Ask Me: The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone
I have recently stumbled onto your site and have been enjoying it very much. My husband and I are planning a trip to Yellowstone in a few weeks. We’d like to take in a few short hikes. We are both in our late 60s and in decent shape. We spent a few days in Arches this spring and took a few five-mile hikes through the park and enjoyed it thoroughly. What hike could you recommend for us? We are thinking about limiting our hikes to fives miles because of the change in elevation/terrain and weather conditions we may encounter there.
Thanks for writing and finding The Big Outside. You are heading to a fantastic park for short walks and hikes any time of year, although I think autumn is ideal because of good weather and fewer people; some of the photos in this story were shot on an October trip I took.
You should read 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.
As for hikes of five miles and under, here are the ones I’d suggest, listed in no particular order.
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.
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.
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The Fairy Falls Trail, in the Midway Geyser Basin, leads to one of the park’s nicest waterfalls, 197-foot Fairy Falls, 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.
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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.
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.
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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.
Read about how climate change is affecting Yellowstone and other parks in my book
Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Good luck, thanks for writing.