Auto touring is great, and day hiking is grand—but if you really want to experience Yellowstone, spending a night or more in the wilderness is the way to go. With its vast and varied terrain, this park has something to satisfy everyone from the novice camper to the backpacking junkie. Trip options range from short, easy overnights to multiday excursions spanning dozens of miles. Peruse the park’s Backcountry Trip Planner, call the park backcountry office, and check out these top trips to find your ideal escape.
Gorgeous, expansive, and quiet, Shoshone Lake is the largest backcountry lake (that is, you can’t drive to it) in the lower 48. Motorized boating is not allowed, making the scenic campsites dotting its shoreline especially peaceful. Add to that good trout fishing and a notable backcountry geyser basin, and it’s no wonder Shoshone Lake is such a beloved destination. Camping is best starting in July, when spring flooding has usually eased up.
The quickest way here is via the DeLacy Creek Trail, which begins 8 miles east of Old Faithful. A 2.9-mile (one-way) hike takes you to the northern shore, with a couple of campsites just west. For a longer trip, you can either hike southwest along the North Shoshone Trail or southeast on DeLacy Creek Trail. The Shoshone Lake Trail connects the two, enabling a multiday trip circling the lake. The highlight of any trip in this area is a visit to Shoshone Geyser Basin ★★, a thermal area with hundreds of features. A trail winds through the hot springs, vents, and geysers—stick to it, as no boardwalks protect you from the steaming water just under the thin earth here. If you’re heading straight for the basin, the shortest route is the Shoshone Lake Trail starting at Kepler Cascades; you’ll pass Lone Star Geyser and cross Grants Pass on the way.
For a shorter overnight, make for the southeastern corner of Shoshone Lake on the Channel Trail following the Lewis River Channel. You might spy eagles and ospreys near the water’s edge before reaching the lake. Some of the campsites in this area are for boaters only, so you might need to hike a bit farther to spend the night along Moose Creek. Return on the Dogshead Trail for a 10.8-mile loop.
This is also the place for one of the park’s classic paddling trips. Launch at Lewis Lake and canoe or kayak up the Lewis Channel (wind can make this a real workout). You’ll have to drag your boat the final mile before reaching Shoshone Lake, but then the enormous lake’s shoreline will be yours to explore. Many beach sites are reserved for paddlers only.
The Bechler Region
This area in the park’s southwest section is often referred to as Cascade Corner because it contains most of the park’s waterfalls. It escaped the fires of 1988 and offers great opportunities to view thermal features. Backpacking options abound here. Mid- to late summer is the best time to travel, as early-season runoff makes the creek crossings dangerous.
To reach the Bechler Ranger Station, a primary jumping-off point for exploring the region, drive in from Ashton, Idaho. Take Cave Falls Road 17 miles, then turn north on Bechler Ranger Station Road and go another 1 1/2 miles.
The Bechler River Trail ★★ starts here and leads to one of Yellowstone’s coolest spots: the soakable backcountry hot spring called Mr. Bubbles ★★. It’s one of the only places where getting into a spring is safe (or permitted), and the crowds will be a fraction of what you’ll encounter at the front-country Boiling River. Follow the Bechler River 13.5 miles up to the Ferris Fork Campsite; Mr. Bubbles, a large pool deep enough to submerge yourself and splash around, lies a quarter-mile beyond.
The Bechler Meadows Trail ★★ also departs from the ranger station, but heads into waterfall-rich country northwest of the River Trail. About 6 miles into the journey, the trail fords the river several times as it enters Bechler Canyon, where it passes Colonnade and Iris Falls. Along this trail, you can view the Tetons in the distance and the hot springs that warm the creeks. You can cover a good 30 miles in 3 or 4 days, depending on what turns you take. For a shorter trip, hike 3.5 miles along the Bechler River Trail to the Boundary Creek Trail, and then return to the station via the Bechler Meadows Trail, a round-trip of 7 miles.
Another knockout waterfall hike begins off Grassy Lake Road to the east on the Cascade Creek Trail. Link the Mountain Ash Creek and Union Falls Trails, braving several creek fords along the way, for a 15.6-mile round-trip to Union Falls ★★. Two creeks merge at the top to form a 260-foot cascade resembling a frothy white volcano, and you’ll also find a fine swimming hole off a short spur trail in the area. Choose from several campsites lining the route.
