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Fall, with its drier and cooler weather, is the best to visit the Bechler-Fall River area of Yellowstone National Park . This area is definitely one ‘less-traveled by’ but has been a favorite for backcountry hikers and campers for many years. The term ‘Bechler’ describes an area that encompasses Bechler Meadows, the Bechler River , and the Fall River Basin . Averaging 80 inches of annual precipitation, this area is the wettest part of the Park and contains many sloughs, swamps, ponds, creeks and rivers. In fact, much of this area is underwater during the spring through early July.
The best time to visit Bechler is late August and September when conditions are drier and the bugs subside. Rushes and sedges turn a golden brown against a backdrop of towering firs. This section of Yellowstone is found in the far southwestern corner of the Park and is known as “Cascade Corner.” It is one of the newest, geologically speaking, and water plummeting from the Madison and Pitchstone Plateaus has not yet eroded into larger canyons and river valleys found elsewhere. The result is some of the most spectacular waterfalls and cascade features in Yellowstone , many within hiking distance.
Bechler offers its own unique geology, water features, wildlife and topography. This area is often compared to Washington ’s Olympic Peninsula because of the large meadows and marshes, thick undergrowth, and lush forests. Bechler boasts one of the Park’s largest concentrations of moose and beaver. Deer and elk, black bear and wolves also inhabit the area, along with an occasional grizzly. The Bechler wolf pack that originated in 2003 ranges throughout the area. Coyotes, moose and sandhill cranes can be found in the meadows. Bald eagles, osprey, water fowl, muskrats, and river otters inhabit rivers and adjacent areas.
Bechler is primarily a backcountry area featuring over 100 miles of backcountry trails and 33 campsites. Getting there is part of the challenge. The roads there are not clearly marked and some don’t even exist on Mapquest! You will not see specific signs either. You can choose to visit the Bechler area by road and/or foot. This area is also frequented by horseback visitors and llama trek. (See “Additional Sources.”)
One option is to drive to Cave Falls and then take a short day hike into Bechler Falls . You’ll first need to skirt eastern Idaho and then drop back into Yellowstone Park .(For planning purposes, it takes about one hour to reach Ashton, Idaho from West Yellowstone, MT and another 45 minutes to reach Cave Falls.) Coming north from Idaho Falls , Idaho (or south from West Yellowstone, MT) on U.S. Highway 20, exit at Ashton , Idaho . Continue east through Ashton through town and the street will become State Road 47 east. After 6 miles, the road will curve north towards Warm River . However, you’ll want to continue straight and the road will turn into the Green Timber Road (past several farms and a golf course). You will NOT see any signs for Yellowstone Park although you should see one for Cave Falls . Note: if you are coming south from West Yellowstone, MT and detour through the Mesa Falls Scenic By-way, just watch for the Green Timber Road sign when coming out of Warm River canyon.
Green Timber Road will turn into a gravel road after 5 ½ miles. Once you hit gravel, the name of road changes to Cave Falls Road . Even though the road is gravel, it is wide and level. We did just fine with our two-wheel drive car although it can be dusty. Cave Falls Road parallels Porcupine Creek for several miles. We spotted a moose and calf down in the Mossy Springs area on the right. And, as you ascend a large hill, watch for the pull-out also on the right. This pull-out opens up to an incredible view of both Targhee National Forest and the Grand Tetons in the distance.
It comes as a bit of a surprise to suddenly see a sign for the Wyoming State Line and have the gravel convert to pavement. However, this paved road is narrow, with vegetation growing up to the edges of the road and there are some potholes and dips. You should also see your first sign for “Bechler – 3 miles.”
Watch for a side road for the Bechler Ranger station. Here you can register for backcountry campsites, learn more about the trails, and talk with a ranger. This area was named for Gustavus R. Bechler, chief topographer of the 1872 Hayden expedition. It was frequented by fur traders and mountain men earlier in the 1830’s. Eventually, a remote soldier's station was constructed, now called the Bechler Ranger Station. Rangers located at this station are responsible for clearing back country trails and policing Yellowstone ’s boundaries. The trailhead for main trails is behind the ranger station. The Bechler ranger station is open daily from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm until it closes in mid-October. Continuing on, there is a side loop that will take you directly over to Cave Falls on the Fall River where you can get a great view of both the upper and lower cascades or take time for a leisurely picnic. Continuing past this side loop and up the hill, will take you to a general parking area and outdoor restroom.
