Thunderstorms passed through Yosemite National Park on Saturday, September 9, 2023, bringing 179 lightning strikes, a small amount of precipitation, and some...
After you’ve seen Old Faithful erupt, peered down at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and spotted wildlife along park roads, it’s time to get your heart rate up and explore the majority of the park that isn’t accessible by car. We’ve put together four active adventures that will test your stamina and bring you away from the crowds to parts of the park most visitors rarely see.
Unless you’re visiting Yellowstone in the middle of winter, chances are good that you’ll be sharing the backcountry with grizzly and black bears. Always carry bear spray and know how to use it, hike in groups and make noise to alert these apex predators of your presence.
Backpack Sky Rim Loop
At more than two million acres in size, there are no shortages of incredible places to backpack in Yellowstone. The choice is easy, however, if you prioritize stunning views. The 21-mile Sky Rim Loop in the northwest corner of the park features a six-mile traverse along a long, grassy spine with views for days. You’ll also get the chance to summit 9,930-foot Bighorn Peak, see petrified tree stumps in the Gallatin Petrified Forest and spot wildlife. The trail is strenuous, with approximately 5,000 feet in elevation gain, but the payoff is worth it.
In 2022, Yellowstone is instituting an early-access lottery for reserving backcountry campsites. For peak season dates of May 15-Nov. 5, apply for the lottery on recreation.gov, March 1-20. You’ll be notified if you’ve been awarded an early-reservation slot on March 25. Those who did will be given a date and time in April where their reservation window will open. If you miss the application period or are not awarded early access, the remainder of reservations will go live on April 26. You’ll need to activate your backcountry permit at a park Backcountry Permit Office within two days of the start of your trip.
(Photo: NPS/Jim Peaco)
Start at the Dailey Creek Trailhead (also spelled Daly Creek on some maps) and hike 3.65 miles to campsite WF2. It’s a short first day, but as the second day’s hike follows the exposed Sky Rim Trail with significant lightning risk, you’ll want to get a super early start. Filter plenty of water as there isn’t another reliable water source for another 10 miles, just before your second campsite.
On day two, continue 1.4 miles to the intersection with the Sky Rim Trail. Take a right. From there, you’ll quickly gain 600 feet to the namesake traverse and catch incredible views. This ridge serves as the boundary of Yellowstone and is carpeted in wildflowers in the summer. Admire the scenery, but remember that you have miles of exposed ridgeline left to traverse and don’t want to be stuck up there when afternoon storms roll in. When you hit the 6-mile mark, start to look for petrified tree stumps on the right side of the trail. As you approach Bighorn Peak, you’ll encounter three steep climbs. After the second climb, the trail is hard to find through a meadow and up the third hill, so keep a sharp eye out. We like to use Gaia GPS to help us track our routes when backpacking.
At around 10.4 miles from the trailhead, you’ll pass the Black Butte Trail Junction. That’s how you’ll return to the parking lot, but continue on 0.3 miles and carefully traverse a rocky knife edge to the 9,930-foot summit of Bighorn Peak. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequent this peak. Soak in the amazing views of the surrounding area before backtracking to the Black Butte Trail. After 2,400 feet in descent, your knees will thank you when you reach campsite WF1, a little more than four miles from the junction.
On day three, find the Black Butte Daly Creek Cutoff Trail just past your campsite and follow it until you meet up with the Dailey Creek Trail and turn left to head back to the trailhead.
Yellowstone is bear country and you as a backcountry camper are required to either hang food from your campsite’s food pole (you’ll need 35 feet of rope for this), utilize the food storage locker if your campsite has one or carry an approved bear canister to store food and scented items in.
Paddle to Shoshone Lake
(Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
Yellowstone’s second largest lake is only accessible by human power. To access Shoshone Lake and its incredible backcountry geyser basin, you can either hike 17 miles, or paddle there.
While Shoshone Lake is one of the most popular backcountry areas in the park, its sheer size gives an unparalleled sense of solitude. You aren’t likely to see anyone else save for passing them on your paddle. You’re more likely to see eagles, osprey, otters, elk, deer, moose and even bears than other humans. The distance is variable based on how much exploring you do, but it’s approximately 30-miles, round-trip from the Lewis Lake Boat Ramp to Shoshone Geyser Basin and back.
The paddle can be done in either a canoe or a sea kayak. Sea kayaks are more maneuverable, but canoes give you more room for campsite luxuries like a cooler and camp chairs. Either way, you’ll need to get your boats inspected for aquatic invasive species and pay for a 7-day or seasonal boating permit. Arrive at the Lewis Lake Ranger Station with your boat clean, drained and dry for the most efficient inspection.
Get as early of a start as possible to paddle from the Lewis Lake Boat Ramp across the lake to the Lewis River. Midday winds can make both Lewis Lake and your destination of Shoshone Lake incredibly choppy, so it’s best to get to camp as early as possible.
All paddlers must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD, and it’s important you always wear it while crossing open water. Water temperatures usually range from 40-60-degrees F in the summer.
