12 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Yellowstone National Park

Written by Brad Lane
Jun 8, 2020

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The nation's first national park, Yellowstone encompasses over two million acres of the American West. This vast expanse of dynamic landscape makes Yellowstone an incredible destination for hiking. Sitting atop an active volcano and ancient calderas, the park also proudly displays the densest collection of hydrothermal features in the world.

To access many of the attractions of Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service provides plenty of hiking trails in Yellowstone, including planked boardwalks atop the fragile crust of thermal environments. Iconic Yellowstone hiking trails, like the Upper Geyser Boardwalk next to Old Faithful, are must dos on any visit. Other far-reaching adventures, like the Slough Creek Trail, can give you a taste of an uncrowded Yellowstone.

Due to the park's large area and variety of unique regions to explore, it's highly advised to mark several days off the calendar for your next visit. Many of the best campgrounds in Yellowstone enable great overnight visits and proximity to several noteworthy trailheads.

Bison and other wildlife are encountered while hiking in Yellowstone, and visitors should keep their distance so as not to disturb these native residents.

Learn more about the best places to visit in this vast wilderness with our list of the top hiking trails in Yellowstone National Park.

See also: Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk

Morning Glory Pool, Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk
Morning Glory Pool, Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Containing, for many, the highlight of Yellowstone National Park, the Upper Geyser Basin has the densest concentration of hydrothermal features in the world. This includes the always dependable Old Faithful Geyser.

There is a lot to explore within the two square miles of the Upper Geyser Basin, including more than half of Yellowstone's 300 geysers. Other notable hydrothermal features encountered in the Upper Geyser Basin include the regal Castle Geyser and the thermophile-filled Morning Glory Pool.

The 1.5-mile boardwalk trail of the Upper Geyser Basin and Geyser Hill follows along the Firehole River and provides plenty to admire. With predicted eruption times for five geysers along the boardwalk, including Old Faithful, there's always a good chance of catching a hydrothermal reaction. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes, and daily eruption times are posted at the Old Faithful Visitor Center.

The Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk deserves a strolling pace. Between the erupting geysers, burbling hot springs, and fuming fumaroles, this dynamic area really defines what makes Yellowstone so unique. After you've finished seeing, smelling, and hearing the active Upper Geyser Basin on the boardwalk trail, it's easy to extend your adventure into the surrounding area.

Other great day hikes, like the Lone Star Geyser Trail, are close by, and the Midway Geyser Basin is only a short drive away. Adjacent the Old Faithful Geyser, the historic Old Faithful Inn, established in 1904, provides an impressive, rustic dining hall and timeless accommodations. Next to the Inn, the more-modern Old Faithful Visitor Education Center provides valuable information about the area.

2. West Thumb Geyser Basin Boardwalk

West Thumb Geyser Basin Boardwalk
West Thumb Geyser Basin Boardwalk | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located on the west thumb of the 131-square-mile Yellowstone Lake, the West Thumb Geyser Basin provides an aquatic environment infused with hydrothermal features. Even in the parking lot of West Thumb Geyser Basin, gurgling geysers can be heard, and once out on the half-mile boardwalk, they can't be missed.

Between Abyss Pool, Percolating Spring, and Twin Geysers, there's a lot to stop and see on the West Thumb Geyser Basin Boardwalk, including the underwater Lakeshore Geyser and Fishing Cone.

Adjacent to the sulfuric smell and bright colors of the basin, Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 8,000 feet in North America, offers welcoming views of the deep water.

Hikers at the West Thumb Geyser Basin mostly stick to a level boardwalk the entire way and should plan for at least an hour to check out the area. The Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail is a 1.7-mile hike accessible nearby that provides a commanding view of the water.

3. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: South and North Rim

Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

While Yellowstone National Park might be best known for its wide array of hydrothermal features, the nation's first national park also delivers on some jaw-dropping views. No better example of that can be found than at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. With two rims to explore, and massive canyon walls to admire, even with the viewpoints, it's a challenge to comprehend the enormity of it all.

On the North Rim, a recommended course of adventure includes the switch-back-filled Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, where you can nearly feel the splash of Lower Falls before it falls 300 feet into the canyon below. Likewise, the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail on the North Rim offers another great perspective of plunging water.

On the South Rim, Uncle Tom's Trail offers great views of the Upper and Lower Falls and serves as a worthy place to enjoy a picnic. The trailhead for Uncle Tom's Trail features a comfort station including bathrooms, and the viewing area is known to draw big crowds throughout the summer.

For a little more breathing room, the aptly named Point Sublime and Artist Point trailheads are accessible with a longer drive down the South Rim.

4. Midway Geyser Basin: Grand Prismatic Boardwalk

Midway Geyser Basin: Grand Prismatic Boardwalk
Midway Geyser Basin: Grand Prismatic Boardwalk | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within a five-minute drive from the Old Faithful Inn and Upper Geyser Basin, the Midway Geyser Basin is home to one of Yellowstone's largest and most impressive hydrothermal attractions. Living up to its name, the Grand Prismatic Spring of the Midway Geyser Basin measures approximately 360 feet in diameter. With clouds of steam churning above the vibrant hues of heat-loving bacteria in the spring, Grand Prismatic looks like it belongs on another planet.

