Yellowstone National Park is our happy place. There is just something about all it has to offer that keeps drawing us back in. Yellowstone, and one of its gateway cities, Cody, are some of the few places Grant and I visit repeatedly. We have been four times in eight years.
Yellowstone is crowded in the summer. More than 90% of its 4.2 million annual visitors come May – September. The crowds don’t keep us away from the park, but we do look for ways to escape the crowds.
How do we do that? We get off the road and onto a trail. Hiking in Yellowstone, off the boardwalks, is one place that we find solitude. On the trail you hear the wind, maybe the rush of a nearby river or a small animal scurrying under the brush. That’s it… No cars, no dogs barking, nothing.
When hiking in Yellowstone, you truly find wilderness. That is what we crave. While we enjoy the popular attractions that everyone else does, it is the trails we truly love and eagerly await on each visit.
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Joining the 5% on Yellowstone Hikes
Yellowstone National Park has tons of features that are easy to reach right off the road. You can see thermal features, multiple rivers, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and, of course, wildlife with little effort. But, there are many Yellowstone hikes that will get you off the road, away from your car and will provide a completely different experience. Only 5% of Yellowstone’s millions of visitors get that experience.
Yellowstone has more than 900 miles of hiking trails, ranging from short and easy day hikes to multi-day treks. Whatever your fitness level or interest, you can find a hike that is right for you.
We found several hikes we liked for our Summer 2017 visit. Narrowing it down to even just five or six, one for each day, was difficult. Cold, rainy weather kept us off the trail a couple of days, reducing us to just three hikes over the course of a six-day visit.
Thankfully, all three of these Yellowstone hikes were amazing. We recommend them to anyone visiting the park.
Pro Tip: For hiking in the backcountry (even if that is just a 3-5 mile easy day hike), we suggest hiking shoes or sturdy sneakers at least.
Finding the Right Yellowstone Hikes For You
The National Park Service includes all of these Yellowstone hikes on its Day Hike Sampler, found online here. You can get more detailed brochures for area hikes from each visitor center.
There are also tons of books on Yellowstone hikes in the visitor centers when you arrive. For the past few years, we have used A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes. This book is written by husband-and-wife park rangers Roger and Carol Anderson.
The book begins with a Table of Contents of all 29 Yellowstone hikes covered. There is also a Trail Locator Map to help you visualize where in the park each hike begins. To help you choose a hike, the 29 hikes are also organized into groups of easy, moderate and strenuous and includes the round trip distance and highlights of the hike in one easy-to-read table.
From there, you will find a few trail tips to help assist you in preparing for your hike. There is also a section on hiking in bear country, which Yellowstone definitely falls into!
Finally, the book includes a detailed map, an overview, level of difficulty, distance, elevation change, duration, the best time of year, information on where to find the trailhead, directions, things to pay special attention to and their notes of what to expect along the way. This is definitely one of the most detailed hiking books we have used.
The one downside is that the book is a little big, so I often take pictures of the pages rather than carry the book with me while hiking.
Beaver Ponds Loop
Basic Information: 5-mile loop, moderate difficulty, a gain of 400 feet in 0.5 mile, Mammoth Area
The first Yellowstone hike we did was the Beaver Ponds Loop. What most attracted us to this hike is the diverse habitats and the fact that it is a loop trail. We really like loops so that we are constantly seeing new stuff. Out and back trails are not necessarily bad, but we prefer to not have the repetition.
We always make a point to talk to the rangers at the nearby visitor center before heading out on a hike. They will tell you if there is anything important you need to know.
This time, the ranger told us there had been a decent amount of bear activity on this trail. So, we knew to have our bear spray ready and to constantly be on the lookout for bears. We were not scared but knew we needed to be prepared and we were.
The book suggests you begin the hike near the Mammoth Terraces (thermal feature), which we did. From here, the trail quickly climbs uphill. The uphill was definitely not easy, but if you take it slow it isn’t too bad. Once you make it to the top, it levels out quite a bit. The vast majority of the uphill is within the first half-mile or so.
Often times, we would prefer a shorter, if steeper, uphill rather than a longer more gradual uphill.
Bears on the Trail
Sure enough, after about the first mile some oncoming hikers warned us that they had seen a couple of black bears. Ok… knowing is half the battle and we knew! Several other folks repeated the same message and after about 15-20 minutes, we ran into the first bear.
It was a cinnamon black bear, about 75 yards off the trail on the uphill side. It was foraging for food and barely even noticed us. We made sure to monitor its movement and stay out of its way. After watching it for a few minutes and taking some pictures, we continued on.
