Hiking in Yellowstone National Park can be extremely rewarding for a number of reasons. Most obvious to many people is the quick access away from the crowds. Another is having the opportunity to hike in a pristine wilderness that hasn’t been altered by human hands, and has remained so for centuries. For others, it’s just the opportunity to explore a new wilderness. Whatever the case, hiking in Yellowstone is highly encouraged to get the most out of your visit. At the same time though, there are some important things to know before beginning your trip off of the main roads.
First and foremost, always carry bear spray whenever you’re hiking anywhere in the area, whether it’s Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park, Shoshone National Forest, the Beartooth Mountains, or anywhere in the region. It’s not a touristy novelty item like some people have horribly surmised. Instead, it’s actually the most effective defense against a charging bear. In the last five years, there were two people that both died from grizzly bears. Neither was carrying bear spray and both went into the backcountry defiantly leaving it behind because they’ve "lived here long enough to know how to act around bears." That’s not what bear spray is for though. Bear spray is for those unexpected encounters when you don’t have time to do anything else but pull it out and fire.
Because of the ’88 fires, much of the new tree growth is very dense and extremely hard to see around. This is how people surprise bears. It’s recommended you hike with someone, and make noise as you’re hiking. This doesn’t mean excessively yelling and ruining the experience of being out in nature for others on the trail. Having a casual conversation at a normal decibel level is enough to let a bear know you’re in the neighborhood.
Oh yeah, leave the bear bells behind. Bears don’t pay any attention to them and the only thing they’re good for is annoying hikers that know they don’t work.
If it’s big mountainous hikes you’re looking for, you may be a little disappointed if you drive in from the south or west entrances. For those that may or may not already know, Yellowstone is a supervolcano. It last erupted 640,000 years ago, and prior to that 1.3 and 2.1 million years ago in its current area. As a result of all the eruptions, the mountains that were previously there have been completely obliterated. Where the Absaroka Mountains had covered the landscape, a massive volcanic caldera is now in its place. This has left much of the southern part of Yellowstone primarily hilly in nature.
This means if you’re looking for large mountains and canyons to explore, you’re best bet is to stick to the northern and eastern areas of the park. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot to see in the caldera, there’s just not a comparable amount of elevation gain and loss. There are, however, still some amazing features, lakes, and remote geyser basins to be found. Also, with over 1,000 miles of trails in the park, there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a couple of simple walks off the beaten path, or epic multi-day adventures, Yellowstone caters to everyone.
I only bring up these differences so that you’re aware of what kind of terrain you may be planning for.
Due to the unpredictable nature of the thermal areas of the park, many of the more popular area trails are raised on boardwalks. This is primarily a safety reason, since the constant earthquake activity can cause a once stable area of land to become completely unstable and collapse with a minimal amount of pressure. This has resulted in the park itself having to reroute many different trails and boardwalks frequently. Thus, it is strongly encouraged that you always stay on a boardwalk when one is present. These are typically some of the more visited areas along the roadsides. In essence, the boardwalk trails are intended to be enjoyed by everyone, whereas the hiking trails can range from easy to very strenuous and challenging.
Many hiking trails also lead to backcountry geyser basins. It’s assumed that you will use common sense back there. Some of them will have natural barriers that have been placed there, so you cross them at your own risk, but again, it’s recommended you not do so for your own safety. What could have held a bison one day may not be able to support you the next, and you could wind up scalding yourself to death from steam. The precautions are there for a reason.
Aside from that, the main difference is that the boardwalks are typically in frequently visited geyser basins, whereas hiking trails tend to lead off into a more remote and natural setting. Because the boardwalks are so frequently used, you could probably get away with not carrying bear spray on them, but it’s strongly encouraged you have it always just in case. It’s not uncommon for a grizzly bear to visit the Mud Volcano area, for example.
Also, when on a boardwalk, leave the bacteria mats alone. If you think it’s a good idea to kill a bunch of bacteria by writing your name or some other message that only you’ll understand, then stay off the boardwalk. Similarly, don’t feel the temperature of the water. At worst, you’ll burn your hand. At best, you’ll just be demonstrating how little respect you have for the park and its staff. Enjoy the park for what it is.
Anyone with any experience hiking in Yellowstone National Park or anywhere else should already be well aware of this policy and practicing it upon any outing. For those that don’t know, Leave No Trace means just that. Leave the area just as you found it. That means packing out any and all trash, which includes fruit peels, toilet paper, food, etc.
But fruit peels are natural. Why pack them out?
The air in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is extremely dry. Unlike in more moist environments, the fruit peel won’t get eaten, and won’t deteriorate at a rate suitable for the soil. It essentially becomes litter, so please pack it out and throw it away once you’re off the trail.
You expect me to carry out my dirty toilet paper?
Yes. Bring a Ziplock bag and make it your trash bag. If that’s too much to ask, then stay off the trails. The last thing anyone wants to see is someone else’s dirty TP. If you try to bury your litter, it will get dug up by an animal and left out near the trail. In addition, you also leave a scent that will attract multiple predatory animals, making the trail unsafe for everyone else.
As mentioned, the air is very dry here. This takes its toll on humans too in the form of dehydration setting in much quicker than many people are used to, also thanks to the high elevation. I’ve literally watched people get sick just from sitting all day because they didn’t drink enough water. Having to go to the bathroom a few more times a day is significantly easier than the alternative.
Roads are not meant to be the primary vehicle for seeing a national park. Roads are there to access other areas of the park quicker. Parks are meant to be seen on foot (or horse or bicycle).
While visiting Black Sand Basin recently, I watched a car pull into the parking lot and the passenger took a picture of Cliff Geyser as it was erupting, then they drove away. A friend also told me a story of a couple who came back to the Mammoth Hotel, said they drove around the park that day and saw everything, and were wondering if there was anything else to do. In their case, no. They should leave. But if you really want to see the park and experience why it was protected, get out of the car. Walk the boardwalks. Hike a few trails. Read the informational signs that are available. Talk to (and thank) a ranger. Make Edward Abbey proud. That’s how you experience a national park. A car should only be used to get you from one point to another.