Scenery, wildlife, and trails
Yellowstone National Park
Encapsulating the wonders of hiking in Yellowstone into a short article is a challenge. The park is big (over two-million acres), diverse (broad plains, snow-covered mountains, forested areas, canyons, waterfalls, and lakes), and filled with the largest collection of hydrothermal features on the planet. For casual walkers and seasoned backpackers, this park is a dream destination. In fact, even non-walkers can push their wheelchair along planked walkways or drive over 370 miles of paved roads to see most of the major sites. If you want to get off the road, you’ll find 1200 miles of developed trails that range from easy walks to strenuous, multi-day climbs.
Perhaps the best place to start your tour is at Old Faithful Inn where you can get a room overlooking the world’s most famous geyser. The Inn is a natural historic landmark that features a towering lobby of local woods and a 500-ton rock fireplace. It is a centerpiece for the Old Faithful complex of lodges, restaurants, and geysers. It’s a short walk to Old Faithful, but for a different perspective, my brother and I hiked up to an observation point. The hike is less than two miles with an elevation gain of 220 feet. From the point, we could view Old Faithful geyser, other geysers, the building complex, and a large valley, complete with a backdrop of forest and mountains.
For a closer look at geysers, you can follow boardwalks to Morning Glory Pool and many geysers, bubbling mud pots, and colorful hot springs. It’s an easy three-mile walk. If you are more ambitious, hike along the Firehole River to the Lone Star Geyser. The 4.8-mile walk takes you to a geyser that erupts for thirty minutes every three hours.
For more dramatic scenery featuring deep canyons and magnificent waterfalls, drive up the east section of the Grand Loop to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Stop at the Upper and Lower falls. When you see them, you’ll agree that they deserve more impressive names. You can follow the Canyon Rim Trail for up to 5.9 miles, with several detours to lookouts above and below the falls.
Stop for food and beverages at the Tower store before a short hike to the Tower Falls. The walk is short, only a few hundred yards with an elevation gain of 250 feet. A spur of this trail once went to the foot of the falls, but it is now closed.
After a short drive past the Tower junction, you’ll see the trailhead for another short trail overlooking the Yellowstone River. It’s an easy walk on stairways to some great views. It was here that I saw a lone hiker walking on a high plateau above the river. I wanted to be that hiker.
For a change of pace a short distance down the road, ride horseback or wagon from Roosevelt Lodge out to Pleasant Valley for an old West cookout of steaks to order, famous Roosevelt baked beans, and all the fixings, topped off by live music and storytelling.
It was fun, but I wouldn’t want to sleep in the Roosevelt cabins. They are drafty and primitive. Better to drive there from Mammoth Hot Springs. Staying in better accommodations is worth the 45-minute drive.
The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a bit quieter than the Old Faithful Inn. It’s a short walk from the hotel to the lower and upper terraces of the hot springs. Following a series of boardwalks, stairs, and paths, you can see the Opal Terrace, the 37-foot high Liberty Cap, the flowing colors of Palette Spring, the white travertine formations of Minerva Terrace, and the unique patterns of the Jupiter and Mound terraces. Climbing up to the Upper Terrace provides overlooks of the Mammoth area, including historic Army buildings built from 1886 to 1918, the Main Terrace, and a host of springs, mounds, and formations in exotic shapes and colors.
In addition to interesting geology, Yellowstone has lots of wildlife. We saw bison, moose, grizzlies, black bears. elk, wolves, marmots, ground squirrels, and chipmunks.
Each area of Yellowstone offers a different birding experience. Giant ravens were the most numerous species, but we saw large predator birds, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, and owls.
In addition to the many short hikes and easy walks, Yellowstone offers many half-day, full-day, and overnight adventures of moderate to very strenuous difficulty. To learn more, get the National Geographic Trails illustrated topo map and the book, Day Hiking Yellowstone. They are available at Yellowstone visitor centers, the Yellowstone Association (877-967-0090), REI, and other outdoor equipment and book outlets.