Yellowstone NP Travel & Hiking Guide
Overview - Yellowstone National Park in northern Wyoming is considered to be one the greatest natural wonders in the United States, let alone the world. Its reputation is well deserved: from migrating herds of bison to rampant and beautiful geothermal activity, Yellowstone National Park does not disappoint.
Details - Our Yellowstone adventure actually began the day before at Lassen Volcanic National Park. We left Lassen at around 4 am to drive up to Crater Lake National Park, thinking we would drive as far as we could through Idaho, and find somewhere to camp. After enjoying our time at Crater Lake, we started actually driving through Oregon, and discovered that their speed limit is 55mph on every, single, highway. This low speed limit (we would usually we doing around 85mph on highways) cost us some valuable time. As we drove through Idaho, and saw that there was literally nothing there, not even in Boise, we decided to make the trip to Yellowstone in one day. First, to save some money on the hotel and two, so we could have more time in Yellowstone. In retrospect, this was incredibly stupid, as driving into Yellowstone from the west is not a hard drive, but there is quite a bit of wildlife, and we were extremely lucky to not have hit something at 4am when we were driving through the outskirts of the park. Anyway, we did end up doing the drive in one day (stopping at Denny's at two in the morning of course) and we got to our desired campground in Yellowstone, Bridge Bay Campground, at around 4am. This was unfortunate in a way because the camp office did not open until 7am. So, we decided to drive back down to Old Faithful and walk around there. Unbelievably, the minute we pulled in to the deserted parking lot, Old Faithful erupted. It was a pretty spectacular moment on the trip. After driving for 24 hours straight, we got to see something amazing.
Old Faithful at 4am just as we pulled in to the parking lot.
After watching Old Faithful erupt, we got back into our car (it was really cold out, sub-30) and drove back to Bridge Bay Campground to park our car in front of the office and sleep for two hours until it opened. Exhausted after a short nap and a long day of driving, we woke up to the alarm I had set, and not only got a campsite, but got one for the full 4 nights/5 days that we wanted. Once again, we were really lucky as a cancellation had just opened the spot up for us. After setting up our tent, we both crashed and slept from 7am-4pm. Well rested, we decided to not let the day go completely to waste and drove over to the visitor center to get some information and a park map (when we drove in at 2am, there was no one to give out maps at the park entrance). This was kind of obnoxious, as there isn't really a park map for the hiking trails, you have to buy one for $12, which for us is a lot of money for a piece of paper. We bit the bullet though, because we knew we needed it in a park the size of Yellowstone. After getting our fill of the visitor center, we headed over to two of the closer geothermal areas in the park, the Mud Volcano and the Sulfer Cauldron. These were very similar to those in Lassen Volcanic National Park, and while interesting, are skippable due to the other geothermal areas in the park that are more interesting. After those two areas and numerous deer sightings, we headed back to the campsite to go to sleep, as we were getting up early once again to hit the trails.
Day 2 - Sepulcher Mountain in Mammoth Springs
We got up at 5:30am planning to hike Seven Mile Hole down to Yellowstone Canyon. Unfortunately, the trail head had been moved, and the park rangers had failed to communicate that to us. So we called into action the hike we had planned for the next day, Sepulcher Mountain (12.5miles RT, 3,400ft elevation gain, strenuous) in Mammoth Springs. This hike was much further north in the park, and it took us an hour and a half to drive to the trail head. Be sure to factor in drive time for your hikes in Yellowstone, as the park is gigantic.
Bison on the drive to Sepulcher Mountain Trail in Yellowstone National Park.
To start off a hike that would be filled with wildlife, we saw a 5-foot snake in the parking lot near the trail head. I do not know what type of snake it is, but if you do, feel free to let me know.
A snake in the Sepulcher Mountain Trail parking lot.
This trail is slightly confusing at first, as there are numerous "game" trails that go off the side of the trail. This is interesting because there really isn't supposed to be hunting in the park, but that's what the rangers told us. Anyway, just follow the trail that is the best worn and you will be fine. That's what we ended up doing. About 15 minutes into the hike, two brown bears strolled through the flower field we had just crossed. They didn't follow us fortunately, but they did come within 50 feet of us at one point.
A brown bear on the Sepulcher Mountain Trail in Yellowstone National Park.
After the bears, we continued to hike up the trail, only to see a wolf cross the trail in addition to numerous elk.
