Are you one of the roughly 2.4 million visitors planning to visit Yellowstone National Park each summer? Sixty-five percent of the annual visitors to America’s first national park come in June, July or August. Visitors will battle about 25,000 people per day. The key to avoiding the crowds is to explore some beautiful, albeit less popular, trails of the park.
Here are five great hikes in Yellowstone National Park that offer great views and fewer crowds.
Trek to Fairy Falls
The trailhead for Fairy Falls is just off the main road in the southwest area of the park. It’s south of the Midway Geyser Basin and north of Old Faithful. Parking has become more difficult the past few years. A great viewpoint of Grand Prismatic Spring was added along the trail, so now hundreds of people make the short trek from the Fairy Falls trailhead to the new overlook.
The trail is an old road that crosses Firehole River and follows the base of the hill. It’s relatively flat, with a few small pools just off the trail. Be sure and stay on the trail at all times.
Roughly a half-mile down the road, there is a trail on your left that heads up the mountain to the viewpoint of Grand Prismatic Spring. If you haven’t been to the viewpoint before, take a moment to trek up to it. After capturing your fill of photos, continue along the trail and it will rejoin the main road again.
Follow the road for a bit longer, and you’ll eventually see a hiking trail on your left. You may also see a bike rack there – no bikes are allowed on the trek out to Fairy Falls. The trail is relatively flat. When you get to Fairy Falls, you can enjoy walking in the shallow pool of water After resting, you can either turn back or continue following the trail to Imperial Geyser Basin.
DISTANCE: 4.5 miles round-trip (add 1.2 miles if you continue out to Imperial Basin Geysers and back)
CATEGORY: Moderate (because of distance, not difficulty)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 216 feet (very gradual changes)
If your kids don’t enjoy hiking longer trails, here are 7 things you can do to help make hiking more fun for them.
Hike to Hellroaring Creek
My daughter picked this hike when she was eight years old (her brothers were 12 and 6). The suspension bridge she saw in the book was likely the reason. Either that, or she just thought it was funny when we called it Heckroaring Creek instead of Hellroaring (it’s a Utah thing). Haha!
The trail to Hellroaring Creek has a lot of variety. The trail winds through forest and open meadows. Switchbacks help you manage the larger changes in elevation. About one mile into the hike, you’ll arrive at a large suspension bridge above the Yellowstone River. The steep canyon walls and the rushing river below is phenomenal! From the bridge, the trail emerges from the forest to open lands, and continues that way until you reach Hellroaring Creek.
At the creek, depending on water flow, you can wade into the water to help cool your feet. If you brought lunch, it’s a great time to relax and enjoy some food and see what wildlife you can spot. After lunch, start the trek back to your car.
One word of caution from personal experience: If a ranger says a storm is rolling in and you shouldn’t wander too far, that may be a good spot to turn around and head for the car. Just sayin’.
DISTANCE: 4.5 miles round-trip (2 miles if you only go to the suspension bridge and back)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 744 feet
Visit Natural Bridge in Yellowstone National Park
I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park more times than I can count. I’ve been three times in the past three years. When my wife and I took a couples trip to the park, I wanted to hike something I’d never hiked before. When we saw Natural Bridge on the map, we decided to give it a try. It’s well worth it.
The trail is accessible from a parking area along the main road, just south of the turnoff to the Bridge Bay campground. You can also access it from inside the campground. The hike to the bridge is relatively flat. When you reach the area of Natural Bridge, the narrower trail continues up the side of the mountain so you can get a better view of the bridge and surrounding landscape. The photo above was taken from the top of the trail, looking at the backside of Natural Bridge.
You can’t (and shouldn’t) climb on the bridge itself.
DISTANCE: 2 miles round-trip along a wide trail
CATEGORY: Easy (the ascent up to Natural Bridge is fairly easy, but it is an ascent)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 127 feet
Climb Uncle Tom’s Stairway
We didn’t know what to expect the first time we took the stairs, but it was totally worth it. To access Uncle Tom’s Trail, it’s best to park in the Upper Falls parking area on the south side of the Yellowstone River. From there, it’s just a short walk to a set of metal stairs clinging to the side of the canyon.
From a kid’s perspective, it’s only 328 steps down to an amazing viewpoint. However, after getting one heck of a view of Lower Falls, it’s 2,000 steps back up to the top. It’s okay to take your time hiking back up the stairs. There are benches and steel platforms you can use as a rest stop on the climb back to the top. Plus, it’ll save you from having to go to the gym that day to use the stair-climber machine.
You can also access the stairway from Artist’s Point, as the trail runs along the rim of the canyon between Artist’s Point and Upper Falls viewing area.
This area is the most crowded of the hikes listed in this post, at least on the main trail. But fewer people trek down the stairs, probably because they know it’s 2,000 steps back to the top. Ha!
DISTANCE: 0.7 miles round-trip (328 steps down)
CATEGORY: Strenuous (it’s doable, but it’s a lot of stairs to climb up)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 500 feet
Make it to Mystic Falls
Mystic Falls is one of the many accessible waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park. You access it from Biscuit Basin parking area. Use the boardwalk trail around the basin to reach the trailhead to Mystic Falls and an amazing overlook of the area.
The loop trail is 3-miles long, but if you want to skip the overlook and hike directly to the waterfall and back, that will make it roughly 2 miles round-trip.
Once you leave the boardwalk on to the hiking trail to Mystic Falls, take a right when the trail splits. You’ll take some switchbacks up the mountain to an overlook where you can see the plumes of steam rising from geysers and heated pools. After enjoying a snack and drink at the overlook, continue along the trail and take the trail on your left to head back down the mountain to Mystic Falls.
The overlook provides a nice view of the 70-foot high waterfall, so take a moment to enjoy the view before heading back to your car.
Address: Yellowstone National Park, PO Box 168, Yellowstone, WY 82190
Parking: The park has numerous parking areas. During peak summer months, parking may be challenging.
Cost: Free with Annual National Parks Pass. A seven-day pass can be purchased: Private Vehicle: $35; Motorcycle or snowmobile: $30; Individuals: $20. Yellowstone National Park has numerous campgrounds available, so it’s best to book them in advance. Camping is available for a fee.
Hours: The park is open year round, but access is limited during the winter months. Most campgrounds and visitor centers are open starting in May through October. For specific seasonal operating hours, visit the Yellowstone National Park website.
Phone: (307) 344-7381
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