DestiNation Yellowstone

The Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

West Thumb in Yellowstone National Park
West Thumb, Yellowstone National Park | NS Photograph/shutterstock
West Thumb, Yellowstone National Park | NS Photograph/shutterstock
If you're even thinking of being in Yellowstone, check out the rest of our DestiNATION Yellowstone travel guide. It's stacked with expert advice on what to do, where to eat, and how to get around America's wildest national park.

Prior to this visit to Yellowstone I’d completed maybe two hikes in my life. But when inquiring -- for journalism purposes -- about which hikes in the park were the most difficult, everyone said there was one most difficult hike, singular, and because I am an insufferable person I decided abruptly that I would do that hike.

With the exception of true backcountry stuff that’ll take you like a week, the unanimous pick (in an informal survey of rangers and volunteers) for Yellowstone’s most batshit hike was Electric Peak, which at 10,967 feet is one of the highest mountains in the park. It was named by the first recorded people to summit it, which they tried to do during a storm only to find themselves suddenly seized by electrical currents, their hair standing on end. Each attempt to climb higher was met with electric shocks strong enough to knock them to the ground. This all sounds rather like the mountain did not want to be climbed and was telling them to fuck off, but once the storm passed they reached the top regardless. Today, Electric Peak is prized for rewarding those who persevere with an absolutely bonkers view.

You’re not supposed do it (or any hike) if you’re alone, which I was, or if the forecast calls for rain, which it did, or if you’re low on food reserves because you ate them at 2:30 that morning after leaving the bar, which is neither here nor there. Having compensated for my lack of experience by buying a flashlight and extra pair of socks, I figured I’d set off just before sunrise. This was partly to have time for other things in the afternoon and partly -- dawn and dusk being when animals are most active -- to indulge an ambient fantasy I’ve entertained since 2016 about what it might be like to wake up one morning and, rather than checking Twitter first thing, simply be eaten by a bear.

Wait, so do I need to buy bear spray?

As far as we can tell, no one in Yellowstone armed with bear spray has ever been killed by a bear. That said, don’t buy it. It’s a trap. It’s like $50. The more financially prudent option is to rent, and there’s only one place in the park for that. Stop by the Canyon Visitor Center and look for the “Bear Aware” kiosk at the edge of the parking lot. This company will rent you a canister ($9.50 for 24 hours, $28 for a week, or $32 for two weeks) that you can return to drop boxes throughout the park, and only pay full price if you actually use it.

You most likely won’t use it. On average, there’s about one bear attack per year within the park -- nine since 2011, six of which were stopped with bear spray. “The other three were fatalities,” says Bear Aware founder Sally Vering. “They did not have bear spray. They made other mistakes -- they were hiking alone, they were hiking off trail, they saw a bear and screamed and ran -- but their critical mistake was that they didn’t have bear spray.”

Yellowstone has more than 1,000 miles of hiking, and 51 trails you can see on this map. Here are the best of them. None are guaranteed to be free of bears, but just remember that a small, healthy dose of fear makes us feel alive.

Lone Star Geyser Trail

Distance: 4.8 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Easy and wheelchair-accessible
This trail is partially paved, which makes it a good pick for visitors with various physical handicaps. Lone Star itself erupts every about three hours, and the water can reach as high as 45 feet. The National Park Service has a logbook there where you can record the time you saw the eruption.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Distance: 0.6 miles
Time: 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy and wheelchair-accessible
This is a boardwalk trail along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and one of the few hikes that’s wheelchair-accessible (you might need assistance on part of the incline, unless you’ve got a strong pair of arms). All in all, you’re getting great views of the geyser basin hot springs, for a fairly small investment of time and effort.

natural bridge
Natural Bridge, Yellowstone National Park | Vittorio Ferrari/flickr

Natural Bridge

Distance: 2.5 miles
Time: 1-2 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Bridge is a unique feature within the park -- a 51-foot rhyolite cliff that Bridge Creek has carved into an arch that looks like it’s the portal to some alternate Yellowstone populated by fairies and gnomes. You can’t walk across it, but the interactive audio exhibit is entertaining enough.

