Top 5 Yellowstone Backpacking Trips

Yellowstone was America’s first national park. Officially designated a national park in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone became the precedent for other amazing landscapes to become national parks like Yosemite, Glacier and the Grand Canyon. This alone makes Yellowstone a phenomenally special place.

What takes Yellowstone to the next level though is its geothermal features, its wildlife, its shear beauty and – the focus of this article – its amazingly preserved wilderness. The best way to explore this wilderness is on a backcountry trip where you get to spend multiple days and nights immersed in the forms and rhythms of the natural world. Backcountry traveling options include horseback riding trips, llama-supported treks, canoe/kayak trips, and backpacking trips. This article is a deep dive into the reasons to backpack Yellowstone, a list of our recommended trips, options and links to guided Yellowstone trips and all the considerations that are important to be aware of.

Why a Yellowstone Backpacking Trip?

  1. Wildlife: Yellowstone’s wildlife is almost second-to-none, really only matched in the Continental USA by Glacier National Park. With black bears, grizzly bears, wolverines, wolves, moose, elk, deer, bison, Pronghorn and many, many other types of bird and animal life, Yellowstone is a wonderland of diversity.
  2. Geothermal Features: this is of course a major reason people visit Yellowstone, but why is it a reason to do a backpacking trip? Simple – to be able to enjoy this aspect of the Park without the crowds and in a pristine setting.
  3. Vast Wilderness: at 3,741 square miles and over 2,000,000 acres, Yellowstone is an immaculately preserved wilderness. When you hike through this landscape, you are seeing it almost exactly as the early explorers did in the early 19th century.
  4. Rivers, Lakes and Waterfalls: this national park is a wet, lush place compared to many areas of the West. With rich trout rivers, massive bodies of fresh water, and plunging waterfalls, there is so much to see in Yellowstone’s backcountry.
  5. Wildflowers and Meadows: Yellowstone is famous for its vast networks of pristine meadows. There’s really nowhere else like it in this respect, and its one reason the wildlife – particularly the bison – thrive here. In and around these meadows, wildflowers flourish and add a breathtaking element to the backpacking experience.

When to Go?

In general, the best season for backpacking is June through September. This does vary by trip however, as some trips are better or worse at different times. Earlier than June will be snowy and the rivers will be very high with runoff. Later than September can be very cold with the possibility of heavy snowfall.

What About Grizzly Bears?

Grizzly bears are a massive consideration when planning a Yellowstone backpacking trip. You must be ready to hike, camp and cook safely in grizzly country or your sake and for the bears’ well-being. This involves hanging food, keeping a very clean camp, hiking with caution, staying in medium to large groups (4-10 people), carrying bear spray, sleeping in different clothes than you cook in, not having anything scented in you tent and more. For these reasons, it is highly recommended that you join a guided Yellowstone backpacking trip if you are unfamiliar with hiking and camping in grizzly country. Yellowstone also has a special bear safety page that is worth reading.

Yellowstone Backpacking Permits

To hike and camp in Yellowstone’s backcountry you are required to have permits. The permits are issued based on nights in campsites. Individual campsites have different capacities. Researching your route, determining which campsites you’ll need, ensuring they have the correct capacity, and applying for those permits is a somewhat cumbersome process. You can begin on Yellowstone’s Backcountry Hiking webpage. Yellowstone backpacking tours offer a convenient, high quality option in that they include the permits, as well as gear, meals, local transportation, expert guides and more.

