Closest entrance: West Yellowstone (west entrance)
Distances: 14 miles from West Yellowstone to Madison; 14 miles from Madison to Norris.
The west entrance road takes you through a lush valley along the Madison River. The distant peaks of the Gallatin Range beckon to the northwest, and bison and elk frequently browse in the grasses here. This is also a prime spot to see the lingering effects of the historic 1988 wildfires that burned 36 percent of the park. The Two Ribbons Trail, one of the first pullouts you’ll reach, offers a .8-mile accessible boardwalk through a forest of blackened trunks, heat-shattered boulders, and fresh new growth. Lodgepole pines have what are called serotinous cones, which are sealed in a sticky resin and depend on the high temperatures of wildfire to melt them and allow them to drop their seeds—and evidence of the success of this adaptation are all around.
Next, keep your eyes peeled for the entrance to Riverside Drive, a secluded paved road about 6 miles from the entrance station. The road doubles back west along the Madison and grants access to several ideal fly-fishing spots. This river is known for its top-notch trout waters and remains on the warm side year-round, thanks to upstream hot springs. Riverside Drive also makes for a quiet escape for a picnic.
As you continue toward Madison Junction, you’ll see more vivid evidence of the 1988 fires and, odds are, a herd of bison that hang out during summer months. As frightening as the fires were, they had their advantages: There is evidence that the 1988 fires burned hotter here because the old lodgepole pines had been infected by beetles, decimating the trees long before the fires blazed. The good news is that the fire killed the beetles and remineralized the soil. When temperatures exceeded 500[dg]F (260[dg]C), pine seeds were released from serotinous pine cones, quickening the regrowth cycle.
Another lovely pullout on the south side of the road features an interpretive display about the major explorer parties in the region and the 1877 Nez Perce retreat. A band of Nez Perce traveled through this area trying to escape the U.S. Army, which wanted to force them onto a reservation; the Army caught up with them about 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Beyond, the Mt. Haynes Overlook has a boardwalk down to the Madison River, where bulbous Mt. Haynes looms just across the water.
Hiking options are limited on this segment, but you can stretch your legs on the 1-mile (round-trip) Harlequin Lake Trail, a mellow uphill hike to the lily pad-covered lake. The trailhead is about 1.5 miles west of Madison Junction. There’s also the Purple Mountain Trail, a more challenging 6-miler (round-trip) that gains 1,500 feet on the way to a gorgeous overlook of the Madison and Gibbon Rivers. Pick this one up a quarter-mile north of Madison Junction.
Madison Junction marks the place where the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers meet, flowing together to form the Madison River. (The Madison meets the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers about 183 miles away to form the mighty Missouri River.) These are excellent trout waters. The sprawling Madison Campground sits here in a lodgepole forest with river views; it’s one of Yellowstone’s most popular options. The Madison Information Station, just south, has a ranger on hand, kid-friendly animal exhibits, and trail guides.
You’re now on Grand Loop Road. The next 14-mile section follows the Gibbon River through a canyon lined with flaky magenta rock. The river was named for Gen. John Gibbon, who explored here in 1872 but whose main, dubious claims to fame were as the cavalry leader who buried Custer’s army and who chased Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians from the park as they attempted to escape to Canada.
Make sure to stop at 84-foot Gibbon Falls, a lacy fan of water cascading off the edge of the Yellowstone Caldera rim (it’s one of the few places in the park where the caldera boundary is in plain sight). Continue past Beryl Spring (better thermals await) and hike 2 miles (round-trip) to Monument Geyser Basin if you’re up for a steep challenge. The trail leads to a mostly extinct thermal area littered with ancient white geyser cones.
The last attraction before Norris, Artist Paintpots ★ holds a series of milky white and bluish pools alongside gurgling mudpots spitting glop several feet in the air. The 1.2-mile loop trail is refreshingly uncrowded—hike the upper trail option for an aerial view over the colorful basin. Across the road from the trailhead is Elk Park, where you have a good chance of seeing a large herd of the majestic ungulates.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.