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 between three and 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 gets 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 more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. See also my “Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone” for ideas on the best spots to visit and take short walks while driving through the park.
Every American should see Yellowstone. Explore it on these hikes and you will see the best the park has to offer.
Mount Washburn is 6.4 miles and 1,400 vertical feet round-trip from the trailhead parking lot at Dunraven Pass, at nearly 8,900 feet, 4.5 miles north of Canyon Junction on the Grand Loop Road. The panoramas along the trail and from the 10,219-foot summit take in the Tetons, Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains, the Madison Range, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, and deliver a one-of-a-kind view of the primordial landscape of Yellowstone to the south.
The summit fire lookout tower has interpretive exhibits and restrooms. Snow doesn’t melt off these higher elevations often until early or mid-July, and the Indian paintbrush, lupine, and other wildflowers bloom in late July and early August. Hike it in early morning ahead of thunderstorms that commonly strike on summer afternoons and for a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep—but maintain a safe distance of at least 25 feet. Park officials discourage hiking Washburn in September and October, when grizzly bears frequent the area.
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At 8,564 feet, Bunsen Peak overlooks a huge swath of the park, from the Gallatin Range to the west, across Mammoth Hot Springs, the Blacktail Deer Plateau, Swan Lake Flat, and the Yellowstone River Valley, to the Beartooth and Absaroka Mountains. While parts of the trail are forested, open areas along it offer good views as you gain elevation. The round-trip hike on the Bunsen Peak Trail is 4.4 miles and 1,300 feet up and down from the trailhead five miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs on the Grand Loop Road.
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 nearly flat and passes through open terrain with big views.
Gear up right for hikes in Yellowstone.
See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 10 best daypacks.
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 and one of the best national park dayhikes in the country, with constant views into the deep canyon, including thunderous, 308-foot-tall Lower Yellowstone Falls. Various points of road access allow you to choose a hiking distance, but the entire trail is relatively flat and under five miles end to end, including all the side paths along it. While most visitors park at each lot along the road and take a short walk to each canyon overlook, hiking the entire trail certainly delivers a far better experience, including the chance to see wildlife and few people along parts of the trail.
Do not pass up the side trail that descends a steep 600 feet in 0.3 mile to the very brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls, where only a railing separates you from the river hurling itself over the cliff. Make sure to also walk out to the overlooks of 129-foot Crystal Falls and 109-foot Upper Yellowstone Falls. Start at the Wapiti Lake Trailhead, located on South Rim Drive just past the Chittenden Bridge over the Yellowstone River. Hiking the entire trail out-and-back is 8.2 miles; the side paths add more than a mile.
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 relatively flat, easy hikes. 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.
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Upper Geyser Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the world’s largest concentration of geysers, hundreds of them, including Old Faithful. Walk the almost flat, five-mile loop trail that begins outside the Old Faithful visitor center and follows designated trails and boardwalk around the basin, passing dozens of geysers and thermal features along the Firehole River. Take the very worthwhile side trip to Observation Point and Solitary Geyser and you will drop most of the crowd. Get a map and guide to the Upper Geyser Basin and take time to explore it. This is one of Yellowstone’s greatest highlights: You don’t want to miss it.
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.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
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.
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 328 metal stairs you follow down it lead to a spectacular viewpoint near the base of 308-foot-tall Lower Yellowstone Falls, where you’ll usually see a rainbow emerging from the waterfall’s mist. The trail, marked by a sign, begins at the Artist Point parking lot near Canyon. Unfortunately, the stairs have been closed since 2019, pending repairs, and the park has given no indication of when they might reopen.
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