One of the most unique natural phenomena, not only in North America but in the whole world is located in the northwest of the Contiguous United States. It is known as the location of the largest supervolcano on Earth, featuring otherworldly colorful lakes, geysers, canyons, alpine mountains, gorgeous forests, and amazing wildlife. This is Yellowstone. And the best way to explore it is by hiking. Let’s try the best hikes in Yellowstone National Park and taste its fantastic world!
Geography of Yellowstone
Let’s open the map. Yellowstone is located in the Rocky Mountains, around the main watershed of the Americas (the Continental Divide) between the basins of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, in the northwestern part of the Contiguous United States.
At the same time, the area of Yellowstone is covered by Yellowstone National Park– one of the oldest national parks in the world. It is located in the northwestern angle of Wyoming State, and a bit of it is in Montana and Idaho.
The territory of the national park consists of many mountain ranges rising on and around a large plateau, valleys, and canyons, one big and several small lakes. Its highest point is Eagle Peak (3462 m/11,358 ft), and its lowest- 1610 m/5282 ft.
Most of this terrain is covered by sub-alpine forests and some grassland. At the same time, the volcanism beneath the surface has formed a lot of geysers and unique volcanic lakes with fantastic colors.
The whole territory of Yellowstone National Park can be geographically divided into five parts (countries). They don’t have a clear “border”, don’t think of them like “provinces of a country”. Instead, they are just five areas that “mix” together in the middle, each with its own geographical features.
This is probably the most popular part of Yellowstone National Park. It is located in the southwestern part of the park, and this is its “volcanic core”, where you can find the geysers and the weirdly colorful ponds. Almost the whole Geyser Country is located over the giant caldera of Yellowstone.
This is the southeast part of Yellowstone. It consists of the big Yellowstone Lake (with its West Thumb), the three smaller lakes Shoshone, Lewis, and Heart, and the surrounding area around them. The eastern part of the caldera occupies a section of Lake Country.
It occupies the east-northeastern part of the national park. The main feature here is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, at the northeastern edge of the caldera. This country includes the canyon, as well as the hilly terrain east of it.
It is located in the extreme north-northeast of Yellowstone and includes a part of Absaroka Range and the valleys in it. Here you can find some of the highest mountains in the national park.
This country occupies the northwest of Yellowstone. It includes Washburn and Gallatin ranges, Mammoth Hot Springs resort, and the valleys in the area. Both Roosevelt and Mammoth countries are the most mountainous area in the national park.
Hiking in Yellowstone
This is in general how Yellowstone looks like. There are many ways to reach and explore it- you can go there by car, sleep in a hotel, go camping, and picnic, but the best way to feel and enjoy the area is by hiking.
There are 269 hiking trails in Yellowstone. Yes, the national park is large and there is “enough space” for such a number. Many of them are very short- just a 10-15 min walk around a natural phenomenon or a nice place with beautiful views.
But some of the trails are very long and wild, crossing a lot of valleys, hills, forests, grasslands, and wonderful spots. They usually require at least 2 days of hiking with overnight camping in the middle. What can be a better-tasting of the fantastic Yellowstone nature than this!
The Yellowstone hiking trails can be found in all of the five countries in the national park, so you can see, explore, feel and touch each of the countries and their geographical wonders. So, how to choose and plan which trail you want to hike?
Yellowstone Road Network
Yellowstone consists not only of five countries but it is arranged as a pentagram. The main road in the national park called Yellowstone Loop Road makes an 8-shape- two circles that touch each other by the road section between Norris and Canyon Village. This “8” is connected by five roads coming from outside through five entrances.
Through the North Entrance, you can enter Yellowstone National Park from Gardiner, MT, through the Northeast Entrance- from Cooke City, MT. Through the East Entrance- from Cody, WY, through the South Entrance- from Flagg Ranch, WY. And through the West Entrance, you can penetrate the national park from West Yellowstone, MT (there is no entrance from Idaho).
Once you are in the territory of the Yellowstone National Park, you can go to the starting point of a hiking trail that you choose. This is the convenience of the road network- all the hiking trails start from certain points on the road, and most of them- from a parking lot.
The best hikes in Yellowstone
So, let’s follow the road in the national park, and let’s identify the starting points of the best hikes in Yellowstone. And let’s group them according to the “country division”- which are the best hikes in each of the five countries.
What are the criteria for “the best hikes”? In Yellowstone these are the hikes that offer the best views of the park and the richest experience, leading you to the best places. They can be divided by difficulty: they can be easy, moderate, and hard.
