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Yellowstone in the saddle

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Story and photos by Brandy Ladd

Yellowstone, the world’s first national park was established
by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by
Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
Theodore Roosevelt had previously recognized the need
to permanently preserve the unique natural setting. “…
The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental
problem,” he said. “Unless we solve that problem it will
avail us little to solve all others.”
Over three million visitors flock from urban dwellings
around the world to the Park each year, gaining a brief
glimpse into this Garden of Eden.
As a camp jack with the Livingston-based Rockin H K
Outfitters, I spend several weeks of summer in the Yellowstone
backcountry. As a young girl, my family and I shared
many days riding in the heart of the Gallatin and Absarokee
Mountains. I still feel free and at home on the trail.

Packing up

Kipp Saile packing in Pebble Creek

Heidi Saile tested the weight of two
manny sacks lying among a colossal
amount of gear and food. She swung one
of the heavy canvas bundles alongside
her favorite mule Ernie, deftly throwing
a diamond hitch to attach the load
to the pack frame. Her husband Kipp
unloaded the riding horses. Their
children, Scarlett, Wyatt and Wilson,
greeted the arriving guests who were
about to embark on a five-day trip into
the heart of Yellowstone National Park’s

Into the Park
As my horse Lacey strode through the
deep grass of Pelican Valley, she swung
her head toward the river. I looked
through her alerted ears, and together
we watched a grizzly romp and play, unconcerned
about our presence. Though
massive, he dodged along the slope with
impressive speed and agility. An iconic
figure in the Greater Yellowstone, the
grizzly bear has roamed North America
for the past million years, outliving the
saber-toothed tiger and the mastodon.
The vast country spread before us as our
horses climbed from Pelican Valley to
Mist Pass. The Greater Yellowstone
Ecosystem, at approximately 18
million-acres, is the largest, nearly
intact ecosystem in the Earth’s
northern temperate zone. 2,221,766
acres of that are in Yellowstone Park

Our procession weaved through a
thick, yet spindly forest of lodgepole
pines. One of the mules in the pack
string snorted at a monstrous bull
moose grazing knee-deep in the glassy,
black water of a nearby swamp. Our
group of six riders sat still in our saddles,
soaking in the natural splendor. A
red-winged blackbird was perched in a
nearby willow.
Native ungulates, bears, birds, fish,
reptiles and amphibians inhabit the
area throughout four seasons. More
than 3,000 bison roam Yellowstone’s
grasslands, the only place in the lower
48 states where a population of wild
bison has lived since prehistoric times.
On the micro-level, endemic heat dwelling
thermophile species have
evolved to live in the hot water, many
over the course of millions of years.

Geologic hotspot
Behind us, the calm blue water of
Yellowstone Lake reflected billowing
clouds over the Two Oceans Plateau.
In the distance, the Tetons’ jagged
peaks ripped through the skyline.
Lacey shifted her stance, and I looked
down at the tiny rhyolite stones that
clicked under her hooves. The geology
in this region is so young that
erosion has not had time to pulverize
the volcanic pebbles into dirt.
More than 600,000 years ago, a
supervolcano erupted in the once
mountainous region we now know as
Yellowstone Park. Thick lava flows
filled the caldera and created the rolling
plateaus of today’s landscape. The
formation of the Grand Canyon of
the Yellowstone was created by this
eruption, as was the basin that holds
Yellowstone Lake.
Today, the 30×45-mile Yellowstone
Caldera is one of only a few dozen
hotspots in the world—these are
places where hot molten mantle rock
is rising toward earth’s surface. A
constant reminder of geologic power,
this slow-moving magma plume has
created about 10,000 thermal features
and more than 300 geysers, including
the world-famous Old Faithful.


As the riders and pack string descended
into another valley, we spotted
our campsite. A group of trees stood
alone in a vast valley. There were no
man-made structures except for the
bear poles hung high in the trees for
food storage. The Park’s 1,000 miles of
backcountry trails offer 301 campsites
for the three percent of visitors who
choose to explore the wilderness.

Kipp, packers Jodi Laird and Pete Delzer,
and I assisted the guests with their
horses, unpacked the mules and set up
camp. The stock grazed, and the guests
stretched their legs and fished in the
nearby Lamar River.
Soon, a campfire was crackling and
appetizers were served. Guests relaxed
in camp chairs, sharing fish stories
while sipping cocktails. Thick, perfectly
marinated sirloins sizzled on the
grill. Taken by the experience, one of
the vegetarian guests announced she’d
celebrate by enjoying a steak for the first time
in 15 years.

The relaxed nature of the evening
allowed five strangers from different places
and walks of life to bond easily. After dinner
and dessert, one of the guests played a guitar
and sang under the vivid stars.
The next day began with a crisp frost, highlighted
by rays of morning sun. Steam rose
off the mules and horses in the meadow. We
crawled from our cozy sleeping bags and tents
in search of hot coffee, bacon, fresh biscuits
and fruit.

On the trail
The next few days, we saw spectacular waterfalls
and awe-inspiring sharp peaks. We rode
through rolling valleys, the smell of wild
onions permeating the air. A herd of bison
wallowed by a riverbank in the midday sun.
Wildflowers of dazzling colors swayed in an
afternoon breeze. A hawk swooped low into
a field on an evening hunt. The experience
became locked in our memories.

Owning and operating Rockin’ H K Outfitters the past 10 years, the Sailes
have worked together as they’ve grown. Scarlett was six months old at her
first trailhead, and Heidi was still pregnant with Wyatt. Now Scarlett and
Wyatt ‘work’ trips, showing young guests how to put up a rope swing over
the food hanging rail, or how to catch a tadpole in the creek.
Kipp has been a guide and packer for the past 14 years, practicing low impact
techniques handed down for generations. His knack for packing
mules, love for Yellowstone, gourmet cooking skills make him a wonderful
guide. Heidi has worked for many local ranches and accumulated many
hours on the trail, making her a master caretaker of both horse and rider in
the backcountry.

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