An elk stares us down on the Sepulcher Mountain Trail in Yellowstone National Park.
We have no idea whether this amount of wildlife is typical for this trail or not, but we were pretty amazed nonetheless. After a moderately challenging climb to the top, you are rewarded with some great views of one of the valleys in Yellowstone.
A 360 panorama from the top of Sepulcher Mountain.
A view of the wild flowers and the valley below from Sepulcher Mountain.
As you can see in the pictures it was quite cloudy in Yellowstone when we were hiking Sepulcher Mountain, and as we were hiking down, we noticed a wall of rain coming straight for us as we were hiking through an open field. Good timing. As a result of adrenaline and a slope downhill, we ran (8.5mph according to the gps) for a mile through a field on the way down from Sepulcher Mountain getting drenched by the torrential rain until we arrived at some trees that provided a little bit of shelter. All of our gear was soaked as we sat in the cold waiting for the storm to pass over. Running through a field in a rain storm (fortunately not a lightning storm) is an interesting experience that I suggest you do at least once in your life. After the storm had passed, we hiked down the trail for a couple more hours to get back to the parking lot, still soaked despite the sun that came out after the storm. Just as we got to the car, a lightning storm came in and we sat and watched the storm for a good 30 minutes as there was so much lighting. After the storm passed, we began the long drive back to our camp, only to find ourselves stuck in one the rangers mockingly call a "bear jam". It is exactly what it sounds like. The two lane park highway is turned into a parking lot because someone spots a bear on the side of the road, stops, and more people follow suit. This results in a "bear jam".
A bear jam in Yellowstone National Park.
The second half of the "bear jam".
This delay cost us about an hour on the way back to camp, as people will literally park on the road and get out. It is infuriating if you are just trying to get some where. It turned out to be a Grizzly bear at least, but it was extremely far off in the distance. After finally making it through the "bear jam", we headed back to camp to dry our gear out and eat dinner. We also figured out where the trail head for Seven Mile Hole actually was so that we could get right to it the next day.
The funniest part of the day was when I realized that the best shower both of us had had in a week was the rainstorm we ran through today. You know you are a hiker when that statement is true.
Day 3 - Yellowstone Canyon, Seven Mile Hole Trail, and Mount Washburn
Our third day in Yellowstone started extremely early due to a mistake in setting our alarm. Undeterred by the 4am wakeup, we got our gear together and headed off to Seven Mile Trail. The drive to the trail head was an adventure in and of itself. The fog was so thick visibility was reduced to 10-15 feet in some places. Take a look at the pics below. As you may know, this is extremely dangerous to drive in, especially in Yellowstone, as there is so much wildlife on the road. We had to stop three times, once for a bison standing in the road and twice for herds of deer crossing the road. The max speed we went was about 30mph at any one time.
Early morning fog on the road on the way to Seven Mile Trail.
The fog a little later at Seven Mile Trail Head.
After eating a Power Bar at the trail head, we started what would end up being one of the most brutal hikes of our trip and not because of any of the normal reasons. The hike down Seven Mile Hole Trail started off perfectly fine with some spectacular God-light in the forest.
God-light on the Seven Mile Hole Trail.
The hike down in to Yellowstone Canyon was not terribly difficult and the views at the bottom were fantastic.
A panorama at the bottom of Yellowstone Canyon via Seven Mile Hole Trail.
An HDR exposure at the bottom of Yellowstone Canyon via Seven Mile Hole Trail.
After taking a break at the bottom of the canyon, we started the hike back up the canyon to where the trail split to go up Mount Washburn. Everything up to split was perfectly fine, but conditions went downhill quickly after the split in the trail. The trail up Mount Washburn via Seven Mile Hole Trail was a mosquito infested swamp. Literally. The trail was inch thick mud in most places and the sheer number of mosquitoes that called the trail their home was insane. The mosquitoes were worse than when I was in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, that is how bad the mosquitoes were. I was fortunately covered from head to toe except for my face and neck, which got eaten alive. Some even got through my hair, which is considerable to say the least. This made the hike up to Mount Washburn absolutely miserable. It was humid, 85 degrees, mosquitoes were killing us, and we were covered from head to toe. Not a good part of the hike. The reason it was so bad was we were in the above situation for 3 hours and after waving bugs off you constantly while hiking up a mountain, you start to feel fatigued.
Looks like a beautiful meadow, but in reality is a mosquito infested swamp.