The easy hikes are proper for kids and people without hiking experience. The moderate hikes can be proper for kids too, but parents should be ready to help and stimulate them in hiking. And the hard hikes are for experienced hikers.
Also, you can expect a lot of human traffic on some popular hikes, usually the easy ones, and it is normal. At the same time, you can hike some hard hikes without meeting a single person on the way.
The best hikes in Geyser Country
Geyser Country is the most symbolic and unique part of Yellowstone because the features and phenomena you can see there can’t be seen almost anywhere else. That’s why this is also the most visited part of the national park. And since a lot of visitors go there, many of whom are not so adventurous, there are many easy hikes around the geysers, waterfalls, and color ponds.
In other words, this area is less adventurous, more touristy, but at the same time more spectacular and unique. Most of them start from the parking lots on the road section between Madison Jct through Old Faithful to West Thumb Jct. Let’s follow this road section for the starting points of the trails.
These are the most visited trails in Yellowstone. Don’t be surprised if you feel like walking on a main pedestrian city street during the highest season. But the amazing and spectacular sights, the erupting geysers, and the other phenomena are really worth visiting, especially if you go to Yellowstone for the first time. Below are the best easy hikes in the Geyser Country of Yellowstone:
- Firehole Lake Drive (5.3 km). This is actually a road that you can drive a car (one way) with a few parking lots on the way and short walks around the most spectacular features in the area like Firehole Lake, Labial Geyser, Pebble Geyser, and more.
- Midway Geyser Basin Trail (1.1 km). The main road proceeds southward and soon arrives at the next point where you can hike this short trail around the splendid Midway Geyser.
- Fairy Falls Trail (7.7 km go and back). This is the most popular hike in Yellowstone. Although it is usually the most visited one, don’t skip it if you haven’t been there! For about 2 hours you will enjoy the best of the national park, reaching the most beautiful waterfall here- Fairy Falls.
- Mystic Falls Trail (3.9 km go and back). The next worth visiting spot is Mystic Falls- a long chain of fierce rapid-like falls in a narrow gorge. And the trail leading to this waterfall is one of the best easy hikes in the area.
- Upper Geyser Basin Loop (5.6 km). This is another hike around a series of five geysers. If you come at the right time, you can watch their spectacular eruptions while you walk.
- Lone Star Geyser Trail (8 km go and back). This is a 2-3 hours walk to one of the weirdest geysers in Yellowstone- a cone-type geyser that erupts almost every 3 hours. So, better plan a long time to wait there and see the geyser’s eruption!
Most of the trails in Geyser Country are easy, and the trail described above can be walked for a day or two. But there are still some moderate and hard trails in the area. Here are the best of them.
- Observation Point Trail (2.5 km go and back). This trail is short, and it starts from the same place where Upper Geyser Basin Loop starts too. But this one includes steep ascending and then descending, and that’s what makes it “moderate”. This trail leads you to one of the best panoramic points in Yellowstone. Here you can observe the geyser eruptions from above.
- Fairy Falls Lollipop Trail (13.8 km). This is a loop and a bit more adventurous option to reach Fairy Falls. At the same time, you can enjoy picturesque sceneries of meadows and lakes on the way. Plan a whole day for it!
There are not too many hard hikes in Geyser Country and they are not focused on the geysers and lakes here, but at least they can be exciting adventures in the mountains after you see the symbols of Yellowstone at the starting points.
- Summit Lake Trail (55 km go and back). It is a 2-3 days hike with the same starting point as Mystic Falls Trail. The trail is rated as “hard” because it goes through rugged terrain. The most beautiful point on the trail is Summit Lake- a small lake with a campsite, where you can spend the night. The main problem with this hike is that you have to go and back on the same trail- something that some people don’t like, especially for such a long route.
- Mystic Falls to Ferry Creek Trail (27.2 km). This is a loop trail and the best of it is that it includes some of the best symbols of Yellowstone- Fairy Falls and Mystic Falls. In fact, it includes the whole easy Fairy Falls and Mystic Falls trails, connecting them over the plateau between them. You can spend the night in the middle, at Firehole Meadows Campsite.
Now, let’s move to Lake Country.
The best hikes in Lake Country
Here the main focus is on the lakes. The main starting points for the hikes in Lake Country are on the road section connecting the South with the East entrances, including a part of the Grand Loop Road. From Grant Village to Fishing Bridge the road follows the northeastern shores of Yellowstone Lake.
Since a large area in this Lake Country is occupied by water bodies, there are fewer hiking trails than in the other countries of Yellowstone. You can enjoy the main lake just from the road, anyway, there are still some good hikes.
