Insider's Guide: Yellowstone

From camping with wolves to fly-fishing smarts this insider's guide has you covered.
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From camping with wolves to fly-fishing smarts this insider's guide has you covered.

Top Trails

Dayhike

Pebble Creek

This route packs more alpine oohs and aahs into a one-day ramble than any other trail in Yellowstone. Park at the northern access point to Pebble Creek trailhead (one mile from the Northeast Entrance gate) and drop a shuttle car seven miles south on the Northeast Entrance Road. You'll climb an easy 500 feet in the first .75 mile, then follow Pebble Creek as it meanders another nine miles through a glacial-cut valley smothered in crimson geraniums and calf-high purple lupine. Picnic in the shadow of 10,442-foot Baronette Peak–scan its slopes for bighorn sheep–and a dozen other lofty summits. At 6.6 miles, intersect Bliss Pass Trail and continue straight through meadows where elk and moose often graze in midsummer. Mind the four fords across Pebble Creek; the water can be thigh-deep and dangerously swift before early July.

Weekend

Geyser Basin

Of all the world's known geysers, two-thirds of them–some 300–lie within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. See 40 of them–plus numerous mudpots, hot springs, and fumaroles–in a single weekend on this 27.7-mile overnight to Shoshone Geyser Basin. From Old Faithful at the Howard Eaton Trail, cruise three miles to Lone Star Geyser. It erupts every three hours, spewing superheated water 45 feet high. Pitch camp at your reserved site on Basin Beach (site 8T1; mile 9.6) beside Shoshone Lake. Here, within a span of two miles, more than 100 active thermal features spout and gurgle. (Pack The Geysers of Yellowstone, by T. Scott Bryan, a detailed field guide with maps and photos.) On day two, hike on the Shoshone Lake Trail to Moose Creek, where you're likely to meet its gangly namesake in the open meadows. Finish the last 4.6 miles via the Doghead Trail, where you'll see remnants of the 1988 fire that charred nearly 40 percent of the park.

Weeklong

Bechler River

Got a week and want to dabble in everything that makes Yellowstone Yellowstone? Find world-class fly-fishing, muscle-soothing hot springs, roaring waterfalls, and big wildlife on the Bechler River Trail. Begin at the Howard Eaton trailhead, 1.75 miles south of Old Faithful on the Grand Loop Road, and climb 500 feet across the Continental Divide to your first camp at Shoshone River Meadows (8G1). Next morning, you'll join the Bechler River Trail, descending 1,500 feet over 20.6 miles through Bechler Canyon; the route passes a dozen waterfalls and cascades, plus hot springs and geysers. Fourteen designated campsites–some with sprawling canyon vistas, others cozy and creekside–line the trek from mile 6.7 to 24.2. Plan at least one overnight at Ferris Fork (9D1), where a short walk on a spur trail leads you east to Ferris Pool, big enough to accommodate 10 hikers. At mile 20, you'll reach Bechler Meadows (bison alert!), with the Tetons as a distant backdrop. Spend two nights at Bechler Ford campsite (9B2) and use the layover for a dayhike on the Boundary Creek Trail to Dunanda Falls. Continue south on Bechler Meadows Trail to the Mountain Ash Creek Trail; pitch camp at the base of Union Falls. Double back on Union Falls Trail for 1.7 miles and rejoin the Mountain Ash Creek Trail, then continue toward Pitchstone Plateau (4.5 miles), a sparsely vegetated, 70,000-year-old lava flow, to complete the 58-mile trek.

Get Lucky in the Lamar

The Lamar River Valley has "a bit of everything," says Orville Bach, the author of two Yellowstone guidebooks and a seasonal ranger for 36 years. His favorite spots:

Explore a Mystery
On August 23, 1877, 800 Nez Perce Indians with 2,000 horses entered Yellowstone on the run from 400 U.S. cavalry soldiers. But shortly after reaching the Lamar Valley, the Nez Perce vanished. "The Army lost them," says Bach. "How do you lose 2,000 horses and that many people?" See for yourself on a hike to their last-seen location near the confluence of Mist Creek and the Lamar River, 38 miles from the start of a thru-hike that begins at Artist Point. To hike to the site of a battle between the Nez Perce and the Army.

Visit the Wildest of Wilds
The remote Mirror Plateau, the unforgiving Absaroka Mountains, the petrified forests of Specimen Ridge: All lie within the Lamar and Pelican Valleys, where grizzlies assemble in such numbers that overnight camping is forbidden and hikers are encouraged to pass through loudly and quickly. For the ultimate highlights tour, begin at Artist Point on the Wapiti Lake Trail. Near mile seven, you'll cross Moss Creek, leave the trail, and bushwhack three miles northeast to (soakable) Joseph's Coat Hot Springs. Spend the night here–at a designated campsite (4B1)–before connecting with Upper Pelican Creek Trail, Mist Creek Trail, and finally the Lamar River Trail, where there's a good chance you'll spot bears, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, bison, osprey, bald eagles, and antelope. If you're lucky, you might see or hear the Druid wolf pack. The route spans nearly 60 miles–tack on 15 more with a traverse of Specimen Ridge. "Go in September," says Bach. "The streams are down, insects are pretty much gone, and the elk are bugling."

Key Skills

Camping with Wolves
In 1995, wildlife biologists reintroduced 14 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone. Today, the population has increased to 124 animals, presenting new thrills–and a few chills–to backcountry hikers. Here are safe-hiking tips from Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

Use Bear Precautions The same rules apply: Hang your food 100 yards from where you sleep, and avoid on-trail surprises by making noise while you hike.

Make Space "Backcountry wolves will almost always avoid you," says Smith. But in some instances, a curious wolf might approach. If so, modify your route and let the wolf move away. "If it doesn't run, stand your ground, yell, clap your hands, and flap your jacket." Still too close? Use bear spray.

Fight Back There's one big exception to the just-like-bears rule, notes Smith: "If a wolf grabs hold of you, fight like hell." But sleep easy: Wolf attacks are rare, with only 20 recorded nationwide in the entire 20th century.

Fly-Fishing Smarts

Yellowstone boasts hundreds of streams filled with fat arctic grayling, cutthroat trout, and mountain whitefish–all native species. Chad Olsen, founder of Greater Yellowstone Flyfishers (gyflyfishers.com), has spent two decades leading guided trips into the park. Use his tips to land a big one.

Pack Light
A featherweight graphite rod that breaks down into four parts works best; pair it with a small reel and floating line. The whole setup weighs less than a pound. And pack sandals or river shoes–you don't need waders in the summer. Tackle should include two leaders, a spool of tippet, bead head nymphs, woolly buggers, and an assortment of dry flies.

Cast Your Line
Slough Creek, in the northeast corner of the park, is one of the best places to hook a trout. Other hotspots include the Yellowstone River, Black and Grand Canyons, Lamar River, Pelican Creek, and the Snake River. Avoid fishing after heavy rains, advises Olsen. Downpours muddy rivers and make it hard for fish to see your fly. (For tips on reading a trout stream, see Find the Trout".)

Fish Fry
Native Yellowstone species are catch-and-release only. But there are enough stocked rainbow, brown, and brook trout to ensure a hearty campfire feast. Just be careful how you cook: Roasting fish over hot coals is sure to attract bears. Poach your catch in boiling water instead–it's simpler and creates less odor. Remember to clean your catch far from camp, preferably where you landed it.

Casting Call
Learn how to prep a rod and reel and get tips for casting at backpacker.com/flyfish or see our Gear Test: Backpacking-Friendly Fly Rods