Fortunately, after we got to the higher altitudes on the mountain, the mosquitoes disappeared and we were left to nurse our wounds in peace and, oh yea, get up the rest of Mount Washburn.
Despite all of the trouble that we went through to get up to Mount Washburn, the views at the top were instantly gratifying.
A 360 panorama from the top of Mount Washburn. (Click for bigger version)
Another panorama from the top of Mount Washburn. (Click for bigger version)
After taking a long break at the top of Mount Washburn, we decided that there was no way in hell we were going back the way we came. Unfortunately, this meant that the route going back would be much longer than we anticipated. The route started off taking the old fire road down from Mount Washburn, which is the preferred way of getting to the top we later learned. This is literally a road that snakes its way to the top of the mountain. This trail was a blessing after the initial trek up Mount Washburn.
A panorama from the fire road leading down from Mount Washburn.
After getting down to the parking lot for the fire road/trail up Mount Washburn, we started our long trek back to our car on the side of the two lane highway, as it was the only route back to our car. This part was long and grueling just because it all looks the same. Eventually, we got back to our car, exhausted, and while not upset about the days hike, slightly frustrated that the rangers once again didn't tell us about the actual trail conditions. We ended up hiking about 25 miles at the end of the day after all was said and done.
Trail Distances for Seven Mile Hole Trail, Mount Washburn, and Fire Road to Mount Washburn
7 Mile Hole Trail - Down the canyon and back to the split, 7.5 miles
Split --> Mt. Washburn - 6 miles
Mt. Washburn --> Fire Road to parking lot, 3.1 miles
Parking Lot --> Our car, 7.5 miles
Misc off trail hikes--> about a mile
Day 4 - Old Faithful and Geothermal Attractions
Our fourth day in Yellowstone we took relatively easy, and promised ourselves that if it couldn't be done on a boardwalk in sandals, we weren't hiking it. After we got up at 10am, we headed over to Old Faithful to see it it the daytime and it was just as spectacular.
A panorama of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.
After watching Old Faithful do its thing, we walked around the rest of the boardwalk area there, admiring the other geothermal attractions and the colors they exhibited.
Old Faithful Geothermal Area
Old Faithful Geothermal Area
Old Faithful Geothermal Area
After taking our time going through the geothermal area around Old Faithful, we drove over to the Grand Pristine Pool which is famous worldwide because of the colors that it puts on display. Ironically enough, as soon as we arrived, the sky clouded up muting most of the beautiful colors. However, it was still worth a stop.
Clouds reflected in the Grand Pristine Pool.
After our sedentary day (in which we walked approximately 6 miles ironically enough), we ate another huge dinner, and got ready to leave the next day for Grand Teton National Park right below Yellowstone.
Final Words on Yellowstone National Park
Overall Verdict - Yellowstone lives up to its reputation as one of the greatest natural preserves in the world. The diversity of landscapes, animals, and hikes in one area is truly incredible.
Days/Nights to Camp/Spend Here – Honestly, you could spend a good week here. However, we felt we saw everything we *really* wanted to see in 3 full days of hiking, but our schedule was pretty crazy. I would reccomend 4 days at a minumum.
Camping Evaluation - Bridge Bay Campground is a very large campground with hundreds of sites which makes for a very noisy and "commercial" campground. It was fine as far as a campground goes, and honestly, we weren't there that much, so it didn't matter. However, itw was relatively noisy due to all of the RV sites. Overall, its a good campground because of its location which is relatively central to everything in the park.
Best Time To See Yellowstone National Park - Morning, morning, morning. You will see a ton of wildlife and miss most of the crowds. We didn't see a single person on the Sepulcher Mountain Trail and only two or three on the whole Seven Mile Hole/Mount Washburn trail. It will also give you best light for photography.
Tips/Tricks - Ask multiple park rangers about trail conditions, as some know much more than others. Bring plenty of water and food on these hikes, as they may take longer than expected. Also, bring gear for every weather condition, as it changes rapidly.
Best Hikes - Sepulcher Mountain, Seven Mile Hole Trail --> Yellowstone Canyon, Fire Road-->Mount Washburn, Old Faithful Geothermal Area
Hikes to Avoid - Seven Mile Hole Trail route up to Mount Washburn, unless conditions have been verifiably improved. Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldron are not really worth your time in the grand scheme of things.
More Photos - Below in the slideshow and more in the gallery here.