Despite trekking through ground blizzards, navigating carefully around a surrounded grizzly sow and cub and even after suffering a dislocated shoulder in the backcountry, Ken Duell managed to hike every trail in Yellowstone National Park.
It took him 25 years, stretching from 1996 to 2022. He missed one year – 2020 – due to the pandemic. In all, Duell estimates he’s trekked more than 2,000 miles through Yellowstone.
“The trail system isn’t in linear fashion,” Duell explained, so he calculated he’s hiked around 111 miles to cover 26 new miles of trail sections this past September to complete his feat. To finish one of his final trail segments, this fall Duell backpacked 22 miles near Shoshone Lake to cover a 2-mile stretch he hadn’t hiked.
Such are the hassles of hiking all of the trails, sometimes in bits and pieces, as well as ones less scenic. His determination left his part-time companions, West Coast backpackers Randy and Leslie Smith, a bit disillusioned.
The Smiths are no backpacking slouches. In their 30 years of visiting Yellowstone twice a year the couple estimated they’ve hiked around 4,000 miles. Despite this accomplishment, they don’t share Duell’s desire for achievement.
“I don’t have the tenacity that Ken has to just hike a trail because it’s there,” Leslie said. “Some of them are not that fun.”
“That reminds me,” Randy interjected. “Ken’s taken us on some grim hikes, some day hikes he needed that were just awful. Hot, dry, dusty and you could hear traffic noise. Yeah, we kind of wanted to wring his neck after those.”
A telecommunications engineer on the East Coast, the 57-year-old Duell met the now 69-year-old Smiths during a Yellowstone Institute backpacking trip into the Pelican Valley. They hit it off and kept linking up from opposite shores to travel through Yellowstone for the past 20 years. The group estimates they’ve spent more than 100 nights together in the backcountry.
“I love getting away from technology to recharge my batteries,” Duell said.
He does take a satellite texting device to let his wife and daughter know he’s OK while in the backcountry, but other than that he’s “cut off from the world.”
Duell’s passion for the backcountry was fostered growing up in Colorado. During college he honed his skills, learning the intricacies of outdoor recreation. Thanks to that training, and to repeatedly setting out on his own, Duell has reduced his gear to about 20 pounds without food or water. On many trips he doesn’t even bother to bring a stove, just adding water to his freeze-dried meals and eating them cold.
“We’ve learned a ton from him,” Randy said, although he and Leslie do bring a stove to heat their meals.
“I feel like I’ve pared my gear down to the minimum, and he still looks lighter than me,” Leslie said.
Randy said Ken often says, “Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain.” Yet the trio has at times “cut it close with food,” Randy added, with barely enough to last the trip.
One thing they won’t skimp on, however, is an extra rope for hanging their food out of a bruin’s reach. That’s because the rope on one trip became tangled into a knot, and they couldn’t get it down.
One of the most memorable trips for the trio was in 2021 when they took a boat ride to the Promontory in Yellowstone Lake. From there they kayaked to the Southeast Arm, camping near the head of the Thorofare Valley, the most remote place in the lower 48 states. By boating they cut two days of hiking off the trip.
“That was fun,” Duell said, a celebration for not visiting Yellowstone the previous year.
The Thorofare is also his favorite place in the park because of its wide views and with the Yellowstone River flowing through the surrounding high mountains. For his photographs, the Thorofare often provides ethereal light that paints the scenery in spectacular fashion.
The hike was also remembered as one of the scariest for the Smiths. It was their first time kayaking, so that was a bit worrisome given the lake’s cold, forbidding nature. Then on their first day of backpacking they heard a gunshot. Guns are not supposed to be fired inside the park. When they arrived at their campsite they found a bag of food hanging from the bear pole. Then two “seedy looking characters” walked up, Leslie said.
“They had some crazy story that made no sense,” she added.
The men camped near the trio, making Randy uneasy throughout the night. In the morning, without eating breakfast, the Smiths and Duell hightailed it down the trail to get far away from the men.
“One of the reasons to go into the backcountry is to get away from people,” Randy noted.
Duell’s trips into Yellowstone’s backcountry started as fly-fishing outings. Then he realized he had covered a lot of ground and could possibly trek all of the park’s mapped routes.
“I have to thank my family for putting up with me disappearing from two to three weeks a year,” he said.
Even though he’s now traveled all of Yellowstone’s footpaths, Duell nevertheless wants to continue to visit.
“Because I’ve had such fun with my friends, I’ll still go back and do the best of the best,” he said.
He’d also like to go back in the winter and “polish off” all of the park’s winter use trails, which he said cover about 21 miles. And then …