Cave Falls is only twenty feet high but one of the widest in the Park. At 250 feet wide, it has both an upper and lower step within 100 yards of each other. It was named for a cave that was located below the falls on the river’s north bank. From Cave Falls , you can easily hike to Bechler Falls , approximately 1 ½ miles each way. The trail winds along the Falls River until it reaches the point that the Bechler and Fall Rivers come together. Bechler Falls drops 15 to 25 feet depending on water levels. This is a moderately easy trail that does not require any fording, but still gives you a sample of what Bechler is all about. The fishing is in this part of the river is also great featuring smaller, but feisty trout.
Another driving option is reach the Bechler area via the Ashton-Flagg Ranch road. This road cuts from Flagg Ranch off Highway 89 North (the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway between Jackson , WY and Yellowstone’s south entrance) and continues 37 miles west to Ashton , Idaho . This road is also called Grassy Lake Road and also starts as a paved road but then goes to gravel. Just 11 miles west of Flagg Ranch, watch for the Grassy Lake Reservoir sign. Park here and then begin hiking west on the South Boundary trail. The trailhead is just south of the Yellowstone boundary and follows the creek. Along the way, you will take the Mountain Ash Trail which was also used in the 1880’s by Mormons moving from Jackson Hole to Idaho . (See if you can spot some of the wagon ruts still visible in the stones on the trail.) This is also a favorite route of horseback riders. This 15-mile trail is challenging for both hikers and horsemen due to a number of river fords and one large ridge to climb. The view of the falls is worth it! At 250 feet in height, Union Falls is the tallest, officially named waterfall in the Park. It both a plunge and a fan waterfall. Twin streams cascade over a sheer rock face. A mist from the Falls creates some very unique photos.
Two miles northwest of Union Falls is Morning Falls located on an unnamed fork of Mountain Ash Creek. Accessing the falls requires hiking along the creek on a path that is not maintained and can be wet and marshy. This sixty-foot falls is one hundred feet in width and is named for the unique way in which it catches rays from the morning sun.
If you want to plan a longer hike, there are numerous trails that begin and route back to the Bechler Ranger station. For the most enthusiastic backcountry hiker, you can follow the Bechler River Trail all the way from the station to the Lonestar Geyser Trailhead near Old Faithful – 27.1 miles, one way. Other Yellowstone backcountry hiking access to Bechler includes: The South Boundary Trail (west of the south entrance) Pitchstone Plateau Trail (south of Lewis Lake ) Shoshone Lake Trail (north of Lewis Lake ) Summit Lake Trail to the West Boundary Trail (from the Biscuit Basin area)
There are two general areas in Bechler. The western route travels to Silver Scarf and Dunanda Falls and encompasses more wide-open views and scenic vistas. This 18 mile round-trip trail starts at the ranger station and heads north along the Bechler Meadows Trail. After 1 ½ miles, there is a trail junction. Take the west trail to follow the Boundary Creek Trail northwest and then skirt the large Bechler Meadows area, 3.75 miles from the ranger station. (Watch for the large, bright orange diamond trail markers.) You will also have the experience of crossing suspension bridges over the river.
This trail will require fording Bartlett Slough and Boundary Creek several times. The trail also travels through the Robinson Creek fire area, site of an 8,000 acre burn during the fall of 1995. Note: Regardless of time of year, you will get your feet wet in Bechler. Experienced hikers bring extra shoes or sandals for fording creeks and rivers. Pack your gear in plastic just in case. And, never cross barefoot. Silver Scarf Falls plunges 250 feet cascade off a branch of Boundary Creek. Its narrow formation creates a thundering force. This river branch actually originates miles north in a valley full of unmapped, boiling thermal springs named the “ Valley of Death .” Just two hundred yards northwest is Dunanda Falls. This falls is a 150-foot plunge on Boundary Creek down into a small chasm. Dunanda is a Shoshone term meaning ‘straight down.’