The second bear was about 10-15 minutes down the trail. When we first spotted this bear, it was on the downhill side, between us and another couple of hikers. This encounter was slightly more intense since the bear was caught between two groups.
We got a little nervous when the other couple started making a lot of noise to discourage the bear from going towards them. But, ultimately, the bear traveled across the trail and to the uphill side and continued foraging. This bear definitely knew we were there but didn’t seem to care too much.
The Rest of the Trail
The bear encounter happened within about the first two miles. The remaining three miles were uneventful, bear-wise. We finally reached the beaver ponds, which are at about the half-way point. The ponds were fairly overgrown. We did not see any beavers or any sign of beavers. I suppose we probably should have asked about this, but with all the bear excitement, we didn’t.
We continued through the forest and the trail ended with a short portion through the open sagebrush.
The second half of the trail was a steady downhill. This means if you were to do the loop “backward,” which a lot of people were doing, you’d have a longer uphill. We definitely enjoyed starting at the Terraces and recommend that direction.
The book said it was five miles, but the Apple Watch clocked in right at six miles. It took us almost three hours.
Interestingly, according to the GPS, we crossed into Montana at some point. It appears as though the Beaver Ponds are in Montana, though the rest of the Mammoth area is in Wyoming.
Also, note that the trail does not start and end at exactly the same location. We ended behind the Mammoth Hotel, which is about a five- or ten-minute walk from where we started. We actually had parked closer to where we ended, right by the visitor center, so that worked out well.
Overall, we really enjoyed this hike. The Beaver Ponds themselves were a bit underwhelming but the bear encounter and the views more than made up for that. We had some great views of Mammoth and Gardiner, MT along the way! Anyone in reasonably good health should be able to handle this hike.
Lone Star Geyser
The Basics: 5 miles round trip (out and back), easy/moderate difficulty, very little elevation change, Old Faithful area
Our second Yellowstone hike was Lone Star Geyser. Lone Star is one of the more predictable geysers at Yellowstone, erupting roughly every three hours. The problem is that the geyser is about 2.5 miles off the road and not monitored by the park service.
We asked about the timing at the Old Faithful Ranger Station a couple of days before our hike, but they didn’t have any up-to-date information. So, we went into this hike somewhat blind, in that we had no idea if we would see the eruption. We could have stopped by a second time, but it was really out of our way, so we didn’t.
The bad news: we missed the eruption.
The good news: this was still a really great hike.
The trail to Lone Star Geyser is an old service road, so it is wide and mostly paved. It is also very level, as it follows alongside the Firehole River. The book called this a moderate hike, but I would describe it as easy. The only thing I can think of that makes it moderate is the length, but even that isn’t too long.
The hike is very peaceful and scenic. The river provides a nice backdrop. And there is something about running water that is soothing. Most of the trail is fairly well shaded, though there are a few sunny spots.
It took us about 45 minutes to hike the 2.5 miles to the geyser. As we were nearing the end, maybe about 2/3 of the way there, we started seeing a decent number of people returning. Nobody said anything to us and we decided not to ask, but we soon learned that we had just missed the eruption.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived, as Lone Star Geyser is one of the biggest cone geysers in the park. The cone alone stands about 10-12 feet tall. It is impressive even without an eruption.
About 100 yards from the Geyser is the Firehole River. While you are waiting for the geyser, walk down to the river – it’s a great view! Be careful as you walk, though, as there is a lot of thermal runoff that could be potentially dangerous.
In front of the geyser, there is a small stand with a logbook inside for visitors to record information about the geyser. This is how we determined that we had just missed the geyser. There is also some information about the geyser itself and what to expect out of the eruption. If you see an eruption, be sure to record the information so the rangers, and other visitors, will have the data.
About an hour before the eruption, there will be a minor eruption. Even the minor eruption can get up to about 45-feet high!
Unfortunately, we had several other things we wanted to see that day and wanted to get to a 6 p.m. Ranger Talk in Mammoth. This meant that we didn’t have time to wait around for another two hours or more for the next eruption.
This is a very easy hike. Anyone with decent mobility can handle this hike. The hike itself is nice and relaxing. I would suggest checking in with the Old Faithful rangers that morning, or maybe the day before, to ask about the timing of the geyser eruptions. They may or may not be able to give you any information.
If you know about when the next eruption will be, I would allow at least an hour for the hike itself. But, from what I’ve read, the minor eruptions that occur before the “main event” are interesting as well. In short, I’d definitely rather arrive early than late!
