Horse Packing in the Shoshone National Forest

Our discussion with Helmers was to tour back country Yellowstone National Park via a horse packing trip.  We decided on a four day/three night pack trip and I began contacting 20+ outfitters in the fall of 2014.  Our plans shifted as we learned

  • Yellowstone Park didn’t issue horse packing trips until after 4th of July
  • Continuously moving our camp would be cumbersome and a lot of work for the outfitters

We settled into discussions with 7D Ranch and horse packing into the Shoshone National Forest just east of the Yellowstone Park.  Prior to our trip we shipped two boxes containing our boots and horse packing clothes to the ranch via UPS.

Our trip out to the 7D Ranch was uneventful.  We got up at 4am, met the Helmers at the Syracuse Airport for our 7:01am flight to Minneapolis – a larger airport than we anticipated.  We had a 30 minute lay-over to Billings, MT where we met Skip (wearing a conspicuous Syracuse t-shirt).  Skip preceded us by a week, having flown into Salt Lake City and rented a Dodge Caravan for a month.  This turned out to be the perfect vehicle for our trip as it offered Skip shelter while he was camping alone and plenty of gear space when the four of us were traveling together.

We grabbed lunch at a little Mexican place in Billings and then drove 2.5 hours to the 7D Ranch. From Route 212 we took the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway crossing the Shoshone National Forest through the Absaroka Mountains to the Clarks Fork Valley.  The trailhead for our subsequent pack trip was located at the bottom of the valley. Directly across from the Dead Indian Campground.

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7D Ranch Map

We arrived at the 7D Ranch at 3pm, located our boxes and unpacked them, transferring items to our duffel bags for the horse packing trip.  We ate a steak dinner with the other guests (i.e. dudes) and met Andrea (manager) and Chris (our head guide).  After dinner Skip, Eric and I walked down to see our horses which were kept up next to the barns for morning’s departure.  We turned in early and slept 11 hours from 8:30pm – 7:30am.  The next morning we ate breakfast with Andrea, her son Lash and baby girl Zoey.  Marshall Dominick and his wife Betty were at the table as well.  The 7D Ranch got it’s name from the founder who had 5 kids; the parents and 5 kids were the 7 Dominicks (7D); Marshall was one of the children.  We told Marshall we were riding to Trout Peak and he said we would see some beautiful country.

We left with three trucks and trailers hauling two guides (Chris and Josh) and a cook (Andrea); 5 pack mules and 15 horses – 9 saddle horses and 6 pack horses.  We drove the short distance to the trail head.  The panniers were loaded onto the pack string and we were on the trail by 10:40am.  Below the gentle giant, Marcus, awaits his load.

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Located in NW Wyoming, the Shoshone National Forest is the first federally protected National Forest in the United States and covers nearly 2,500,000 acres; making it the seventh-largest national forest in the continental United States.. Named after the Shoshone Indians and originally a part of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve, the forest is managed by the United States Forest Service and was created by an act of Congress and signed into law by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. Never heavily settled or exploited, the forest has retained most of its wildness. Shoshone National Forest is a part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a nearly unbroken expanse of federally protected lands encompassing an estimated 20,000,000 acres. Shoshone National Forest has virtually all the original animal and plant species that were there when white explorers first visited the region. The forest is home to the Grizzly bear, cougar, moose, tens of thousands of elk as well as the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the U.S.  The altitude in the forest ranges from 4,600 feet to 13,804 ft (4,207 m) at the top of Gannett Peak. Due to the altitude and dryness of the atmosphere, vigorous radiative cooling occurs throughout the year, and exceptional daily temperature variances are not uncommon

Our trail led 8 miles along Dead Indian Creek which got it’s name from an incident in the 1878 Indian wars.  A small Bannocks war party were attacked by General Miles’ troops just south of Clark,  shortly after the Nez Perce outbreak. The Indians retreated over what is now known as Dead Indian Hill leaving one of their wounded behind. The following day the Bannock was found by some of the Crow Indian Army scouts, who promptly killed and scalped him. From this episode Dead Indian Hill and Dead Indian Creek got their names.

  • Eric – Native, a black BLM mustang about 20 years old that used to be ridden by Marshall Dominick
  • Kathryn – Red, a chestnut who would threaten and sometime kick if pressed from behind
  • Jim – Tipi, dark brown with a small blaze and two white hind feet; he was sturdy and deliberate crossing obstacles
  • Skip – Hoodoo, a paint with a habit of over-jumping obstacles
  • Pam – Cinnamon, a bay that gave threatening looks when crowded from behind, but never kicked
  • Jim – Ponch (AKA Death Trap) a sweet chestnut

The ride in had lots of down timber which required the horses to step or jump over the logs. Eric has some issues with Native not wanting to jump obstacles that were chest high.

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We took a short lunch break on the way in where Jim entertained us with demonstrations of his bronc riding style.

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We got to camp at 3pm and we heard a horse whinny as we arrived at the meadow which was to become our camp, but we could not locate the horse.  Our saddle and pack horses were tied to trees unpacked and unsaddled with the tack arranged along downed logs.