Visitors to the Midway Geyser Basin are encouraged to tour the half-mile boardwalk that skirts the rim of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Other mega-sized features encountered along the way include Excelsior Geyser Crater, which pumps thousands of gallons of heated water into the nearby Firehole River.

For a stepped-back perspective of Grand Prismatic, visitors should head to the nearby Fairy Falls Trailhead to hike up the 0.6-mile Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail.

5. Mount Washburn Trail

Mount Washburn Trail
Mount Washburn Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For the uphill hikers that come to Yellowstone, Mount Washburn offers some elevation to test the legs. Accessed from the Dunraven Pass parking lot, just north of Canyon Village, Mount Washburn provides a healthy climb, great views, and an interesting glimpse into the park's ongoing history with forest fires.

The 6.8-mile round trip up and down Mount Washburn follows a Forest Service road, slowly exposing great views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Hayden Valley, and Grand Teton the entire way.

The trail climbs 1,400 feet, and a working fire tower roosts at the peak of Mount Washburn. On any given day, expect to see a park ranger in the fire tower keeping their eye out for fire signs in the park. Separate space in the fire tower is reserved for visitor information and binocular stands, which serves as a great resting spot before heading back down the mountain.

Mount Washburn from Dunraven Pass is one of the most popular day hikes in the park. Don't let the number of people hiking the trail make you think it's not a challenge, though. Hikers should bring water and snacks, as well as extra layers in the event of fast-moving weather.

The park's native wildlife can be spotted along the route, and visitors should carry bear spray as a precaution.

6. Mammoth Hot Springs: Upper and Lower Terrace Boardwalks

Mammoth Hot Springs: Upper and Lower Terrace Boardwalks
Mammoth Hot Springs: Upper and Lower Terrace Boardwalks | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located on the far north side of Yellowstone National Park, near the Montana entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs proudly displays ancient activity still at play. Featuring an Upper, Lower, and Main Terrace to explore, Mammoth Hot Springs is a dynamic area full of color, steam, and growing geological formations.

Along the boardwalk on the Lower Terrace, the cascading travertine of Minerva Terrace deserves a moment's appreciation, as do the changing colors of New Blue Spring on the Main Terrace. Every inch of Mammoth Hot Springs is worth exploring, and chances are it will significantly change if you visit a decade later.

After the adventure, visitors to the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces can continue their hike on the nearby and wildlife-rich Beaver Ponds Trail.

For extended stays in the area, or Yellowstone hiking in the winter, the nearby Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is one of the best campgrounds in Yellowstone, and the only campground open year-round.

7. Norris Geyser Basin Boardwalk

Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Defined by the scorched appearance of geysers, hot springs, and a fragile crust, the Norris Geyser Basin is the most active geyser area of Yellowstone National Park. Providing the clearest pictures of Yellowstone's volcanic upbringings, Norris is an otherworldly environment filled with colorful thermophiles, hissing steam, and three miles of boardwalk to explore it all. One of the area's largest features, Steamboat Geyser is the world's tallest active geyser and has the capability to shoot water 300 feet into the air.

Split between a Back Basin and Porcelain Basin, the Norris Geyser Basin can take at least half the day to explore. The on-site Norris Geyser Basin Museum displays the history of the area and is a historic piece of architecture itself built in the 1920s.

It is extremely important for hikers to stay on the boardwalk paths, as it's only a thin crust atop the hot springs and fumaroles in the area that reach up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius).

8. Slough Creek Trail

Slough Creek Trail
Slough Creek Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Venturing on the Slough Creek Trail in the northeast Tower-Roosevelt region of the park allows an out-and-back day hike or an exciting overnight adventure. Located within the Lamar Valley and the luscious meadows along Slough Creek, the Slough Creek Trail is a popular getaway for anglers, backpackers, and wildlife alike.

Every step of the 20-mile Slough Creek Trail reveals a less crowded, wide-open Yellowstone landscape.

For those looking to camp along or near the Slough Creek Trail, backcountry permits are needed for overnight travel. Backpacking and spending the night in this less crowded area affords very favorable stargazing at night.

The primitive Slough Creek Campground adjacent to the trailhead has 16 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis.

9. Boiling River Trail

Boiling River Trail
Boiling River Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

One of the few hydrothermal areas you can interact with at Yellowstone National Park, the influx of hydrothermal water into the icy cold Gardner River creates the heated swimming spot known as the Boiling River. This unique attraction is just north of Mammoth Hot Springs, and a short drive from the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of the park.

The Boiling River requires just a half-mile trail to access, and visitors may want to bring a towel or dry change of clothes.

While it is physically dangerous to soak in the Boiling River hot spring itself, the output of hot water into the Gardner River is plenty to warm things up. Limited facilities for changing into a bathing suit can be found near the Boiling River, and swimming can be off-limits if water levels are too high. Catch the river at the right time, however, and you can feel for yourself some of the hydrothermal action that courses throughout the entire Yellowstone landscape.