You can view the falls from the rim or at the base by hiking down a short trail. There is also a scenic designated campsite if you want to stay overnight. (Campsite reservations can be made in advance. Some recommend as early as April for August or September stays. If camping, you must also obtain a backcountry use permit no sooner than 48 hours prior to your departure and in person, available at the Bechler Ranger Station.) Another route continues northeast of Bechler Meadows and encompasses Iris, O, Ragged, and Twisted Falls . You’ll hike through Bechler Meadows, cross Bechler Ford via footbridge, and continue up into Bechler Canyon . Bechler Meadows begins where Ouzel Creek spills over 230-foot Ouzel Falls to join the Bechler River . ( Ouzel Falls is best viewed from the trail. Access requires off-trail hiking through deep swamps and steep slopes with dense brush.) The river winds back and forth constantly in this 4-mile-long meadow section. On the way, make sure to look at the Grand Tetons in the distance. This area is home to some of the largest Douglas firs in Yellowstone . Bechler Meadows.
Colonnade Falls , a two part falls on the trail is located one mile before Bechler Canyon starts. The stacked falls contain an upper falls that drops 35 feet and a lower falls of 67 feet. One mile later on the trail, you will reach Iris Falls . Iris Falls was named by the 1885 Hague Survey for its rainbow often seen in the spray of the falls on sunny days. Iris Falls is 45 feet high. Hiking further up Bechler Canyon , you will reach Three River Junction. This is the confluence of the Phillips Fork, the Gregg Fork, and Ferns Fork rivers. This is also a popular overnight camping spot complete with hot pot. Another group of falls is located above Three River Junction on the lower end of Bechler Canyon and along the Ferris Fork. Ragged Falls is on the Bechler River Trail and just 200 yards north of Three River Junction. Named for its ragged appearance by park photographer Jack Haynes, this falls is formed by a segmented cascade.
The next series of falls are all located off trail. Tendoy, named for a chief of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, is 33 feet high dropping between 40-foot high cliff walls. It is located one mile above Ragged Falls in a thermal area including a natural hot tub called the “Ferris Fork Pool.” (Just a short distance upstream on the Ferris Fork is a protected spot where cold river water mixes with hot thermal springs.) Gwinna Falls , is a smaller falls 15 feet high one-half mile above Tendoy. It was originally named "Nokomis Fall" in 1921 by W.C. Gregg, but then renamed to Gwinna, the Shoshone Indian name for eagle. Halfway between Gwinna and Wahhi, is Sluiceway, a 10-foot falls. Wahhi is another Shoshone term meaning ‘two step,’ which perfectly describes this two-step waterfall (28 feet and 18 feet plunge falls). The upper falls are the most scenic, and one of the most photogenic falls in the park. Look for the large cave at its base.
Farther north are Twister Falls and Tempe Cascade. You need to hike up spur trail along the Gregg Fork of the Bechler river to reach 55-foot high Twister Falls . This area was nicknamed “Confusion Cascade” because Twister was sometimes confused with a smaller, 10-foot falls just 10 yards north. Tempe Cascade is the name for a group of five waterfalls on the Little's Fork of the Bechler River . Tempe Cascade was named in 1922 by W. C. Gregg, who originally used "Cavern" for its name because of a cave adjacent to the second waterfall. (This cave is sometimes used by rangers during winter patrols as an emergency camp.) The five falls range from 15 to 35 foot cascades. These are just some of the more notable falls in the Bechler area.
There are many more unnamed falls in the area with unique features like the deep emerald pools found in the two plunge falls upstream from Ouzel Falls . Or, Archeron Falls that plunges 27-feet, cascades another 25 feet, and then disappears underground. Cascade Corner is truly a waterfall lover’s paradise.
So, whether you plan just a day drive to Cave Falls , a day’s hike in to the falls, or a four-day backcountry trip, Bechler is an adventure just waiting to happen!