Yellowstone Supervolcano

To understand the basic overview of the geothermal activity in and around Yellowstone, it helps to start with a quick and dirty  timeline:

  • Over approximately the last 70 million years, the Yellowstone area has been warped, moved and shaped by massive uplifts, volcanic activity, and glaciation.
  • Roughly 17 million years ago, a new period of increased and dramatic volcanic activity began to affect the modern day states of Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. This activity grew closer to Yellowstone as the North American plate migrated in a southwesterly direction.
  • Approximately 2 million years ago, the above-mentioned tectonic motion brought the Yellowstone area to a concentration of magma that is relatively close to the surface. It is this underground “great lake” of shallow magma  (or supervolcano) sitting directly beneath Yellowstone that leads to the Park’s geothermal activity. The proximity of the magma to the surface is what has created such famous attractions as Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs and many more.
  • In 1808 John Colter (a member of the original Lewis and Clark expedition) was the first person to document geothermal features in the Yellowstone area. Although he may never have actually entered what is now the national park, he did make it to the present Cody, Wyoming area and found hot springs in that area. Several Greater Yellowstone features are named after John Colter: Colter Bay, Colter’s Hell…etc.
  • In 1870 Truman C. Everts joined an expedition into the Yellowstone area, which was almost entirely unexplored up until that point. He got separated from his group in the autumn and endured heavy snow storms alone, without food and supplies or his companions. Using thermal pools to stay warm and survive, he was rescued after more than a month of being lost. He published his story in an articled called “Thirty-seven Days of Peril,” which was read widely across America. His descriptions of the Yellowstone country and its geothermal features helped create momentum to make Yellowstone America’s first national park.
  • In 1872 Yellowstone became America’s first national park, preserving its amazing geysers, hot springs, mud pots and other volcanic activity for the world to enjoy.

Many people wonder whether the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt again. Scientists tell us that yes, it will erupt again. But the timeline we’re talking about is thousands or millions of years from now. So, while there is risk that Yellowstone will explode and wipe out all life within 500 miles in every direction, it’s not a reason to stay away. In fact, it’s a reason to go!

Hiking in Geothermal Areas

One of Yellowstone’s most unique and impressive characteristics is its incredible geothermal features: geysers, hot springs, mud pots and more. Many backpacking trips will take you near geyser basins and geothermal areas. Every couple years one or more tourists die in these fascinating features. Some very simple guidelines will help keep you safe:

  • Most importantly, stay on designated trails whenever you’re near geothermal features, and/or are unsure of the safety of the area.
  • Do not touch thermal features or their runoff unless you’re sure it’s safe (example Snake River Hot Springs)
  • Do not toss objects of any kind into hot springs or other thermal features.
  • Toxic gases build up to hazardous levels in some geothermal areas. If you start to feel unwell in a geyser or geothermal area, leave at once.

Leave No Trace

Yellowstone is a pristine environment. It is one of the world’s remaining, beautifully intact ecosystems. With venturing into the backcountry comes the responsibility for taking care of it. This means following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles that protect the wilderness, its wildlife and the experience of adventurers who come after you. One of the most important aspects of Leave No Trace in Yellowstone is responsibly traveling in bear country. Dangerous bears often become aggressive due to careless actions by humans, and in the end the bears are euthanized. If you join a guided trip, it’s important to make sure they also follow Leave No Trace principles.

Getting to Yellowstone

There are 4 major gateway cities for flying in and visiting Yellowstone National Park:

  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming (2 hour drive to the South Entrance)
  • Cody, Wyoming (1 hour drive to the East Entrance)
  • Idaho Falls, Idaho (3 hour from the South Entrance)
  • Bozeman, Montana (1.5 hour from the North Entrance)
  • Salt Lake City, Utah (8 hour drive from the South Entrance)

The Park has 4 major entrances:

  • South Entrance north of Jackson Hole
  • West Entrance near West Yellowstone
  • North Entrance near Gardner, Montana
  • East Entrance west of Cody, Wyoming

Choosing the Right Trip

Now the fun part! Picking your trip. We have detailed 5 of the best backpacking areas/trips in Yellowstone below. We have included descriptions of the areas and the trips, as well as recommendations for when to do the trips and other pertinent details.

Trip Difficulty Days
Black Canyon Moderate 3-4
Shoshone Lake Moderate 3-4
Snake River Moderate 2-3
Sportsman Lake Moderate 3-4
Electric Peak Strenuous 2-3

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1. Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River

The Area

The Black Canyon is in northern Yellowstone, near the border of the national park. Much of this area is actually in Montana instead of Wyoming, and some trips will start in one state and end in the other. The Black Canyon is lower elevation than many parts of Yellowstone, which makes it drier and warmer.