The Bechler River Trail extends all the way to the Old Faithful area for an epic, 32-mile shuttle hike. Beyond Iris Falls and then Ragged Falls, you’ll reach a patrol cabin at Three Rivers Junction at the 13-mile mark, a popular camping area. If you continue toward Old Faithful, you’ll intersect the Shoshone Lake Trail and exit 6.5 miles later.
Heart Lake Area
This (somewhat) heart-shaped lake in south-central Yellowstone makes for another popular destination for backcountry travelers: It’s relatively easy to get to, cutthroat trout swim its waters, and it offers the chance to summit one of the park’s iconic peaks, too. You can do it as an overnight by taking the 7.5-mile (one-way) Heart Lake Trail ★ out and back; this section of trail overlaps with the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail that follows the spine of the continent from Mexico to Canada. You’ll hike through small thermal areas on the lake’s northwestern shore and catch dreamy sunrises on 10,308-foot Mount Sheridan, which looms just to the west. Or make it a 3- or 4-day excursion by continuing around the lake to the Heart River Trail, a loop with stretches in an old burn area. It also involves several challenging river crossings. Don’t miss the excellent peak-bagging detour on the Mount Sheridan Trail, a steep, 7-mile round-trip across alpine tundra to huge views.
Serious about getting away from it all? This is your trip. The vast meadows, remote peaks, massive plateaus, and abundant wildlife of Yellowstone’s southeastern corner—a zone known as the Thorofare—is as off the grid as it gets. You can’t get farther from a road anywhere else in the lower 48. Throughout the area, tepee rings and lean-tos are reminders that Native Americans once used this trail as the main route between Jackson Hole and points north. Because it’s such a far-flung destination, you’re far more likely to see bears, moose, elk, river otters, and loons than other backpackers. But if you’re experienced enough to handle a week or more in the backcountry, you’ll find the Thorofare’s relatively flat terrain makes for a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Seasonal bear closures and high water in early summer mean mid-July to early September is prime time in these parts.
The 68-mile point-to-point hike on the Thorofare Trail ★★ and South Boundary Trail ★★ takes you deep into the heart of this wild area. Start by tracing the eastern shoreline of Yellowstone Lake (waterfront campsites included) and then the Yellowstone River, traversing grassy meadows in the shadow of 11,000-foot peaks. You’ll reach the out-there Thorofare Ranger Station at mile 32, near the horizon-dominating Trident Plateau, then turn west to cross Two Ocean Plateau. The trail briefly dips out of the park and into the Teton Wilderness before following the Snake River en route to the South Entrance Road. Backcountry junkies can also turn the trip into a lollipop loop by connecting to the Trail Creek Trail and hiking back to the start for an 80-miler. The Deer Creek Trail grants slightly shorter access into the Thorofare from the east, but there’s no quick fix for getting here—all part of this wilderness’s charm.
Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
One of the earliest backpacking routes to melt out in the spring, the shuttle hike linking Hellroaring Creek, Yellowstone River, and Blacktail Deer Creek between Mammoth and Tower-Roosevelt travels through some of northern Yellowstone’s prettiest river country. The 2- or 3-day trip crosses a pair of suspension bridges, hugs the banks of the mighty Yellowstone, and passes beneath craggy Hellroaring Mountain and through the steep, thickly forested Black Canyon. Wildflowers like golden arrowleaf balsamroot bloom in spring and summer, and there’s a good chance of spotting bison, elk, and pronghorn around here. Begin on the Hellroaring Trail ★ and turn west on the Yellowstone River Trail ★★. This stretch features excellent fishing, blufftop views over the waterway, and basalt columns high on the cliffs. Finish by turning south on Blacktail Creek Trail and climbing back to the road. Camp along the Yellowstone and/or Hellroaring Creek. Early fall is the best time to hike the canyon, but it’s usually passable by mid-May (just watch for high water and ticks). Avoid the dog days of summer, as this area can get hot.
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.