It is incredibly dangerous to go overboard in those temperatures and people falling into the park’s waters has caused fatalities. Be aware of conditions and when in doubt, get off the water if it gets too rough. In fall 2021, two very experienced outdoorsmen failed to return from their four-day canoe trip to Shoshone Lake. One died of hypothermia and the other is still missing. Being able to read the conditions is vital.
Once you hit the Lewis River, you’ll experience a calm current and glassy water as you paddle upstream, rock walls closing in on you. Paddle quietly and you just might see some of the channel’s river otters. Towards the end of the river, the current gets too strong to paddle against. Get out and tow your boat as you hike along the shore for a quarter to half a mile. Then, you’ll reach Shoshone Lake. Skirt the southern shore of the lake and head to campsite 8Q4, which has a sandy beach for easy landings. See Sky Rim Loop for information above for backcountry campsite permits and storing food in bear country.
On day two, get another early start and paddle to the far western edge of the lake where you’ll find Shoshone Geyser Basin. The water here is extremely clear. Beach your boat and explore the basin by foot on a hiker trail that passes hot pools, steam vents and geysers. There’s more than 80 active geysers in this area, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Stay out of the hot springs and away from the crust-like formations near the springs that are fragile and can sit above scalding water.
This trip can be done in either three days or four. The extra day gives you more time to explore the geyser basin without having to worry about getting across the lake later in the day. If you choose to do it in four days, camp on the western end of the lake on day two. Your third night, or your second if you choose to do the trip in three days, is ideally camped at 8R1, near the narrowest portion of Shoshone Lake.
On your last day, get another early start and paddle back to Lewis River, where the current will be working in your favor to get you to Lewis Lake and back to the boat ramp.
If you’re not an experienced paddler, opt for a guided trip instead. Geyser Kayak Tours offers three and four-day guided paddle trips to Shoshone Lake.
Climb Avalanche Peak
(Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
While not the tallest point in the park (that designation lies with Eagle Peak, a remote and almost inaccessible point in the Absarokas), Avalanche Peak is still a worthy summit, reaching 10,568 feet in elevation. It’s a short but steep climb, gaining 2,100 feet over your 4.7-mile, round-trip hike. From the top, you’ll catch incredible views of the surrounding mountains, get a sense for the sheer scale of Yellowstone Lake and, on a clear day, see all the way to the Tetons to the south.
Start from the Avalanche Peak Trailhead, eight miles from the park’s East Entrance. Park across the road, at the pullout just east of Eleanor Lake. The trail starts to climb right away through a coniferous forest, including whitebark pine which is a favorite food source of grizzlies. The park often closes this trail for bear activity and park officials suggest you stay away from it in September and October when the grizzlies are fattening up on whitebark pine nuts ahead of winter.
After hiking for 1.2 miles, you’ll come out of the trees at a large bowl at the base of Avalanche Peak. There’s a few spots where there’s some exposure toward the final ascent so walk carefully and don’t crowd the trail in this area. Steel yourself for the false summit at 2.2 miles. While the views are incredible, the real summit still lies more than a tenth-of-a-mile away.
Frequent afternoon thunderstorms make the exposed peak a lightning risk in the summer months. Start your hike early and aim to be below tree line by midday. Snow and ice often linger on the peak until July, it’s always good to check trail conditions with a ranger when hiking in the early season. Bring wind layers as this peak is notoriously windy.
Learn more about Hiking the Avalanche Peak Trail
Cross-Country Ski to Lone Star Geyser
(Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
Winter in Yellowstone is magical. Steam billows from thermal features thickly in the cold air. Intricate ice crystals form on trees and railings. Snow carpets the ground. In the winter, wildlife is abundant and crowds are scarce making it the perfect time to visit.
There’s many ways to recreate in Yellowstone when the snow falls from snowmobiling to snowshoeing to winter hiking, but our favorite is cross-country skiing. A 9-mile, round-trip ski from Old Faithful Snow Lodge to Lone Star Geyser is one of those experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Getting to Snow Lodge, which is located in the Old Faithful area of the park, is half the adventure. In winter, parks roads are closed to normal vehicle traffic so the only way to get to the hotel is by snowmobile or snow coach, which is a shuttle equipped with big, monster-truck-like tires that are designed for driving un-plowed, snowy roads. Book a day trip from West Yellowstone or Gardiner, or stay overnight at the hotel. Reservations are limited and very popular so book well in advance. If you’re not traveling with your own skis, you can rent them at Snow Lodge.
Before you set out, check with the staff at the Visitor Education Center on when Lone Star Geyser’s next predicted eruption is. It usually erupts every three hours. From Snow Lodge, take the Kepler Cascades Trail to the Lone Star Geyser Trail, which follows a relatively flat service road through a picturesque winter forest along the Firehole River. The trail is partially machine groomed.
Make sure to pack a thermos of hot coffee or cocoa to keep you warm while you wait for the geyser to erupt and watch Mother Nature’s 20-minute show. Areas around geysers can be icy so move slowly and carefully near thermal features.
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