By Michael Lanza
Yellowstone National Park is a place where the earth comes alive, with more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and 500 active geysers—that’s more than half the world’s geysers—as well as 290 waterfalls, not to mention having some of the greatest diversity of wildlife remaining in the contiguous United States. America’s first national park is also famously busy, drawing upwards of four million visitors a year. Thankfully, most of those visitors never wander far from the roads, which means that hiking provides one of the best and quietest ways to explore Yellowstone.
While the summer months are busiest—and traffic can get very heavy—an early start each day can put you ahead of the crowds. Even better, go there either after the park roads open in spring or in autumn, when the weather is often dry and comfortably cool and the hordes of tourists have dissipated (at least somewhat).
The 10 hikes described below stand out as the best I’ve taken in Yellowstone on multiple visits over the past three decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog. See also my “Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone” for ideas on the best spots to visit and take very short walks while driving through the park, including the Midway Geyser Basin and America’s largest hot spring, Grand Prismatic.
Every American should see Yellowstone. Explore it on these hikes and you will see the best the park has to offer.
The summit of 8,564-foot Bunsen Peak, about five miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs, overlooks a huge swath of the park, from the Gallatin Range to the west, across the high plateau that comprises much of Yellowstone, to the Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains. The round-trip hike on the Bunsen Peak Trail is four miles.
Lamar River Valley
The Lamar River Valley in the park’s northeast corner is a great area for seeing wildlife like bison and elk and occasionally wolves. Hike out and back as far as you want on the Lamar River Trail, which is pretty flat and passes through open terrain with big views, and return the same way.
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Mount Washburn is 6.2 miles out-and-back from Dunraven Pass on the Grand Loop Road; there’s a shorter, five-mile out-and-back to the summit from a trailhead on a dirt road just north of Washburn, that ascends more than 1,700 feet. The views from 10,243-foot Washburn take in the Tetons, Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains, and the Madison Range. The Indian paintbrush, lupine, and other wildflowers bloom in late July and early August. Hike it in early morning or evening for a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep.
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North Rim Trail, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The North Rim Trail along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River (lead photo at top of story) is arguably the park’s most scenic walk, with constant views into the deep canyon, including Lower Yellowstone Falls. (In fact, I put it on my list of the best national park dayhikes in the country.) Various points of road access allow you to choose a hiking distance, but the entire trail is fairly flat and under four miles. You can also walk across a bridge past Upper Yellowstone Falls to reach the south rim and make it a longer hike by following the South Rim Trail for the views from the other side.
Uncle Tom’s Trail, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Uncle Tom’s Trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is short—it only descends about 500 feet—but the more than 300 metal stairs you follow down it lead to a spectacular viewpoint near the base of Lower Yellowstone Falls.
Gear up right for hikes in Yellowstone. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 10 best daypacks.
The Fairy Falls Trail, in the Midway Geyser Basin, leads to 197-foot Fairy Falls, one of the park’s nicest, passing views of the park’s biggest and most colorful hot spring, Grand Prismatic Spring. There are a couple ways to get there, both fairly flat. The shorter route, five miles round-trip, begins a mile south of Midway Geyser Basin, where you cross a steel bridge. The longer route of eight miles round-trip begins at the parking area at the end of Fountain Flat Drive. From the falls, you can continue 0.6 mile one-way to Spray and Imperial geysers, and then double back.
Upper Geyser Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the world’s largest concentration of geysers, hundreds of them, including Old Faithful. You can walk the almost flat trail and boardwalk for several miles from Geyser Hill to Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin, or take a shorter tour. Get a map and guide to the Upper Geyser Basin and take time to explore it. You don’t want to miss this area.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs, multi-hued travertine terraces formed by thermal waters rising through limestone, is unquestionably one of the most inspiring areas of the park. Water constantly pools and trickles down the terraces and steam billows from them. Boardwalks weave through the lower terraces and a one-way loop road through the upper terraces. Plan to explore this area for an hour or more of leisurely walking for the dramatic light of early morning.
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Lone Star Geyser
The Lone Star Geyser Trail, which begins near Kepler Cascades, just south of Old Faithful, is an almost five-mile round-trip hike to Lone Star Geyser, which is several feet tall and erupts about every three hours. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds and give yourself time to sit and wait for the geyser to blow.
Blacktail Deer Creek Trail
The Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, which begins about 6.7 miles east of Mammoth on the Grand Loop Road, winds north across gently rolling grasslands and meadows with long views of partly forested hills and a good chance of seeing a bison herd. The trail drops more than 1,000 feet in 3.7 miles to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, where, for a longer outing, you can hike either upriver or downriver along a trail through conifer forest, with views of the cliffs rising above the meandering river. But the first few miles of the Blacktail Deer Creek Trail are fairly easy, before it begins descending more steeply into the canyon, and you can turn back at any point.
See all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park, including “Photo Gallery: Yellowstone in Autumn,” and all of my stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.