The Yellowstone River (significantly, the longest undammed river in the Continental United States) carved out the Black Canyon over millions of years. The river flows deep and fast through the canyon, and is home to amazing fishing during certain times of year.

Trip Overview

Generally, this trip is a thru-hike from one end of the canyon to the other. You can start on the west end and hike east, or vice versa. On the east end is Hellroaring Creek, and on the west end is Blacktail Deer Creek. Between these two entry/exit points is a wonderful hike through meadows, past a lake and a waterfall, and amidst rich wildlife habitat.

Required Permits

Backcountry camping permits are required for this trip and must be secured in advance.

When to do this Trip

This trip is best in early and late season. Late May and June are great, and September into mid October is also great. The middle of the summer will be hot and buggy and is not the most enjoyable time to be in the Black Canyon.

Hike the Black Canyon with a Guide

We provide guided backpacking trips into the Black Canyon, which are 3-4 days in length. We provide permits, shuttles from Bozeman (which is especially convenient since this is a thru-hike), gear, meals, professional guides, grizzly equipment and safety procedures and more. We call this trip our Spring Trekking Adventure. Read More!

 

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2. Shoshone Lake

The Area

Shoshone Lake is a beautiful mountain lake that abuts the Shoshone Geyser Basin. So in essence, backpacking into Shoshone Lake is a chance to visit a backcountry lake and a backcountry geyser basin in one trip. The lake is excellent for swimming if you don’t mind very cold water, and the geyser basin is fascinating.

Trip Overview

This trip can be done as an out-and-back hike or as a loop-style thru-hike. We recommend the thru-hike so you can enjoy new scenery every day. To do the thru-hike, begin at Lonestar Geyser Trailhead and hike past Lonestar Geyser (Yellowstone’s largest backcountry geyser) to Shoshone Lake and Geyser Basin. Then traverse the northern shore of Shoshone Lake on day 2 and exit on the Delacey Creek Trail day 3. You can add a layover day to explore the geyser basin, swim in the lake, fish and/or just enjoy being in God’s Country.

Required Permits

Backcountry camping permits are required for this trip and must be secured in advance.

When to do this Trip

This trip is best in July, August and September. July and early August can have thick mosquitoes, but the temperatures will be warm enough to enjoy swimming in the lake.

Hike This Area with a Guide

We don’t offer this exact trip as a guided option, but we do have a trip that starts at Lonestar Geyser and Shoshone Lake called the Bechler River Traverse. It is a phenomenal 5-day or 6-day trip, depending on your preference.

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3. Snake River

The Area

The Snake River flows through southern Yellowstone like a wide, arching ribbon. Its shimmering blue waters, polished granite stones and deep-swimming trout are legendary to enthusiasts of the area. It is one of the West’s most significant rivers. An opportunity to hike along its shores is a magnificent opportunity. Wildlife are rich in this area, and backpacking offers opportunities to potentially see grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, moose, elk, deer, bison and more. Additionally, this area has rich geothermal features, with occasional thermal hot spots and a steaming river that arises in a pool and flows into the Snake River. Where these two meet you can soak in the resulting hot springs (pictured above.)

Not long ago, one of our groups was enjoying soaking in the Snake River hot springs. The guide stood up and noticed a pack of wolves, with multiple pups, not more than 25 yards from our group. They at first didn’t see him and he was able to motion to the rest of the group to stand up and get a glimpse. Most of our guests were able to enjoy a couple moments of watching this wild pack of wolves, with pups, while soaking in a hot spring in the middle of Yellowstone’s wilderness. How amazing! This is what’s possible in this incredible area.

Trip Overview

This trip is an out-and-back hike that begins and ends at the South Boundary Trailhead. It requires fording the Snake River, which does require some expertise with river crossings. Later in the summer – mid August and September – it will likely be lower with easier crossings. July through the first week of August can be higher water and more difficult, or even dangerous, river crossings.

