By Mike Baron – FivePax Family Travel
Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park Off the Beaten Path
Yellowstone National Park in the United States is home to some of the worlds most geologically dynamic and breathtaking views, so quite understandably backpacking in Yellowstone National Park is a spectacular experience. You can camp alongside elk, timberwolves, bears, pronghorns, moose, bighorn sheep, and the oldest free range herd of bison on Earth. Enjoying nature and wildlife, however, has drawn the attention of over 4 million visitors per year. By my measure, lining up to see natural attractions along side hundreds of onlookers eager to please their Instagram followers defeats the purpose of such beauty.
Fortunately, Yellowstone covers almost 9,000 km2 (3,500 sq mi) and is full of iconic views on and off the beaten path. That gave me plenty to choose from when deciding on a route for my birthday trip. Eventually, I settled on a 4 day, 3 night backpacking adventure through the backcountry of Yellowstone’s Black Canyon. I was accompanied by my wife Brittany, a guide from REI Adventures and a group of my friends. We encountered other people briefly on only one night of our trek, and were otherwise left with the natural beauty entirely to ourselves. If you have questions or comments at this point, feel free to leave a comment below. If not, read on, as I’ll share with you all the details you’ll need to go backpacking in Yellowstone yourself.
To fully appreciate what makes Yellowstone so unique, it helps to understand what lies beneath. Geothermal hot spots in Yellowstone produce 500 of the world’s approximately 1000 active geysers, including the famous “Old Faithful.” These hot spots also produce bubbling mud pots that look like something out of a Star Wars movie and act as center pieces to the majestic landscape.
Most of these fascinating geological features and hot spots are the result of Yellowstone sitting on top of a tectonic ridge as well as one of the largest and potentially most powerful super volcanoes on Earth. The last eruption of the Yellowstone volcano created a cauldron shaped hollow that was formed after the magma chamber emptied. The Yellowstone caldera measures about 55 by 72 km in size, covering the majority of the park.
Some Perspective on Size
To put the size into perspective, and looking at some of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, the deadly eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 is the closest comparison. Mount Tambora blew debris skyward and killed about 10,000 inhabitants of Indonesia instantly. The volcanic dust likely blocked sunlight around the entire world, enough to alter the Earth’s climate and give the period the nickname “the year without summer.” In comparison, Yellowstone is massive enough to dwarf Mount Tambora’s eruption, and in fact Yellowstone has done so at least three times.
Fortunately for humankind, the USGS estimates the probability of another Yellowstone eruption at 1 in 730,000 in any given year, so it’s pretty safe to say that you can enjoy the unique and stunning landscapes of Yellowstone National Park without much fear of a volcanic eruption.
Planning for Backpacking in Yellowstone
When to Go Backpacking in Yellowstone
To avoid crowds, the best times to go to Yellowstone are in either May or late August / early September. The park may be open in April or October, but it may not be warm enough to sleep outside. May and September will offer temperatures ranging from -2 to 12 degrees celsius (28 to 53 fahrenheit).
May is a better time to see bear, while September is a better time to catch wolves and bighorn sheep. Bison and elk should be visible year round. The animals have free range on the huge park, so there is no guarantee what species will or will not be out and about on any given day. We saw multiple herds of bison and elk driving to the trailhead, but we ended up not seeing any on the trail itself. We did, however, see plenty of evidence of the wildlife.
Where to go Backpacking in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is huge. Our 28 km hike is the small little line on the top of the map. Gardiner is the closest city to the entrance of the park. I also tagged Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Springs to give a sense of where all of the popular stuff is located.
If you don’t hire a tour company to guide you through Yellowstone, you can find good trails using any of the popular apps such as All Trails. To avoid crowds, we chose a backpacking route that started at the Hellroaring Creek Trailhead to the Yellowstone River Trail, which we then hiked until we got to Eagle Creek Campground. The good thing about backpacking in Yellowstone via this route is that it is near the North Entrance to the park, which is the most popular and easiest entrance to navigate.
And because I was inspired by this post on how to hike Lion Rock in Hong Kong by ForSomethingMore, I’ve included an elevation profile of our hike on the Yellowstone River Trail through the Black Canyon.
Below is our route on Google Maps. Make sure to click the menu button, pictured below, to toggle on/off the various map features.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone (Or Nearby)
I advise flying into and staying in Bozeman, MT. Another option is to fly into Bozeman and stay in or near Gardiner, MT. Bozeman is a little bigger with more options, and it is a little less touristy. If you’re looking for a drink and a bite to eat, I recommend Outlaw Brewing and the food truck, Tim’s Food Rukus, which is parked right outside. I can say this with confidence because our Uber driver suggested it, it was delicious, and we later saw our driver there with her boyfriend validating her own recommendation.
