4 Epic Yellowstone Day Hikes to Beat the Crowds
The Best Lesser-Known Hikes from a Former Park Employee!
Lamar Valley Sunset: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most unique and awe-inspiring destinations in the entire world. The Park, featuring unparalleled diversity in landscape, wildlife, and hiking opportunities, represents a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for many. This world-famous destination attracts some 4.25 million visitors per year - while one might be tempted to think the park’s massive size (it is so large it stretches across three states - Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming) would mean an even distribution of visitor density, in truth that is actually far from the case. The Park’s Grand Loop Road (the main park road connecting lodging outposts and key park landmarks) allows visitors to access less than 1% of Yellowstone’s splendor - yet still, over 90% of tourists never leave the main road. Some see this as a frustrating reality, but for those that know Yellowstone best, this actually presents an extremely exciting opportunity.
As a former Park employee (I lived and worked in Yellowstone during the summers of 2016 and 2017), I can confidently say one of the reasons I love Yellowstone most is, odd as it sounds, the peace and quiet. Once you know where to go to escape the crowds, that is...
...Yellowstone becomes one of the most uniquely magical places on Earth. While backpacking trips present the best opportunity for total solitude, the following day hikes are great adventure alternatives that can help visitors find remoteness without needing thousands of dollars of gear, preparation, and extensive experience. Without further ado, I present to you the best day hikes in Yellowstone to find seclusion (you might just hike all day and not see a single other soul outside of your group!), organized in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest.
Skip: Mount Washburn
Hike Instead: Avalanche Peak
Distance: 4.7 miles, out-and-back
Location: East of Fishing Bridge & Lake Yellowstone
Highlights: Short climb to epic and truly panoramic views of Lake Yellowstone and surrounding mountain ranges
Avalanche Peak: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Diane Renkin
While the ascent to the summit is certainly steep, it’s only a two mile hike to some of the most incredible views in Yellowstone. You’ll likely encounter some other hikers on this route (depending on the time of day when you get started), but in comparison to Mount Washburn, Elephant Back Mountain, or some of the ‘classic’ Yellowstone mountain climbs, you’ll have an unbelievable combination of quiet and picturesque scenery. Looking over the remnants of what was once a vast inland ocean, Lake Yellowstone sprawls below as you take in 360 degree mountain views as far as the eye can see. Enjoy the view before you make the quick downhill sprint back to the trailhead - you won’t regret this one (even if you’re a bit winded on the way up!)
Skip: Mystic Falls
Hike Instead: Osprey Falls
Distance: 8 miles, out-and-back
Location: Just South of Mammoth Hot Springs. Park in the Bunsen Peak trailhead
Highlights: Beautiful waterfall, chance to see wildlife, and striking canyon views
BONUS: Combine with lightly trafficked back-side of Bunsen Peak for an epic canyon-mountain double (+4 miles)
Osprey Falls: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton
This epic 8 mile out-and-back takes hikers through a flat alpine plain for the first 3 miles of the hike, before ascending steeply for the final mile to the 150 foot waterfall crashing into the canyon. This lightly-trafficked route (frequented by bighorn sheep and mountain goats) offers some of the best waterfall views in the entire park. For the rare opportunity to combine a canyon descent with a mountain ascent on a single hike, consider also summiting Bunsen Peak, which makes the trip a full loop.
Bunsen Peak Summit: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Andrew Helmbrecht
While the common route up to Bunsen Peak is heavily trafficked, you’ll likely be one of the only groups who ascends the peak’s back side, should you choose to take that route. Immediately after exiting the Canyon, you’ll come to a junction with three different route options. The abandoned fire road which you hiked in on, the trail to Sheepeater Cliffs and Osprey Falls which you just completed, and the trail up the Eastern side of Bunsen Peak. Head straight to take the extra journey to Bunsen Peak. It adds some challenge to your overall day, but it is well worth it - you’ll be rewarded with incredible views!
Skip: Mary Mountain Trail
Hike Instead: Union Falls
Distance: 16.2 miles, out-and-back
Highlights: A river ford, a 250 foot waterfall, and a deep, warm water swimming hole.
Union Falls: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Andrew Helmbrecht
The Union Falls Hike is one of the most underappreciated and spectacular in the entire park. You actually have to leave Yellowstone, head towards Grand Teton National Park, and drive down a secluded dirt road for about 10 miles to find the trailhead - the definition of a hidden gem! While the drive takes a while to complete, it is quite beautiful and ends with access to a truly spectacular trek. You’ll have to ford a river after about a mile, so be sure to bring water shoes or a change of socks (note - this ford should not be attempted before mid-July, as high, fast-moving water from snowmelt can make it impassable until later in the season).
The long, (but mostly flat) 8.1 mile trail winds through shaded forest before you cross another river (this one has a log bridge) and arrive at your first of two destinations. What makes this hike so special, is you’re rewarded with two spectacular end-of-hike landmarks. The first, beautiful Union Falls, is an epic waterfall that forms from the intersection of three different flows of a river. Break for lunch while you listen to the roar of the falls, then head back out the trail towards the stock hitching posts you saw on your way in to take the spur trail. Head down the spur for about a half-mile and you’ll arrive at Scout’s Pool.
Scout's Pool: Yellowstone National Park - Photo Credit: Andrew Helmbrecht
Named because Boy Scouts used to make frequent day trips here, this warm-water swimming hole is deep enough to jump into, and features its own personal small waterfall to dunk your head under after a long day on the trail.
Skip: Electric Peak (skip the day hike, definitely do it as a 1-night backpack!)
Hike Instead: Sky Rim
Distance: 21 miles, lollipop loop
Location: This hike begins at the Daly Creek Trailhead North of West Yellowstone. This hike begins outside of Yellowstone but you’ll re-enter the far Northwest corner of The Park on foot.
Highlights: The best alpine scenery in Yellowstone, beautiful wildflowers, and the sense of accomplishment from a massive day of hiking
Resting after intense Sky Rim ascent: Yellowstone NP - Photo Credit: Nicole Quinn
Sky Rim is another hike where you’ll need to leave the Park to access the trailhead (this time head out through the West Yellowstone Gate and travel North). This day hike is definitely not for the faint of heart. You’ll be on your feet hiking from just after sunrise until evening - so if that’s not your thing, you’ll want to skip this one. If you’re up to the challenge though, you’ll be rewarded with almost non-stop panoramic views, a great chance to see wildlife, incredible wildflowers, unparalleled peace and quiet, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a truly Herculean journey.
You’ll spend the first few miles of the hike trudging through beautiful alpine meadows before beginning your ascent to the ridgeline. After a short burst to get (somewhat) close to your maximum elevation, you’ll hike along the spine of the Gallatin Mountain range for over 10 miles. Expect some steep climbs with truly immaculate views of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Gallatin and Shoshone Mountain Ranges, and more. As you near the end of your time on the ridgeline, you will face the most challenging uphill climb I’ve ever attempted. The trail fades away and you essentially walk straight up a grassy mountainside.
When you get to the top, be sure to make the short spur to bighorn peak - while the trail is precarious with steep drops, the views are even better from there. After taking the side-trip to Big Horn Peak, you can relax slightly knowing you’re all downhill from there. When you’ve finished your mammoth day of hiking, head back into West Yellowstone for a delicious saloon-style meal at Wild West Pizzeria (try the mac ‘n’ cheese!)... you’ve earned it!
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