These hikes are aimed at the lakes in the area and are designed to be nice walks along the lake shores. Let’s follow the road from Geyser Country.
- Shoshone Lake via Delacy Creek Trail (10.1 km). The starting point for this trail is on the Grand Loop Road west of West Thumb Jct. It is a nice 3-hours walk that reaches Shoshone Lake, makes a loop around it, and backs to the road.
- Riddle Lake Trail (7.6 km go and back). This is a less known easy trail with a starting point from the South Entrance Road- a nice walk for those who want more serenity far from the crowds.
- West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail (1.6 km). This is a short walk from the West Thumb Jtc, where you can see the spectacular West Thumb Geyser and enjoy the tranquil waters of Yellowstone Lake.
- Storm Point Loop (3.7 km). Following the Grand Loop Road, leave it on the West Entrance Road. There is a place, called Fishing Bridge. Here you can enjoy one of the most beautiful lake sceneries in Yellowstone by walking on this trail.
There are not too many moderate and hard hikes in Lake Country, and they only start from the lake shores or just pass by the shores. Two of them are more interesting.
- Lewis River Channel Loop (17.5 km). This is an interesting trail that starts from the South Entrance Road and connects Lewis and Shoshone lakes. Thus, you can explore two lakes in one route, and although you can do it for one day, better to take some time to relax and camp at the lake shores.
- Two Ocean Loop Trail (79.7 km). Now, this is a more serious adventure. The trail itself is not difficult (that’s why it is rated as “moderate”), but it is long. Not only that, but unlike most of the other trails, it doesn’t start from the road. The best way to reach its starting point is by another trail- Yellowstone Lake East Shore. Then, plan at least 8 to 10 days to complete the two trails- there will be a lot to enjoy!
Usually, the hard hikes feature steep and difficult terrains. There are not too many difficult terrains in Lake Country, but one of them is worth trying. This is the mountain of Avalanche Peak.
- Avalanche Peak Trail (7.2 km go and back). This is a short, but a very steep and spectacular trail. You ascend about 700 m for only 3.6 km, that’s why the trail is “hard”. And the reward is great panoramic views of Yellowstone Lake and the mountains around it.
The best hikes in Canyon Country
The hikes in Canyon Country start mainly from the section between Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village Jct of the Grand Loop Road. And most of them are focused on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its local points of interest.
The trails around the canyon are combined in two routes- North and South Rim Trail. And most of the hikes follow these trails and detour them to nearby spots.
All the good easy hikes in Canyon Country are arranged as parts of the North and South Rim trail. Two of them deserve special attention.
- Lily Pad Lake via Artist Point Trail (3.2 km). This loop hike is a part of the South Rim Trail. There is a paved road that leaves the main Grand Loop Road and reaches a parking lot near Artist Point. This is the starting point of this hike. It follows the South Rim Trail on the edge of the canyon, then leaves the edge and passes by two lakes (Clear and Lily Pad lakes), until finally arrives at the paved road and the starting point.
- Brink of the Lower Falls via North Rim Trail (3.7 km go and back). This one is a part of the North Rim Trail. It leads you not just on the northern edge of the Grand Canyon, but also to some of the most spectacular waterfalls in Yellowstone- Lower Yellowstone Falls. The trail starts from a parking lot near the smaller Crystal Falls and reaches the panoramic Canyon Lookout Point.
Most of the moderate hikes in Canyon Country start from the North or South Rim Trail, but penetrate deeper in the canyon, or go aside from it. Three of them are the best here.
- Wapiti-Clear Lake-Ribbon Lake Trail (7.6 km). This route is a longer and a bit more difficult version of the easy “Lily Pad Lake via Artist Point Trail”. In general, it includes a large section of the South Rim Trail and passes by Clear and Lily Pad lakes, with an option to reach Ribbon Lake in the west.
- Point Sublime Trail (4,8 km go and back from Artist Point). Or it can be called “the Whole South Rim Trail”- a trail that starts from Wapiti Lake Trailhead, follows the southern edge of the Grand Canyon to Point Sublime. The edge of the canyon proceeds much further, but the trail ends here.
- Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn (10.9 km go and back). Now, this is a completely different route that has nothing to do with the Grand Canyon. But since it is not far from it and still in Canyon Country, it is worth mentioning it. It starts from the Grand Loop Road north of Canyon Village and climbs Mount Washburn (3122 m) from where you can enjoy fantastic views, including some parts of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
There are not too many hard hikes in and around the Grand Canyon. But there is one that is really worth trying, offering a lot of adventures.
