Ridgewalking in the North Tetons/Owl Creek area

In the northern reaches of Grand Teton National Park, between Red Mountain and Elk Mountain, lies over 2000 vertical feet of Madison Limestone and an impressive array of karst features visible on the LIDAR. Ever since I became aware of the high quality LIDAR available for the whole park and the impressive potential it suggested for that area several years ago, I had been looking to ridgewalk (caver parlance for ‘walk around looking for caves’) there and see what the karst looks like up close. This August, I finally made it happen. I was in the western Wyoming/southern Idaho area for some other caving, and I took 3 days to do a big solo ridgewalking/backpacking trip to check out the area.

Some of the LIDAR features in the area I wanted to check out


The first dilemma I had to figure out was how to get to this area. There’s a reason I couldn’t find any accounts of cavers checking the area out—it is very remote and difficult to get to. There were 3 options I considered:

  1. From the east side of the range, from the park, I could hike in on maintained trails from the Glade Creek Trailhead. This would be about 14 miles one way. Long, but straightforward.
  2. Also from the east side, I could boat across Jackson Lake (about 1.5 miles) to access the Owl Creek Trail closer to the karst, then have only 9 miles of hiking to get to the karst. The 1.5 miles of flatwater paddling should be doable with the dinky little packraft I had for floating out of the Bob. This seemed like an easy option, but with the added complication that I’d have to deal with the boat and packing all of my stuff into it.
  3. From the west side of the Tetons, I could start at the Coyote Meadows Trailhead, follow the North Bitch Creek Trail (yes, that’s the name) and Teton Crest Trail to get near Red Mountain, then go off trail from there, crossing the north ridge of Red Mountain (which is the drainage divide between the east and west side of the tetons) then head down towards Owl Creek until I found a water source where I could camp. This would be 9 miles of on trail hiking, then 1 or 2 more off trail, depending on where I found water. This could be an easy option, depending on where I found water, and how the off trail travel was. It looked like friendly terrain on the satellite map.


Red: option 1 (along with the part of the orange route heading SW). Orange: option 2. Purple: option 3. The blue shaded area is the karst I was interested in.


I decided to go with option number 3. I figured 1 or 2 miles of off trail travel would be easier than 1.5 miles of flatwater paddling. The big risk was with finding water to set up camp at—since I would be coming into the area of interest from another drainage, crossing over the drainage divide, then descending into the area from the headwaters, I would have no idea when I would find water until I was there. If I came from the east side then I could just follow the water and keep going up the drainage until the water started to disappear.

On Monday, August 7th I set off from the Coyote Meadows Trailhead at the leisurely time of 10:30am. I made good time, making it to the intersection of the Teton Crest Trail with Red Creek (just NW of Red Mountain) in the early afternoon, despite the fact that much of the North Bitch Creek Trail (trail no. 2009 and 2155) was overgrown and/or nonexistent. Red Creek appeared to be the last water source on this side of the drainage, so I filled up 3 liters there, left the “trail” (which had long been nonexistent), and started charging up the hill to the north ridge of Red Mountain. There lie the first of many LIDAR features I had picked out. I checked 15 sinkholes/cracks as I made my way ESE towards Owl Creek, in search of water. None of those features went. All were plugged with rocks (there was much glacial debris in the area) or snow. However, many of them looked quite interesting, and I was sure they could go if I could find one that was big enough not to get plugged up with glacial debris.

The North Bitch Creek “Trail”. It’s faint, but it’s there


One of the snow plugged sinkholes I checked there (at 43.9795361,-110.8664611) is interesting, and worth returning to with lower snow levels. I didn’t fit in the gap between the snow and the rock at the bottom of the sinkhole, but it looked like there might be space beyond.

This one really looked like it was gonna go, but it just goes down a body length or so into a small dirt floored room.


This one (at 43.9795361,-110.8664611) is interesting, and worth returning to with lower snow levels. I didn’t fit in the gap between the snow and the rock there, but someone could with lower snow levels.


The rock there is the solid blue Madison Limestone we all know and love. Huge crystal geodes and marine fossils dotted the rock everywhere I looked. Although I am used to seeing fossils everywhere in western Wyoming limestone, the large amount of geodes was new to me, and I was delighted to see them. I would have taken some if it weren’t for the fact that they were all anchored to 100+ pound rocks.
 


Anyone know what this fossil is?


Another strange fossil: the polygonal structures in the upper right

Classic fossiliferous Madison Limestone

 


Some of the many geodes that were abundant in this area.


None of the small streams shown on maps of the area had any water. I didn’t encounter any water until going all the way down to Owl Creek proper. At just under 8600’ Owl Creek emerges from a beautiful spring in the Death Canyon Limestone. I was ecstatic when I found this spring, as I had descended down quite far from the drainage divide, and had since burned through enough of my water that I wouldn’t have been able to reverse my tracks and head back to the last known water source.

I setup my cowboy camp on a small grassy shelf above the spring, satisfied that I had found a beautiful campsite and checked off many of the points on the way to camp. This sense of satisfaction was replaced with annoyance when I started making dinner and discovered that my jetboil wasn’t working! I would open the valve and no gas would come out. I’m not exactly sure what caused it, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I had refilled one of my small canisters from a large canister, and I think I overpressurized the small canister. When I first connected the small canister to my jetboil and lit it, it worked but with a massive flame that couldn’t be turned down by closing the valve. After that wave of high pressure gas subsided, the stove turned off and wouldn’t turn on again. I was able to fix it when I got home by removing a small dirty section of the filter in the fuel line, so the issue had something to do with debris/dirt getting shoved up the fuel line and clogging it.

