The Yellowstone River starts its great journey

Just off the Continental Divide, deep in Wyoming’s Absaroka Range and Teton Wilderness, Younts Peak brushes thin air at 12,156 feet. When the melt season arrives, snowfields in a cirque high up on the massif’s north face and other flanks are adorned with countless rivulets. Trickling off the snow, they weave in the mountain’s tundra, forming into small creeks as they gather in the denser vegetation below and provide the initial waters for the North and South forks of the Yellowstone River. Beneath Younts’ west wall, the two branches unite to power the surge of the largest undammed, free-running river in America as it commences its 670-mile odyssey to meet the Missouri beyond Sidney, Mont. And what a journey it makes!

From its spawning grounds 28 air miles below Yellowstone National Park’s southeast corner, the fabled river enters a narrow deep canyon fighting its way down a boulder-strewn course. For about 10 miles the newly formed river passes through a forest of pine, spruce and fir fitted with small meadows and willow flats. The 1988 fires that burned a great deal of acreage in Yellowstone National Park also touched this corner of the Teton Wilderness, and as a result some new aspen growth is being observed. The conifer mix is changing, and lodgepole is coming back in places, while exhibits of wildflowers — including arnica and fireweed — are sprouting up under the burnt snags.

Numerous unnamed streams and waterfalls tumble off the Continental Divide to the west and from Thunder Mountain and volcanic cliffs on the east. Industrious beavers have created ponds in many places. The rough Continental Divide Trail follows the river on its north and east side, with many small but easy creek crossings. Here the river connects with some of the nation’s finest wilderness landscape — beautiful, untamed and gaining its wild soul. Far from any road, this is the gorge of the Upper Yellowstone.

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