- Seven Miles Hole Trail (15.6 km go and back). This trail starts from the eastern end of the North Rim Trail and proceeds along the northern edge of the Grand Canyon. Then it suddenly descends steeply to the bottom of the canyon, reaching the Yellowstone River. There are three campsites at this point where you can spend the night before back to the starting point.
The best hikes in Roosevelt Country
Roosevelt Country features mainly high mountains. And the best hikes here start from the Northeast Entrance Road, as well as partially from the road around Roosevelt Tower. Most of them are moderate or hard, and in general, this area is less touristy and more proper for adventurers.
There is still one easy hike- actually, a short walk from the Northeast Entrance Road. It is a good walk to relax and enjoy the beautiful wild nature around.
- Trout Lake Loop (1.9 km). This is a short walk around the small and beautiful Trout Lake, located just a few hundred meters besides the Northeast Entrance Road. A great place to stop and enjoy the tranquility of nature.
There are some interesting moderate trails in Roosevelt Country that offer good scenery and some easy adventures. Two of them are worth trying.
- Lamar River Trail (52.9 km go and back). This is a long and exciting adventure. It starts from the Northeast Entrance Road and follows the valley of Lamar River through picturesque sceneries of grassland and forests. There are campsites along the trail, so the best way to hike it is for at least 3 days.
- Rose River North (9.5 km go and back). This is a different type of hike- shorter but with more elevation gain. It starts from the Northeast Entrance Road not far from Lamar River and reaches the southern slopes of Bison Peak.
Roosevelt, as well as Mammoth countries, are the best areas for advanced and adventurous hikers. In Roosevelt Country, three of them are the best.
- Specimen Ridge Trail (27.2 km). This is a great adventurous trail that reaches and follows the main summit and the highest peak of Amethyst Mountain (2929 m). It starts from a point near Roosevelt Tower Jct and ends at Lamar River Trailhead. The trail can be passed for about 9h 30 min and since the starting and ending points are different, you have to arrange transportation to and from both points.
- Pebble Creek Trail to Bliss Pass (41.7 km go and back). This route connects two valleys- Pebble Creek and Slough Creek. Walking on Pebble Creek Valley is easy, but the difficult part is climbing to Bliss Pass (about 2880 m) and descending to Slough Creek. Then, you have two options- back on the same trail or follow another trail on Slough Creek to reach another point on the Northeast Entrance Road.
- Thunderer Cutoff Trail (15.8 km go and back). This is another elevation-gaining trail. It starts from the Northeast Entrance Road and crosses the summit north of Mt. The Thunderer (3199 m). Then it descends to Cache Creek. Again, from here you can back on the same trail, or arrange 2-3 days trekking on Cache Creek and Lamar River, until finally back to the Northeast Entrance Road.
The best hikes in Mammoth Country
Mammoth Country occupies the north and northwest part of Yellowstone National Park and the hiking trail in this area starts from the northwest section of Grand Loop Road or North Entrance Road. An important point here is the resort settlement of Mammoth with its hot springs.
The landscape in Mammoth Country is quite similar to the landscape in Roosevelt Country, and the hikes are mostly of the same kind- the moderate and hard hikes are more than the easy hikes.
Two easy hikes deserve trying. They are relaxing and offer some great sceneries.
- Mammoth Hot Springs and Upper Terraces Loop (5.8 km). It is an amazing route that leads you to the fantastic hot thermal pools and rock formations. The trail starts southwest of Mammoth and can be walked for about 2 hours.
- Boiling River Pools (1.9 km). This is another nice walk to hot springs. They are called Boiling River Pools and are connected to Gardner River, north of Mammoth. Actually, the main reason for walking this hike is to enjoy swimming in the hot water of the pools (when they are open to the public).
The moderate hikes in Mammoth Country are mostly normal, not-so-difficult mountain hikes. And the best of them offer the best scenic views.
- Osprey Falls Trail (13 km go and back). This is a spectacular route that starts from Mammoth and goes southeastward. It approaches the eastern slopes of Bunsen Peak and descends to the stunning Osprey Falls on Gardner River. It can be hiked for about 5-6 hours.
- Bunsen Peak Trail (7.1 km go and back). This is a fresh hike that starts from the western section of Grand Loop Road south of Mammoth and reaches Bunsen Peak (2599 m) with more than 400 m elevation gain. If you have more time, you can proceed further on the eastern slope of the peak and reach Osprey Falls, then you can back to Mammoth on Osprey Falls Trail- a two-days hike.
