Horseback & Camp through Yellowstone’s Back Country
There’s a rustling outside of the tent just as the soft sunlight starts to transition the starry sky to morning. I awake abruptly and stiffen, momentarily paralyzed with fear that the noise is coming from either the grizzly or the wolves that we have become all too accustomed to running into in the backcountry. I shudder, or both.
I inhale sharply as I make the reach for the bear spray by the tent door, and I freeze again. Seconds stretch into minutes as I wait for the bear to rip through the tent and viciously attack. But then a bell cuts through the heavy silence of the forest and I exhale audibly. The bell mares are on the move, meaning that the noise outside my tent was caused by the pack mules, grazing on the fresh green grass under the waning moonlight.
I flop back against my sleeping bag, my head resting on the duffel I’ve been using as a pillow, and I crack a smile that turns into a laugh. Half out of comedy, and half out of relief. I gather myself, slip on my cowboy boots, and unzip the tent to reveal the mules and mares munching mindlessly. The cook, and Cowboy’s wife, Vicky is already preparing the coffee over an open flame. Bear spray in hand, I walk to join her, pouring myself a cup before making the 5 minute walk into the woods to the ‘bathroom’.
Our lavatory is just a toilet over a hole, with no walls, or covering. With my back facing the vast openness of the bear filled national park, I laugh again knowing damn well that if push came to shove, I’d never have the reflexes to actually deploy my bear spray during an encounter. Well, I sigh, if I go (while I go), at least I’ve lived a pretty remarkable life.
Over blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs, we learn that the horses had quite the midnight adventure. Unaccustomed to life un-tethered (it is frowned upon to tie up your horses in the park), these bucks took off running. One of the wranglers, the Cowboy’s daughter, had to chase them down and steer them back to camp. She had been viciously bucked off in the madness, but it seems like ‘walk if off and have some whiskey’ is the only real form of remedy you get in the backcountry.
As the other two hands saddle the horses and prepare them for today’s ride, we settle into a campfire story from our Cowboy. He tells us about wrangling wild horses and steer on the Texas/Mexico border some 50 years ago and driving them all the way up to Montana. We listened with respect and awe, hanging on his every word of raspy drawl.
With the horses ready, we pack the saddlebags with our lunch and raingear, sling a boot into the stirrup and hoist up onto the saddle. My horse, Hondo, shakes his two-tone mane playfully as I stroke my riding gloves lovingly down his neck. I coo as I playfully scold him for his rebellious night. He’s a big boy, and nearly 20, but he’s clumsy like a calf and goofy like a pony. And he never misses an opportunity to sneak clumps of wildflowers when I let the reins loosen up.
Today we climb high into the snow dotted mountains. We traverse water ways, slipping on the gleaming rocks. We climb rocky cliffs, we wade through marsh. There are harrowing edges, thick brush and open fields. We see grizzlies, elk and bison. Our horses sweat and huff, they gallop and stumble, and somewhere into the journey we all fall silent as we cement the nonverbal connection between us and our bucks.
For lunch, we dismount by a snowy mountain bank and eat our sandwiches and trail mix under the big Montana sky. Our ride back is even more difficult, and we lean our weight backwards as our horses cautiously (or in Hondo’s case, clumsily) descend.
Back at camp, I try to freshen up in my tent with biodegradable wipes, cleaning some of the dirt, sunblock and bugspray from my skin. Freshly changed, I meet our group down by the creek, or crik as they call it here. In the cool water, we’ve buried our wine and White Claws, which we enjoy out of the blue ceramic camp mugs. The sun is warm now, but it’s only a matter of time before it sets and the coolness creeps in, plummeting the perfect 80 degrees into the 40s. Or if it rains, the 30s.
Dinner is enormous cuts of prime rib cooked over the campfire. Vicky prepares a piece of trout in tinfoil especially for me, since I don’t eat meat. I normally avoid dairy and gluten too, but I haven’t had anything on this trip that wasn’t drowned in butter. The meat is my only non-negotiable, as my dad pre-trip advice still rings in my ears. He told me to just go with the flow and enjoy the pack trip the way it’s meant to be experienced.
