I’d never completed the entire Blacktail Plateau as an out and back. I have down the entire trail in in two sections. Last year I attempted an out and back with Adam only to have to race back when we saw a massive heard of bison coming our way a long the trail. We hoped to complete the 16 miles uninterrupted this time and we nearly did.

Clouds hung low in the ski as we began to ski just as light began to bath of snowy landscape… though the sun never did appear in the sky that morning. We began the trail at the east entrance which climbed to the high point known as “The Cut” in 2 miles and 900ft gain. Ski tracks were visible on the trek, though they were lightly covered by about 1.5 inches of fresh snow. The beginning of the trail is relatively wooded so we expected no bison issues during this part… but of course nature had other plans. Two bison were grazing right beside the trail in the woods. Com contemplated making an arc around them, but the snow as too deep and there were too many fallen trees to navigate off trail. We stood and awaited talking loudly. The bison stared at us and then continued their grazing… it took 15 minutes but eventually they did move far enough from the trail to pass safely. With a sigh of relief we continued on. The view from the cut wasn’t very vast since clouds hung low on the mountains and soft snowflakes fell from the sky. We didn’t mind though. It felt like the wilderness.

From here the track enters what I like to call “The funnel”. There is a steep slope on the right and a steep drop-off to the left. It is not a place you want to come across bison. Luckily we passed through this area without incident. From here the trail enters the high plains of the Plateau. It didn’t take long for a bison to appear on the trail. Out in the open now it was easy to navigate around him in a big circle. We passed by some distant elk as the trail traveled up and over slopes of the grasslands  with a net loss in elevation. For a moment I saw a distant creature too small to me an elk or bison. It moved like a canine, but was too big to be a coyote. I can only assume it was a wold because it disappeared swiftly on the other side of the ridge.  We came across another pair of bison grassing on the trail. We had to cut track over a steep slope to get around these two, but we manged it without too many problems. Now and then the ski tracks would vanish; windswept. But we did manage to stay on the trail  though it was tricky at times. Several bison herds grazed at a safe distance and the sun began to shine around 1:00pm. Near the “shortcut” junction we found fresh bison tracks on the trail, but the herd was no longer in sight.  We did see a nearby younger bison bolted unexpectedly into the forest even though we were rather far away. I don’t know if we startled him or he was running from something unseen by us.

About 1 mile from the trailhead we ran into another bison too close to the trail to pass. We had a decision to make. He would be in the area for some time it seemed and we’d have to deal with him on the way back. There wasn’t much interesting left on the trail as it follows near the road the final mile. We were discussing whether or not to call it at the 7 mile mark when the bison began meandering toward us. We opted to just turn around at that point and climb back up to the plateau. The sunshine did not last long. On the upper plateau we found ourselves immersed in the Yellowstone Winter.  Wind whipped around us creating deep drifts and covering our previous tracks from just 20 minutes earlier. Thick snowflakes fell from the darkened ski. It wasn’t completely like skiing in a ping pong ball, but it was close.

Luckily we did not run into any more bison on our return trip. However, I finally saw something I’d wanted to see for years! A coyote not far from the trail leaped high into the air and plunged face down into the snow. He camp up with a mouse!  I didn’t make the entire trail once again, but I came very close this time! We returned to camp in time for the sky to clear and reveal a beautiful sunset over Bunsen Peak. The night was still and starry. Was it the calm before the next storm?

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