Your most memorable Yellowstone moments will likely take place along a park hiking trail. Encountering a gang of elk in the woods is unquestionably more exciting than watching them graze on the grasses of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Hearing the creak of lodgepole pines on a breezy afternoon feels more authentic than listening to tourists chatter as you jockey for the best view of Old Faithful.
Even a one-day visitor to Yellowstone can—and should—get off the roads and into the "wilderness." Because the park is a wild place, however, even a half-mile walk on a trail puts you at the mercy of nature, so be sure to prepare yourself accordingly. As a guide on an Old Yellow Bus Tour said, "You don't have to fear the animals—just respect them."
Much of Yellowstone lies more than 7,500 feet above sea level. The most frequent incidents requiring medical attention are respiratory problems, not animal attacks. Be aware of your physical limitations—as well as those of young children or elderly companions.
Yellowstone Association Institute. If you'd like a naturalist, a geologist, a wildlife specialist, or other park expert to accompany you on a hike, book one of the institute's daylong or multiday excursions, which include backcountry trips. 308 W. Park St., Gardiner, Montana, 59030. 406/848–2400; www.yellowstoneassociation.org. From $150 per day.
Heart Lake–Mt. Sheridan Trail. This 24-mile round-trip provides one of the park's top overnight backcountry experiences. After traversing 5½ miles of partly burned pine forest, the trail descends into Heart Lake Geyser Basin, reaching Heart Lake at the 8-mile mark. This is one of Yellowstone's most active thermal areas; the biggest geyser here is Rustic Geyser, which erupts to a height of 25 to 30 feet about every 15 minutes. Circle around the northern tip of Heart Lake and camp at one of five designated backcountry sites on the western shore (remember to get your permit beforehand). Leave all but the essentials here as you take on the 3-mile, 2,700-foot climb to the top of 10,308-foot Mount Sheridan. To the south, if you look carefully, you can see the Tetons. Difficult. Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Biscuit Basin Trail. This 2½-mile round-trip trail goes via a boardwalk across the Firehole River to colorful Sapphire Pool. Easy. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Fountain Paint Pots Nature Trail. Take the ½-mile loop boardwalk to see the fumaroles (steam vents), blue pools, pink mud pots, and mini-geysers in this thermal area. The trail is popular in summer and winter because it's right next to Grand Loop Road. Easy. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Old Faithful Geyser Loop. The ¾-mile loop departs from Old Faithful's visitor center, circling the geyser's benches, filled nearly all day in summer with tourists. Easy. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Mystic Falls Trail. From the west end of Biscuit Basin boardwalk, this trail climbs gently for 1 mile through heavily burned forest to the lava-rock base of 70-foot Mystic Falls. It then switchbacks up Madison Plateau to a lookout with the park's least-crowded view of Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. Moderate. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Observation Point Loop. A 2-mile round-trip leaves Geyser Hill Loop boardwalk and becomes a trail shortly after the Firehole River; it circles a picturesque overview of Geyser Hill with Old Faithful Inn as a backdrop. You may also see Castle Geyser erupting. Even when 1,000-plus people are crowded on the boardwalk to watch Old Faithful, expect to find fewer than a dozen here. Moderate. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Madison and Norris
Back Basin Trail. A 1½-mile loop passes Emerald Spring, Steamboat Geyser, Cistern Spring, and Echinus Geyser. The latter was long known as Norris's most dependable big geyser, but its schedule has become much more erratic. Ask a ranger for the latest information. Easy. Norris, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Porcelain Basin Trail. At Norris Geyser Basin, this ¾-mile loop leads from the north end of Norris Museum through whitish geyserite stone and past extremely active Whirligig and other small geysers. Easy. Norris, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Two Ribbons Trail. This accessible boardwalk path runs along the Madison River for 1½ miles round-trip. Easy. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Purple Mountain Trail. Climbing a steady 1,500 feet from start to finish, this 6-mile round-trip trail takes you through lodgepole-pine forest. At the end of the trail catch views of Firehole and Gibbon valleys. Moderate. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Beaver Ponds Loop Trail. The hike to Beaver Ponds is a 2½-hour, 5-mile round-trip starting at Liberty Cap in the busy Lower Terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs. You enter Yellowstone backcountry within minutes as you climb 400 feet through spruce and fir, passing several ponds and dams, as well as a glacier-carved moraine, before emerging on a windswept plain overlooking the Montana–Wyoming border. Look up to see Everts Peak to the east, Bunsen Peak to the south, and Sepulcher Mountain to the west. Your final descent into Mammoth Springs has great views of Mammoth Springs. Moderate. Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Bunsen Peak Trail. Past the entrance to Bunsen Peak Road, this moderately difficult trail is a 4-mile, three-hour round-trip that climbs 1,300 feet to Bunsen Peak for a panoramic view of Blacktail Plateau, Swan Lake Flats, the Gallatin Mountains, and the Yellowstone River valley. Moderate. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Osprey Falls Trail. This 4-mile, two-hour round-trip starts near the entrance to Bunsen Peak Road. A series of switchbacks drops 800 feet to the bottom of Sheepeater Canyon and the base of the Gardner River's 151-foot Osprey Falls. As at Tower Fall, the canyon walls are basalt columns formed by ancient lava flow. Difficult. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Skyline Trail. This 16½-mile, 10-hour hike is a combination trail that climbs up and over numerous peaks whose ridgelines mark the park's northwestern boundary before looping sharply back down via Black Butte Creek. For much of its length the trail follows the ridge tops, with steep drop-offs on either side. Difficult. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Slough Creek Trail. Starting at Slough Creek Campground, this trail climbs steeply along a historic wagon trail for the first 1½ miles before reaching expansive meadows and prime fishing spots, where moose are common and grizzlies occasionally wander. From this point the trail, now mostly level, meanders another 9½ miles to the park's northern boundary. Anglers absolutely rave about this trail. Moderate. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Cascade Lake Trail. This 4½-mile round-trip trail meanders through colorful meadows to a lovely lake. Hiking the trail can be a little wet and buggy in spring, but by midsummer it's perfect. Easy. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Mud Volcano Interpretive Trail. This ¾-mile round-trip trail loops gently around seething, sulfuric mud pots with such names as Sizzling Basin and Black Dragon's Cauldron, and around Mud Volcano itself. Easy. Canyon and Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Brink of the Lower Falls Trail. Especially scenic, this trail branches off of the North Rim Trail at the Brink of the Upper Falls parking area. You can also access it from the Brink of the Lower Falls parking area on the North Rim Drive. The steep ½-mile one-way trail switchbacks 600 feet down to within a few yards of the top of the Yellowstone River's 308-foot Lower Falls. Moderate. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
North Rim Trail. Offering great views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the 3-mile North Rim Trail runs from Inspiration Point to Chittenden Bridge. Particularly fetching is the ½-mile section of the North Rim Trail from the Brink of the Upper Falls parking area to Chittenden Bridge that hugs the rushing Yellowstone River as it approaches the canyon. This trail is paved and fully accessible between Lookout Point and Grand View. Moderate. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
South Rim Trail. Partly paved and fairly flat, this 1¾-mile trail along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone affords impressive views and photo opportunities of the canyon and falls of the Yellowstone River. It starts at Chittenden Bridge and ends at Artist Point. Beyond Artist Point, the trail gives way to a high plateau and high mountain meadows. Although popular with day hikers, this is technically backcountry. Prepare accordingly, make some noise, and carry bear spray. Moderate. Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Uncle Tom's Trail. Accessed by the South Rim Drive, this spectacular and strenuous 700-step trail ½ mile east of Chittenden Bridge descends 500 feet from the parking area to the roaring base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Much of this walk is on steel sheeting, which can have a film of ice on early summer mornings or anytime in spring and fall. Difficult. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Storm Point Trail. Well marked and mostly flat, this 1½-mile loop leaves the south side of the road for a perfect beginner's hike out to Yellowstone Lake, particularly with a setting sun. The trail rounds the western edge of Indian Pond, then passes moose habitat on its way to Yellowstone Lake's Storm Point, named for its frequent afternoon windstorms and crashing waves. Heading west along the shore, you're likely to hear the shrill chirping of yellow-bellied marmots, rodents that grow as long as 2 feet. Also look for ducks, pelicans, trumpeter swans, and bison. You will pass several small beaches kids can explore on warm summer mornings. Easy. Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Avalanche Peak Trail. On a busy day in summer, maybe six parties will fill out the trail register at the Avalanche Peak trailhead, so you won't have a lot of company on this hike. Starting across from a parking area on the East Entrance Road, the difficult 4-mile, four-hour round-trip climbs 2,150 feet to the peak's 10,566-foot summit, from which you'll see the rugged Absaroka Mountains running north and south. Look around the talus and tundra near the top of Avalanche Peak for alpine wildflowers and butterflies. Don't try this trail before late June or after early September—it may be covered in deep snow. Rangers discourage hikers from attempting this hike in September or October because of bear activity. Difficult. Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.