Transfer to the trailhead
There are a few shuttle services from Bozeman to Gardiner, but I recommend renting a car. Car rental is affordable, and it considerably cuts down on transportation time. There are several schools of thought on how to navigate a thru hike, but what we typically do is leave the rental car at the trailhead and then call an Uber to pick us up and drive us back to the car. Uber drivers in this area are quite used to people backpacking in Yellowstone, and thus are familiar with the trailheads, but bring a map just in case.
Camping In Yellowstone
There are 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 sites all with in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone National Park Lodges only takes reservations for five of these campgrounds: the rest are first-come, first-served.
Yellowstone Backcountry Camping Areas
If instead you want to experience Yellowstone a bit more off the beaten path, you should consider backpacking into some of Yellowstone’s more remote backcountry areas. To do so, you can use the Yellowstone Backcountry Planner to create your itinerary, and then you can use the Yellowstone Backcountry Permit Reservation Form to submit your itinerary to the Park Service for approval. You need to submit your form by fax, mail or in person, but all the details you need are in the form.
If your itinerary is approved, you will receive an email confirmation. Then, you must print off the email confirmation and submit it in person at a park office in order for it to be converted into your actual permit. You must submit your email confirmation not more than 48 hours in advance of the first date on your itinerary. Also, depending on when you apply, your application will either be processed by random lottery or on a first-come, first-served basis. For the full details on camping in Yellowstone’s backcountry areas, check out the National Park Services’s Yellowstone Backcountry Camping page.
Backpacking Gear for Yellowstone
Backpacking gear is a topic all unto itself, but below are a few items that we found useful specifically for backpacking in Yellowstone.
Hiking boots are essential for multi-day hikes, especially when navigating the dynamic terrain you will find in Yellowstone. When backpacking off the beaten path in Yellowstone, you will cover multiple ecosystems including thermal rock formations, grasslands, sagebrush scrubs, and muddy riverbeds. Having boots that support your ankles and are water resistant is key.
To cut about 3km (2 miles) off the hike, you can do a water crossing where the Hellroaring Creek Trail meets up with the Yellowstone River Trail. The creek is mostly comprised of large slimy rocks, and I found water shoes to be pretty useful. We also took a refreshing and icy cold dip in the Yellowstone river and the water shoes helped there as well.
I typically do not use trekking poles, but I would recommend one for backpacking in Yellowstone. I borrowed one just for the river crossing mentioned above, and I’m glad I did. My wife, Brittany, did not have one and actually slipped and soaked herself in the river. If she had a pole, this may not have happened.
The altitude when hiking the Black Canyon ranges from roughly 1600m (5,250ft) to 2000m (6,500ft). This isn’t like hiking the highest peaks of the Alps or the Rockies, but it is high enough that extra attention to hydration is required. Additionally, carrying a heavy pack and hiking through the sun causes one to perspire a bit more than normal. A water hydration system really helps because you can simply reach over and take a sip as you walk without having to stop and reach back for the water bottle.
My preferred hydration system is the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir. I like the 3 liter size because it comes with padding on one side so that it doesn’t feel like giant water balloon on my back. And with its 3 liter capacity, it is versatile enough for backpacking and day hiking or climbing.
Backpacking in Yellowstone on the trail we chose requires about 20kg (40lbs) of gear, and it requires you to hike between 8 and 11 km (5 to 7 miles) per day. A properly fitted backpack is essential for comfort and safety. While it is possible to rent backpacks, we recommend heading in and getting fitted for your own particular body type. A property fitted pack will distribute the pack’s weight onto your body frame in the most energy efficient manner possible. In other words, you don’t want to get 5 km into your first day and figure out that your backpack is going to shred your hips or cause you back issues.
Large Garbage Bag
Yep! A garbage bag. This is not for trash. A large garbage bag acts as a waterproof liner on the inside of a backpack. This came in handy for Brittany when she bit it in the river. Her nickname for the next day was “Waterfall,” but at least her gear stayed dry.
While seeing a bear is a major attraction of Yellowstone, an actual bear encounter can be terrifying. On the bright side, bears really have zero interest in humans, but they do have a keen sense of smell, so often they’re most interested in human food. The best way to keep the bears at bay is to ensure that the bears never get the chance to sample any human food. While backpacking off the beaten path in Yellowstone, it is imperative to play it safe. The National Park Service has backcountry guidelines on camping with bears, but here are a few highlights.
- Always have bear spray on your person, especially when stepping off the path for a “nature break.” Bear spray can be rented or purchased at the gift shop or any outfitter in Gardiner.
