Yellowstone National Park offers a wide range of hikes that range from boardwalks around geyser basins to multi-day backpacking adventures. For those who want more exploration than the boardwalks, but are not up for backpacking, there are many day hikes available. We use and recommend “A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes” by Roger Anderson and Carol Shively Anderson and “Top Trails Yellowstone & Grand Tetons National Parks” by Andrew Dean Nystrom. There are many hikes we have not yet had time to explore, so don’t rule out a hike just because it’s not on our list. In August 2017 we had a chance to hike three more awesome trails: Mount Washburn, Bunsen Peak, and Elephant Back. I added a new post, Yellowstone Day Hiking Part 2 to cover those trails. Here are our other favorites:
Stats: 1.0 mile round-trip loop; Elevation change 100 feet. Rated “easy”. Located between Madison & Norris. Highlights: Mudpots. Best time of year June-September. This trail sees a lot of use. In summer, go early or you may need to wait for parking.
Trailhead: A side road on the east side of the main road, 3.8 miles south of Norris Junction and 9.9 miles north of Madison Junction on the Madison-Norris Road. From turn-off, the side road continues 0.2 miles to trail head.
This short, easy trail heads off through trees before opening up to an area full of hotsprings and mudpots. The pools and pots have a wide range of colors. There is a climb up steps to Paintpot Hill which offers a scenic vista of the Gallatin Range, as well as a look down at the paintpots which are like many shades of paint on an artist’s palette. You also pass several small geysers. You can hear the hissing steam of fumaroles along the trail as well.
Yellowstone River Picnic Area/Specimen Ridge
Stats: 3.7 miles round-trip loop, elevation gain of 200 feet in 0.5 mile. Rated “easy”. Located near Tower. Highlights: Yellowstone River, “The Narrows” of the Canyon, 360° views, and rock formations. Can be accessed year round. In the winter it can be snowshoed.
Trailhead: From Tower Junction, head east for 1.3 miles on the Northeast Entrance Road to the turnoff on the right for the Yellowstone River Picnic Area. The trail takes off near the vault toilet.
One of our favorites in the park, this easy hike offers quick 360° views of the Gallatin and Absaroka Ranges. The hike starts from the picnic area and quickly climbs to a ridge along the northern most reaches of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. As you follow this ridge for 2 miles up to Specimen Ridge, paralleling the Yellowstone River, you see “The Narrows” of the canyon, and rock formations. When you reach a junction with Specimen Ridge Trail, to make a loop, head down through the grassy meadows toward the road and then along the road back to the parking lot. You can also explore and extend the hike by continuing for a distance along Specimen Ridge before returning back.
Stats: 7.4 miles one way, elevation gain 1,985 feet. Rated “moderate”. Note: This hike can be done as an out & back; point to point; or overnight hike. Highlights: plenty of open terrain, wildlife watching, mountain scenery and light traffic. Look for Pronghorn “Antelope”, Bighorn Sheep & Elk. Best time of Year: May to October.
We usually hike this as an out and back from either end, hiking whatever distance we choose on the day of the hike. If we had a shuttle car, it would make a great point to point.
You’ll immediately cross a large footbridge over the Gardner River. On the opposite bank, the trail climbs briefly to an open expanse that is flat. Watch for bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and elk, because they frequent this area. Look over your shoulder for fantastic views of Electric Peak and Sepulcher Mountain.
After crossing the open section on a well defined double track trail (0.8 miles) the trail turns right and heads east towards Rattlesnake Butte and Turkey Pen Creek (a dry creekbed). The Yellowstone River will be on your left and there is easy access to the river if you’re looking for a good place to fish. This next open stretch to Turkey Pen Creek can be somewhat wet/muddy throughout the year. Bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope are almost always present in this little valley and along the right/south hillside.
At approximately 1.6 miles the trail enters a notch at the base of Rattlesnake Butte and rises steeply for about 0.3 of a mile and 200 ft. before easing. The trail is tucked into this narrow canyon for the next .07 of a mile until you reach a meadow at the base of Turkey Pen Peak. NOTE: There are game trails that will lead you directly into this small meadow but the main trail climbs the hillside on the right. Look for the orange blazes. If you lose site of the main trail and find yourself in the meadow, just head to the right on the southeast side of this open area and you’ll pick up the main trail again.
After skirting to the right of Turkey Pen Peak, the trail enters a forested area and continues to climb gradually for another mile before reaching an elevation of 6,867 ft. The scenery opens once again and the trail descends for the next mile. One final climb brings you to a maximum height of 6,686 ft. At 5.4 miles you reach the only campsite on this trail. To camp here you will need a park permit.
