Contrary to popular belief, Yellowstone National Park is not a drive through wildlife safari or petting zoo. The animals will bite, gore and tear you to shreds if you pet them while taking a selfie.
I’ve spent 2 summers working at Canyon Lodge and Lake Lodge engaging with hundreds of visitors per day. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen a father put his 2 year old on the back of a bison laying down for a photo op, cars with all four doors open stopped in the middle of the road with the passengers all taking pictures of the mamma bear and cubs 20 ft away, tourists trying to pet the newborn elk with the mother charging towards them, visitors doing handstands off trail on the edge of the very unstable Grand Canyon, families who yell at me for not being able to watch TV for 2 days out of the year, visitors who think stepping off the pavements means they will immediately be grabbed by a bear and drug into the woods to be eaten for dinner, and many many more tourons who seem to drop their brains off at the entrance gate to retrieve them on their way out of the park. I’ve also seen so many beautiful things as well. The family traveling through Yellowstone with their father who had stage IV cancer, the elderly British woman who displayed unbelievable courage by traveling to her bucket list spots all by herself after her husband passed away, the man who offered to let me stay with him and his wife any time I was near Joshua Tree, couples beginning their marriage with honeymoons in Yellowstone, former elderly Yellowstone employees coming back to the place they fell in love with their now husband/wife, my manager who baked me Chocolate Mocha Cupcakes for my birthday out of her RV, the friends I have met all over the world and most importantly, the stars. The stars in Yellowstone surpass any other night sky I’ve ever seen. Yellowstone National Park is a beauty that will never fully be explored.
All animals are all over the park. However, there are certain areas where some are more prevalent. The “Morning Wildlife Safari” and “Evening Wildlife Safari” depart from Canyon Lodge around 6:00am and 5:00pm, respectively. These tours usually come back with many sightings of wildlife, and for good reason! These folks are up at the crack of dawn or dedicating their evening hours to try and catch a glimpse of the ever elusive Yellowstone wildlife. Without spending $100/person, you can take the same route that the safari bus goes and see everything you would on the bus from the comfort of your own vehicle. The Safari tours leave Canyon Lodge and travel north to Roosevelt, into Lamar Valley, and then back to Canyon Lodge. If you want to be a real stalker, you could even follow the little historic yellow bus on their tour and stop whenever they stop to get out your own binoculars!
- Elk – There are tons of resident elk around the Mammoth area and a fair amount around the Canyon area.
- Bears – Bears are all over the park. Employees call the Roosevelt area the “Bearmuda Triange” because there’s a good chance you’ll see Smokey lumbering around.
- Wolves – Wolves are often tricky because a lot of times you’ll need binoculars to scope them out. However, there are a fair amount of wolf packs in Lamar Valley as well as Hayden Valley.
- Moose – Moose are tricky as well and you’ll have a better chance of seeing these beautiful creatures down in Grand Teton National Park. Keep your eyes peeled though, you might get lucky!
- Bison – Bison are all over the park. They’re mating (rut) season is in late July/early August. During their rut, the males will stand in the middle of the road refusing to move bellowing at the top of their lunges with their tongues hanging out. It’s hilarious for the first 5 minutes until you’re stuck in a 3 hour traffic jam. Most of the bison congregate in Hayden Valley for the rut making the road from Canyon to Lake an absolute disaster. If you need to travel this route during late July/early August, do so in the early morning or late evening or else plan for a 3 hour bison jam.
Since the roads consist of only 2% of the National Park, that leaves 98% of fresh air and untouched beauty to be explored! Don’t be like the lazy couch potatoes who plan 1 day to drive through the entire park and see nothing but the bumper ahead of them, get out and feel alive! I will warn you, some hikes/viewpoints are more popular than others and the crowds often take away from the raw beauty of this great park. I can’t guarantee privacy throughout your entire visit, but the following Top 10 Hikes at the right time of day can unlock a world of adventure and beauty. For safety, plan on seeing wildlife on your hikes. With the mindset of accepting that you will run into a bear, wolf pack, moose, whatever, you will be better prepared and will handle the situation with a clear mind. Instead of hoping you won’t run into a bear around the next turn, expect that you will and take precaution. Carry bear spray, make lots of noise, and keep your eyes peeled.
**Please note, this is not meant to be a guide or trail map, only a starting point for your adventure. For current conditions and an up to date detailed trail map, please visit a Ranger Station inside the park.
SUPER SHORT HIKES
- Storm Point Loop (2.3 miles) – When I worked at Lake Lodge, this was my favorite place to go to relax and get away from the crowds. Park at the Indian Pond Turnout. The hike is a flat and easy 2.3 round trip loop trail leading to the edge of Lake Yellowstone. This is a relatively popular place, as far as hikes go, but it is a rare beauty at sunrise or sunset. I’ve caught the best sunsets of my life from Storm Point.
- Midway Geyser Basin (0.8 miles) – Geyser Basins are not my favorite place simply because they are so crowded and parking is horrendous. I’m not discrediting geyser basins in themselves, I’m simply not impressed with a beautiful feat of nature perverted by the hundreds of people on the boardwalks. With this being said, Midway Geyser Basin is my favorite geyser basin. Don’t plan on visiting during the peak hours of the day, it’s the most beautiful in the early hours of the morning with the steam from the springs rising into the air in the morning light. Midway Geyser Basin does hold the world’s largest hot spring in the United States, Grand Prismatic.
- Boiling River (2.0 miles) – Bring your swimsuit! The boiling river is an area where runoff from Mammoth Hot Springs converge with the Gardiner River. From Mammoth, the parking area is about 2.1 miles north towards Gardiner. Walk along the Gardiner River for about 1 mile until you reach the soaking area. Chacos, Tevas, or flip flops are recommended to wear in the water if you have sensitive feet; the rocks can be slippery and/or sharp. This area has become quite popular over the past few years. To enjoy your soak in privacy, go in the early morning or evening. This area does close in the early Spring season due to high water.
