Six-Day Pack Trip in Yellowstone’s Backcountry

An adventurous mother and daughter duo set out on a six-day packing adventure through the rugged wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. 

By Lisa Florey

How many septuagenarians do you know who would trek 80-odd miles through a remote wilderness on horseback, sleeping in a tent each night? I know one! I was lucky enough to spend six days with my mom in the Yellowstone backcountry, riding through the most remote area of the lower 48.

horses resting after trail ride in yellowstone national park

Our equine companions on the pack trip. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

After several years of dreaming about the trip, we went for it and signed up for a Thorofare trip with Yellowstone Wilderness Outfitters. The adventure began with a road trip from southwest Missouri to Cody, Wyoming, where we enjoyed the hospitality at Robin’s Nest Bed & Breakfast. The next morning, we met up with the outfitter at Nine Mile Trailhead in Yellowstone National Park. 

The logistics of organizing and loading gear for a group of nine riders (12 if you include the wranglers and outfitter!) onto the string of seven pack mules was mind-boggling. After an overview of safety tips — the bulk of it about bears — we were paired up with our horses and headed out.

pack trip gear yellowstone national park

Our pack trip gear. Photo by Lisa Florey.

pack mule yellowstone wilderness outfitters

One of our powerhouse pack mules from Yellowstone Wilderness Outfitters. Photo by Lisa Florey.

Although we only covered 8.5 miles on the first day, it felt light years away from civilization. Our first camp was near the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

yellowstone lake at sunset

Sunset at Yellowstone Lake. Photo by Lisa Florey.

between the ears view from horseback of yelllowstone national park

Horseback riding by Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

After the first day, we averaged 15-18 miles per day, staying at a different location each night. From an eagle flying through the morning mist over Yellowstone Lake to a night sky lit up by the Milky Way and waking up to several inches of snow in Basin Creek, each campsite had its own individual beauty.

person horseback riding in yellowstone national park

A member of the pack trip travels through the breathtaking scenery in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

horse and mule pack trip riding through yellowstone national park

Horseback riding through the Snake River country in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

Mornings often started frosty, making it hard to get out of cozy sleeping bags, but the promise of cowboy coffee and a hot breakfast by the campfire was a good motivator.

cowboy coffee yellowstone national park

Pack trip essentials: cowboy coffee and campfires. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

We had a bit of excitement the first morning, as a lone bison came through the camp. As I walked back from the lakeshore, I saw horses, mules, and people scattering and running. (I’m deaf, so I did not have the advantage of hearing people yelling out a warning!) Knowing it couldn’t be a bear if folks were running, I ran & reached the safety of the trees in time to see a buffalo trot past me. This was only the first of several close buffalo encounters on the trip!

beautiful sunset at campsite in yellowstone national park

The sky is magical in Yellowstone. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

The second day, we left the lake behind and the Absaroka Range came into view, with 10,640’ Colter Peak dominating the landscape.

woman on horse near colter peak yellowstone national park

Stopping for a photo with mom. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

On the third day, one rider said he hoped we’d see more wildlife. He got his wish; we trailed three bison for a while and gave them a wide berth. We also ran into a lone buffalo who tried to join our group.

That evening, we camped by Thorofare Creek, where we were treated to a rainbow as pork chops cooked on the campfire. Just before retiring for the evening, I learned the site was the worst one for bears on our trip — just what I wanted to know before going to bed.

rainbow at thorofare creek at yellowstone national park

Our rainbow at Thorofare Creek. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

Day four took us through the southern part of the Thorofare, across the Yellowstone River, over the Continental Divide, and into Snake River country. We were surrounded by miles of open, unspoiled country -- and all sorts of weather. We rode in the sun, had a quick pack lunch at Mariposa Lake, then rode in pelting sleet, rain and dropping temperatures before settling into a camp nicknamed Deep Freeze at the headwaters of the Snake River.

horses and pack mules cross river at yellowstone national park

Our rugged horse and mule pack team hauled us up, over, and through many obstacles--including this river. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

Day five was cold and raining as we wound our way through the Snake River Canyon. We were grateful to reach camp late that afternoon and huddle around the campfire, chow down on ribeye steaks, and try to dry out our wet gear. We also spotted the first — and only — grizzly of the trip in a meadow across the creek.

The final morning, we woke up to a winter wonderland. After gobbling down a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, leftover ribeye steak and cowboy coffee, we packed and rode out.

snow at equestrian campsite at yellowstone state park

The snow at our campsite. What a perfect way to end our adventure. Photo by Lisa Florey. 

It was a cold but beautiful day -- snow in the mountains, sunny views of Heart Lake and its surrounding mountains & thermal features, and the bittersweet realization that our 80-mile journey was coming to an end.

About the Author: Lisa Florey's love for horses began with a pony that helped her regain her balance when she lost her hearing at age five. Her lifelong horse habit has taken her around the United States as an equine sports massage therapist, American Quarter Horse Association exhibitor, and trail rider. Recent adventures include riding a mule into the Grand Canyon and tölting on an Icelandic horse in Iceland.