Follow the South Boundary Trail to the campsites near the hot springs (must be reserved in advance.) The hot springs are easily accessible from the campsites. If you turn this into a 3-day trip, you can spend a day hiking and exploring, soaking in the hot springs, fishing and relaxing. The final day you’ll return the way you came to the South Boundary Trailhead.

Required Permits

Backcountry camping permits are required for this trip and must be secured in advance.

When to do this Trip

Because of the river crossings, this trip is best in August and September. If you’d like to mostly avoid mosquitoes, then look more toward mid August and September.

Hike the Snake River Area with a Guide

The backpacking trip we offer that includes this area is called Heart Lake to Snake River. It is a 4-5 day thru-hike, and one of our most popular trips. It requires more river crossings than on the above-described trip, but with an expert guide it’s very manageable.

 

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4. Sportsman Lake

The Area

Sportsman Lake is in the Gallatin Range in the northwestern part of Yellowstone. The Gallatin Mountains were named after Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), the longest serving secretary of state in the USA. They are the highest and most dramatic range in the Park. Home to several pristine mountain lakes, the Gallatins are worth exploring on a Yellowstone backpacking trip.

Trip Overview

This trip can be done as an out-and-back hike or a thru-hike. To do it as an out-and-back you can start and end at either Glen Creek Trail on the east side or the Specimen Creek Trail on the west side. If you come in from the west side, you will have to hike over Electric Pass, which is a significant climb.

To do this trip as a thru-hike, you’ll start on either the Specimen Creek Trail and hike east across the Gallatins, coming out the Glen Creek Trail, or vice versa. It’s a bit easier to go east to west because you lose a total of 1,000 feet across the trip.

Required Permits

Backcountry camping permits are required for this trip and must be secured in advance.

When to do this Trip

This trip is fantastic in July, August and the first half of September.

Backpack the Gallatins with a Guide

We offer multiple trips in the Gallatin Range, including our Mountain Country Trek, which visits Sportsman Lake, as well as our Gallatin Crest and Gallatin Skyline Trips. To see these trips, please visit our Yellowstone backpacking trips page. We also offer our Sportsman Lake Llama Trek if exploring the backcountry without a heavy backpack sounds appealing!

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5. Electric Peak

The Area

This trip, like the Sportsman Lake trip described above, is also in the Gallatins. However, with this trip we are specifically focused on summiting amazing Electric Peak (10,969 feet). The best place to camp in this area is along the Gardner River. This area is fantastic for wildlife, and is stunning beautiful.

Trip Overview

For this trip you want to begin at the Glen Creek Trail and hike west to the campsites along the Gardner River. Spend 1-2 nights at one of these campsites, and summit Electric Peak on your layover day, or in the morning before you hike out. The hike to the summit of Electric Peak is steep and rugged. It follows a faint social trail, but is not technically “on trail”.

Required Permits

Backcountry camping permits are required for this trip and must be secured in advance.

When to do this Trip

This trip is excellent in July, August and the first half of September.

Summit Electric Peak with a Guide

Our Mountain Country Trek summits Electric Peak and is an excellent trip.

Wildland Trekking Hiking Adventures

 

As the world’s premier hiking and trekking company, Wildland believes in connecting people to fantastic environments in amazing ways. Wildland Trekking Company offers an array of incredible hiking and trekking experiences in 9 states and 11 countries. Read more about our world-class destinations.

To learn more about our guided backpacking trips and all of our award-winning hiking vacations, please visit our website or connect with one of our Adventure Consultants: 800-715-HIKE.

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Top 5 Yellowstone Backpacking Trips
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Top 5 Yellowstone Backpacking Trips
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This article is a deep dive into the reasons to backpack Yellowstone, a list of our recommended trips, options and links to guided Yellowstone trips and all the considerations that are important to be aware of.
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The Wildland Trekking Company
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