Three Days Backpacking Walker Prairie, Horseshoe Mountain and Wolf Creek Trails

Walker Prairie – Wolf Creek Hike

Day 1

The trail head for the Walker Prairie trail was down a mile-long rocky, primitive road. I decided to not torture my parents by driving to the bottom and making them drive back up. I started hiking about 1/2 a mile from the trail head. The road was easy for Kye and me to navigate on foot and the roads were well signed.

We started by crossing a log bridge over Ranger Creek and following short climb to the ridge line where we hiked along a nice and easy path through the trees for a while before dropping down to run along the bank of the East Fork of Big Goose Creek. The freakiest thing was coming across the carcass of a half eaten elk half in and half out of one of the minor tributaries running into Big Goose. It was covered in flies and I hurried away from the water crossing as fast as possible with a pack before the owner of the carcass came back to finish it off.

We followed the creek for almost three miles, making four fords of the creek in a short period of time. The water was bitterly cold and I had to carry my shoes and Kye’s pack while trying not to loose my footing and get too wet. It was irritating to have to keep switching out my hiking shoes for water shoes, but having dry shoes and socks to hike in was a priority. The shoes I chose, however, were pretty crappy and too big.

The creek itself was gorgeous and I kept having to stop to eyeball all the fishing holes (and the pretty big fish I could see in them), and was beginning to wish I had a backpacking fly rod and some flies with me.

From Big Goose creek we hiked up the side of the valley to a place I lost the trail. Using intuition and having keen eyes (and screenshots of the guidebook pages) helped me locate the faint signs of a trail and climbed through a grassy “field”, past a granite knob and through a saddle. Looking behind me gave me some great views of the creek.

Having made it over the saddle and to the ATV trail I was rewarded with stunning views of canyons, peaks and wide open grassland. This was a short but sweet section of the hike and soon we were descending down a steep and rocky section of road/trail that led us to the West Fork of Big Goose. Thankfully there was a bridge to cross this time and we took a break in the meadows alongside the water.

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It was a lot steeper and rockier than it looks…it didn’t look like it would be much fun for an ATV, but then again that’s not really my thing anyway

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West Fork of Big Goose Creek…and Kye

Before long we packed up and hiked up another steep path, through more grassland with no trail and over yet another saddle to Prairie Creek. Unlike previous hikes, this trail definitely had plenty of water and I didn’t have to carry much which was nice for my pack weight

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We followed Prairie Creek down to where it joined Walker Creek which we forded by rock hopping instead of getting our feet wet, although Kye still insisted in wading through it, and took a few minutes to fill up on water before another steep climb into Walker Prairie, a huge expanse of grassland high in the Bighorn Mountains. Again here we lost the trail, but knowing which general direction I needed to be going we meandered up the valley above some massive granite outcroppings. The biting flies were a nightmare and we had to keep moving just to keep them from harassing us too much. Kye was on receiving end of the worst of it so despite wanting to take a break and rest and eat we just kept going.

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Looking back at the mountains and part of Walker Prairie

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Walker Prairie ahead of us

We passed She Bear Mountain and Walker Mountain and crossed a fence line before turning up a grassy draw with, again, no easy trail to see until we’d done some more trail blazing.

Now we were on an exposed trail above the trees and the clouds just kept looking darker and darker, and unfortunately they seemed to be heading our way. Thankfully they were moving slowly and we hurried down the hillside to Quartz Creek, hoping I’d have enough time to get my tent up before the rain hit. We forded the creek and I tried rock hopping in order to keep from having to switch shoes again but one rock rolled and my trail runners ended up soaked. Hopefully they will be mostly dry by the morning.

A few sprinkles hit us as the tent was finally up and I threw everything inside, including Kye despite the delicate nature of the material my tent is made of…it’s not generally good to mix claws and cuben fiber. After I had things pulled out of my pack, and trying to get organized in such a small space, the rain started and the thunder and lightning came. One strike was almost on top of us and it freaked Kye out more than me and she almost jumped on top of me, although it did make me jump too. I ate a few snacks while waiting for the storm to pass and wrote most of today’s journal.

A second storm came through about 30 minutes with a lot of intense rain but the thunder and lightning wasn’t as close. I finished dinner and fed Kye hers while waiting for the rain to abate, which it eventually did. When we could finally see the sun we went to the creek so Kye could drink and I could find a rock to throw into the trees to hang my food bag. I did better with hitting the branch this time, although the choices of usable branches was still limited.

With all the rain and the sun coming out there were two half rainbows above the valley and I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the stunning scenery, my campsite and the rainbows above it, and Kye.