10. Lone Star Geyser

Lone Star Geyser
Lone Star Geyser | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Crossing paths with the Continental Divide Trail, the Lone Star Geyser was given its name thanks to its stray location within the Upper Geyser Basin. Currently, this hydrothermal feature provides the easiest access to a backcountry geyser in the park.

Without a doubt, the first people to stumble upon the scorched landscape surrounding this massive geyser were amazed at the sight, and even more in awe at the 30- to 45-foot spray of water that erupted out of the cone.The Lone Star Geyser still shows its impact on the area today and spouts water roughly every three hours.

To access and witness an eruption of Lone Star Geyser, it's a scenic 2.4-mile hike or bike ride down an old forest service road that meanders next to the Firehole River. The retired forest road and Lone Star Geyser Trail is accessible from the Grand Loop Road in the Upper Geyser Basin, 3.5 miles south of the Old Faithful Overpass.

While Lone Star is less visited because of this 4.8-mile, out-and-back route, the grade is flat, and the terrain is easy, making this impressive backcountry geyser easily accessible for most levels of explorers. The key to making the most out of any visit to Lone Star Geyser is timing your visit to coincide with an eruption. Eruption times can be found at most visitor centers throughout the park.

11. DeLacy Creek Trail

DeLacy Creek Trail
DeLacy Creek Trail

Located just under nine miles west of the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the DeLacy Creek Trail lends access to Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone's largest backcountry lake. The DeLacy Trail is a 5.8-mile, out-and-back trail that follows the flow of DeLacy Creek to the shores of Shoshone. Wildlife is commonly spotted along this moderately graded route, and the views of Shoshone Lake are breathtaking.

Upon reaching the lake, visitors are encouraged to explore the shoreline before heading back the way they came. If the weather is warm, it's fun to take a quick dip in the icy cold waters of Shoshone Lake before heading back. For those with a permit, the DeLacy Creek Trail is also a popular spot to access Yellowstone's vast wilderness areas.

12. Bechler River Trail

Iris Falls along the Bechler River Trail
Iris Falls along the Bechler River Trail | Adam Jones / photo modified

While seeing other people should be an expected occurrence at Yellowstone National Park, if you want to ditch the crowds for a day or two, your best bet will be found in the park's sprawling backcountry.

Permits are needed for any overnight travel in the Yellowstone backcountry, and while your chances of running into other humans diminishes the farther you travel, your exposure to all sorts of wildlife increases tenfold. Proper protocol needs to be followed with backcountry camping in Yellowstone, including safe food storage, and hikers need to pack in, and pack out, all the necessary gear for a comfortable wilderness stay.

A great backcountry route is the Bechler River Trail, located in the remote southwest corner of Yellowstone (known as the Cascade Corner). Comprised of an out-and-back route from the Bechler Ranger Station, the Bechler River Trail covers just over 30 miles of trail along a moderate grade, enabling ambitious hikers to complete the trek in less than two days. Bechler River Trail is worth more of a leisurely pace though, or at least some built-in time to appreciate the abundant waterfalls lining the trail.

Prime hiking time for the Bechler River Trail begins in September, after the river crossings have subsided in strength and the mosquitos have diminished. Required backcountry permits keep the Bechler River Trail less busy, and these permits can become extremely competitive to get in September. Applications for advance backcountry permits are processed beginning March 31 of the same year.

Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park for Sightseeing

It's a trek from any direction to make it inside Yellowstone National Park, and for that reason, it's well worth spending a few nights within park boundaries. As well as 12 different campgrounds within the national park, Yellowstone provides lodges, cabins, and hotels to spend the night and stay close to all the action.

  • Lodges: To experience an authentic Yellowstone adventure, it's a good idea to book a room at one of the many lodges within the park. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, located within eyesight of Old Faithful, provides access to quintessential Yellowstone landscapes from clean, comfortable, and modern amenities.

    Located near the shores of Yellowstone Lake, Grant Village Lodge provides free parking, an attached restaurant, and great views from each spacious guest room.

    Up north near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Canyon Lodge and Cabins is well regarded for its prime location and affable service.
  • Cabins: For those looking to stay at a cabin in the woods within Yellowstone, popular spots like the Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, which gives access to wildlife viewing, horseback rides, and hiking trails, could be right for you. Featuring wood-burning stoves and rocking chairs, the Rough Rider Cabins of Roosevelt Lodge will resonate with those looking for a rustic appeal.

    Farther south in the park, Lake Lodge Cabins provides western cabins with a wondrous backdrop, and just the right amount of modern facilities to ensure a comfortable night's stay.
  • Hotels: To experience the most modern amenities with an overnight stay in Yellowstone, hotels and resorts like the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins provides newly renovated facilities, a central location within the park, and an in-house piano player that fills the wide-open lobby with music each night.

    North in the park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins can be found in a historic building with modern amenities, lending quick access to the nearby village, as well as nearby natural attractions, including the Boiling River and the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces.

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