5 Great Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

  • 01 of 06

    Yellowstone National Park

    Yellowstone National Park view from an overlook
    ••• Danielle Bednarczyk/Getty Images

    Visiting Yellowstone National Park is both exciting and overwhelming. The iconic park contains some 1,000 miles of hiking trails, which often makes it feel nearly impossible to narrow down your options. It’s always a great idea to stop by a visitor’s center when you arrive, but to get you started, here is a summary of five unique hikes found inside the park. These trails will take you past waterfalls, thermal springs, mountains, wide open meadows, and crystal clear lakes. 

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  • 02 of 06

    Uncle Tom's Trail

    View of the Lower Falls at Yellowstone National Park
    ••• James Forsyth/Getty Images

    Don’t be deceived by this trail’s short, one-mile round-trip distance. With 328 stairs, the hike is a serious workout that offers more than 308-feet of vertical gain and loss along the way. The reward: an up-close-and-personal view of the Yellowstone River’s Lower Falls, one of the premiere natural attractions in the entire park. 

    The trail first heads down into the park's most famous canyon: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Dizzyingly steep and usually crowded, the stairs present a bit of a mental challenge. At the end is a viewing area close to the bottom of the 308-foot waterfall. At that point there’s a good chance you will be shrouded in mist and walking among rainbows, making the experience all the more memorable. 

    After you enjoy the mystical canyon start the long climb back up. The current stairway, outfitted with handrails and benches for resting, is a vast improvement over the original—a 528-step rope ladder that was first built in the 1800s. Still, be prepared to...MORE work a little on the crawl back out, and don't be afraid to stop and take a break along the way. 

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  • 03 of 06

    The Grand Prismatic

    Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic
    ••• Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images

     This hike is not necessarily recognized or advertised by the National Park Service, but it’s definitely worth the effort. The Grand Prismatic is a kind of tie-dye monster thermal feature located in the southwestern region of the park. Various types of thermophiles—microorganisms that thrive in heat—create vibrant rings of color in the pool, which is filled with bright orange, yellow, green, and blue hues.

    You could see this stunning feature from a boardwalk at the Midway Geyser Basin, but it is much more impressive from a bird’s eye view. In order to catch a glimpse of it this way, park at the Fairy Falls trailhead and hike about a half mile down the Fairy Falls trail. You will see a handful of unmarked spur trails leading up the hill on the left (south) as you walk. Take any one of these up the hill and you will be looking down on the Grand Prismatic. Just be sure to go on a warm day when the geyser won’t be hidden by its own steam.

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  • 04 of 06

    The Boiling River

    Bathers in Yellowstone National Park's Boiling River
    ••• Wesley Fry/CC/Flickr

    This waterway is exactly what it sounds like: In the very northwestern corner of Yellowstone, boiling water runs from the geothermal features into the Gardner River. With minimal effort, you can reach one of Yellowstone’s most soothing spots. It’s an easy, flat one-mile walk from the parking lot to this soak site.

    Every year, people use rocks to create pools along the edge of the river, where you can relax out of the current. If the river is not moving too fast, the cool waters in the middle offer a reprieve from the hot pools. Use extreme caution if you venture away from the bank. The Gardner River can be deep and fast depending on the year and season.

    While you’re soaking, keep your eyes open for wildlife. Bald eagles fly above and elk are known to cross the river from time to time too. Not heading north in Yellowstone? Check out the Firehole River in the southwest for a similar swimming experience.

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  • 05 of 06

    The Norris Geyser Basin

    The Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park
    ••• Livio Sinibaldi/Getty Images

    Norris Geyser Basin is Yellowstone’s oldest thermal area, with geothermal features that date back more than 115,000 years. Here you will find the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. It’s no Old Faithful because it’s not very, well, faithful, but during major eruptions it ejects water 300 to 400 feet in the air. Be warned however,  the last major eruptions took place in 2005 and 2013 so don't expect to see one during your visit. Steamboat more typically shoots water 10-40 feet in the air on a regular basis. 

    This geyser basin is made up of three areas: The Porcelain Basin, accessible by a three-quarter-mile dirt trail and boardwalk; Back Basin, off of a one-and-a-half-mile trail and boardwalk; and One Hundred Springs Plain, an off-trail area best visited with park staff who know this dangerous thermal features and how to avoid them. No matter how much or how little you choose to do here, you won't be able to escape the sights, sounds, and smells of Yellowstone...MORE bubbling out of the earth at Norris Geyser Basin.

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  • 06 of 06

    The Thorofare

    Bison roaming near Lake Yellowstone
    ••• David H. Carriere/Getty Images

     If you are looking for a big adventure in Yellowstone, tackle The Thorofare. This trail spans 68.5 miles one-way through the southeast area of the park—at one point putting backpackers 30 miles from a road in any direction. You will have to leave a car at either end of the trail (one on the East Entrance Road and one on the South Entrance Road), and it is recommended that you plan at least seven days to hike from one end to the other.

    You don’t have to hike the whole trail to get a taste of The Thorofare however. If you have less time, consider an out-and-back trek on this epic trail. My favorite campsite in Yellowstone (5E8) is 6.5 miles down The Thorofare and is set up right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, one of world’s largest freshwater bodies of water at 136 square miles. Campers can relax, take a chilly dip, and enjoy the views after a long day of hiking.

    Whether you are going out for one night or seven nights on the Thorofare—or anywhere else in Yellowstone for that...MORE matter—take the time to plan carefully. With the proper preparations, the backcountry can be one of the most unique and rewarding ways to see the park.

    Cece Wildeman worked at Yellowstone National Park for two summers. During that time she explored 300 miles of the park's 1,100 miles of trails.