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Gorgeous double rainbow over my ZPacks tent

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Little Mountain in the foreground with Big Mountain further down the valley…the view from camp

Headed to bed around 8:30 but it was too light and I wasn’t particularly sleepy so I took the time to finish writing today’s blog.

Tomorrow should be another good hike, although it is looking steeper than most of today’s hiking. Hoping the weather holds through the night and gives my tent and shoes a chance to dry out…wet shoes in the morning will not be pleasant.

Day 2

No flies this morning but the tent was still wet outside from last night’s rain, and inside from condensation. Having camped near Quartz Creek I expected there might be an issue with condensation…it is the bane of single-wall tents, even with decent but not good ventilation. I tried lying in bed fpr a while, waiting for the sun to peak over the mountains but by 7am it was still not visible and I attempted to dry the inside of my tent with camp towel…it helped but didn’t completely cure the problem.

I had my sleeping bag, pad and pillow packed up before I exited the tent, and changed into my hike clothes so I could put my base layer/pajamas away. I put on my water shoes because they were, ironically, the only footwear that was not wet. I retrieved my bear bag and made coffee while waiting for things to dry…my tent dried quickly after I toweled off the exterior and the sun and breeze had their turn.

My trail runners and insoles were not so lucky and I resigned myself to hiking in my water shoes and socks for a while. I stuffed the insoles in the mesh pocket on the front of my pack and hung the shoes from my top straps. Thankfully the sun was at my back and a mild breeze was blowing. This still didn’t keep the flies at bay which started harassing us as soon as I disturbed them along the water’s edge while getting water. We were packed up in record time after that!

The trail followed a fairly easy trail along and slightly above Quartz Creek, which was good because hiking in too-big water shoes and socks was not conducive to anything more than a flat trail.

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Looking back up the valley. Camp was in the little triangle of green to the left of my face

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Looking down the valley and Quartz Creek

A couple of miles downstream we could see the ford of Quartz Creek that led to the Wolf Creek Trail, and another which I was planning to take. As we approached the ford from downwind a small herd pf elk was crossing the creek. We stayed still and quiet and I managed to capture some great pictures. Being downwind meant they didn’t catch our scent and didn’t realize we were there until they were 20 yards from us. Kye behaved impeccably but still watched them intently as they took off up the slope towards the rocky outcropping of Big Mountain.

With the elk gone we crossed the creek…I did it barefoot which was very cold but I didn’t want to deal with wet shoes again. On the far side of the creek I filled up with water, and finally my shoes and insoles dry enough to put back on.

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From the creek we climbed an incredibly steep hill for about 3/4 of a mile before it joined an ATV road. It was so steep I was stopping ever twenty or thirty yards…it was also incredibly which made things that much harder. At least out of the grasslands the flies weren’t as bad, although they were still somewhat irritating when we stopped at the top for a break and to eat some lunch.

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Looking up the valley of Quartz Creek we had just hiked down.

The ATV road continued to climb gently upward with some challenging rocks, at least for vehicles. They were a minor nuisance and the trail gradually flattened out. Within a quarter of a mile I was bored of the road and turned on some music (thanks to my friend Geoff who provided me with some Bellowhead…the perfect hiking music) to keep me company as I hiked down the tree-lined road. There was very little to look at and a couple of creek crossings, the last one of which we stopped at for a break and a nap and to fill up with water.

After four miles we turned onto FS 427, a trail that had some use but mostly disappeared in the grassy areas. At one point I lost it and then thought I had found it…a very well-groomed, well-defined trail that led north. It was even marked “TRAIL”. It was NOT the trail I wanted…and I ended up too far north and too far west of where I wanted to be. I had no idea what trail I was actually on or where it would come out but it did eventually dump me out about a mile west of where I actually needed to be.

There was no way to easily cut across from my location unless I hiked on the road (not ideal) and I found myself bush-whacking across some very rough terrain to get to where I needed to be and even then the trail wasn’t sign posted, and the book was little help now the access road had been abandoned.

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Steamboat Rock and Highway 14

We finally got on the right trail, just below Steamboat Rock and south of the highway, and started climbing the valley after almost going the wrong way again. It amazes me how badly some of the major trails that are on the National Forest Bighorn map are sign-posted or marked.

All the bad signage of the day and off-trail hiking were made up for by the sighting of a rather large bull moose in a small clump of aspens which I never would have seen if I’d been on the right trail in the first place. Kye alerted me to its presence and it was certainly aware of us so I gave the aspen grove and the moose a wide berth and almost lost the path again. He continued to watch us as we got above him and I attempted to take some pictures which was hard since he was so well hidden.