AV Saddle Rack

We set up our tents and sleeping systems as the guides set up a kitchen, toilet and an electric fence corral for some of the horses.

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After dinner 6 of the leader / bunch quitter horses were led to the electric fence area while the remaining dozen were hobbled and turned out.  Some horses – like Chris’s buckskin mare were nimble and adept with the hobbles; almost attaining a slow lope, while others, like Native, needed to re-learn their hobbling gait.

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We again heard a horse whinny;  the guides took off up the hill returning leading a dark brown mud covered horse.  They claimed someone had a wreck, left garbage all around the site and the horse half buried in the mud and left for dead.  The horse had struggled free and they brought it back down along with a foam pad and a partial case of mini-beers.  The horse was set free with the thought it would hang around the herd, but after a few nuzzles and squeals it took off headed back to the trail head.  We never saw the horse again, although upon our return to the trailhead there was a note on each truck that someone had picked up the horse and who to contact for its return.

Despite turning in early we slept in until 7am – Eric until 8am.  It was cold at night.  The temperature reacted greatly to the sun; when the sun went down in the evening the temperatures plunged, when the sun came up in the morning the temperature climbed quickly.  We ate breakfast, packed our own lunches and were on the trail up by 10am.  We went up Morning Creek to Trout Creek.

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We were told the 7D Ranch was ~6,000′, our camp was at ~7,500′ and the we topped Trout Peak at about 10,000′.  Trout Peak Lat/Lon: 44.60120°N / 109.5253°W  Elevation: 12244 ft,  The summit of Trout Peak is at the apex of three ridges; the north and east ridges form a bowl, where the headwaters of an unnamed creek are located;  the north ridge drops four miles into the Dead Indian Creek drainage.  We stopped for a break on an overlook and then rode to another overlook for lunch.

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We saw one spectacular scenery.  We spotted one elk and two big horn sheep.  There were snow banks on the sheltered north facing faces.  After lunch I picked up a snow ball on my walk back to the horses and was met by Eric who also had a snow ball creating a Mexican Standoff.  While Tipi wouldn’t eat apple core or snow, Eric’s mount, Native, happy munched on a snow ball.

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The ride back we rode down stretches so steep we led the horses.  Eric’s horse, Native, was slow.  My saddle slipped forward twice to the point I was riding Tipi’s neck.  When we returned to camp we put a crupper on the saddle to keep it in place.  We returned to camp at 4pm after 6 hours of saddle time. After our day’s trail ride we would water the horses in Dead Indian Creek then tie them to trees for the remainder of the day.

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The horses that didn’t go out during the day stayed tied all day.  About 6:30pm the horses would be hobbled and released and/or turned out in the electric corral with halters and lead ropes dragging.  After a couple of hours we would retrieve the horses from the corral for another watering before returning them to the corral for the night.

We had tacos for dinner.  We slept warmer at night by closing up the tent, using our sleeping bag liners and sleeping in our long underwear.

Tuesday morning we had eggs, sausage and fixings.  Eric swapped horses and rode Hoodoo and Skip rode a tall sorrel.  Chris rode a mule and Andrea rode Barron, a Clydesdale cross.  We, again, made our lunches and were on the trail by 10am.  We went up Dead Indian Creek to Damnation Basin,  it was a rough trail; there was lots of blow-down to jump or go around. The pine bark beetle has killed large portions of forest; with 50-50% of the trees girdled and dead.  In places one could envision dead trees burning like large torches.

We did several stream crossings with fast moving water running over fist sized cobblestones.  It was a 3 hour ride to a spectacular basin surrounded by cliffs.  We had lunch and hung out for 1.5 hours.  We saw large raptors and scanned for sheep, but didn’t see any. On our way back we saw big horn sheep on the cliffs and two grizzly bears.  Chris’s mule smelled the bear and stampeded for 20 yards.  Eric, Josh and Andrea also got to see the bear. On trail we passed a small shelter used by a fur trapper to overnight at the end of their trap line.

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We had steak and corn for dinner and played pitch with Josh and Chris.  One of the camp chairs broke and we made a quick patch and switch while Andrea was retrieving something from the kitchen.  While Chris is stoking the fire in preparation for cooking dinner he is noticeably grinning through-out and almost gave it away, waiting for the failure of the chair.

AV and the chair

The fourth and final day we packed up our tents, sleeping systems and clothes while the guides broke down the kitchen and packed up the panniers.  It was a bittersweet ride out to the trail head where we transferred our gear from the pack string to the trucks.  We all said an appreciative goodbye to our mounts and rode back to the 7D Ranch.

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Back at the 7D Ranch we unloaded the pack and saddle horses, retrieved our duffel bags and retrieved our clothes left at the ranch.  We said thanks to our guides and Andrea Meade, the manager and left for the hotels, laundry and restaurants of Cody.  Our horse packing trip was one of the best adventure vacations we have done.  Eric declared it “Amazing and fun!” and I believe we heartily agree.

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