Hiking in Yellowstone National Park
Your most memorable Yellowstone moments will likely take place along a park hiking trail. Encountering a gang of elk in the woods is unquestionably more exciting that watching them graze on the grasses of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Hearing the creak of lodgepole pines on a breezy afternoon feels more authentic than listening to idle tourist chatter as you jostle for the best view of Old Faithful on a recycled-plastic boardwalk for 94 minutes or so.
Even a one-day visitor to Yellowstone can—and should—get off the roads and into the "wilderness." Since the park is a wild place, however, even a half-mile walk on a trail puts you at the mercy of nature, so be sure to prepare yourself accordingly. As a guide on an Old Yellow Bus Tour said, "You don't have to fear the animals—just respect them."
Yellowstone Association Institute. If you'd like a park expert—be it a naturalist, geologist, or wildlife specialist—to accompany you, the Yellowstone Association Institute has daylong hiking excursions, multi-day excursions, and full-blown backcountry backpacking trips. P.O. Box 117Yellowstone National Park, WY, 115 3rd St. S., Yellowstone National Park, WY, 59030. 406/848–2400. www.yellowstoneassociation.org. From $100 a day.
Heart Lake–Mt. Sheridan Trail. This 24-mi round-trip provides one of the park's top overnight backcountry experiences. After traversing 5½ mi of partly burned pine forest, the trail descends into Heart Lake Geyser Basin, reaching Heart Lake at the 8-mi mark. This is one of Yellowstone's most active thermal areas; the biggest geyser here is Rustic Geyser, which erupts to a height of 25 to 30 feet about every 15 minutes. Circle around the northern tip of Heart Lake and camp at one of five designated backcountry sites on the western shore (remember to get your permit beforehand). Leave all but the essentials here as you take on the 3-mi, 2,700-foot climb to the top of 10,308-foot Mt. Sheridan. To the south, if you look carefully, you can see the Tetons. Difficult. Trailhead 1 mi north of Lewis Lake on east side of South Entrance Rd., Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Biscuit Basin Trail. This easy 2.5-mi round-trip trail goes via a boardwalk across the Firehole River to colorful Sapphire Pool. Easy. Trailhead 3 mi north of Old Faithful Village off Grand Loop Rd., Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Fountain Paint Pots Nature Trail. Take the easy ½-mi loop boardwalk of Fountain Paint Pot Nature Trail to see fumaroles (steam vents), blue pools, pink mudpots, and mini-geysers in this thermal area. It's popular in both summer and winter because it's right next to Grand Loop Road. Easy. Trailhead at Lower Geyser Basin, between Old Faithful and Madison, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Old Faithful Geyser Loop. Old Faithful and its environs in the Upper Geyser Basin are rich in short-walk options, starting with three connected loops that depart from visitor center. The 0.75-mi loop simply circles the benches around Old Faithful, filled nearly all day long in summer with tourists. Easy. Trailhead at Old Faithful Village, Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Mystic Falls Trail. From the west end of Biscuit Basin boardwalk, this trail gently climbs 1 mi through heavily burned forest to the lava-rock base of 70-foot Mystic Falls. It then switchbacks up Madison Plateau to a lookout with the park's least-crowded view of Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. Moderate. Trailhead 3 mi north of Old Faithful Village off Grand Loop Rd., Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Observation Point Loop. A 2-mi round-trip leaves Geyser Hill Loop boardwalk and becomes a trail shortly after the Firehole River; it circles a picturesque overview of Geyser Hill with Old Faithful Inn as a backdrop. You may also see Castle Geyser erupting as well. Even when 1,000-plus people are crowded on the boardwalk to watch Old Faithful, expect to find fewer than a dozen here. Moderate. Trailhead at Old Faithful Village, Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Madison and Norris
Back Basin Trail. A 1½-mi loop passes Emerald Spring, Steamboat Geyser, Cistern Spring, and Echinus Geyser. The latter was long known as Norris' most dependable big geyser, but its schedule has become much more erratic. Ask a ranger for the latest information. Easy. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd., Norris, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Porcelain Basin Trail. At Norris Geyser Basin, this ¾-mi loop leads from the north end of Norris Museum through whitish geyserite stone and past extremely active Whirligig and other small geysers. Easy. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd., Norris, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Two Ribbons Trail. This accessible boardwalk path runs along the Madison River for 1½ mi round-trip. Easy. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd. at Old Gardiner Rd., Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Purple Mountain Trail. Climbing a steady 1,500 feet from start to finish, this 6-mi round-trip trail takes you through lodgepole-pine forest. At the end of the trail catch views of Firehole and Gibbon valleys. Moderate. Trailhead ¼ mi north of Madison Junction, on Madison-Norris Rd., Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Beaver Ponds Loop Trail. The hike to Beaver Ponds is a 2½-hour, 5-mi round-trip starting at Liberty Cap in the busy Lower Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs. You enter Yellowstone backcountry within minutes as you climb 400 feet through spruce and fir, passing several ponds and dams, as well as a glacier-carved moraine, before emerging on a windswept plain overlooking Montana-Wyoming border. Look up to see Everts Peak to the east, Bunsen Peak to the south, and Sepulcher Mountain to the west. Your final descent into Mammoth Springs offers great views of Mammoth Springs. Moderate. