Ask Me: The Best Multi-Day Wilderness Trips in Yellowstone
I am planning a grand adventure this summer that will include Yellowstone National Park. My buddy and I are hoping to spend three to four nights backpacking. Yellowstone is massive, however, so we are having a hard time trying to decide which part of the park we should explore. Do you have any suggestions? Do you have any favorite hikes to take in Yellowstone?
Thanks as always!
Saint Louis, MO
I’ve done quite a bit of hiking and touring in summer and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone—my favorite season there is winter, though the other seasons are pretty darn cool, too—but haven’t actually backpacked in summer in the park. However, there are a few trips there that are on my to-do list.
Probably number one is backpacking in the Bechler Canyon area in the park’s southwest corner. I’d like to hike either a traverse from Old Faithful to the Bechler ranger station via Bechler Canyon, a traverse I’ve skied in winter, including a side trip to the Shoshone Geyser Basin; or an out-and-back hike from Bechler ranger station up to Three River Junction and out to the several other waterfalls along that escarpment that runs north and south from the mouth of Bechler Canyon. There’s a good list of the waterfalls at this site. Mosquitoes are notorious through most of the summer; wait until late August or Sept., which is still a good time to view the waterfalls, I’m told by a guidebook author.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
For a longer trip, I’ve researched (for a Backpacker article) a 70-mile lollipop trek in Yellowstone and the Absarokas, on the east side of the park: Backpack up the Lamar Valley and Miller Creek Trail, across Hoodoo Basin and the Absarokas into the gorgeous, expansive Sunlight Basin in the Shoshone National Forest, then back to the Lamar Valley via the Sunlight and Frost Lake Trails.
I’m told that wildflowers abound in the Lamar in summer, and Hoodoo Basin’s reddish-brown spires conjure the desert Southwest, while the Absarokas, snowbound into July and almost empty of people outside the autumn hunting season, offer grand panoramas of the Yellowstone region. The Frost Lake Trail traverses a high meadow with a view down the Lamar Valley that longtime backcountry rangers call one of the park’s best. September’s drop in human traffic in the lower Lamar brings prime wildlife viewing, including elk bugling to attract mates. There’s little shade in the Lamar Valley; hike early and carry sun protection. Pre-filter creek water, which is turbid from the highly erosive rock, especially after a storm. Trails outside the park are sometimes hard to follow.
My brother-in-law, a former park ranger, says his favorite backpacking trip is two nights to Heart Lake and dayhiking Mount Sheridan, in southeast Yellowstone.
I’ve dayhiked down the Blacktail Creek Trail (lead photo at top of story)—encountering a herd of bison on the way, which slowed my progress while I waited for them to clear the hillside the trail crossed—down into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, in the park’s northwest corner. You can hike into the Black Canyon from a few directions, creating multiple backpacking options; the Blacktail Creek Trail, beginning five miles east of Mammoth, accesses the middle section of the canyon. You could also see elk, pronghorn, and even bighorn sheep in here, and few hikers because it requires a commitment of time to get in there. It’s at a lower elevation than much of the park, so it’s snow-free earlier in spring and later in fall than many other trails.
Two other Yellowstone trips on my list are in canoes or touring kayaks: paddling and camping around the wilderness shore of Yellowstone Lake (a friend of mine did it and called it wonderful, they saw no one out there); and paddling out-and-back from Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake, camping on Shoshone (visit the geyser basin), and maybe bring backpacking gear and make an out-and-back hike to Three River Junction on the Bechler, to spend some time soaking in the famous backcountry hot springs called Mr. Bubbles.
Now you’ve got me wanting to go there this summer! I hope that’s helpful. Let me know what you do, I’d be curious to hear about it.
My partner in adventure and I are getting a little deeper into planning our trip this summer and I had a few follow up questions for you.
It looks like we are going to spend four to five days in the Yellowstone backcountry. Two of the options you mentioned in your previous email sounded very attractive.
First was the Old Faithful to Bechler ranger station hike. I looked at the park map and it looks like a pretty nice area of the park. Is this route something that could be reasonably done in four to five days?
The other suggestions that peaked my interest were the paddling options. My friend and I are both rather adept in a canoe, so the Shoshone to Lewis Lake and Yellowstone Lake options match our particular skills and interests. Are there outfitters in the area that could help us with a canoe? I do not own one personally, and even if I did we are coming from Saint Louis, so hauling a canoe that far would be a pain.
Basically we are looking to maximize our Yellowstone experience. We know it is the “granddaddy of them all” when it comes to national parks are we would like to experience it in all of its natural splendor. Given those guidelines, which of the aforementioned trips do you think offers a more “quintessential” Yellowstone experience?
Thanks again for all your help, Michael. Your advise, expertise, and willingness to help have been invaluable to planning our trip and I am sure it will lead to a great vacation later this summer. Your help is greatly appreciated!
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and my All Trips page.
The hike from Old Faithful to Bechler is only about 32 miles, without much elevation gain and mostly a gentle downhill, largely on good trail. Yes, four to five days is plenty for that straight-through traverse, without side trips. But I would want to make the side trip to the Shoshone Geyser Basin (you’re looking at adding 5.2 miles out and back), as well as some of the waterfalls that require side trips below the mouth of Bechler Canyon (shown in the link I provided above). You should try to camp a night at Three River Junction, to see the waterfalls there and soak in the famous Mr. Bubbles natural hot pool (which, unlike virtually all hot springs and thermal features in Yellowstone, is safe and legal to enter). So depending, of course, on how far you hike every day, you should be able to see at least some of those waterfalls that require side trips.
That would be the top backpacking trip I’d recommend in Yellowstone.
Canoeing Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake is wonderful, too. The Lewis River connecting them is typically a shallow, deadwater section where you wade and pull your canoe. Be aware that Shoshone Lake is notorious for big winds that can raise whitecaps and give canoeists problems, probably in the afternoon more than in the morning. That’s a fairly popular trip, so you’d want to line up a backcountry permit ASAP. Yellowstone Lake’s farthest reaches probably don’t get as many people. I don’t know of any place to rent canoes in one of the gateway towns to Yellowstone, except one place right on the outskirts of Grand Teton National Park, Dornans in Moose, WY. But I haven’t checked West Yellowstone or the other gateway towns for canoe rentals.
Which would I pick? Well, that’s always the great quandary, isn’t it? I wrestle with it every year. But the good news is this: You can’t go wrong with any of those trips.
Here’s how I decide: First of all, are you hankering more for a backpacking trip with lots of waterfalls and an awesome natural hot tub, or a paddling trip? I also consider what’s the absolute best time of year to take a particular trip, and what kind of scheduling flexibility I have for it.
If you’re going, say, in early to mid-summer, that’s certainly a very buggy time; open water may offer some nice relief during the days, as opposed to spending your days in the woods. In early summer, I might be inclined to paddle the farther shores of Yellowstone Lake, for the views and solitude. If you don’t mind sharing your lake with others (and the park, of course, limits the numbers of people through the permit system), Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin is reputably the best backcountry geyser basin in the park. If you don’t mind mosquitoes too much, and love backpacking, by all means hit Bechler Canyon. I’ve been advised that late summer is ideal for the Bechler Canyon backpacking trip; the waterfalls are still impressive then, but it’s cooler, drier, and less buggy.
What you just have to do is decide you’re going to return to Yellowstone to tick off the trips you don’t get to this year.
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