Yellowstone Hiking Trails

My grandfather and grandmother (Thanks Ging and PawPaw) first took me to Yellowstone in 1972 when I was 11 years old. My desire to hike lured me back to Yellowstone years later. Yellowstone’s hiking trails, for me, are not just a simple trail, but a path that leads to… well; I guess I am getting off subject. I hope your hiking path leads you to where you want to be.
Not to be redundant, but, this book is not the definitive book on hiking in Yellowstone. So when I go hiking on in Yellowstone, I always take Yellowstone Trails: A Hiking Guide by Mark C. Marschall. Yellowstone Trails comes with an introduction into the do's and don’ts of hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry, an excellent section on bears, trail descriptions and also includes a detailed topographical trail map. This book is a must for hikers in Yellowstone. As the saying goes “Don’t leave home(the trail head) without it. Reading Yellowstone Trails before you get on the trail may just save your life.

Here is my short list of do’s and don’ts for going backcountry in Yellowstone.

  • Always carry bear spray and know how and when to use it.
  • To lower the odds of a bear attack while in Yellowstone make noise while hiking, slowing down where visibility is low, like twisty trails, dense forests or over hill tops. This is especially true while hiking in the open sagebrush fields of Yellowstone because grizzly bears dig for roots and tubers amongst the sagebrush.
  • Pay attention to wind direction and strength. If it’s blowing towards you, it can muffle your sounds and lessen the bear's ability to smell you.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings. Hike in groups of 4 or more people.
  • Check for areas that are closed for hiking due to high bear activity.
  • Almost always carry a raincoat; err on the side of caution.
  • Have a plan on what to do if you meet a grizzly or horse on the trail.
  • Wear shoes that are comfortable and sturdy enough for your ankles.
  • Depending on the time of year and weather forecast, take extra cloths for warmth, bug repellent, suntan lotion, a hat and sun glasses.
  • I highly recommend wearing hiking pants with zip-off legs, so you will always have hiking shorts with you.
  • Take a map and water.
  • Be aware of the weather forecast. Just so you know, it can snow just about any day of the summer. On June 14, 2001, just outside the northeast entrance, Silver Gate received 17 inches of snow.
  • Watch out for lightning, especially on ridges or mountain tops.
  • You must get a hiking permit for overnight camping, which, in Yellowstone, is allowed at designated campsites only. No permits are required for day hiking.

Hiking season begins in late April or early May for the lower elevations of the park, mostly the lower Yellowstone River area below Tower all the way to the North entrance. These dates can vary wildly due to snow pack and temperature. Some higher trails and passes may not be accessible until late June or even mid-July. Check with a ranger or someone else who knows the current hiking conditions if you are unsure. Fall is my favorite time to hike, but, and this is a big but, it can snow a lot. (See Shoshone Geyser Basin/ Ferris Creek below.)

A word of caution about hiking Yellowstone. With trail elevations varying between 5,300 and 10,000 plus feet, even the shortest hiking trail can seem grueling. Try to get in shape before coming to Yellowstone. Be aware of group members' health issues, particularly heart problems with the elderly, for these may be compounded by the high elevation.

What follows are my favorite Yellowstone hiking trails. Now, Go Hike!

Short Distance Hikes (One hour or less)

Trout Lake is a popular hiking trail that is approximately 20 minutes one way, with a steep 300 foot gain in elevation. If you hike this trail between June 10 and July 25, there is a good chance that you will see spawning trout. During high snow melt years the trout may not began their spawn till the first week in July. The trail arrives at Trout Lake where a small stream flows out. You want to walk around the lake to where a small stream flows in. This inlet and stream are where the trout spawn. Sometimes otters can be seen feeding on the trout. The trailhead is about a ¼ mile west of Pebble Creek campground.

Yellowstone Picnic Area is the trailhead for a wonderful hike that hugs the edge of the lower end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in a stretch known as the Narrows. There is a 75 ft gain in elevation at the beginning of the trail, but the path is relatively level hiking after this. Steep ledges are found along this trail. Many people have fallen to their death in this area of Yellowstone. Don’t be one of them! I have often seen bighorn sheep, red fox and osprey while hiking this trail. Once, while setting on a ledge near this trail that overlooks the Yellowstone River and observing an osprey nest, I saw a big horn sheep and its five week old baby walk within a foot of me. With no time to walk away from the sheep and the trail too narrow for me to move out of their way, I just sat perfectly still while the bighorn mother and its little bitty baby walked right by me. Yeah, this was an experience I was lucky to have and will hopefully never forget. There are many great spots to sit, relax and eat a bite while overlooking the river. Watch out for the bighorn! You will hike about a mile and half from the trailhead to where the trail starts to turn east away from the river to join with the Specimen Ridge trail and at this point, I usually turn around and head back.

Medium Distance Hikes (Between 4 to 8 hours)

Slough Creek trail leads to some of the "best" fishing in Yellowstone and also to a really beautiful valley. Griz are frequently seen on this trail so be alert. After a 600 foot gain in elevation at the beginning, the trail levels out and continues through the 3 wonderful meadows for which Slough Creek is famous. This is a great day or overnight hike. Try to make it to at least the second meadow. I have woken up in the middle of the night to the northern lights streaking across the sky and then woken in the morning to howling wolves visible in the distance. The trail head is about 500 yards before you reach the Slough Creek camp ground.

Hellroaring Creek trail drops 500 feet during the first mile or so before crossing the Yellowstone on a rather large suspension bridge. Continue from here to a really sweet spot at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Hellroaring Creek. The confluence is a great place to camp out and the fishing can be quite good. Don’t count on catching any non-native fish species here, so bring your own food. I once met a kind, conservative, retired judge in Yellowstone who told me that he always brings home a stringer of fish from near here for his wife to cook up. I mentioned to the judge that he could only catch native cutthroat trout at that stretch of the river. He just looked at me with a smile on his face and said, ”No evidence, no case!” The trailhead is about 3 miles west of Tower Junction.

Mount Washburn is the hike for those who like big views. The hike has 2 trailheads. One trailhead starts at the Chittenden Road parking lot which is located on the north facing side (Tower Fall side) of Mount Washburn. This route has little cover and the most open view. The other trailhead starts at the parking lots at Dunraven Pass. This route has more cover, maybe a slightly better chance of seeing wildlife and a good view of the Yellowstone caldera. Both trails are a long steady climb, not steep