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd. at Old Gardiner Rd., Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Bunsen Peak Trail. Past the entrance to Bunsen Peak Road, the moderately difficult trail is a 4-mi, three-hour round-trip that climbs 1,300 feet to Bunsen Peak for a panoramic view of Blacktail Plateau, Swan Lake Flats, the Gallatin Mountains, and the Yellowstone River valley. Moderate. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd., 1½ mi south of Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Osprey Falls Trail. Osprey Falls Trail, The 4-mi, two-hour round-trip starts near the entrance to Bunsen Peak Road. A series of switchbacks drops 800 feet to the bottom of Sheepeater Canyon and the base of the Gardner River's 151-foot Osprey Falls. As at Tower Fall, the canyon walls are basalt columns formed by ancient lava flow. Difficult. Trailhead at Bunsen Peak Rd., 3 mi south of Mammoth Hot Springs., Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Skyline Trail. In the park's northwest corner, this 16½-mi, 10-hour hike is a combination trail that climbs up and over numerous peaks whose ridgelines mark the park's northwest boundary before looping sharply back down via Black Butte Creek. For much of its length the trail follows the ridge tops, with steep drop-offs on either side. Difficult. Trailhead at U.S. 191, 25 mi north of West Yellowstone., Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Slough Creek Trail. Starting at Slough Creek Campground, this trail climbs steeply along a historic wagon trail for the first 1½ mi before reaching expansive meadows and prime fishing spots, where moose are common and grizzlies occasionally wander. From this point the trail, now mostly level, meanders another 9½ mi to the park's northern boundary. Anglers absolutely rave about this trail. Moderate. Trailhead 7 mi east of Tower-Roosevelt off Northeast Entrance Rd., Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Cascade Lake Trail. This 4½-mi round-trip trail loops around Mud Volcano and seething, sulfuric mudpots like Black Dragon's Cauldron. Easy. Trailhead at Grand Loop Rd., 10 mi south of Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Mud Volcano Interpretive Trail. This ¾-mi round-trip trail loops gently around seething, sulfuric mudpots with such names as Sizzling Basin and Black Dragon's Cauldron and around Mud Volcano itself. Easy. Trailhead 10 mi south of Canyon Village on Grand Loop Rd., between, Canyon and Lake, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Brink of the Lower Falls Trail. Especially scenic, this trail branches off of the North Rim Trail at the Brink of the Upper Falls parking area. The steep ½-mi one-way trail switchbacks 600 feet down to within a few yards of the top of the Yellowstone River's Lower Falls. Moderate. Trailhead 300 yards east of Grand Loop Rd. on entrance to North Rim Drive, 1 mi south of Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
North Rim Trail. Offering great views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the 3-mi North Rim Trail runs from Inspiration Point to Chittenden Bridge. Especially scenic is the 0.5-mi section of the North Rim Trail from the Brink of the Upper Falls parking area to Chittenden Bridge that hugs the rushing Yellowstone River as it approaches the canyon. This trail is paved and fully accessible between Lookout Point and Grand View. Moderate. Trailhead 1 mi south of Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
South Rim Trail. Partly paved and fairly flat, this 1¾-mi trail along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone affords impressive views and photo opportunities of the canyon and falls of the Yellowstone River. It starts at Chittenden Bridge and ends at Artist Point. Beyond Artist Point, the trail gives way to a high plateau and high mountain meadows. Although popular with day hikers, this is technically backcountry. Prepare accordingly, make some noise, and carry bear spray. Moderate. Trailhead at Chittenden Bridge, off South Rim Dr., Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Uncle Tom's Trail. Accessed by the South Rim Drive, the spectacular and strenuous 700-step trail ½ mi east of Chittenden Bridge descends 500 feet from the parking area to the roaring base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Much of this walk is on steel sheeting, which can have a film of ice on early summer mornings or anytime in spring and fall. Difficult. Trailhead at South Rim Drive, 1 mi. east of Chittenden Bridge, 3 mi south of Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Storm Point Trail. Well marked and mostly flat, this 1½-mi loop leaves the south side of the road for a perfect beginner's hike out to Yellowstone Lake, particularly with a setting sun. The trail rounds the western edge of Indian Pond, then passes moose habitat on its way to Yellowstone Lake's Storm Point, named for its frequent afternoon windstorms and crashing waves. Heading west along the shore, you're likely to hear the shrill chirping of yellow-bellied marmots, rodents that grow as long as 2 feet. Also look for ducks, pelicans, trumpeter swans, and bison. You will pass several small beaches where kids can explore on warm summer mornings. Easy. Trailhead 3 mi east of Lake Junction on East Entrance Rd., Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
Avalanche Peak Trail. On a busy day in summer, maybe six parties will fill out the trail register at the Avalanche Peak trailhead, so you won't have a lot of company on this hike. Starting across from a parking area on the East Entrance Road, the difficult 4-mi, four-hour round-trip climbs 2,150 feet to the peak's 10,566-foot summit, from which you'll see the rugged Absaroka Mountains running north and south. Look around the talus and tundra near the top of Avalanche Peak for alpine wildflowers and butterflies. Don't try this trail before late June or after early September—it may be covered in deep snow. Rangers discourage hikers from attempting this hike in September or October because of bear activity. Difficult. Trailhead 2 mi east of Sylvan Lake on north side of East Entrance Rd., Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone National Park, WY.
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