A Guide to Hiking at Yellowstone National Park

Crowds gather to witness Old Faithful's eruption at Yellowstone Park. See more national park pictures.
Crowds gather to witness Old Faithful's eruption at Yellowstone Park. See more national park pictures.

From Native Americans of the Blackfoot, Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes to Army soldiers tasked with protecting the land from early 20th century poachers to the hordes of modern day adventurers, nature enthusiasts and vacationers who visit the place in droves each year, Americans have been enjoying the wild wonder of Yellowstone Park for nearly 10,000 years [source: PBS].

Established in 1872, Yellowstone -- which takes its name from the nearby Yellowstone River -- is the world's first national park. Its 3,472 square miles (8,987 square kilometers) span three states: Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Nearly 3 million people visit Yellowstone each year, particularly in July [sources: National Park Service, CNN].


Yellowstone's size, historic significance and the fact that it's really, really old are all well and good. But what really draws people to park each year is the seemingly endless array of things to see and do in this swath of the great outdoors.

There are the geysers, for example. Ah, yes, the geysers. Yellowstone is home to Old Faithful, the country's best-known spewer of boiling hot water. This geyser erupts every 90 minutes or so, spitting a spectacular stream of wet stuff as high as 184 feet (56 meters) in the air. Old Faithful is a centerpiece of the park, but it is also just one of several geysers scattered throughout. In fact, Yellowstone has the world's largest collection of geysers [source: National Park Service].

If an array of natural fire hydrants spraying water from the ground isn't enough, visitors are reminded that Yellowstone is a pure slice of nature by the variety of beasts that share this land. With all those grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk around, Yellowstone is, in a way, the country's largest zoo. Just don't try to pet or feed these animals [source: National Park Service]!

Yellowstone can also be a place of action. Biking, snowmobiling, boating, horseback riding, fishing -- there's no shortage of activities for visitors enjoy during a trip to the park. But what people enjoy most are the many hiking trails. Read on for a rundown of some of Yellowstone's best hiking routes.


Yellowstone National Park: Main Hiking Routes

With more than 1,1000 miles (1,770 kilometers) of trails at the ready, the hardest part about Yellowstone hiking is choosing where to go [source: Yellowstone Net].

Mystic Falls is a good place for novices to get their feet wet. The 3-mile (4.8 kilometer) loop runs through mixed conifer forest, rising gently 550 feet (167 meters) to the top of the falls, formed in a narrow slice of the Little Firehole River canyon. Traveling clockwise from Biscuit Basin not only makes the elevation change more gradual, but also ensures that hikers come upon the falls overlook suddenly, adding to the view's dramatic allure [source: Crossley].


Just north of Yellowstone Lake is Mount Washburn, one of the area's most prominent peaks. The hike to the 10,000-foot (3,048-meter) summit -- two trails wind up the mountain, each is 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) or less -- offers glimpses at a wide variety of mountain wildlife, including bighorn sheep along with exotic-named wildflowers such as pink monkey, yellow violets, blue lupines and yellow balsamroots. The view from the top ain't bad either: a panoramic vista displays the lake, Yellowstone's Grand Canyon and Old Faithful. Come for the sunset, but be prepared to leave in the dark [source: Yellowstone Media].

The Beaver Ponds Loop trail, on the other hand, is for more experienced hikers, beginning with a 350-foot (107-meter) climb above Clematis Gulch. The trail then meanders past the smattering of beaver ponds for which it's named. In addition to beavers, elk, mule deer, moose and even bears have been spotted in this neck of the Yellowstone woods. The loop runs about 5 miles (8 kilometers) [source: National Park Service].

Ten miles (16 kilometers) north of Old Faithful, the Sentinel Meadows and Queen's Laundry trail crosses the Ojo Caliente geyser and Firehole River (via bridge) before veering toward the meadows, a moist grassland featuring scattered geysers and hot pools. The area is popular among local bison; visitors are advised to give them lots of room. It's also where early visitors once bathed and washed their clothes: Queen's Laundry is a log bathing and laundry house whose construction began in 1881, but was never completed. The remaining structure has been preserved with the help of minerals from the surrounding hot springs [source: Schneider, Virtual Montana].

For those with time, the 3.8 mile (6.1 kilometer) hike can be stretched into an overnighter. That's right: You don't even have to leave the place at night. Yellowstone is a camper's paradise. Read on for tips on how to enjoy a few nights at the park under the stars [source: Schneider].


Yellowstone National Park: Frontcountry Hiking and Camping

Beware of the Bear.
Beware of the Bear.

