Slough Creek Whitewater

The Lamar Valley around Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park (map) is widely known for its beauty and wildlife. As seen from the gravel road leading to the campground, Slough Creek wanders through grassy meadows, slow and deep. It is trout heaven.

Twenty years ago Barry Rhodes and I spent several wonderful days trout fishing on lower Slough Creek. I remember getting a citation from a park ranger for violating the campground rules — I left a water bottle on top of our rental car all night (it is grizzly country).

Ann and I secured a campsite on Monday, June 20, and talked to the campground host about hiking trails. I mentioned that we had just looked at the amazing whitewater on the Lamar River (about a mile west of the Slough Creek road); we saw unrunable rapids for more than half a mile. The water was high because Yellowstone had abundant snowfall this winter and warm weather was melting the snow at high altitudes, loading the streams with cold, silty water. The campground host said that Slough Creek had whitewater also — up the fisherman’s trail from the campground.

We started hiking. It was easy walking on almost level ground. Slough Creek was wide, up to 30 yards across in many places — smooth, cold, and deep. After about 45 minutes of walking, we saw that we were approaching  an incline, and we heard the sweet music of whitewater in the distance. As we rounded a bend, we could see the rise in the stream bed and rapids (click on the first photo below).

As the trail progressed upstream, the hike got steeper. And as the terrain got steeper, the rapids got louder and more spectacular. Each of the photos below is in sequence as we climbed the increasingly steep trail. For photo 7 I jumped out onto a huge boulder in the middle of the stream to get the a shot of the rapids upstream.

The sound and energy of the snowmelt rushing down the side of this beautiful mountain was wonderful to behold. The power of the rushing water was invigorating (often called the negative ion effect) and made the hike even more enjoyable.

The trout in the slow water in the meadows below are beneficiaries of the turbulence from these rapids. Trout live in clean, cold water with  lots of dissolved oxygen, and these rapids both cool the water and oxygenate the water. Speaking as a kayaker, I saw continuous Class 4 and 5 rapids for almost a mile.

As we approached the top of the ridge, we lost the fisherman’s trail in a huge boulder garden. Thousands of boulders covered the landscape from streamside on our left to the top of the mountain on our right. We tried to cross the boulder garden near the stream and encountered huge boulders  requiring dangerous moves, so we backed off. We went about 300 yards up the slope, hoping the move above and around the boulder garden, but again encountered dangerous situations suited only for rock climbers. We went back down to streamside to review our options.

I was able to get a good view of the big rapids at the top of the ridge. When I tried to get a photo, I discovered that the batteries in the digital camera had expired. Then we found an elk skull with a huge antlers stuck in the driftwood at the high water level. I learned a hard lesson by getting caught without spare batteries because I would have liked to brought back photos of the elk antlers and the big rapids.

I highly recommend this hike if you enjoy beautiful scenery and rushing whitewater. You can see the trail and topography by clicking on the map image below. The leftmost red flag near the Campground marks where we began the hike. The next red flag along the Pack Trail is end of the whitewater. The third red flag is where we turned back due to rugged terrain. There’s another trail on the map just south of the campground that goes to upper Slough Creek (but you don’t get to see the whitewater below). We’ll explore upper Slough Creek next time.

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