Distance: 7.8 miles
Type: Out and back
Heart Lake is a massive glacial lake tucked away in Yellowstone National Park’s wilderness, where hikers are rewarded with isolation, solitude, and a completely wild landscape surrounding them for miles. At roughly 7.5 miles, it makes for a great day hike, and an even better overnight destination.
Heart Lake Trail Description
The Heart Lake Trail begins along the South Entrance Road between the South Entrance and West Thumb Geyser Basin, found nearby the north end of Lewis Lake, and on the opposite side of the road. The trail quickly immerses itself into a young forest of lodgepole pine, gradually bobbing up and down over small glacially sculpted hills. Many of the trees in this area were burned in the catastrophic ’88 fires, which burned over 700,000 acres in the park. As you pass over the occasional seasonal stream, you’ll notice every now and then passing into an older forest that survived the burn, before passing back into a younger forest that was naturally reseeded on its own.
At roughly 1 mile in, you get your first glimpse of Mount Sheridan, while at 1.5 miles in, you get your first actual view. What appeared initially from the road as a relatively small mountain is now amplified in size as you gradually inch closer toward its northern base.
After about 2.5 miles in, you’ll notice much older trees, bordering on areas where the ’88 fires didn’t spread to. You’ll still occasionally see some younger pines, as fires may not always have a clear boundary, however the larger and older trees seem to become more dominant from this point. Likewise, you’ll even pass through larger meadows, offering a nice change from the consistency of a healthy forest.
Finally, at 4 miles in, things begin to take a more interesting turn as you reach the farthest edge of the Heart Lake Geyser Basin, where a few minor thermal features dot the sides of the trail. Within another half-mile, you’ve reached a much more significant area of the geyser basin, the Upper Group of the Heart Lake Geyser Basin. Here, you’ll hear the sound of fumaroles and small bubbling geysers filling in the silence that would otherwise define a wilderness miles from the nearest road. In addition, standing at the northern base of Mount Sheridan, you get your first view of Heart Lake, far below and nestled below the surrounding mountains.
The lake stretches out for miles, and this particular vantage point is a picture perfect scene of Yellowstone’s backcountry. Few places will define it better: thermal features roaring in the background; an immense glacial lake sprawled out below; distant mountains defining a horizon you know you couldn’t reach in a day; and coursing through all of it is the feeling that you’re overlooking one of the wildest landscapes in the lower 48. Though not visible, wildlife of all varieties is spread out in the endless trees below, avoiding human activity, but undoubtedly there. In a landscape like the one you’re overlooking, you don’t need to see or hear them to know they’re there, just by looking at the landscape, you know.
From this point, the trail begins its descent toward Heart Lake, not only passing a few more thermal features, but also offering up tremendous views of the lake on the way down. Over the course of about a mile, you drop roughly 700 feet in elevation, until the trail begins to flatten out at another area of the Heart Lake Geyser Basin. Hot springs lie along the side of the trail, and their runoff contributes to a creek running nearby that you’ll soon cross via a small footbridge. Before winding into the trees, where the trail will skirt the treeline along the meadow, you’ll be tempted to get more water from this particular stream. If you can, avoid this one, something you’ll be reminded of when your hand meets the water. With plenty of overflow from hot springs, not only is the water too hot to drink right away, but it’s also filled with minerals. Continue along the trail to a healthier stream a short distance ahead. If you need an indicator to know which stream to filter from, look for fish swimming in a small stream that you make a short descent to, and cross via another small footbridge.
For the next mile or so, the trail bobs up and down over small glacially eroded hills, passing through a thin forest that straddles the edge of a large meadow. Soon enough though, the trail heads through part of the meadow just before reaching Heart Lake. Just before that, however, you’ll reach a ranger cabin, where you can usually find a friendly ranger looking inner the area, who’s also available to help you with any other info you might need. To get to Heart Lake however, simply follow the trail another 0.1 miles and you’ll be at the shore once and for all. If you were planning on camping there, the first campground is a short distance along the shore to the right, just after the Rustic Group of the Heart Lake Geyser Basin. Once you’ve had your fill of true wildness, head back the same way you came, ensuring you have enough water for 7+ miles back.
Getting to the Heart Lake Trailhead
From Grant Village, head south along the South Entrance Road for 5.5 miles and look for the turnout for the trailhead on the east (left) side of the road.