2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   HIKING UP THE TONGUE RIVER CANYON TRAIL

TUESDAY, JUNE 14

 
"The Tongue River is fed by winter snow pack from the higher elevations of the Big Horn
Mountains, early snow runoff of the lower elevations in the drainage basin, and ground water
from springs in the drainage basin. The river rises in March and April due to snowmelt in
the lower elevations, and again in June as summer weather melts the higher elevation snow pack.
 
The flow of water in the upper river during the summer is generally steady, but in the later
months of a dry summer, irrigation will reduce the lower river to a few pools of water
connected by a small trickle. The river is generally frozen during the winter months."
 
~ from Wikipedia
 
 
As much elevation as the river drops from its headwaters near Horse Creek Ridge to the trailhead at the mouth of the canyon several miles below, I seriously doubt there are mere "pools of water" or "trickles" even during the fall.

Maybe downstream, on its flatter, calmer passage to the Yellowstone River in Montana, but not in the first few miles northwest of Dayton, Wyoming. The upper river is a long series of cascades and waterfalls in the first few miles of its existence.


The river is about 30 feet wide as it approaches the mouth of the canyon.

There is a well-worn trail following this section of the river from the end of the Tongue River Road to Horse Creek Ridge -- about eight miles uphill -- and well beyond. This trail is used in all four distances of the Bighorn Mountain Wild & Scenic Trail Runs.

It is popular with locals and visitors alike, and it's the subject of this entry.

UP & DOWN MEMORY LANE

I can't begin to count the number of times Jim and I have been up and down this trail since 1997.

It's usually the first trail on the Bighorn race course that we hike/run each year when we come out to the area to train for the race.

  • It's the trail with the lowest elevation on all of the courses, which range from 30K to 100 miles.
  • It's the least likely to be under snow when we arrive in late May or early June.
  • It's a rugged, scenic trail with lots of spring wildflowers.
  • It's easy to go any distance out-and-back that we want to do.
  • And its trailhead is the closest to our campsite.

It's also the trail where Jim was bitten by a rattlesnake in 2006, but that's another story!

Note that that traumatic experience hasn't dampened our enthusiasm for this trail . . . we keep going back. We're just more vigilant now.


This is about where Jim was bitten by the rattlesnake five years ago.

The trail through this canyon is probably spectacular any time of the year that you can navigate it on foot. We've only run or hiked it in late spring, when the river is running higher and faster than it is in late summer or fall. Even in low-snow years the water thunders through the canyon as it drops from its headwaters at 8,000+ feet to about 4,300 feet at the trailhead.

So this year -- with both a record-breaking winter snow pack that is still melting and heavy spring rains -- we were more than curious to see what the Tongue River looks like through the canyon.

TONGUE RIVER ROAD

This morning we drove about five miles from the Foothills CG on Tongue River Road to the trailhead at the mouth of the canyon. This is a very pretty road through ranch lands that are bright green right now from all the rain:

This road has been graded very recently; water from the river covered parts of it last week and in two places it is still very close to the edge.

 

The last mile and a half of the road is in a wilderness area. It is more rough and gains a bit more elevation.

The river is running wild as we get closer to the trailhead parking lot:

In fact, part of the river is currently running through the trailhead parking lot:

I hope high water doesn't cause a problem on race day when 900+ runners come through here!

We've never seen the water this high along the road -- or upstream through the canyon. Although the trail quickly climbs fifty feet and more above the river in the canyon and shouldn't be a problem, the last five miles of the Bighorn race course follow that road to the finish in Dayton. Of course we're concerned that it may be flooded Saturday.


View of the Eye of the Needle formation from the Tongue River Road

Hundred milers use the road outbound on Friday, too. Instead of beginning their usual out-and-back race 1 miles from the trailhead, close to the Needle's Eye formation, this year's super-snow course will start in Dayton and traverse all of the Tongue River Road for that race both outbound and inbound.

That's just one of many changes to their route this year because of all the snow at the higher elevations.

MORE SPECTACULAR THAN EVER

Jim, Cody, and I hiked only about 2 miles each direction through the canyon this morning but the experience was memorable. We have never seen so much water running through that canyon! It was awesome, and very noisy echoing off the steep rock walls when they are close together.

Our GPS read 4,352 feet at the trailhead. We quickly gained about 30 feet in elevation on the trail and were soon looking down on the frothing water from above. You can see how trees and shrubs that normally grow on the bank are now in the river:

The rocky single-track trail undulates above the river between steep rock canyon walls for about a mile. You can barely see it below the arrow in the picture below, which I took about 1/3 mile from the trailhead:

At that point the trail is probably about 50 feet above the river.

This sturdy bridge is about a quarter mile from the trailhead in a spot where the trail is not as high above the water:

 

 

Jim hiked ahead of me; Cody went back and forth between us as I stopped frequently to peer down at the river, examine a flower, or take pictures.

This is the landslide area Karen told us about yesterday. She, her crew of trail workers, and the Forest Service worked hard to dig out the trail and stabilize the hillside:

 

In the second mile the canyon widens and the trail passes through a more forested area a little farther from the creek:

You can still see high rock walls on either side of the river, and there are interesting boulders in the woods and meadows:

 

As we climbed to our high point for the day (5,000+ feet) we could see the mountains where the headwaters of the river originate:

There is an upper canyon in the distance that I'd love to see close-up but the trail doesn't lead to it. Someday I need to wander over there!

I took the next two pictures just before the trail descended to Lower Sheep Creek:

 

Hike photos continued on next page.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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