Stats: 2.0 miles round trip loop, elevation gain of 120 feet in 0.6 mi. Rated “easy”. Located in the Lamar area. Highlights: spawning trout (in season Mid-May to Mid-June), Trout Lake and mountain views.
Trailhead: Pullout on north side of road, 1.8 miles west of Pebble Creek Campground and 18.5 miles east of Tower Junction on Northeast Entrance Road. Best time of year: spring through fall.
The trail climbs for a short distance as it winds up a steep slope through a forest before reaching Trout Lake. The trail continues around this small lake, returning the the trailhead by the same route. You may encounter anglers looking to land cutthroat trout.
Stats: 4.0 miles round trip, out and back, a gain of 400 feet in 1 mile. Can continue past turnaround to extend hike. Rated “moderate”. Located in the Tower area off of the Northeast Entrance Road; Highlights: Slough Creek, historic wagon road, meadows, mountain scenery, wildlife and aspen groves. Best time of year: Late May through September.
Trailhead: Near Slough Creek Campground. Drive 6.1 miles east from the Tower Junction on the Northeast Entrance Road. Turn left onto the entrance road to the campground. Proceed 1.9 miles on this gravel road until you reach the trailhead on your right, about 0.5 mile before the campground.
The Trail follows an old road, gradually climbing 400 feet in about a mile. In another mile, the trail reaches Slough Creek and the “First Meadow”. You know you have reached the two mile mark when you reach the fork with Buffalo Plateau Trail heading off to the left. Just ahead you will see the Slough Creek backcountry patrol cabin. Return to trailhead by same route. We have extended this and hiked further along the road. Another 1.5 miles (one way) and 200 feet gain over a small knoll, takes you to the creek’s second meadow. Anywhere along the first meadow provides an excellent picnic opportunity. We have seen: Elk, Bison, Moose, Grouse(in the woods) and Sandhill Cranes from this trail. There was also a mother black bear with 2 cubs at the trailhead area the last time we hiked this. Bears have been known to frequent this area in spring. You will see anglers looking to land cutthroat trout. With oxbows and incredible mountain views, including Cutoff Mountain, this trail is one of the most scenic in the park.
Stats: 5.0 mi round-trip loop, elevation change of 400 feet in 0.5 mile. Rated “moderate”. Located in the Mammoth area. Highlights: beaver ponds, wild life, aspen groves, and spring wildflowers. Keep an eye out for black bears, bison, elk, mule deer, and beaver. Best time of year: May through June and September through mid-October. In summer, cooler morning and evening hours are advised.
Trailhead: Hike begins at the Sepulcher/Beaver Ponds Trailhead, located just north of Mammoth Terraces, between the Liberty Cap rock formation and the stone house, by the parking area for buses. Parking is available on the east side of the road.
The trail starts by following a creek up Clematis Gulch for 0.2 mile until it meets the junction of the Howard Eaton Trail. Veer right at this junction, crossing Clematis Creek on a footbridge. The trail climbs 400 feet in 0.5 mile to junction with Sepulcher Mountain Trail on left. Continue straight through forests and grassy meadows, until you reach the beaver ponds. The trail winds around the ponds and eventually emerges onto a broad sagebrush plateau before it returns to Mammoth Hot Springs. In addition to the grouse viewed below, we saw elk, mule deer, and sign of beaver (chewed trees) along this trail.
Stats: 4.0 mile round-trip out and back, loss of 600 feet in 1 mile (with subsequent climb up on return trip). Rated “moderate”. Located in the Tower area. Highlights: Yellowstone River, a suspension bridge, wildflowers in spring, scenic views, and Hellroaring Creek. Best time of year Mid-May through June and September through October. In summer, this trail should be done in cooler morning/evening hours. This is a good spring choice, when hikes at higher elevations are still covered in snow.
Trailhead: The parking area for Hellroaring Trailhead is on the north side of the road, just past Floating Island Lake, 3.8 miles west of Tower Junction on the Mammoth- Tower Road.
The Hellroaring Creek Trail leaves from the parking area and quickly drops 600 feet in one mile, passing the Garnet Hill junction. Next you will reach the suspension footbridge over the Yellowstone River. Crossing the bridge, travel another mile passing Buffalo Plateau Trail junction, before arriving at Hellroaring Creek. Return back the way you came.
Mary Mountain Trail
Stats: 20 miles from West Side at Nez Perce Creek to Trailhead on Canyon-Lake Road – one way; “moderate” due to length. Shorter Hikes: to Magpie Creek 2 mile (one way); to Mary Lake 11 miles (one way) with a 900 foot climb to Mary Lake. Can hike the entire 20 mile as a point to point if shuttle available. Highlights include the Nez Perce Creek, wildlife, Hayden Valley along Alum Creek.
- Because of high concentrations of grizzly bears in the surrounding area, NO overnight camping is allowed on any portion of this trail.