And so I don’t complain. Not about the delicious butter-drenched food, not about the lack of shower or non-existant pillow, not about the hail that soaked us or the sun that crisped my arms. I don’t whimper while I scratch my 20th bug bite or scowl as I pull brush out of my filthy hair. My mom doesn’t even complain when she falls off her horse on the first day, breaking four ribs and potentially puncturing a lung. We tough it out, because this is what we signed up for, this is the real Rough Rider experience.
But we didn’t just suffer through it, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We needed it. It was just the soul-cleansing, invigorating, abrupt shock I so desperately longed for. To be disconnected without service or electricity, without running water or daily comforts. It was a true unplug, a real jolt from the usual. And there, exploring the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone on horseback or sitting around the campfire with bourbon and cowboy stories, everything in the world just felt right.
Our outfitter, the Cowboy, H.A. Moore is more than just a guide, he is as authentic, as humble, as brave as they come. A horse whisperer by day, and a poet by night, I stand mesmerized by his agility and grace at the age of 76. He has lifetimes worth of stories, and a way of telling them that keeps you hanging on his every word. He has really lived. And he has made a living out of showing other people what it means to really live too, if only for a short week.
I am forever indebted to H.A. and his family for the experience of a lifetime. As we were saying our goodbyes, I got a good look deep into his glittery eyes, and it brought me to tears. It’s not just the mischevious twinkle of a daredevil, but this loving softness that really got me. His legacy runs deep into the soil of Yellowstone, but it has also spread far beyond Montana through the lives he has touched on his 40 years of packtrips.
After us, H.A. has one more trip before he retires. Rough Riders has been purchased and will live on under the care of two adventure-seeking women. It’s a new era, and while I feel nostalgic for the change, I am confident that they’ll bring something unique and fresh to the evolution of the company without losing any integrity.
To H.A., to Vicky, to Tara, Hannah and Dusty, to Hondo, the bell mares, the mules and the bucks, to my mom, my aunt, and their friends that came along – from the bottom my heart, thank you.
If you’re interested in booking a packtrip, Contact Billie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell her you’re a friend of Chelsea’s and ask for a friend of a friend discount. If you’d be interested in going on a yoga retreat packtrip, let me know – I’m mulling over the idea of putting one together for 2020.
- A compact travel pillow
- A compact travel blanket
- A quick-drying travel towel
- riding gloves (for warmth more than for the reins)
- cowboy boots (or riding boots with a heel)
- Camp shoes (I brought ankle boots and flip flops)
- Rain Jacket
- Rain Pants
- Cowboy hat
- hair elastics
- dry shampoo
- biodegradable wipes
- insect repellent
- organic sunblock
- contacts/glasses/solution/extra contacts
- first aid kit
- solar power charger pack
- camera/extra battery/sd card
- plastic freezer zip lock bags to keep each days clothes separate
- nail clippers/tweezers
- pair of sweatpants
- 2-3 sweatshirts
- 3-5 shirts
- 1 warm jacket (puffer) that you can also sleep in
- 1 jean jacket or lighter jacket
- thick socks for sleeping
- thin socks for riding
- body lotion
- button up shirts or zip up (for layers)
- 2-3 pairs of jeans
- 2-3 sports bras / bras
- 7 undies & 7 pairs of socks (only thing that keeps you feeling clean is changing socks & undies)
- mini flashlight
- face lotion
- dry shampoo
- bear spray (buy when you get there)
- Immodium, extra strength ibuprofen, allergy meds, your prescrips.
- trash bag to go inside your duffel bag (like a liner for your belongings to keep them dry)
- thin tote to carry your day pack essentials
- Natural body wash/shampoo & conditioner (Dr Bronners)
- water bottle that filters
Before / After – Where to Stay:
My best tip is to book an extra night inside Yellowstone Park at a hotel. The first shower out of the woods is going to be GLORIOUS. Don’t make yourself wait for it. Plus, if you stay an extra night in the park you can explore the areas you weren’t able to see on horseback before you take off back to Bozeman to catch your flight. Keep reading HERE for how to do Yellowstone in 1 day to squeeze in all of the game + old faithful + the waterfall!
Similarly, I recommend booking the night before your trip at a hotel. We stayed at Chico Hot Springs and it was the perfect transition into camp life. The hotel is most definitely dated, but in a charming way and the hot springs are one big party with a full service walk up bar and nightly live music.