Just a few miles west of Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park is the Hellroaring Creek Trail. This is one of the more interesting and exciting trails in Yellowstone. The trail crosses a suspension bridge over a deep gorge with the Yellowstone River thrashing far below. I thought that sounded like a fun and unique twist on a hike. All I could think of was the rope suspension bridge in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In the movie, Indy cut the ropes making the bridge fall against the side of a cliff, causing a bunch of “bad guys” to fall into a crocodile-infested river far below.
I have a fear of heights so the idea of the suspension bridge did frighten me. But I was also intrigued and excited by the idea of crossing it. And I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as bad as the bridge in the Indiana Jones movie.
The Hellroaring Creek Trail is a moderately difficult hike, with an elevation change of 600 feet. All of the elevation change takes place in the first mile, where the path steeply descends through a forest of Douglas Firs. This makes for a relatively easy start, but a tough homestretch on the return to the trailhead. The hike is four miles, with an option of continuing onto a longer backcountry hike along Hellroaring Creek.
Joe and I embarked on the hike in the early afternoon on a very hot mid-July day. It was already a busy day between driving up from Grand Teton National Park, setting up camp near Yellowstone Lake, and spending the remainder of the morning along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. But we wanted to pack in as much as possible.
We began the hike by entering into the Douglas Fir forest. The path was fully enclosed by pines. We soon began walking down several switchbacks that snaked their way down through the woods. As we neared the end of our descent we could hear the rumble of the Yellowstone River. Once we exited the forest we saw the suspension bridge.
I was immediately comforted by the sight before my eyes. This was no perilous bridge dangling from frayed ropes. It was a few feet wide with a solid floor and metal railings. It was suspended by thick steel cables.
I stepped onto the bridge and was relieved by its sturdiness. I went out onto the center of the bridge and looked down upon the thunderous river. It was exclusively whitewater rushing beneath us. More than the sight of the river below, it was the deafening noise that was most memorable. The gorge was so narrow and tight that the violent roar of the river echoed off the canyon walls. The walls were nearly straight up and down, gray, and incredibly rocky.
Wind swept through the canyon and caused the bridge to gently sway. The breeze felt good though, because it was so incredibly hot out. I was drenched in sweat and guzzling water like my life depended on it.
After crossing the bridge we traversed an open sage field, under siege of tiny pestering bugs. Then we climbed a small hill and entered into another dark coniferous forest. The shade provided much needed relief from the unforgiving sun, but not from the bloodsucking insects. The dark woods were eerily quiet, as we could no longer hear the Yellowstone River. We were utterly alone in the shadowy forest, surrounded by glacially carved boulders and tall dark pines.
It felt like we had wandered into the heart of grizzly country. There were large downed trees strewn about and high brush providing many dark corners. I feared that a bear could jump out at any moment. Like almost every other trail in the park there were numerous signs at the trailhead warning of bear encounters. As a result we were on edge the entire time we were there. We cautiously proceeded through the woods a little farther before turning back.
The temperature continued to climb and we were quickly running out of water. By the time we got back to the suspension bridge our water bottles only had a few drops remaining. We stopped and rested on a large rock next to the bridge and caught our breath. We watched the river below and snacked on apples. My apple really hit the spot, not because I were starving, but because the juice inside helped temporarily quench my thirst.
After our rejuvenating snack we crossed the bridge and started back up the switchbacks toward the trailhead. The uphill path wasn’t too bad on our way down the trail, but was considerably worse on our return. It was a killer combination of the extreme heat, our lack of water, and our hiking earlier in the day. Also, it was only day seven of our thirty-seven day trip so we were not nearly as trail-tested as we would be in a couple weeks. By the time we emerged at the trailhead Joe was fully out of water and I was downing my last drop. We were absolutely exhausted.