The backcountry of Yellowstone is the real deal: a domain of free-roaming wildlife and natural treasures predominately untouched by the hand of man. The U.S. National Park Service, through its system of permits, designated camping areas, and rules (for more on these, see below), has managed to preserve a true wilderness. Yellowstone has more than 1,200 miles of trails (most of which are in the backcountry) and 300 backcountry campsites.
Information before you go
Contact the Yellowstone Backcountry Office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190 (tel. 307/344-2160; www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm), with questions about campsites, permits, and reservations. The website above has a link to the useful Backcountry Trip Planner, which has a detailed map showing where the campsites are, as well as information on preparation.
Backcountry permits are required for any overnight trips on foot, horseback, or by boat. They cost $3/person/night (maximum group fee $15/night) for backpackers and boaters and $5/person/night for parties on horseback. If you’re lucky enough to be spending many nights in the backcountry, an annual backcountry pass costs $25. You can arrange for permits in person at a backcountry office no more than 48 hours in advance of your trip, or you can make reservations ahead of time by fax, mail, or in person only. The park accepts permit applications from Jan 1 to Oct 1 of each year, with those received by March 31 processed first, and charges a $25 fee. Camping is allowed only in designated campsites, many of which are equipped with food-storage poles to keep wildlife out of your stores. Some are also equipped with pit toilets.
Pick up your permit in the park within 48 hours of your departure at one of the following stations any day of the week during the summer: Bechler, Bridge Bay, Old Faithful, and South Entrance Ranger Stations; Canyon, Grant Village, Mammoth, and West Yellowstone Visitor Centers; or Tower Backcountry Office.
When to go
Many of the trails into the park backcountry remain covered with snow and become muddy in the first weeks of melt, well into June. At the higher elevations, over 9,000 feet, summer doesn’t truly begin until early July, and even then the weather is unpredictable at best. Creeks and streams described as “intermittent” during summer months might be filled with snowmelt that transforms them into impassable, swiftly running rivers that often drench trails and convert them to mud. Generally, mid-July through mid-September brings the best backpacking weather. Look in the Backcountry Trip Planner for approximate dates for when specific campsites will be accessible and habitable.
Grizzly bear attacks in the park are incredibly rare, but possible. Reduce your chances of an encounter by respecting seasonal bear closures, hiking in groups of four or more, not hiking off-trail, and making noise by talking loudly, singing, or clapping your hands. Always carry bear spray, a very effective deterrent to a charging bear, and know how to use it.
A good topographic map is essential for backcountry trips. GPS units and smartphone mapping apps can be very useful, but always carry a paper map as backup. Park rangers suggest using maps from the Trails Illustrated Map series, published by National Geographic Maps. There are five Yellowstone maps printed on durable plastic; the maps also show backcountry campsite locations. For more information, contact National Geographic Maps (tel. 800/962-1643; www.natgeomaps.com) or Yellowstone Forever (tel. 406/848-2400; www.yellowstone.org).
An alternative to venturing into the backcountry on your own is to go with an outfitter. Outfitters usually arrange for backcountry permits and provide most equipment, which can offset the cost of their services. And some offer a more catered experience, setting up your tent for you and preparing meals. Check www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backpkbsn.com for a list of companies with permits to operate inside the park
Wilderness U: Guided Backpacking with the Yellowstone Association Institute
The Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI) uses the park's backcountry as a 2.2-million-acre classroom for many of its 400 annual classes. A number of courses are guided backpacking trips into the Yellowstone wilderness.
I went on a YAI expedition with about 10 other people in August 2004, following the same route the Nez Perce Indians took through Yellowstone in summer 1877 while evading the U.S. Army. Our 4-day adventure (preceded by a day in an indoor classroom in Gardiner) traversed 40 miles under the leadership of an experienced backcountry guide and park historian, Lee Whittlesey. Another guide, Julianne Baker, taught us how to identify wolf tracks and uphold "Leave No Trace" etiquette.
The trip illuminated the obstacles the Nez Perce faced en route to their ultimate place of surrender in Montana. Led by Chief Joseph, 600 to 800 people, including many children and elderly persons, evaded capture from June into October, cutting through a slice of the fledgling national park known as Yellowstone. We also learned that the flight of the Nez Perce has been the key event in the tribe's history since 1877; the 5-month ordeal haunts many of its members to this day. The contemporary Nez Perce are a nostalgic tribe, and thus -- for better or for worse -- quite different from other typically modern Americans.
The "Flight of the Nez Perce" backcountry course has become a staple in the YAI catalog, along with guided backpacking classes about wolves, grizzly bears, waterfalls, photography, and the microbes that inhabit the park's thermal features. Taking a course is a great way to learn the ins and outs of backpacking, and to meet a bunch of like-minded Yellowstone lovers in the process. Trips typically last 3 days to a week and cost $700 to $1,000 per person. You need to bring most of your own gear. Call tel. 406/848-2400 or visit www.yellowstoneassociation.org/institute for a course catalog and other information.
The 10 essentials + 1
Though hiking is a very safe activity and most visitors run into no problems while exploring the park, don’t forget that you’re entering a true wilderness. It’s vital to be prepared for changing weather conditions, rugged trails, and wildlife encounters. Experienced backcountry travelers swear by carrying the “Ten Essentials,” or a must-pack list of comfort and safety gear to stash in your daypack. Make sure you have the following items with you before any hike, even if you’re only going a short distance.
- Navigation: Always carry a map and compass. The map you get at the entrance stations is not detailed enough for true navigation, so pick up a topographic map that shows terrain details. GPS units and smartphone apps are helpful too, but they shouldn’t replace a paper map and compass in case you run out of power or they malfunction.
- Sun protection: Everyone in your party should have a hat (wide-brimmed sun hats are best), sunglasses, and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
- Extra clothing: This should include both warm layers (such as fleece or down jackets) and waterproof rain gear.
- Light: Pack a headlamp or flashlight in case you’re unexpectedly caught out after dark.
- First-aid kit: You can buy compact, ready-made wilderness kits or assemble your own. Carry pain relievers, bandages, and blister treatments.
- Fire-starting materials: Waterproof matches and/or a lighter, plus tinder, can be the difference between life and death if you’re lost in bad weather.
- Repair kit: A knife or multitool plus duct tape can temporarily fix a surprising number of gear malfunctions.
- Food: Trail mix, trail bars, dried fruit, jerky, and peanut butter are all calorically dense, long-lasting foods for extra energy.
- Water: Prevent dehydration by making sure everyone in your group has a sizeable water bottle or hydration bladder.
- Emergency shelter: A space blanket is small and light, but even a large garbage bag can add essential warmth and weather protection.
- And, at Yellowstone, there’s an 11th Essential - Bear spray: Don’t be caught without this highly effective deterrent against a charging bear.
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.