How to Discover the Real Yellowstone

yellowstone bison

Bison causing traffic jam on Grand Loop Road
Photo by Mark Braley

by Mark Braley

Many people know Yellowstone National Park as a place packed with traffic-jam-causing tourists trying to get a glimpse of the diverse wildlife that can easily be viewed from the side of the road. What many people don’t know is that few tourists get to experience Yellowstone beyond the Grand Loop road that traverses the park. By rushing from stop to stop, or taking huge bus trips to see Old Faithful or the Lower Falls, people don’t realize they are missing the true beauty of the park. By going off the beaten path and exploring the secluded backcountry trails of Yellowstone, one can feel a surreal sense of timelessness through observing the park the way it has been for thousands of years. While backcountry adventures in Yellowstone will create memories that will last a lifetime, there are still many dangers and precautions that need to be taken into account.

Here is an informative guide on how to plan your perfect Yellowstone adventure.


As with any hiking trip in any area, safety is always the number one concern. When hiking in the backcountry wilderness of Yellowstone, there are many dangers and different scenarios that may occur; this is where preparation is key. Though rare, every year people hiking the trails of Yellowstone lose their lives or get seriously injured in various ways. In order to reduce the risk of personal injury it is essential that hikers expect the unexpected and prepare for any scenario that might arise.  Also, it is very important to travel in groups of three or more people; hiking alone is extremely dangerous.

Dangers in the park include, but are not limited to:

  • Unpredictable wildlife – Grizzly bears, Black bears, Wolves, Coyotes, Bison, Elk and Moose are all dangerous animals that should never be approached.
  • Changing weather conditions – The park lies within a caldera caused by the volcano lying beneath. A caldera is a sunken area of land caused by past eruptions; this can cause weather to change quickly.
  • Remote thermal areas – Hundreds of geysers and hot springs are present throughout the park. While these features are awe-inspiring, they can also be deadly.
  • Cold water lakes – In the winter Yellowstone’s temperatures plummet and the park becomes one of the coldest places in the lower 48 United States.  As a result, lakes in Yellowstone are near freezing year-round.
  • Turbulent streams – Rapids can be deceiving, never underestimate the power of water.
  • Rugged mountains with loose rock – Be familiar with the terrain you are treading on, loose rock is one of the easiest ways for a hiker to become injured.


When packing your bag it is important to be sure you never cut corners and have everything you need. The most essential item that every hiker needs to have plenty of is water. For an overnight backpacking trip it may be difficult to bring enough water along with you. Water is heavy and space consuming and is difficult to transport in large portions. A solution to this is to invest in a water purification method that allows hikers to easily purify natural river water. One very simple way of purifying water quickly is through the use of water purification tablets. Originally used in the military, purification tablets are widely used in the outdoors and in emergencies and are also very affordable. Aside from a way to get fresh water, for an enjoyable experience hiker’s packs should include:

  • Easy to Prepare Food
  • Matches/Lighter
  • Survival Knife (4.5 inch blade length)
  • Global Positioning System
  • Collapsible Fishing Rod
  • Directional Compass
  • Bear Spray
  • Durable Hiking Boots
  • Extra Clothes(long pants, long sleeved shirts)
  • Poncho/Raincoat
  • Insect Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • First Aid Kit
  • Camera
  • Flashlight
  • Binoculars
  • Sleeping Bag (suitable for cold temperatures)
  • Tent (that can be easily transported, assembled and disassembled)


According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park consists of 2.2 million acres of pristine wilderness and includes 1,100 miles of hiking trails.  Choosing a hike to go on depends on whether you are planning an overnight trip or just a casual day hike. The park has a system designated for backcountry camping with numerous campsites that can be found along some of the longer trails in the park.  In order to use one of these campsites, hikers need to buy a backcountry camping permit which allows campers to stay for a period of one to three nights. Camping permits can be purchased at any park ranger station or any of the parks numerous visitor centers.


  • Heart Lake – 16.2 miles round trip, 500 feet in elevation change, perfect for intermediate backpackers.
  • Specimen Ridge Trail – 13.3 miles roundtrip, takes hikers through remote grasslands and forests en route to Rocky Beach in Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.
  • Lewis Lake Loop – 11.1 mile loop in southwest Yellowstone, takes hikers through a dense forest of Lodgepole pines destroyed by the fires of 1988 and ends along the shores of Lewis Lake.
  • Electric Peak – At 20.6 miles, this is one of the most difficult treks in the park and should only be used by experienced hikers.  Grizzly bear sightings are not uncommon on this trail.
    • Information on trails gathered from the National Park Service website:

While some may get the most out of their adventures by camping for a night or two, there are still hundreds of incredible day hikes available for casual hikers.


  • Elephant Back Mountain – A three-mile, round-trip hike with difficulty listed as moderate, this trip takes approximately one to two hours.

    yellowstone coyote

    Coyote near Specimen Ridge
    Photo by Mark Braley

  • Pelican ValleyA moderately easy, six-mile round-trip hike. This trail is in prime Grizzly bear country meaning many restrictions apply, consult the area visitor center for restriction information.
  • Cascade Lake – A five-mile loop meandering through meadows with an abundance in wild flowers.  This loop also takes hikers past several thermal features making it a popular day time hike.
    • Information on trails gathered from the National Park Service website:


Yellowstone is known by many as the “American Serengeti” due to the fact that so many different species of animals and amazing land features are present within the park. The park is one of the only places left in the lower 48 United States that inhabits Grizzly Bears, Wolves, and natural free grazing Bison. When hiking, there is a good chance you may get to see one of these amazing creatures, however, it is very important to keep a safe distance and never approach a wild animal. Jonathan Hay, an associate employed with Recreation Equipment Incorporated (REI) recommends purchasing a North American tracking guide to assist in finding signs of animal life.  “Any time I go on a hike I am always tracking,” Hay said.  “It’s kind of a hobby, there are so many things to look for like animal tracks, fur, scratches on trees, and even scat.”

The park also includes the largest collection of thermal features in the world.  Yellowstone sits on top of a super volcano that has carved the landscape of Yellowstone for millions of years. When hiking be on the lookout for different features hidden throughout the park, but never touch or go near these features as they contain water that is close to or at the boiling point.

Yellowstone also has an amazing abundance of waterfalls.  To this day people are still discovering and naming waterfalls that are located in some of the most secluded areas of the park.  Yellowstone’s waterfalls provide for excellent photo opportunities and act as a reminder that much of the park has remained untouched for centuries. As Michael Lanza explained in his article “Secret Hikes: Yellowstone National Park,” you will be viewing the scenery as it was when members of Lewis and Clark’s expedition visited the area in 1806.

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About Mark Braley

Mark Braley was born in Littleton, Colorado. He is a 24 year old student at Metropolitan State University of Denver studying Journalism.

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