YELLOWSTONE RIVER TRAIL — The musky scent of elk lingered in the air. Fresh scat and a track in the dusty trail confirmed the animals had only recently left the spring green grassy meadow.

Then, from behind a clump of waist-high bunch grass, an elk calf bolted, running scared up the sagebrush hill to catch the rest of a small herd of sleek brown elk that had left the calf behind.

Wild encounters like this are not uncommon in Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry, a place where the buffalo still roam and the deer and the antelope “play.”

A different park

Every day this month and next, roughly 27,000 people a day will pour into Yellowstone from foreign countries and every state in the nation. It’s the park’s peak season. Last year in July and August alone, 1.6 million people visited Yellowstone, about half of the 3.4 million annual visitation.

According to a 2011 survey, many of those visitors spent only nine hours touring the park. Of those who stayed overnight, the average visit lasted 2.8 days. Driving, walking to thermal features, viewing wildlife and shopping were the most popular activities, the survey found.

Yet those who take the time to explore the 2.2 million-acre park’s network of roughly 1,000 miles of backcountry trails will experience a much different Yellowstone. They may see only a handful of folks in an entire day. Despite the swarm of activity occurring nearby as tourists drive to Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone overlook, it is still possible to experience a wilder and more secluded park.

According to statistics kept for Yellowstone, more than 40,000 park visitors went into the backcountry last year. The peak month was August, with more than 14,000 backcountry visitors, followed by July at 12,600. That number has remained fairly constant over the past five years.

“Slough Creek is the most popular, because of the fishing,” said Ivan Kowski, Yellowstone’s backcountry manager.

The Bechler region in the southwest, known for hot springs and waterfalls, is another popular backcountry destination, as is Heart Lake south of Yellowstone Lake.

On a whim

Derek Hanson and his wife, son and in-laws journeyed into Yellowstone’s backcountry last week almost on a whim. When the camping got too wet at Yellowstone Lake, they checked in at one of the park’s nine backcountry offices to see if there was anywhere they could backpack in and camp in the drier northern portion of the park. The park always saves a portion of sites on each route for such walk-in hikers, although sites can be reserved ahead of time. Campsites were open along Hellroaring Creek, so Hanson paid the $25 fee, watched an obligatory safety video about traveling in the backcountry and reserved two sites for two nights.

“It was fabulous,” he said, after he had shed his pack and mopped a sweaty brow. Hanson is a frequent park visitor from Spokane, Wash. “We all love the outdoors and bear country.”

The fishing was OK, they sighted numerous songbirds and an osprey, in addition to other wildlife, he said.

“We saw antelope with little babies, mule deer and lots of antlers and bones,” he added.

At the same trailhead, cars from as far away as Texas and North Carolina were parked. Some are day-trippers into the backcountry, just stretching their legs and getting away from the confines of a car. Others are backpacking in to fish for several days, or for a quick one-night in-and-out just to see some new country.

“The majority of overnight backpackers are definitely walk-ins,” Kowski said. “Reservation-wise we get a lot from the local area — Utah, Montana, Wyoming and some from Washington and Idaho.”

The average stay for people visiting the backcountry is two nights, with most groups averaging two or three people. Commercial outfitters licensed in the park also make use of the backcountry sites. Yellowstone issues about 5,000 to 6,000 backcountry permits a year to outfitters. Commercial trips are typically larger, eight to 10 people.

Back to the rat race

To rejoin the masses, hikers and backpackers need only get behind the wheel of their car again. Vehicles hum along the park’s serpentine roads at a steady pace until a wild animal is sighted. Then the vacationer slams on the car’s brakes and pulls to the side of the road to take photographs or shoot video. The congestion caused by the domino effect as other travelers pull over is known in the park as bear jams or elk jams -- insert the name of the animal in front of the word “jam.”

It’s hard to believe, when stuck behind such a line of cars and gawking, sometimes reckless, tourists, that only a mile off the road or less there’s solitude and beauty. Out there the wind sighs through pine tree boughs, carrying the sweet scent of blossoming wild roses. The most constant sound is the rush of river or creek water. Deer and bears dine or travel along the riverbank. And hikers or backpackers are treated to a Yellowstone much different than that seen by 90 percent of the park’s visitors.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.