Lee Smith believes possibilities are realities. Cases in point: Moving as a young married to New York City. Swinging from the tip of a church steeple to renew its white paint. Training and qualifying for the Boston Marathon at age 45, and completing the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii to celebrate his 50th birthday. Running the Chicago Marathon—twice after age 60. Driving a motorhome on our honeymoon into an East Coast winter. Dipping a hand into the frigid Arctic Ocean. Riding a bicycle across Iowa in seven days.
So why was I not surprised when he determined to hike alone to mountain peaks and waterfalls far from civilization—or cell phones—in Yellowstone’s backcountry? Was I worried? Yes, especially, when darkness fell and he had not returned—and I had no idea where to send a search party.
One morning, he set out for Big Horn Peak, hoping to photograph wildlife. He drove north on US 191 from West Yellowstone, where we lived for the summer. Starting point? Black Butte Trailhead. The guidebook rates the 12.4 mile hike as difficult. Starting off, the trail winds about three miles through unburned forest along Black Butte Creek before angling off to the southeast and switchbacking up to the summit of Big Horn Peak. Near the top, the climb becomes super steep. On forays into the backcountry, one never knows if wildlife will be present. While other hikers had seen abundant sheep and mountain goats a few days prior, Lee only found delicate wildflowers and a family of grouse.
When he began talking about a hike to Union Falls, a 265-foot waterfall, so-named because two creeks join and fall like a white bridal veil over tall, party hat-shaped rocks. To reach the trailhead, he had to travel at least two hours through Yellowstone and out the south entrance before heading ten miles east on a gravel road to Grassy Lake. I told him I would really like to make this hike—a sixteen-mile trek round trip. He said, “You cannot do it.” I insisted that I could—if we waited until our jobs ended and I was rested. Then he mentioned the trail crossed the icy-cold Falls River. “The guidebook says the water is only knee-deep,” he said. I questioned: “On whose knees?” So I gave up campaigning to hike to Union Falls.
According to Lee, the trail to Union Falls is worn smooth with horse traffic. I could have gone to Union Falls astride a horse! But since we had no horses, Lee waded the river, carrying expensive camera equipment around his neck. More than a mile away, he heard the roar of the falls. His photos captured the awesome beauty of Union Falls, a jewel in Yellowstone’s wilderness that many do not get to see. (Especially when knee-deep river water reaches one’s waist!)
Late in summer, Lee made separate trips to Dunanda and Colonnade Falls, each over eight miles one way. However, reaching the Bechler Ranger Station, a starting point for each trail, required a drive west from Montana into Idaho and then back into the southwest corner of Yellowstone over a pot-holed dirt road leading to Cave Falls. Lee’s guidebook warned that Bechler Meadow, the route for trails to each of these falls, could be under a foot of water in late July. A strong rain had extended the boggy condition of the meadow into early September. He describes sloshing in mud, wading thigh-deep into creeks and rivers, and balancing on slick, wet log bridges.
Upon reaching Dunanda, he discovered the only overlook was a view straight down at the falls. But what he did not tell me until months later: “The hillside was steep to negotiate, especially with camera gear. When I tried to level the legs of my tripod, my left leg slid downhill. In Shoshone Dunanda means ‘straight down.’ And at Duwanda, straight down was a 150-foot drop.”
On a different day—and from a different trail through the soggy Bechler Meadow, Lee reached an overlook for Colonnade Falls. Again, long after the fact, he told me: “I didn’t have to cling to a steep hillside as I had on the trail to Duwanda Falls, but there was no guard rail between me and a dangerous drop into the Bechler River.”
At 100 feet, Colonnade is not the tallest waterfall in the park, but its double falls—one falling after the other—is rare. And while I did not get to actually see it, Lee’s photography shares the waterfall’s beauty with me—and with others.
On the way to Colonnade Falls, Lee spotted over the treeline the top half of Ouzel Falls. Ouzel is a 235 foot sloping cascade on Ouzel Creek. Since actually getting to the falls splash basin would have meant fording the Bechler River and hacking through underbrush, he opted for a photograph with his long lens.
Darkness closed in on all of Lee’s long day hikes while he was still a long way from our homebase in West Yellowstone. Waiting for the headlights of our Jeep to pull into the driveway at 10:00 p.m., I often imagined the worst—him lying in a ravine, attacked by a grizzly, or slipping off a log while crossing a river. But the worst never happened. He returned home with memories and files of breath-taking photos to share with me—and with others who cannot physically reach the hidden treasures of Yellowstone. I’ve never seen Lee fly, but I’m certain he really is Superman!Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com