Montana offers countless backpacking opportunities that don't require permits or reservations. That's my excuse for living in Montana for 15 years and not taking a backpack trip in Yellowstone—the other national park that borders our state—until now.
I've always known that if you take the time to step away from the main roads in Yellowstone you will be rewarded with more space and less traffic, but add the vivid colors of fall and silence broken only by animal and geyser sounds and you've got an experience akin to magic.
Day 1: A 9-mile hike to Shoshone Lake by way of Lone Star Geyser, followed by a sleepless night saturated with elk bugles and mews, heavy hoofs outside the tent and a light rain brushing across the moonlit trees.
Day 2: At dawn the lake is so still, it might as well be the sky. A bull elk breaks his curfew and bugles insistently, until we come face to face. We loop around Shoshone Geyser Basin; among steaming cauldrons, vivid green moss and rust-colored grass. The bubbling murmur occasionally erupts into pillars of water and steam that evoke the response, "What the ____?" even though our scientific minds can explain what is happening. We continue an easy 10-miles down the Bechler River Trail, across meadows, through rain and temperate forest. Then we soak in the unmarked but infamous, Mr. Bubble. Thermal waters mix with river waters and swirl around a single stream of bubbles belching forth from God knows where.
Day 3: After a soak at daybreak, we walk another 12 miles, immersed in flammeous color—from the underbrush to the hillside to the tips of the trees; saffron and curry with cramoisy accents and a touch of shining bronze. A bull moose walks boldly towards us before crossing the river. Wide plunging waterfalls rumble throughout the day. We camp at Dunanda Falls and feel the spray of plummeting water, while we soak in a small hot spring near the base.
This trip was worth the $20 permit fees and a little planning ahead.