Gallatin Crest Trail Day 1: Tuesday, July 13

11ish miles – Hyalite Creek Trailhead to Crater Lake

I woke up as it began to get light, around 6. It took me a while to get moving, because as usual for my first night of any backpacking trip, I didn’t sleep well. It was a beautiful morning, and I enjoyed a relaxed breakfast and coffee at the picnic table by the creek. I watched the sun light up Elephant Mountain across the valley and, even though I don’t really draw, I was inspired to try sketching it on the back of my map. It didn’t really turn out well, but it helped me pay attention to the close details of the mountain in the morning light.

Hyalite Creek with Elephant Mountain in the background

I got going around 8. The trail was easy at first, gradually rising through lush pine forest, passing close to Hyalite Creek. I was on high alert about bears since the trees and vegetation were thick, so I put on a podcast, repeatedly called, “HEY BEAR!!” into the woods, and then, when I got tired of that, I started saying anything else I could think of.

At one point, I decided to practice my Spanish very loudly to myself, and it was then that I ran into a hiker coming down the hill. He asked me where I was going, and I said I was doing the Gallatin Crest. Turns out, he had just done exactly the same route, starting at Buffalo Horn and going north instead of south. He said he didn’t see any bears, and that the water was sparse, but Windy Pass is really beautiful and a good place to stop. He said he would avoid camping by water, so the rest of the day, I was debating whether or not to camp at Crater Lake as planned. I thanked him for the info and kept on going up to Hyalite Lake.

The trail follows Hyalite Creek up towards Hyalite Lake

I cannot explain how beautiful this trail was. As it rose higher, it crossed over or near many waterfalls, until eventually the trees began growing smaller and more sparse, and a view or the whole valley became visible. It looked so much like the Yosemite Valley that I almost couldn’t believe I wasn’t in the Sierras. There were wildflowers everywhere, erupting in pink, blue, and yellow.

So many wildflowers!

I made it to Hyalite Lake around 11 and took an early lunch before the push to the summit. It’s a gorgeous glacial lake situated right beneath a wall of mountains, and once again, I was reminded of the Sierras, specifically Chicken Spring Lake on the PCT. After a bit of a rest, I hiked up into a lovely meadow, filled up on water at one of the last water crossings before Crater Lake, and headed upwards.

Hyalite Lake

As I exited the tree line, the trail became rocky and the shrubs eventually gave way to mosses and grass and tiny flowers, and then there was no vegetation at all. I looked ahead at the huge wall ahead of me, full of rocks and one last snowdrift clinging to the northern side. At this point, I could really feel the altitude, and I had to engage hill mode—take 100 steps, rest, repeat. As I climbed the switchbacks, I heard a noise above me. I looked up and saw four mountain goats traversing the vertical wall. I wish I had their balance!

When I got to the snowdrift, I cautiously jammed my foot into each step, making sure that it would hold my weight. I wouldn’t fall far if I slipped, but I still didn’t want to risk it. I made it up and over the snow, but then I heard a “clunk, clunk, plop” sound. I looked down, and saw that I had lost one of my water bottles. I had to go back down, retrieve it, and go back over the snow again. Thankfully, it was much easier without my pack on.

Approaching Hyalite Peak

I slowly made my way up Hyalite Peak, taking it 100 steps at a time, resting, and repeating. At the summit, I was rewarded with views north back to Hyalite Canyon and the reservoir, south to the Gallatin Divide, where I’d be hiking, and all the mountains in the surroundings. I was in awe, and quite tired. I took a snack break, and discovered that I had service, so I texted my mom and Wiggs, and posted a few photos to my Instagram story. Even though I’d been in town yesterday, it was still nice to feel connected after a day of hiking alone.

I continued off the peak towards the much less clearly marked Gallatin Crest Trail. One description I read online said that the trail is “harder than it looks.” I think that sums up this afternoon. While the Hyalite Creek trail was well maintained, nicely graded, and very obviously hiked often, this trail is… not that. Sometimes the trail disappears completely, and only a vague cairn and the red line on my GPS tell me where to go. Taking a note from the AT, apparently, it goes straight up hills and straight back down.

Typical Gallatin Crest views

I felt my energy waning towards the evening, and I took multiple snack and bug spray reapplication breaks. I listened to a lot of podcasts, then realized it was draining my battery too quickly and stopped. Whenever I entered vegetation, I resumed my calls of “HEY BEAR!” until I was back on the open ridgeline again.

Despite the challenges, the views really were remarkable. I know I keep comparing it to the Sierra, but it also feels quite different. It’s drier, almost like the higher elevations in Arizona, but the pine trees smell absolutely divine. I can see where the wildfires are coming from to the south and east, but it hasn’t been too smoky so far, thankfully.

I arrived at Crater Lake, a beautiful, almost perfectly round glacial tarn, around 5. I decided to have dinner here before either carrying on or finding a spot to camp a bit away from the water. I had a leisurely dinner, listening to podcasts and music, then went down to the water to fill my bottles, and then decided to keep going.

Crater Lake

However, I ran into a problem. There is a trail marked with cairns leading away from the lake, which seemed like the obvious route. However, when I started walking that way, the arrow on my GPS showed me going away from the trail. On my app, the red line of the trail goes right up the side of a hill. I came back and tried following it, but it soon turned into a sketchy rocky scramble, and I didn’t feel comfortable continuing with how tired I was. So I came back down and found a spot on the side of grassy hill beneath a pine tree. It’s not ideal, and it’s getting very cold, but I’ll feel more comfortable figuring out the route in the morning when I’ve had a chance to rest.

I’m loving it out here, but if I’m honest, I really wish I weren’t alone. I’d feel a lot more relaxed and able to enjoy myself if I had even just one other person with me. Last night, I fell asleep listening to Stuff You Should Know on full volume just because I was so scared about bears, and it drained my battery. I wouldn’t be nearly that frightened if I were with someone else.

A creepy wildfire sunset from my tent

Tonight I feel a little braver. I checked out the surrounding area pretty thoroughly and didn’t see any signs of bear activity, and I’m far away enough from the lake that I’m not concerned. I’m going to go without any sound tonight. I’m cozied up in my bag and watching the sunset from my tent. All is well.

Indian Paintbrush was a common sight on this day of hiking

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