Winter Hiking: Beaver Ponds

We snowshoed to the Beaver Ponds near Mammoth Hot Springs on Saturday afternoon.  This is an easy five-mile loop in the summer that proved significantly more challenging in the winter.  We ended up turning around at the ponds and just hiking back out the way we came rather than continue on the loop as planned.  Sometimes the smartest thing is just to roll with the conditions and amend plans rather than powering on.  As we were cruising back to the trailhead on our now-broken trail, Matt and I agreed that it was probably the hardest hiking we've ever done*.  It ended up being six or seven miles, most of it breaking a trail as we went.
Matt about to cross the first footbridge.

It was magical though.  It was physically challenging and yet absolutely enchanting.  The world was wide and white all around us--and gloriously tranquil. Other than a brief flurry of snow on the return hike the sky was blue and calm with puffy clouds.  We caught views of Mammoth's terraces steaming in the distance.  The snow crunched underfoot.   We enjoyed a few Mountain Chickadees, those little masked bandits, as a small flock bounced about the trees trailside.  The elk were fairly thick in the trees, small groups of females who immediately moved away from us into deeper cover--"What are YOU doing out here?"--and a herd of males with majestic antlers spreading to the sky who were considerably less concerned with us.  Animal tracks were everywhere.  We didn't see or hear another human, despite being in such a seasonably accessible part of the park. 

Watching the elk be glorious on the hills above the largest Beaver Pond.

Staying to the trail when it is obscured by both windblown snow and meandering animals tracks is simultaneously hard and easy.  Based on footprints, the trail hadn't been used recently aside from by bison, elk, and wolves.  There were a few fading indications of cross-country skiers near the start, but nothing fresh. The path was a contour line of rather variable width through the snow, punctuated by the reassuring orange blazes periodically mounted on trees.  The first mile or so was quite easy going, after that we made a few missteps and had to backtrack a bit several times to locate the proper path again.  The snow on the trail was relatively compacted and shin deep.  On the occasions where we veered from it, in only a few paces the snow become nearly waist deep, loose and fluffy.  I floundered mightily at once place, oh did I, finding the untrammeled snow to be like quicksand.  That made it pretty darn easy to tell when we'd gone off our intended course.  

A pretty solid winter view!

The Beaver Ponds were almost entirely frozen over, just a small open patch remained at the center of the largest pond.  One lone bison was hanging out there...directly on the path, of course, because bison are no dummies.  We skirted the bison and in so doing met up with a terrific bachelor elk herd, seven in number, grazing and lounging in the hills above the ponds.  All were magnificent.  Almost gasp-worthy.  We paused under a tree and watched them for some time.  I'm sure we would have passed right by them unawares save for the bison obstructing our path.  It was worth the off-trail slog uphill.
So much vast, smooth whiteness.

After checking the time, having a snack, and consulting the map we realized that we needed to just turn around at the ponds rather than continuing to break the increasingly challenging trail.  We prefer loop trails, generally, but with snowy trail conditions I think an out-and-back hike is absolutely swell.  The return hike was easier in some ways, even though we were more tired, just because the trail was broken and easy.  Relatively easy anyways.  

It felt so good to hit the trail.

After almost six hours of tromping through the snow we actually moaned with pleasure as we dropped our tired bodies into the big pool at Yellowstone Hot Springs.  We didn't even have a fire afterwards, curling up in our sleeping bag with our books instead**.  
Winter pretties!
What a big day!
These memories will last a lifetime.

*Backpacking in the Great Sand Dunes also got an honorable mention as hiking in sand and snow have some distinct similarities.  It was like one step forward two steps back going up those dunes.  With the snow each step just felt like two.  Matt also recollected one of my very first backpacking jaunts on the Boulder River where he thought he might do me in.  My pack was too heavy and I was trying too hard and nearly broke myself because I didn't know any better.  I also briefly considered the three miles we hiked into the Grand Canyon and the relentless climb back up.

**Matt built a sleeping platform to fit the back of the JamJar and this was our first time trying it out.  It more than exceeded our expectations.  Matt will now work on the finishing touches, carpeting the platform, say.


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