SHORT DAY HIKES
- South Rim of the Canyon Loop (6 miles) – This hike is a mild, 6 mile loop through forests, along lakes, through a thermal area and along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. While many people just get out of their car to snap a photo at Artist Point, this hike skirts the edge of the canyon for private, panorama views. Park at Wapiti Trailhead and hike towards Clear Lake, then towards Ribbon Lake, along the edge of the Canyon, and then back to the Wapiti Trailhead. This is a great day hike but it is more popular, expect to see some fellow trekkers along the way.
- Shoshone Lake (6 miles) – This is a very mild, 6 mile there and back, relatively flat hike leading to Yellowstone’s largest backcountry lake. Park at the DeLacy Creek Trailhead 8.8 miles west of West Thumb. It is a beautiful hike through the forest leading to a pristine and clear lake. Explore and walk along the shoreline of the lake. There are backcountry camp sites along Shoshone Lake making this a very mild, first time backcountry camping trip or a relaxing experience for the seasoned trekker.
- Avalanche Peak (4 miles) – This is by far my favorite hike in the park. It’s a summit hike that is relatively difficult, pushing 2 miles uphill with an elevation gain of 2,000 ft. The summit view is unlike any other in the park boasting views to Lake Yellowstone and beyond. Drive around 17 miles from Fishing Bridge towards Cody. Park at the turnout right before Eleanor Lake. This hike isn’t very popular since many are scared away by the elevation gain; it’s safe to plan this hike during the day. 4 miles total there and back.
LONG DAY HIKE
- Howard Eaton Trail (15.5 miles) – This portion of the Howard Eaton Trail connects Canyon and Fishing Bridge. This hike is relatively flat taking you through Hayden Valley and the wooded section around Fishing Bridge for a total of 15.5 miles. This hike isn’t very popular but it’s an incredible journey through Hayden Valley. From the road you may see wolves, bison, bears coyotes and antelope, but when you are hiking, you’re right in the middle of all the action! This makes the hike fun and keeps everyone alert and on their toes. The trail isn’t well marked through the valley, but as long as you keep going the same direction through the valley, you’ll find the trail eventually. This hike isn’t very popular and is an excellent choice for an all day adventure. This hike can be closed often due to bear activity, check with a ranger before you depart! Hitch hike back to either Fishing Bridge or Canyon, wherever you left your car. Hitch hiking in Yellowstone is safe and quite common.
MULTI DAY BACKPACKING TRIPS
- Bliss Pass (21.4 miles) – Pebble Creek Trailhead to Slough Creek Trailhead. From Pebble Creek Trailhead, you will immediately ford Pebble Creek and start climbing through the meadow and into a forest. After 6.6 miles, you will reach Pebble Creek Junction where you will take the left hand trail to begin Bliss Pass. Follow the ridge line for 6.8 miles until it intersects with Slough Creek Junction. Take the left hand turn there and hike the relatively flat, 8 miles to Slough Creek Trailhead. Plan to camp at campsite 3P1 or 3P2 the first night and at campsite 2S1 the second night. Backcountry site 2S1 (in my opinion) is by far the best backcountry site in the park!! This trip will require either a car shuttle or a patient hitch hiker. ***Photo compliments below to my brother, Bobby.
- Electric Peak (24.2 miles) – Park at the Glen Creek Trailhead 5 miles south of Mammoth. This is one of the best peaks in Yellowstone with summit views reaching from Gardiner, MT to the Grand Tetons. From the Glen Creek Trailhead, follow Glen Creek Trail to Sportsman Lake Trail for a relatively flat, 9 miles. Camp at backcountry site 1G3 or 1G4. From sportsman Lake Trail, take the right hand trail to start the ascent to Electric Peak. The summit does require a bit of scrambling and careful maneuvering. Return to the trailhead the same way. If there is any rain in the forest, do not even attempt a summit push. This mountain is called Electric Peak for a reason.
- Sky Rim (21 miles) – I haven’t personally explored this hike but I have friends who swear this is the most scenic area of the park with promising views of wildlife, petrified wood and countless mountains. The hike is a lot of up and down, we like to call them PUDS (Pointless Ups and DownS). Very incredibly awesome PUDS according to everyone who has hiked it.
Other Relevant Tips
- The food is downright awful inside Yellowstone. Do yourself a favor and buy/bring a cooler with lunch meat, cheese, and whatever else you’d like to eat. Every lodge/hotel has an ice machine for anyone to use. The General Stores do have better food than the dining rooms associated with the lodges, but it’s very expensive.
- Roads consist of only 2% of the entire national park making the roadways and driving conditions extremely busy and often times, quite frustrating. As a general rule of thumb, avoid driving between the hours of 8:00am – 6:00 pm. Hike, explore, relax during the day, plan your road adventures for early in the morning and the evening.
- If you’ve made your reservation for inside a lodge or cabin, you will not have a microwave, refrigerator, or TV. Plan accordingly.
- If you haven’t made your reservation yet and the rooms are booked up for the season, never fear! There are campsites that take reservations, National Park primitive campsites that run on a first come, first serve basis as well as a very expansive backcountry camping system.
- The gas stations charge $1.50/gallon more than the gas stations outside the park, so plan to fuel up before you get inside the park!
- Yellowstone is not very pet friendly. Your dog/cat is not allowed on any trails.
- Biking is dangerous in the park. There isn’t much of a shoulder to ride on, many blind corners and there are a plethora of giant 30 ft RVs barreling down the roads.
Happy Trails Everyone!!
We would like to hear from you! What are you favorite Yellowstone hikes/secret solace spots??