Last updated: 10 Jan 2022
Bear spray…check. Water bottle…check. Hiking boots…check. Here are my top 5 favorite hikes in Yellowstone National Park. While I didn’t do any backcountry or overnight hikes, there are trails for every fitness level and type of adventurer around here.
Favorite Hike #5: Mount Washburn to vista and back
New to the park and eager to explore, Andrew suggested hiking Mt Washburn. It was a gorgeous day on June 1st and we were both wearing shorts and T-shirts. What a surprise to find several inches of snow covering our path about 30 minutes into the hike!
I had sent my younger friend on ahead just 5 minutes in, as he wanted to hike out to the fire tower and I just wanted to catch my breath in the high altitude. I kept an easy pace until I broke through the snow into a puddle and got a soaker. Heading back down the mountain, I stopped to meditate on a large boulder with a spectacular view.
My camera did not do justice to the sweeping vista of meadow, valley, and towering mountains in the distance. I kept my eyes peeled for grizzlies, as this was one of their favorite hunting spots. But this little chipmunk was my only company on the way down to the parking lot. Dozing in the sun-filled cab of my truck, I dried out my socks on the dashboard and got in a good nap before Andrew returned.
Favorite Hike #4: Bunsen Peak to overlook
This was the first solo hike I took in the park, starting the trail in YCC Camp and following the trail for about 3 miles before heading back. This overlook shows the white mineral formations of Mammoth Hot Springs on the left and YCC Camp in the center.
Snowy peaks were still evident in late April I locked eyes with a gorgeous red fox on the path and was startled by 7 bison who wandered onto the trail. As I ducked behind some trees to watch the procession, the last one turned to look at me with an expression that said “You think we don’t see you?”
Favorite Hike #3: Clear Lake to the junction
Four of us hiked nearly 4 miles from the parking lot past Clear Lake which is south of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone towards another lake (whose name I don’t recall). It was a mixed bag in June – we saw 4 deer in the woods on the way in, marveled at Clear Lake and the unexpected thermal features bubbling up mud and sulfur, then turned right at the trail junction towards the other lake.
We would have done better to have turned back at the junction. Swarms of mosquitos plagued us to the edge of the second lake (which was an unimpressive puddle) before starting back up the steep dirt path. A passing hiker had just spotted a black bear, and other hikers groaned when they couldn’t find an easy loop trail and had to backtrack through the mosquitos.
Nearly back to our vehicle, we were stopped in our tracks by 3 male bison grazing along the route. Giving them wide berth, we crossed the grassland to our left, around a small rise, and onto a connecting trail. Then the most wonderful thing happened – a coyote trotted up to the rise, stopped, and looked at us before howling for several minutes.
Others joined in and we gals looked at one another with a mixture of grins and goosebumps. Then another coyote trotted behind the rise and we listened to the yips of their young. What an unexpected encounter!
Favorite Hike #2: Sheepeater Cliff to the waterfall
In late June, I had planned a one-way hike from the picnic area at Sheepeater Cliff along a ski trail around Bunsen Peak to end up at YCC Camp. Marmots chattered and scurried in the screen near the parking lot. The path along the Yellowstone River was easy to spot with gorgeous river views culminating with this waterfall about 2 miles in.
However, the trail wound through newer pine growth before disappearing completely. With no other hikers in sight, no obvious trail, and in known grizzly country, we turned back with Bunsen Peak still in the distance. However, the waterfall was even prettier from this angle and we agreed this hike was still a success.
We drove back to YCC Camp and hiked adjacent to Bunsen Peak to pretty Joffe Lake, picnicking in the woods on the far side of the lake.
Favorite Hike #1: Lost Lake from Petrified Tree to the Roosevelt Lodge
Leaving one car in the parking lot of the Roosevelt Lodge, we parked the other one in the parking lot featuring Petrified Tree. We four each had our bear spray on hand and took turns leading the hike and making noise to scare away any neighboring bears, which one friend had encountered a few weeks prior. A male bison was the only one blocking our way until we were well past Lost Lake and stepped aside for over a dozen youth on horseback.
Lost Lake was incredibly beautiful, swamped with blooming yellow lotus blossoms. We spied several ducks on a log, finally deciding they were goldeneyes. In early July the wildflowers were at their peak here, laying a pastel carpet over the sunlit ground. Crossing a bridge and skimming the other side of the ravine, we were treated to seemingly endless views of the valley.
Further up the trail, we veered right to the top of a cliff with more jaw-dropping views. Reversing direction, we hiked back down past the bridge, then headed on the downhill path towards the lodge and dinner. We had trekked nearly 8 miles by the time we ordered “to go” food and ate on the porch of the lodge in our rocking chairs. Perfect.
Honorable Mention: The Beartooth Hwy drive from Northeast gate to Red Lodge, MT
While not a hike per se, this scenic highway deemed “One of America’s Most Scenic” by Charles Kuralt, just begs you to pull off and wander down short paths to lakes, streams, and glorious vistas. Plan a whole day to do the drive to Red Lodge, refuel with lunch and the old-timey candy shop, then head back to the park, snapping up photos as you go.