The best way to explore Yellowstone National Park is to get out of your car and into the backcountry. On the trail, it’s possible to leave most everything behind and experience the Yellowstone most visitors never get to see. With over 900 miles of trails, the park offers a variety of hikes that meet all interests and ability levels.
Regardless of which trail you choose to hike, it’s important to remember that you’re in the middle of mountain wilderness — so be prepared. Even for short hikes, it’s important to carry bear spray, water, sunscreen, warm layers (all year round), and rain gear. Also, the park’s animals are truly wild, so be sure to keep your distance from any wildlife you come across. The park even requires that you keep a distance of 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from all other animals. Carry binoculars and a telephoto lens if you have them, and watch from a distance. The park also recommends hiking in groups of four or more for bear safety.
That said, here are several Yellowstone hikes that I love, each located in a different area of the park.
Beaver Ponds Loop
This five-mile loop trail is a great hike during the spring and early summer because of its varied terrain and wildlife offerings. The trail passes mature Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce forests, open meadows, and several ponds full of waterfowl. It’s also common to see a blue grouse display, and — if you’re lucky — a black bear. Elk, deer, and colorful spring wildflowers are easy to spot as well.
Distance: Five miles
Area: Mammoth Hot Springs
Starting point: To the right of the Liberty Cap in Mammoth Hot Springs
Hot springs and waterfalls make for a truly quintessential Yellowstone hike. This five-mile round-trip hike takes you past the iconic Grand Prismatic Spring, where you can climb up to a panoramic overlook of the colorful thermal feature. The trail continues on from there to the delicate Fairy Falls, which drops 200 feet off a plateau formed by lava from the last Yellowstone supervolcano eruption 2.1 million years ago. If you want to extend the hike further, you can continue just over half a mile to the Imperial and Spray geysers, which will add an extra 1.2 miles to the trip.
Caution: Stay on the trail. The ground near the thermal features can be fragile, and you never know when scalding-hot water is lurking underneath.
Distance: Five miles round-trip
Area: Old Faithful
Starting point: The Fairy Falls Trailhead, one mile south of Midway Geyser Basin on the Madison-Old Faithful Road
A great hike for families, solo explorers, and everyone in between, this loop trail winds through a thick lodgepole pine forest before breaking out onto the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake — the largest high-elevation lake in North America. The view of the Absaroka Mountains across the lake is spectacular. Along the way, look for signs of bears — scat, tracks, and scratches on trees — and waterfowl. Be extra cautious in bad weather, as it’s called Storm Point for a reason. The rocky prominence is notorious for attracting lightning from miles away. But on fair weather days, it’s a pleasant place to have lunch and soak in the serenity of the lake.
Distance: 2.3 miles
Area: Yellowstone Lake
Starting point: Three miles east of Fishing Bridge Visitor Center at the Indian Pond Pullout
If you’re in the mood for a summit, Mount Washburn is a great hike. This trail offers a three-mile climb to an elevation of 10,243 feet and a panoramic view of the park. On a clear day, you can even see the Teton Mountains in the distance. Wildflowers adorn the route in June, July, and early August, and you’re likely to share the trail with bighorn sheep — so be friendly by keeping your distance. You may also see grizzly bears digging for roots on the high mountain slopes. There are two ways to hike this trail, but either way, the distance is the same. Be sure to pack extra layers and a raincoat, as it can be cold and windy at the top, and afternoon storms are common during summer.
Distance: Six miles round-trip
Starting points: The southern trail at the Dunraven Pass Trailhead, or the northern trail at the Chittenden Road parking area
This short-but-sweet hike is a real backcountry gem. Set in the bumpy hills of a long-ago landslide, Trout Lake sparkles with reflections of the craggy Absaroka mountains towering above. If hiking the area in late June, you can see cutthroat trout spawning in the lake. The short, steep trail climbs 150 feet up to the lake, where you can then meander around the water’s edge on an easy looped trail. This is a great hike for families with children.
Distance: 1.5 miles round-trip
Area: Northern Range
Starting point: 1.5 miles south of Pebble Creek Campground on the Northeast Entrance Road
For more information on any of these hikes, visit the National Park Service’s website.
Additionally, when you arrive in Yellowstone, it’s always a good idea to check in with a park ranger at a visitor center to assess the current trail conditions and closures. The park’s nonprofit partner, Yellowstone Forever, also offers a number of excellent trail guides and maps.