Amy McCarthy, North Absaroka Wilderness
“My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long.” - Buffalo Bill Cody
Dead Indian Pass (11,720 ft)
For over 20 miles the infamous Damnation Trail threads its way through some of the highest peaks of the Central Absaroka Range. Well constructed and reasonably maintained, this Forest Service trail provides some of the best alpine trail walking in Wyoming and the Greater Yellowstone.
Located between Sylvan Pass and Cooke City, much of the Central Absaroka Range is protected as the 350,488-acre North Absaroka Wilderness or lies within Yellowstone National Park. Combined with adjacent Wilderness and roadless areas the region is a massive, primeval, and as Bob Marshall explained “…provides the ultimate delight because it combines the thrills of jeopardy and beauty… the last stand for that glorious adventure into the physically unknown.”
The easiest approach to Rattlesnake Pass and the start of the Damnation Trail would be Rattlesnake Canyon. Unfortunately, public access to Rattlesnake Canyon has been blocked by the privately owned Mooncrest Ranch.
Red Grade Road
An alternative approach is the Red Grade Road that can be approached from the Monument Hill Road that leaves Highway 120 about 8 miles north of Cody, Wyoming. For the first 11 miles this approach is suitable for 2WD vehicles. Beyond a 3-way junction, where the gated Rattlesnake Mountain Road heads left or south, the Red Grade Road requires 4WD. With the affordable assistance of Phidippides Cody Shuttle Service we began our trek at this junction.
For the first five miles we walked the Red Grade Road between Rattlesnake and Pat O'Harra mountains. The wide open views of the Absaroka's western windswept slopes made for a pleasant morning.
The well-defined Damnation Trail begins at Rattlesnake Pass where it follows a ridgeline west eventually contouring along the north flank of Trout Peak.
Ridge Walking in the Absaroka
North Ridge of Trout Peak
The trail crosses the North Ridge of Trout Peak just 1,200 feet and a mile below its summit, a worthy detour that involves Class II+ scrambling.
Summit of Trout Peak (12,244 ft)
Benchmark, Trout Peak
At 12,244 feet Trout Peak is the highest point in the Central Absaroka Range and offers commanding views of the North Fork of the Shoshone, Sunlight Basin and the Beartooth Plateau.
Volcanic in origin, the Absaroka Range is composed of ancient ash and tuff that over eons has been welded into breccias. Glaciers and rivers have has since eroded the brown brittle breccia into complex landforms. The result is a foreboding yet beautiful landscape of cirques, cliffs, hoodoos, arches, and grottos that adorn inaccessible summits, broad plateaus and deep gorges.
From the North Ridge of Trout Peak the trail descends into a large glacier carved cirque at the head of Dead Indian Creek known as Damnation Basin. With plentiful water and soft grass it provided a delightful place to camp under a full moon.
Unnamed 12,000+ ft Peaks
Dead Indian Pass
The trail then climbs over 11,720-foot Dead Indian Pass before a 5,000+ foot descent down Big Creek to the North Fork of the Shoshone River near Wapiti, Wyoming.
Descending into Big Creek
An Unnamed Alpine Cirque
The red and gold fall foliage of alpine tundra complimented the colorful volcanic breccia.
Big Creek Canyon
Descending Big Creek
The trail rapidly loses elevation as it drops steeply through whitebark pine and subalpine fir into the canyon below.
Big Creek Falls
Gray Wolf (Canus lupis) Track
Above timberline we observed several Bighorn Sheep as well as a band of sixteen elk. We found little sign of large predators, however, until we descended below 8,000 feet where sign of both wolf and grizzly became common.
Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) Tracks
Hiking out Big Creek
Similar to Rattlesnake Canyon, the aesthetic and obvious exit is blocked to the public by a private ranch. The public are instead required to climb out of the Big Creek drainage to the east, hike 3 miles across open sage, and ford the North Fork of the Shoshone River.
On September 21 and 22, 2013 Amy and I completed the the 30+ mile route that included over 9,000 feet of climbing. We found it one of the most enjoyable and scenic trails we have hiked in the Greater Yellowstone.