climbing and a sea of blown down trees.

Since misery loves company, we returned with three more friends, with the understanding that, while I had done my best to plan a “less blowdown” route, there were no guarantees that we would find the standing petrified trees, what we called our “holy grail.”

So how does one plan a route like this? Well, you study satellite photos on Google Earth for a path that appears to cross fewer obstacles, load the path into your GPS, and do your best to follow that path on the GPS while hiking. I have done a fair amount of off-trail hiking, and it is important to keep participants together, rather than them scattering and following some route that appears easier to them in the next 30 yards.

But with this group of experienced, independent hikers, the phrase “herd of cats” came to mind. I shook my head at one point as Craig and Scotty were up in some woods, out of sight and often out of earshot. I was making my way across a steep, open slope, with Mike and Carolyn following dutifully. Meanwhile, Susie and Kem were 150 feet below me, claiming that theirs was the better route. Nearly an hour into the off-trail part of our hike, as we neared the second drainage we’d have to cross, we started merging our routes. But as I looked into the dense vegetation ahead, wondering how me might get through it, I thought, “Maybe we are searching for the Holy Grail.”

“Look,” I yelled to no one in particular, “the nose of the ridge we need to climb is just on the other side of this draw.” As it turned out, so was the near-cliff we had to scramble up to get on the nose of aforementioned ridge. But such is the fun of off-trail hiking. It ain’t about how many miles you cover; it’s about how much “fun” per mile you have.

I had looked at the ridgeline on a topo map before our hike, and it certainly did not require a rocket scientist to calculate that it went up at a rate of about 1800 feet per mile. So I knew it would be tricky, especially given all the gravel I suspected would be on this open slope.

As I looked into the dense vegetation ahead, wondering how me might get through it, I thought, “Maybe we are searching for the Holy Grail.”

So we carefully picked our way up the ridge, trying to remain semi-erect as we did. The purpose of the hike had been to scout a potential Wilderness Walk. But I was beginning to have second thoughts about leading anyone up this. Soon, I crested a small rise, looked down, and our objective was but a few tens of feet away: A standing petrified tree trunk, millions of years old, had somehow survived the last several eruptions of Yellowstone. The area was littered with smaller stumps, and literally tons of petrified wood. To use the word “awesome” seems trite, but it truly was awesome.

We took the obligatory photos, proud of our accomplishment. I was particularly gratified that my planning had paid off. But as my hiking buddies often say when you reach your turn around point, you are only half way. With our curiosity sated and our grail found, we started back down the ridgeline.

Some of the steepest parts were trickier descending than they had been earlier, especially with loose shale, gravel, and tiny bits of petrified ancient forests beneath these modern hiking boots. Arriving at the toe of the ridge, far below the standing trees, I would immediately see that we were re-morphing into a gathering of felines. This time, Mike and Craig took the low road, heading down slope through I don’t know what. A few others and I tried to more or less stick with the approach route for the first few yards, while Scotty and Carolyn displayed a lot of common sense, opting to sit down and wait for a clearer plan of attack to evolve.

Our various routes merged after a quarter-mile or so. Maybe all roads do lead to Rome, so to speak. Actually, it took us considerably less time to return to the trail than the duration of our approach. That was a good thing, because we were all getting tired of throwing our legs over dead trees. Arriving at the maintained trail, no one exactly kissed the ground. But we chatted briefly, and then high-tailed it to the trailhead so as to honor our respective evening commitments in a timely fashion. We had achieved our objective, but most importantly, had enjoyed some wild country with good friends.

- Roger Jenkins is a board member of MWA's Madison-Gallatin Chapter and, along with his wife Susie McDonald, a Wilderness Walks leader. You can follow Susie and Roger's other adventures at twohikers.org.