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By Tom Ehlers, Jr.
I first noticed him feeding horses in the corrals at the Sheffield Creek trailhead while my wife, Deb, and I “saddled” up our two dogs (Maggie the Maggot and Kirwin the Kirwinator) with their packs, and we did the same with our day packs.
He seemed to be the typical older horseman who rides and hunts the mountains of Wyoming—well-worn boots, blue jeans, plaid work shirt and cowboy hat, with the mannerisms of one who has been down the trail before.
In his older model pick-up truck, he pulled up to where I was still messing with my day pack as Deb, Maggie and Kirwin started up the trail. Without as much as a hello, from his truck’s cab, he warned me about wolves that he and friends had followed up the valley a couple of days back, and how we should keep our dogs close to avoid problems.
In jest, I asked if they had gotten a shot off at the wolf, and he responded with a cautious look. He then eyed me up and down, checking out my boonie hat, tie-dyed T-shirt, cargo shorts, rag wool socks and hiking boots. He then fixed his gaze to my waist, where I had a holstered Glock on one hip and loaded magazine pouches on the other.
Then, he just nodded and drove off, shaking his head back and forth as he disappeared. I had thought that I had the perfect Jackson Hole fashion on: hiking gear, hippie shirt and firearm. Oh well…
The Sheffield Creek trailhead is on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, east of U.S. Highway 89-191-287 that runs through the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway between Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
Our objective over Labor Day weekend 2012 was to escape the tourists in our adopted hometown of Cody, Wyo., and become tourists in Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyo. But our experience with tourists while driving through Yellowstone on Saturday had convinced us to take a day hike to the Huckleberry Mountain Fire Lookout to actually escape the tourists in Jackson Hole.
The Huckleberry Fire Lookout, according to information gleaned from the Internet, was a little over 5 miles from the trailhead, with an elevation gain of nearly 3,000 feet, making it a little over a 10-mile round trip. The trail guide from the Internet characterized the hike as “moderate.”
From the Bridger-Teton National Forest map, the trail appeared to be a dry trail with a couple of steep grades at the beginning and end.
The trail started off easy enough, but within a quarter-mile, it began an ascent that changed our assessment of the trail from “moderate” to “strenuous.” The trail, like most trails on forests in the mountains of Wyoming, was cut by horsemen and their pack animals, and thus was absent of switchbacks that are preferred by hiking humans.
As we made the steep ascent, we could look back during breaks for oxygen and gaze down upon the Snake River valley that cuts south across the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway toward Grand Teton National Park. The views were breathtaking, as we gasped for breaths.
When we reached the first tributary of Sheffield Creek, we found it to be a trickle with a small pool large enough for two dogs to drink from, or one dog to wallow in. Wallowing was Maggie’s choice.
After this tributary, the ascent became “moderate” for the next few miles as we approached the Huckleberry Ridge. During this section of the trail, we did have to stop and water the dogs and ourselves as the sun was beating down on us and the dead, fire-burned trees provided no shade.
One advantage of the opening in vegetation was that during this portion of the ascent, we were able to see the northern mountains of the Teton Range appear over a ridge to the south, and though there was a haze from wildfire smoke, the view made the initial “strenuous” ascent well worth our complaints of Internet descriptions of “moderate’ difficulty trails.
Once we made it to Huckleberry Ridge, we found evidence of recent bear presence, with numerous piles of bear scat filled with berries on and along the trail. The Internet description of the hike had indicated that when the huckleberries ripen, the ridge is a favorite feeding spot for grizzly bears, and to this we found evidence of truth!
As we neared the southern rise of the ridge, we spotted the fire lookout above us and to the southwest. However, at the trail sign pointing to the fire lookout, we were unable to locate a trail that led to the fire lookout. After 20 minutes of trying to locate a trail junction, as shown on the Bridger-Teton National Forest map, we decided to bushwhack west from the trail sign, and after a few hundred yards we did pick up a trail that led us up another “strenuous” ascent to the final ridge and the cakewalk to the fire lookout.
The fire lookout, built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used by the U.S. Forest Service as an active fire lookout until 1957, is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We found that efforts have been made to preserve the structure, and it does appear that it will stand for years to come.
After watering the dogs and ourselves, we had a snack, a beer, admired the astounding views, and then headed back down the trail.
“Strenuous” ascents are also “strenuous” descents, and by the time we returned to the trailhead, we were all ready to find a real watering hole and settle in for some pain-reducing beverages. Unfortunately for poor Maggie and Kirwin though, the bars of Jackson have been civilized and do not allow dogs inside.
Our 10-mile day hike did allow us to escape the tourists. We only saw three horseback travelers and one other hiker, so other than the pain, we enjoyed a successful day on the trail.
Never did see a wolf though. But annoying the local curmudgeon was good enough.
Tom Ehlers, Jr. is a beer, gun, dog and outdoors enthusiast from Cody, Wyo.