Riddle Lake

Distance: 4.8 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Riddle Lake is fun because you get to cross the Continental Divide, but without doing quite so much as the die-hard hikers who trek the full trail all the way from New Mexico. You’ll pass through both meadows and forests, and the shores of the lake are great for wildlife-spotting; keep an eye out for trumpeter swans.

Trout Lake

Distance: 1.2 miles
Time: 1-2 hours
Difficulty: Easy
This is a good one for kids, a steep but still fairly relaxed path just out to Trout Lake and back. In the summertime you can see the rainbow-cutthroat hybrid trout pretty close-up, and on a good day some adorable otters, too.

fairy falls
Fairy Falls, Yellowstone National Park | lifetravelandmore/flickr

Fairy Falls

Distance: 5.4-6.7 miles
Time: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Yellowstone isn’t short of pretty waterfalls, but the 200-foot Fairy Falls are widely considered the most beautiful. As a bonus, about a half-mile into the trail you get views down onto Grand Prismatic Spring, which most park visitors only ever see from ground level, obscured by steam and other tourists.

Slough Creek

Distance: 3.4-8.6 miles
Time: 2-5 hours
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Slough Creek Trail starts off with a respectable climb, but then after the first mile and a half opens up into easy meadows. You can turn around at the first meadow to keep it short, or continue on to the second to make a day of it; your reward for making it all the way is a landscape of tall grasses, a gentle creek, and quiet campsites. There’s great fishing along the creek itself, if you’re happy to carry the gear.

Yellowstone River Picnic Area

Distance: 3.7 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
This one takes you up the east rim of the Narrows, the tightest section of the Yellowstone River canyon, and you’ll see huge basalt columns and steaming hydrothermal vents on the way. As far as wildlife goes, you’re looking for bighorn sheep, but keep an eye out for peregrine falcons, too.

Lewis River Channel/Dogshead Loop

Distance: 10.8 miles
Time: 5-8 hours
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
This trail is remote enough that you’ll feel like you’re doing proper backcountry stuff. You’ve got Shoshone Lake on one end of the channel and Lewis Lake on the other. While you’re in between, watch for trout in the river, and the eagles and ospreys that accompany them.

hikers
Hikers on Swan Lake Flat | Yellowstone National Park/flickr

Bunsen Peak

Distance: 4.6 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
So named for the guy who invented the Bunsen burner; he studied geysers, too. This trail is fantastic for seeing surreal geological formations like Cathedral Rock, plus panoramic views of what was burned in the infamous 1988 fires.

Mount Washburn

Distance: 5-6.2 miles
Time: 3-6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Mount Washburn is one of the most beloved hiking destinations in the park. You can reach it from the Chittenden Road trailhead 5 miles away, or from the Dunraven Pass trailhead just over 6 miles away. This hike is best in July, both because of all the wildflowers blooming that month, and because during fire season the lookout station at the summit is staffed 24/7 by firefighters.

Hellroaring

Distance: 6.2 miles
Time: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
This one kicks off with a steep descent to the Yellowstone River Suspension Bridge, and from there down to Hellroaring Creek and an awe-inspiring view of the Yellowstone River. You’ll walk through sage fields as well as thick woods, and there’s good fishing along the way, too.

Avalanche Peak

Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
This takes you well above the tree line, and it’s worth it: You get unparalleled views of the tallest peaks in the park. Aim for this one in late July and August -- any earlier and there’s too much snow, any later and there are too many grizzlies.

peak
Electric Peak, Yellowstone National Park | SFA Design/shutterstock

Electric Peak

Distance: 20.6 miles
Time: 9 hours or multi-day
Difficulty: See below?