- Make noise occasionally as you hike to alert bears of your presence, as a startled bear might attack. To prevent startling the bears, every 100 meters or so, just yell “hey bear.” Also do so as you round any corners.
- Avoid anything smelly and keep all food and potentially smelly items either in a bear box or hanging from a tree that is equipped with food poles. The tree should be at least 100 meters from your tent.
- Do not eat or cook in your tent. Avoid allowing your sleeping bag and clothing to contact food.
- Don’t chew gum.
Bears Have a Great Sense of Smell
Just remember, a bear’s sense of smell is incredible. If you think about the shape of a bear’s face, a bear’s nasal mucosa extends from the nose all the way up to near its eyes. Bears sense of smell is 100 times greater than humans and is 7 times greater than a bloodhound.
Our Grizzly Bear Encounter While Backpacking
At one point on our hike, we saw a grizzly about 300 meters away. We stopped and after squinting our eyes to confirm we were indeed looking at a grizzly bear. The guide said, “oh by the way, he can smell us right now, he’s downwind of us.” At that moment he kind of stood up and casually looked at us, then went right back to fishing in the river. We were calm, he was busy, he was aware of us, we were aware of him, and we all continued about our business. After admiring him for a solid 45 minutes, he casually walked away and we continued on our hike.
Yellowstone Black Canyon Backpacking Highlights
According to the US National Park website, “there are 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, and 67 species of mammals” native to Yellowstone. While backpacking through Yellowstone’s backcountry areas, you may see any number of animals on any given day.
Once inside Yellowstone, we saw herds of elk and bison before we even left the van. When we were on the trail however, we did not have close encounters with any large mammals, which was probably for the best. We did spot the previously mentioned bear at a safe distance, but he was the only large mammal we saw on the trail. Other than that, we spotted a bald eagle, several raptors, and a few snakes.
I think, however, my favorite wildlife were the river otters. The cute little guys were floating on their backs up and down the river next to our campsite, blissfully unaware of our existence.
Fishing in the Yellowstone River is an iconic bucket list item for many. One of our hiking buddies now goes by the name “Trout Slayer” thanks to the experience. One of the highlights of our trip was walking upon a grizzly bear in the distance who was fishing directly across from our intended campsite. We dropped our packs and watched him from about 300 meters away for a good 45 minutes before he casually stood up and walked away. Once the bear waddled off, we set up camp and fished in his exact spot for the rest of the evening.
We had regular bait and tackle, but I can see why fly fishing in Yellowstone is so popular. You can see the trout in the river lunging and jumping at the flies that skip across the water’s surface. I kind of simulated the movement with some light weight bait and was fairly successful.
Be sure to stop in a ranger station prior to your hike if you plan on fishing though. Anglers over 16 may buy a 3 day permit for $16.00 and you cannot use live bait. There are strict regulations to prevent the introduction of foreign bacteria and species. Additionally, there is a park wide policy that all native species of fish must be released back into the river. If you catch a non-native species of trout, however, it must be killed. The park offices have books with photos to help anglers identify fish.
Life and Death
One of the more humbling aspects of backpacking off the beaten path in Yellowstone is the fact that it is an untouched ecosystem. The experience is not cleaned or curated for tourism, so you get an immersive experience in the circle of life. While we did not see an overwhelming number of live animals on this trip, we did see plenty of evidence of their (previous) existence. I was shocked at the amount of animal carcasses on the side of the trail and found it very educational to talk about.
The landscapes and scenery in Yellowstone are absolutely stunning. It shocked me that almost nobody else was on the trail with us over our four day hike. I could have easily parked myself in countless different spots and simply enjoyed the view for hours each day. Every day was so different though, that I was also eager to keep moving.
Backpacking in Yellowstone is an experience that will bring you close to nature in ways that are increasingly hard to come by nowadays. So if you enjoy immersing yourself in the wonders of the natural world, you should consider hiking this Via Dinarica Trail itinerary in the Balkans or even cycling in Taiwan by checking out this Cycling in Taiwan guide. If in the most seemingly urban place such as Hong Kong you want to experience some brilliant nature, you should hike Lion Rock or even hike Lam Tsuen Country Park. Whatever you decided to do however, if you have questions or comments, feel free to leave them below, and we’ll get back to you in a flash!
Mike is a software engineer and father of three young boys. He works closely with a study abroad program at a large university in New York City, so he gets a healthy dose of culture at home and gets to travel to amazing places for work. When he’s not staring at a screen trying to figure out why a semicolon is causing an entire system to malfunction, he enjoys spending time with his family outdoors immersed in culture and nature. You can find more of his and his wife’s travel tips on their website FivePax Family Travel.