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The grade started out fairly easy but got steeper as we hiked and the sun beat down on us without any clouds to help. There was little breeze and my energy was pretty much spent by this point. We did make it to the top and chugged a lot of water. We passed an old brass NF boundary marker and continued down into another drainage towards the South Fork of the Little Tongue River, passing several cattle and fighting flies again…it must be an upper grassland issue because they were miserable.

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We made camp just below the strata of Horseshoe Mountain, filtered some water, hung the bear bag and relaxed while trying to fight off the bugs. I am currently hoping the cattle don’t run over my tent in the night…at least I have a cow dog!

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Don’t jump cows…they were perched on top of a very high and steep rock face

I spent a few amusing minutes watching a wasp catch some of the really irritating biting flies that had caught themselves beneath the awning of my tent. It came in and out several times, it took several attempts before it consistently remembered how to get out again…no matter how many times it ducked under the door. I’m just thankful for the clean-up job it was doing. It went to bed as the light faded but showed up again at first light. I’d never seen a fly-eating wasp before!

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After a short rain shower

Day 3

Unfortunately I woke up at 5:30 this morning and was out of bed by six, quickly packing things away. I was still tired and achy from the day before but I knew I only had six miles to go. I couldn’t stomach another chocolate pop tart so settled for last night’s cookies instead. I didn’t have coffee either and tried just munching on it…well that was gross!!!

We tried starting out at 7am but with no clear trail I tried a couple of different routes…actually there was no trail at all except for some steep cattle trails which the book explicitly told me to avoid. I was really beginning to cuss the book and the map. This time it was the map that came through and gave me a clearer idea of where I should have been going. It was all steep uphill, through grass and on sideways angle which just sucks to walk on, even with hiking poles. It was fairly miserable and my ankles were really hating on me, especially the Achilles tendon in my left foot which I’d already been having problems with.

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Looking back at Horseshoe Mountain and my campsite, and the ridge (the lower line of rock) the cattle were perched on yesterday

We finally reached what I thought was the saddle at the top and found the trail…who knows where it started but I was glad to have found it, especially since the top wasn’t really the top and I had another half mile of upward hiking to go.

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I THOUGHT this was the top 😦

Finally we reached the top of the Sibley Creek watershed and meandered through grassy fields towards the junction with Wolf Creek Trail. While the upward climb had been hard, especially on my tendon, now it was all downhill, and once we reached the junction of the two trails it was steep and loose dirt and rocks and completely miserable. It had to have been one of the worst trails I have ever been on. By the time I completed four miles of this my legs were like jelly and I’m not sure I could have walked much further. The book had claimed the waterfalls were worth the trail but I’m not sure they were, at least from the direction I had come. They were pretty though and there were a couple of nice-looking fishing holes.

 

I arrived at the trail head at Eaton’s Ranch to witness the wranglers running the horses down and off the mountain, and the subsequent cloud of dust, and made my way to the office to drop off a guest’s driver’s license I had found on the trail, to call my dad for pick up and to hope they had beer for sale…they did, but the girl behind the counter couldn’t sell it to me because she was underage.

I’m beat up, stinky and worn out but it was quite the three days of backpacking.


After-thoughts from the hike:

Sadly I think the super-lightweight backpack I’ve been carrying has been contributing to my fatigue due to the bar that sits along the lower back. I’m thinking I need to rent something different from a local store to find out in order to be sure before I order a new one. My shoes are also an issue and I think they are contributing to my Achilles tendon issue as it doesn’t seem to hurt when walking without them.

I also need to re-think my food strategy. I’m not loving on my breakfast choices but my lunch and morning/afternoon snacks are generally fine. Dinner is another problem as I don’t want to cook. I am finding a need to research a way to make pasta or rice salad from dried ingredients that I can add cold water too to make a decent meal. I am also done with trying to make coffee in the morning as it’s never been my favorite beverage and am looking into the caffeinated candy bars available on the coffee aisle for a combination breakfast snack and wake-up boost.

With no cooking or heating water on the menu I can now leave my stove and fuel behind to lighten up my pack even more…it’s kind of addictive trying to figure out ways to lighten your pack while still carrying enough to be safe and comfortable-ish.

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2 thoughts on “Three Days Backpacking Walker Prairie, Horseshoe Mountain and Wolf Creek Trails

  1. Excellent I really enjoy your story telling. I’m also so jealous of you. I sure wish I would have the guts and gumption to go on a trip like that. I admire you.

    Like

    • Do it. Don’t put it off. Come out here and hike with me…or you can hike with me here in a couple of years when I come stay out there

      Like

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