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Hiking in Yellowstone National Park
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, as the rangers can give you an idea of which trails will suit you best and aren't quite so busy. But if you can't wait until you're actually there, here are our picks for five unique hikes that simply can't be beat. These trails will take you past waterfalls, hot springs, snowcapped mountains, wide open meadows, and crystal clear lakes.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
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Uncle Tom's Trail
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. Dizzyingly steep and often 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 amongst rainbows, making the experience all the more memorable.
After you've caught your breath and spent some time enjoying the mystical canyon, start the long climb back up to the top. 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 work a little on the crawl back out, and don't be afraid to stop and take a break along the way.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
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The Grand Prismatic
This hike is not necessarily recognized or advertised by the National Park Service, but it’s definitely worth the effort for hikers looking for something special. The Grand Prismatic is a monster thermal feature with a tie-dye look that is located in the southwestern region of the park. Various types of thermophiles—microorganisms that thrive in the intense heat—create vibrant rings of color in the pool, which is filled with bright orange, yellow, green, and blue hues.
You could get a look at 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 in all of its glory, 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 approach. Take any one of these up to the top of the hill and you'ill be looking down on the Grand Prismatic. Just be sure to go on a warmer day if you want the best possible views. When its cool outside the geyser is often hidden by its own steam.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
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The Boiling River
In the far northwestern corner of Yellowstone boiling water runs from the geothermal features in the Earth, bubbling 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, which serves as a natural hot tub for those looking to relax in the wild.
Every year, people use rocks to create pools along the edge of the river, where visitors can take a luxurious soak outside 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 routine 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.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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The Norris Geyser Basin
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 in the form of Steamboat Geyser. It’s no Old Faithful because it doesn't put on a show quite so regularly, but during major eruptions it can eject 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 these 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 bubbling out of the earth at Norris Geyser Basin, and of course the best way to experience it is on foot.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
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If you are looking for a truly 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 the closest 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 trailhead 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. One of the best campsites in all of Yellowstone (5E8) is just 6.5 miles in and is located right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, one of world’s largest freshwater bodies of water. Campers can relax, take a chilly dip, and enjoy the views after a long day of hiking, making this the perfect destination for an overnight or weekend excursion.
Whether you are going out for one night or seven nights on the Thorofare—or anywhere else in Yellowstone for that 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.