- Beaver Ponds Loop (9.7 km). This is a nice hike, one of the easiest “moderate” hikes in Yellowstone. It leads you through meadows, mountain prairies, and some forests to two tranquil ponds- a great place for picnic and relaxation. The whole hike can be walked for about 3 hours.
Here, in Mammoth Country, you can find the best hard hikes in the whole Yellowstone National Park. In other words, this is the best part of Yellowstone for adventurous hikers.
- Yellowstone River Trail (24.9 km). This is a one-way route, connecting a point on the northern section of Grand Loop Road with Gardiner on North Entrance Road. It follows the wild valley of Yellowstone river and some parts of this trail are quite difficult.
- Hellroaring Creek Trail (23 km go and back). This trail starts from the same point as Yellowstone River Trail and follows the valley of Hellroaring Creek to the northern boundary of the national park. Although there is not much elevation gain, the trail still has some difficult sections in the wild forest.
- Electric Peak Trail (29.5 km go and back). This trail starts from the same point as Bunsen Peak Trail, but in the opposite direction. Its most interesting part is the steep climbing of Electric Peak (3341 m)- one of the highest points of Yellowstone National Park.
- Sportsman Lake Trail (38.6 km). In the beginning, this trail is the same as Electric Peak Trail, but at a certain point, it separates and proceeds westward through some of the wildest parts of Yellowstone, including the fairy Sportsman Lake. Finally, it reaches Road 191 (Gallatin Road), almost at the western boundary of the national park.
- Sky Rim Loop (29 km). Now we reach the extreme northwest of Yellowstone National Park. Here is Gallatin Road, connecting West Yellowstone with the town of Belgrade. And at a certain point, you can start wild hiking on Sky Rim Loop, walking on a spectacular mountain summit with fantastic views.
Yellowstone hiking tips
These are the best hikes in Yellowstone. But before you choose one or more of them, let’s see some useful tips.
Yellowstone National Park entrance and permits
If you want to go hiking in Yellowstone, you have to pay the following fees:
- Individual hikers and cyclists: 12 USD
- Motorcycles and snowmobiles: 20 USD
- Private vehicles (cars, RV): 30 USD
You can also use a 1-year pass like The Park Annual Pass (60 USD) or The Interagency Annual Pass (80 USD).
Payment and/or registration are made at one of the 5 entrances of the national park and are valid for 7 days. Only the Sky Rim Loop hike is free because it starts from Gallatin Road with no entrances to the park (in fact, although this hike is on the territory of Yellowstone National Park, technically it is outside).
Since many trails require more than a night of hiking, you would need to camp on the way. There are backcountry campsites where you can do that. But it requires a permit that must be obtained within 48 hours before camping. In July and August you can do that in the following stations:
During the other seasons, however, most of these stations are closed, so you have to check which one is open and its working time. You can do it here.
The best season for hiking in Yellowstone is summer- from late May to September. In general, the weather is nice, not so hot due to the high altitude, and can be quite cool at night. The main problem during this season is the frequent thunderstorms. So, follow the weather forecast, and if a thunderstorm happens while you hike, escape far from ridges, open spaces, and lonely trees!
During the other seasons, the weather is colder and often snowy. In winter, most roads in Yellowstone can be closed, so your access to the national park is limited. You can go only to a small number of hikes, well-prepared for winter hiking. Have in mind that the temperature can drop to -20°C or 0°F and below!
Stay away from the wild animals, even from those that look safe and cute! Sometimes, they can become aggressive too. Just keep them stay wild, let they don’t get used to humans, and be fed by them!
Especially be aware of bears. Grisly bears live in the national park and if they are surprised or feel disturbed in some way, they can attack you. So, bring a spray against bears (although it not always helps) and make noise while you hike!
Bring enough water! Don’t drink the local natural water because it may contain some bacteria that can make you ill. Instead, boil it first before drinking!
Even in summer, bring more clothes, because the weather can suddenly change. Be prepared to avoid hypothermia!
Don’t go off trails, especially in the areas with geysers and other volcanic formations! There were accidents in which people walking off trails fell in hot water!
So, go to visit Yellowstone! This is a unique place like nowhere else on the Earth! Explore its most symbolic points- the geysers, the thermal lakes, the big lakes, the grand canyon, the waterfalls, the forests, and the mountains! But to try the best of Yellowstone, plan and do some hiking and enjoy the whole pleasure of diving into nature!
Get more impressions about Yellowstone from the video below:
Check some books about Yellowstone:
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