- Due to heavy use of the area between Mary Lake and the Canyon-Lake Road by grizzly bears, the National Park Service advises hikers to: stay on the trail, travel in groups of three or more, make noise, and carry pepper spray.
- This is an area that a single hiker was killed by a grizzly bear in 2011.
West Trailhead: About 6 miles south of Madison Junction on Old Faithful – Madison Road, there is a small trailhead parking area on the left (heading south) just past the Nez Perce Creek bridge.
East Trailhead: Large pullout about 0.25 mile north of Alum Creek on the Canyon- Lake Road (on the north end of Hayden Valley).
From the West: The trail follows an old road to a bridge over the Nez Perce Creek. There are some small thermal areas along the route. The trail then travels intermittently through lodgepole pine forests and meadows to the crossings of Magpie Creek and Cowan Creek (both can be crossed on logs). About 0.5 mile before reaching Magpie Creek, the trail takes a slight northward turn and skirts the tree line of a meadow. Be sure to keep an eye out for orange markers to avoid following one of the many bison trails by accident. Near Cowan Creek, the trail goes through some meadows that remain soggy all summer long. Once past these meadows, the trail enters a lodgepole pine forest and climbs 900 feet, very steeply in spots, to Mary Lake. From Mary Lake it is 9 miles to the east side Trailhead, see from the east description.
From the East: For the first 4 miles, the trail parallels the tree line along the edge of a meadow of Hayden Valley and the Alum Creek. There are small thermal areas and a variety of water birds along the creek. About 4 miles from the road, the trail crosses Violet Creek and begins to gain elevation as the trail makes its way to the west end of Hayden Valley (no longer paralleling the tree line). There are bison trails in the area, so be certain to follow the trail with orange markers. Because there are no trees along this section of the trail, the trail markers must be placed on posts. The posts are frequently used as scratching aids by bison, and are consequently likely to be on the ground and not visible until you step on them. A topographic map is very useful for this section of the trail. Once you are out of Hayden Valley and atop the forested Central Plateau, you will soon pass Highland Hot Springs and arrive at lodgepole lined Mary Lake. It is 11 miles further to the west side Trailhead, see from the west description.
Stats: 1.3 mile roundtrip loop with minimal elevation change. Rated “easy”. Located near Fishing Bridge. Highlights: Yellowstone Lake and Pelican Creek. Best time of year: Late June through September. In spring, grizzly bears travel along the lakeshore to find cutthroat trout in the spawning streams around the lake. Inquire at the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center for recent bear sightings in the area before hiking in spring.
The hike begins at the pullout about 1 mile east of the Fishing Bridge Store on the south side of the East Entrance Road.
Take the trail on the right side of the loop as it winds through the forest for about 0.5 mile, where it meets the Yellowstone Lake. The trail parallels the lakeshore and then crosses the marsh on a boardwalk that leads back to the trailhead. NOTE: The high waters of Pelican Creek can flood the boardwalk through the marsh in the spring.
Stats: 6.4 miles roundtrip out and back; Rated “moderate”. Located near Old Faithful. Highlights: View of the Grand Prismatic Spring, 197′ Fairy Falls waterfall, and Imperial Geyser. Best time: June through September. The Fairy Falls Trail is closed until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend as part of a bear management area.
Trailhead: The hike begins from the parking area on the west side of the Old Faithful – Madison Road. It is 4.5 miles north of the Old Faithful overpass and 11.5 miles south of Madison Junction
From the parking area, pass the barricade and cross the steel bridge over the Firehole River. Begin hiking on the Fountain Freight Road, an historic route now open to only hikers/bicyclists. Along here, there is a side trail to the left that heads up to a high spot on the hill that will provide a good view of the large Grand Prismatic Spring. It is a better overview than you can get from the boardwalk. After 0.9 mile, the road meets the Fairy Falls Trail on the left. Turn left and hike 1.6 miles through the new growth pines to the Fairy Falls. From Fairy Falls, continue another 0.7 mile to Imperial Geyser. Return to trailhead by same route.
Safety While Hiking in Yellowstone
Anyone hiking in Yellowstone needs to understand Safety in Bear Country before heading out. All wildlife in Yellowstone is wild and should be treated as such. Park rules require us to stay 100 yards away from wolves and bears, and 25 yards from all other animals. Yellowstone has many geothermal features which do not exist on topo maps. If you encounter thermal areas, you should maintain a safe distance while exploring them. Thermal crust can be quite thin and people have been seriously burned from falling through. Do not walk in geothermal areas. The biggest threat to hikers is hypothermia. Temperatures and weather can change quickly in the park. Carry appropriate extra clothing. Mike has written a post on Hiking Gear, including emergency gear.