Two Miles High in Yellowstone

Tom Fagin near the summit of Mount Washburn in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park on June 16.

After crunching over a long stretch of snow-packed trail last week, nearly two miles high over the Wyoming plateau, my son, Tom, and I at last approached the rocky promontory of one of the most elegant peaks in all of Yellowstone National Park: Mount Washburn.

“Not too shabby,” I declared as we passed a sign marking the 10,243-foot summit, scrambled up the steps to an old fire tower and gazed at a panoramic expanse of surrounding mountains, including the Grand Tetons. The sweeping view also included Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and distant geyser basins.

Our ascent was a high point, literally and figuratively, of a weeklong visit with Tom, who moved to Wyoming last fall to begin working as a newspaper reporter in the town of Gillette.

Loyal readers may recall the many expeditions Tom and I enjoyed together when he was growing up, including a 272-mile hike of Vermont’s Long Trail; climbs of all 67 New England mountains that rise above 4,000 feet; and kayak journeys down Lake Champlain and the Erie Canal.

I’m thrilled, of course, that Tom is on his own, but at the same time miss his company around the house and on the trail.

I had flown out to spend a week with Tom last March, when we managed to pack in a few decent hikes in the Badlands and Black Hills, including Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. With Lisa, my wife, coming along for this more recent reunion we all decided to explore Yellowstone, which none of us had previously visited.

After four days of poking around in the world’s oldest national park, as well as the adjoining Grand Teton National Park, we three East Coast natives agreed: Why had we waited so long to head West?

As thrilling as it was to view the iconic Old Faithful geyser, kayak in the shadow of the Tetons on Jackson Lake, and watch bison and elk graze and eagles soar, I equally savored the simple pleasure of being surrounded by vast expanses of high prairie.

New Englanders are so accustomed to being closed in by forests or cities, or by suburban sprawl, the sight of untrammeled land instills an overwhelming sense of serenity.

Tom and I certainly experienced that during our 3-mile hike on The Mount Washburn Trail from Dunraven Pass, a 19th-century wagon road that is a popular route to the summit.

On this crystal-clear morning dozens of hikers of all ages traipsed up and down the gently sloping path. The peak was named in 1870 to honor Henry D. Washburn, leader of an expedition that explored much of northwestern Wyoming. The expedition named Old Faithful and eventually recommended protecting Yellowstone as a national park.

Gustavus C. Doane, an expedition leader, wrote this account on Aug. 29, 1870:

“Looking northward from the base of the mountain the great plateau stretches away to the front and left with its innumerable groves and sparkling waters, a variegated landscape of surpassing beauty, bounded on its extreme verge by the cañons of the Yellowstone. …

“On the east, close beneath our feet, yawns the immense gulf of the Grand Cañon, cutting away the bases of two mountains in forcing a passage through the range. Its yellow walls divide the landscape nearly in a straight line to the junction of Warm Spring Creek below. The ragged edges of the chasm are from two hundred to five hundred yards apart, its depth so profound that the river bed is no where visible. No sound reaches the ear from the bottom of the abyss; the sun's rays are reflected on the further wall and then lost in the darkness below. The mind struggles and then falls back upon itself despairing in the effort to grasp by a single thought the idea of its immensity. Beyond, a gentle declivity, sloping from the summit of the broken range, extends to the limit of vision, a wilderness of unbroken pine forest.”

It’s hard to improve upon that description, so I won’t try.

I’m sure Gustavus Doane would be pleased that nearly a century and a half after he penned those words, climbers now see pretty much what he observed then.

The value of protecting Yellowstone from development and despoliation must continue to serve as an inspiration to all those who cherish not just nature, but humanity.





Tom and Steve Fagin tag the top.
Tom and Steve Fagin tag the top.
Tom, as seen from Steve's kayak, paddles on Wyoming's Jackson Lake, with the Tetons in the background.
Tom, as seen from Steve's kayak, paddles on Wyoming's Jackson Lake, with the Tetons in the background.

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