If you are certain you want to see the geyser and don’t have any up-to-date information, be prepared to wait. Bring a book, a picnic or maybe a deck of cards… anything that will keep you occupied for potentially up to three hours.
If you don’t have three or four hours to wait, then be prepared that you could miss the geyser. There are tons of others that you can see, but this is the most remote one that is predictable. And remember, even though the eruptions are roughly every three hours, that can always change. Don’t expect the eruption times to be exactly the same as the day before.
We spent about 1.5 hours hiking (45 minutes each direction) and about 20 minutes at the geyser itself. The main eruption can last 20-30 minutes. If we were doing this again, we’d budget at least a half-day for this hike/experience.
Elephant Back Mountain
Basic Information: 3.6-mile lollipop loop, moderate difficulty, 800 feet elevation gain in 1.5 miles, Lake area
This Yellowstone hike has been on our radar for a while. We had planned to do it on our 2014 visit but never got around to it. We were very happy to finally complete this hike on the last full day of our 2017 visit!
Elephant Back Mountain sits just off Yellowstone Lake. The trailhead is between Fishing Bridge and the Lake hotel. The mountain offers panoramic views of the lake, which was the major attraction for us.
The parking area for the trail is fairly small, so arrive early if you can. We started just after 9 a.m. Only one other car was parked when we arrived. By the time we finished, around 11 a.m., a lot more folks had gotten on the trail.
This loop trail is what we call a lollipop. The first/last part is the “stick,” which is out-and-back and the middle part is a loop. Our book suggested taking the left fork of the loop for a shorter and less-steep ascent. We followed that advice and were glad that we did.
The stick part of the trail is very easy, with little elevation change. You are walking through a fairly dense forest, but still with pretty good visibility. A sign at the beginning warned us it was an elk calving area. Elk hide their newborn calves in the woods during the day and this looked like a great place to do that.
Thankfully, we did not see any elk calves. One thing is for sure, I never want to get between a baby animal and its mama. It doesn’t matter what kind of animal it is, that is never a good idea.
The uphill part of the trail was definitely a bit strenuous and required a few pauses to catch our breath. Grant blames some of his medication, but I usually struggle too, even without the medication. If you’re not a big fan of strenuous uphill climbs, just take it slow.
Coming back down, on the right side of the loop, the trail was definitely steeper. I am glad that we saved that for the downhill part.
Once at the top, the trail loops around the mountain. There is a small open area with a couple of log benches. We took the opportunity to relax and enjoy the view. It definitely made the hike up worth it!
One thing we have learned: When hiking, you generally have to earn your great views. They are always worth it though.
The view of Yellowstone Lake, the Lake hotel and even the employee housing area was grand. Having hotels and housing in your view might not seem great, but the mountains on the far side of the lake more than make up for it.
Ultimately, this hike came in at just over four miles and took us about two hours, including about 10-15 minutes at the top.
Hiking with Wildlife
When hiking in Yellowstone, please be sure to have bear spray, which you can rent or buy. And make sure you’ve talked to the rangers about wildlife etiquette and how to react if you encounter any kind of animals. Generally speaking, you do not need to be afraid, you just need to be prepared.
You can ask at the nearby visitor center/ranger station if there is any active wildlife in the area. Also, check the trailhead for postings.
Continuously making noise, through general conversation, or by yelling out “Hey, bear” will help to alert anything nearby that you are there. Most of the time, that will be enough. You are, most likely, not the first humans these animals encounter. You certainly are not the first person to go hiking on any of these trails.
And, while we generally think more about the big wildlife at Yellowstone, don’t forget the small stuff… Mosquitoes! We did use a reasonable amount of bug spray during our hikes. I would definitely suggest keeping bug spray nearby, even when not hiking. Grant kept asking for Kool-Aid and cookies since he was “donating” so much blood to the flying, biting critters.
Looking for wildlife around the park? Check out Grant’s article on finding and photographing wildlife in Yellowstone.
Final Thoughts on Yellowstone Hikes
Hiking in Yellowstone National Park is something that everyone should do. Yes, you can do some “hiking” on the boardwalks around the thermal features, but that just isn’t the same. On a boardwalk, within 10-15 minutes of your car, you will still be surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of people.
If you’re visiting in early May or September, the crowds won’t be as bad. But, chances are you’ll be there in June, July or August like most of Yellowstone’s visitors.
Getting off the road and onto a trail is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness that Yellowstone has to offer. The vast array of Yellowstone hikes to choose from should offer up a little something for everyone. It does not take an overnight trip to experience some of the best of the park!