I had plenty of cold food to eat, so this wasn’t a huge problem, just an annoyance. I ate some cheese and trail mix and went to bed, looking forward to checking the more impressive looking LIDAR points to my east the next day. I fell asleep admiring the most impressive night sky and milky way I had seen in a long time. The perseids meteor shower put on a good show that night too.

I even managed to setup a decent bear hang across two trees, which was a first for me. I was solo in grizzly bear country, in a place where there are very rarely any humans, so I was acutely aware of the grizzly bear risk and trying to follow all the best practices—carrying bear spray one me at all times, cooking and eating downwind of camp, and hanging up my food away from camp.

My bear hang. 10-12 ft off the ground maybe?


The beautiful spring where I set up camp. No, it doesn’t go.


My home for the night.


The next day I got up and made my way towards the shelf east of Owl Creek where most of the impressive looking LIDAR points were. This was a fairly casual hour from camp. When I got there I had a similar experience as the previous day. Although the solid blue pavement was impressive and looked promising, every sinkhole and crack was plugged with rocks or snow. Even that shelf, above the glacial valley, is not immune to the glacial debris that plugs all the karst features there.

One of the many huge earth cracks that looked promising from the LIDAR and satellite maps, but was plugged with rocks and snow.


Although the sinkholes and earth cracks visible from the lidar there do not go, there are some great looking cliff leads that should be checked. I’ve included a few photos I took of cliff leads along with some locations, as accurate as I could estimate from afar.

These cliff leads are at approximately 43.96473, -110.85542. Some appear to be at ground level, although some are higher up with no straightforward way to reach the cliff top. They look great, although they are less promising since they are high up on a ridge and seem to be going straight for the same cliff on the other side of the ridge. If they happen to intersect some passage going down, however, they would have lots of potential.

 

A ground level cliff hole at about 43.96813, -110.83390. I saw this one after I had already started heading down for the day, otherwise I would have checked it myself. Could just be a shadow, hard to tell.

 

A good looking cliff lead at approximately 43.98150, -110.89646. This is on the west side of Red Mountain and would be most easily accessed from Coyote Meadows. Should be straightforward to access the cliff top from the right and rappel off a tree.


At approximately 43.98080, -110.88505. Again, straightforward top access and rappel.


I checked all the LIDAR points faster than I thought I would, and arrived back at camp around 3:30pm. Then I tried to eat some food that I had left out cold soaking all day to rehydrate. Apparently while sitting out all day, my cold-soaking dinner mix (a simplification/ripoff of the Cheve dinner mix recipe I like to use for backpacking and cave camping) had started to ferment and tasted pretty bad. I still ate it.

Since I had so much daylight left, I figured I might as well start hiking back to the car. With all the daylight I could check some points west of Owl Creek that I hadn’t checked the day before, because I was more focused on finding a water source/campsite than checking every single point. I packed up camp and headed back west starting at 4:30pm. I checked the last of the points in that area before heading back up to the north ridge of Red Mountain and descending down the other side of the Tetons.

One of the points I checked on the way out (at 43.98138, -110.86573) is worth returning to. It’s an earth crack plugged with snow, but when I threw rocks down the gap between the snow and rock they fell for an extra second or so and had a promising echo sound. It’s worth returning with lower snow levels and some rope to check out what may lie below the snow plug in that crack.

On the way back I decided to take a different set of trails back down, because the North Bitch Creek Trail (which I had taken on the way up) was overgrown and practically nonexistent in places. From the north ridge of Red Mountain, I went down NW until I intersected the Teton Crest trail, which I followed NW to the Conant Pass Trail. I followed that all the way back to Coyote Meadows, which was a tad longer than the way in but entirely on a good trail. I stopped for the night at a campsite just off the Conant Pass Trail that I could tell gets lots of use from the horseback riders.

The Conant Pass Trail. Much more pleasant than the way I took in.


I set up another passable bear hang, and even made a fire because I got to camp at such a reasonable hour, around 7pm. After losing count of the shooting stars I saw as I watched the Perseids, I went to bed in my usual cowboy camping setup, out in the open under the stars.

The campsite on the Conant Pass Trail, with my passable bear hang in the background.


The next morning, I only had 6 miles downhill on good trail to get back to the trailhead. I made it back, the whole time thinking that although I was slightly disappointed that none of the LIDAR features go, I was still happy to have made it out there and spent 3 days in a beautiful remote part of the Tetons. At one point on the way down, I turned a corner and ran into a momma black bear and her cub right on the trail in front of me. They both darted away into the woods and the momma bear sprinted up a tree impressively fast—up 50 ft in 2 seconds or so. Generally I am not afraid of black bears, but that incident did startle me, as unexpectedly sneaking up on a momma bear and her cubs is one of those scenarios when black bears can be aggressive. I gave the momma bear up in the tree a wide berth off the trail as I passed around her.


The momma bear up in the tree. Taken from afar once I got a safe distance away.


All my GPS tracks and points from this trip are at https://www.gaiagps.com/map/?loc=12.8/-110.9085/43.9858&pubLink=6bRv8yi4oZKVwzL7HNOSLCSL&folderId=e89d76a1-77a3-43a5-a35b-fe7409eaf0b9

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