In Yellowstone-speak, there is the frontcountry -- car and RV accessible camping areas with well-traveled hiking trails as well as hotels and gift shops - and the backcountry, which refers to areas further off the grid that are accessible only by foot, horseback or boat. Both feature a number of individual campsites [source: National Park Service].

All 12 of Yellowstone's campgrounds, as well as more than 2,000 individual campsites are located in the frontcountry. Some take reservations, while others operate on a first come, first served basis. The layout and amenities offered in each campground run a wide gamut. The campground at Bridge Bay, for example, offers a full-service marina, while Tower Fall campground is nestled near a convenience store, restaurant and gas station. In the Park's remote northeast corner, lies the "primitive" Slough Creek campground. In order to maintain its all natural aesthetic, the campground doesn't allow visitors to use power generators. Its location means smaller crowds, as well as good fishing and the opportunity for wolf sightings [source: National Park Service].


No matter where you decide to plop down your gear and pitch a tent (or park an RV), campers should always remember that they're not alone. "Yellowstone is a wilderness filled with natural wonders that are also potential hazards at times. There is no guarantee of your safety," the National Park Service (NPS) warns visitors. Wild animals abound in Yellowstone and certain precautions should be taken to ensure that the land is shared and enjoyed safely [source: National Park Service].

Bears pose one of the biggest natural threats to visitors. Yellowstone averages one bear attack per year and in 2011 two visitors were mauled and killed by bears in two separate incidents (However in the 140-year history of the park, only seven people have been killed by bears). The number one rule of camping in Yellowstone is to lock up food in order to keep bears away. Keep all food, plates, utensils and anything with the slightest scent of food on it away from your campsite. Lock these items in a car or in a designated bear box. For additional precaution, make like a boy scout and always be prepared. A can of bear spray is a good start [source: National Park Service].

If you're not bothered by lathering on a third coat of bear spray or locking everything in the nearest bear box, you may be ready for a trip to Yellowstone's backcountry. Read on for tips on this more rugged adventure.


Yellowstone National Park: Backcountry Hiking and Camping

Yellowstone has a designated backcountry camping system, featuring a number of campsites where visitors can stay one to three nights with a permit. Most of these sites are small; the park typically allows only one party of visitors to set up shop at a time [source: National Park Service].

Unfettered nature is what makes the backcountry a destination for adventurers. It's also what makes some backcountry hiking trails hard to spot and follow. Orange metal tags hang on trees and posts to mark maintained trails. Once on a trail, however, it can be hard to follow as a result of meadow growth, fire damage and infrequent use. The National Park Service (NPS) recommends that backcountry hikers carry a compass and topographic map -- and be sure you can read them or they won't do you much good.


In addition to directional tools, hikers should also be prepared to deal with a variety of weather. Many backcountry trails are 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) above sea level and most see snow into May, at least. Several passes also require to travelers ford cold creeks and streams up to 25 feet (7.6 meters) wide and 6 feet (1.8 meters) deep, often moving at a swift clip [source: National Park Service]. Hypothermia is the leading cause of death in the backcountry, according to the NPS.

Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone backcountry's largest lake, is a popular destination for hikers. The Lake has no road access and only non-motorized boats are permitted on its waters. The easiest route is via DeLacy Creek Trail, starting 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) east of Old Faithful [sources: National Park Service, Frommer's].

Meanwhile, the Thorofare Trailoffers multi-day hikes through Yellowstone's deep wilderness, the length of which depends on where you let in. In order to understand just how remote this stretch of land is, consider that the Thorofare patrol cabin is farther from a road than any other occupied dwelling in the country. Hikers can camp along the trail, ascend the park's southern border and -- particularly in the early summer -- expect to come across grizzly bears [source: National Geographic].

The backcountry, of course, is not for everyone. Rest assured that you need not be a grizzled, coonskin cap-wearing mountain man (or woman) to enjoy the wonders of Yellowstone, as well as all the other great outdoor destinations across the country. Read on for great links to more information on camping and hiking.


Author's Note

As a kid, I spent many a weekend morning wandering Yellowstone, soaking in the wild, fresh air and tracking a kooky bunch of local inhabitants: Yogi, Cindy and Boo-Boo to name a few. Even the straight-laced Ranger Smith had his charms. The gang also put on one doosie of a Christmas party, what with Snaglepuss, Huckleberry Hound and the rest refusing to let that snake in the grass Snively rain on their holiday parade. Yeah, life was a real pic-a-nic basket in the park those days.

Come again?


Oh...that's Jellystone Park....

Well, then forget everything I just wrote.

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