Electric Peak isn’t listed alongside the National Park Service’s more standard fare. It’s a popular move among backcountry hikers to split it into two or three days, but those with neither the skill nor the patience can still knock it out in one. Park at Glenn Creek Trail Head, then take Fawn Pass to Sportsman’s Lake and turn off at the sign for Electric Peak Junction. This leaves you 4.2 miles to go to the summit, and is the last sign you’ll see. Buy a topographical map at the Mammoth visitor’s center or general store first, a more advisable move than, say, taking screenshots of a half-loaded Google map from different angles and scales of zoom, even if this should feel innovative at the time.

You’d think being only a couple of hours removed from losing at bar games would be counterproductive here, and you would be right, but that is not why this all could have gone much worse. The trailhead from my screenshot-map was closed, so it would be a good 6 miles before I was even kind of sure I wasn’t lost, and also maybe trespassing. A thunderstorm was expected to roll in right when I’d be at the peak, assuming I managed to find it; I’d been warned this was something of an issue because the final push to the summit is unmarked (even on maps, the trail doesn’t end at Electric Peak; it just ends, untethered, several inches’ green space short of the actual mountain, a physically disconcerting visual that recalls being lost at sea). But the thing I feared really, almost more than bears, was getting caught breaking the rules in a place I cared about -- as if some miles on a park ranger would peel around the corner in a Jeep, blaring through a bullhorn that I wasn’t just out of bounds, I was also a horrible person.

It’s silly in retrospect, but it took me several minutes standing there at the beginning to realize no such Jeep existed and I could just try it anyway, even if the trail really was closed and it did rain and I did get lost and there were bears. We all acclimate to the invisible confines of our daily lives, to all our actions being regulated and restricted. The nicest moment I had the whole trip was the one when I realized that, as I stood there about to make potentially a very large mistake, I was so physically alone there was no one around to watch me or stop me or care, and that I’d never been quite so free to die stupidly if I wanted to.

There were so many deer! And I saw a pika, and an owl in the daytime. I saw a moose and her calf, right up close, and have been harassing all my friends with the video. I saw the top of a black bear for about 1.5 seconds, and I knew it wasn’t a grizzly but, as a jumpy person who’d already been walking alone through bear country for hours, let me tell you I was fuckin’ ready with that bear spray.

You don’t need special gear or anything, but by the end there's a moment or two when you're truly climbing -- like, with your hands. I left my bag behind for the final hour or so to the top. While I recommend you do this too, I did regret not bringing water once I cleared the peak and found another, larger, peak behind it. There was also another one behind that, then another, a suspiciously endless-looking chain of peaks, and it was then that I realized I didn’t actually know if Electric Peak was ahead or behind or if it was just all Electric Peak, collectively. But I came to a sort of symbolically placed walking stick (which at least meant another person had been there) and simultaneously recovered something close to cell service (which I took to mean I’d crossed over the border into Montana) whereupon I decided this was as close to a sign as I was likely to get and promptly collapsed into a ball to eat some jerky I’d stuffed into my sock.

Electric Peak actually is marked at the summit. I learned this later that evening, when I went by the Super 8 I’d stayed at the night before to let the front desk guy know I was still alive. He congratulated me and proceeded to ask if I’d signed “the book,” causing my heart to drop all the way out of my butt since -- obviously -- no one had ever mentioned any book. We watched the video I’d taken from the top for clues and found none, but at least he confirmed I’d been “in the vicinity.”

Look, had there had been a sign or a map or a human person to say, “Hey, if you keep going 10 minutes this way there’s a book by which we determine whose experience is valid,” of course I would have fucking gone. I'll have none of you take this from me, because I did everything in good faith. I could have said I was sure the first peak was The Peak and pretended to feel cheated when anyone informed me it wasn’t. But I hadn’t been sure, which is why I tried a bunch of other peaks even though I extremely did not want to because hiking is hard and should be done with proper footwear.

“You did good,” Super 8 told me as we watched the video again, like it would be any different, while I mumbled about how was I supposed to know if any of those peaks was Electric Peak.

“Yeah. One of them is, though.”

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.