Crisp mountain air, cool temperatures, and eye-catching colors make autumn north of Yellowstone a hiker’s paradise. Animals seeking low-elevation forage and migrating raptors provide an unparalleled opportunity for visitors to witness the wildlife that make the Custer Gallatin National Forest famous. Stunning panoramas showcase mountain scenery and fall foliage. Mountain streams and rivers are at their best, with clear water beckoning those who might cool tired feet in their waters. Our hiking opportunities have changed this year with the flood-related closure of the North Entrance Road between Gardiner, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park. Thankfully, we have options. Below are a few of our favorite walks this year for you to explore listed in order from shortest to longest:
North Entrance Road
Length: 2-mile round trip
Duration: 1-2 hours
Trailhead: Arch Park at Roosevelt Arch
Though not a hike per se, the North Entrance Road that once connected Gardiner to Yellowstone offers guests the opportunity to witness the power of water while enjoying fall foliage and wildlife sightings. Park in the paved parking lot at Arch Park —a grassy oasis at the base of historic Roosevelt Arch in downtown Gardiner—and walk through the famous stone entrance toward the North Entrance gate. Here you will encounter park personnel who can inform you of important information and point you in the correct direction to walk. The paved roadway veers to the left as it winds along the Gardner River, offering wide views of the Rescue Creek drainage. It’s common to see elk, pronghorn, and sometimes bighorn sheep in this area. The road parallels the cottonwood- and juniper-lined Gardner River briefly until you encounter a very obvious washout of the roadway. This is as far as you are allowed to walk. Look for bald eagles and other birds of prey in trees before retracing your route back. We recommend taking this walk in the morning or evening and carrying plenty of water as it is exposed and offers little shade. *PLEASE NOTE: Visitor parking is not allowed between Roosevelt Arch and the North Entrance Gate. At no point are guests to venture to the adjacent Old Gardiner Road as this is an active construction zone.
Eagle Creek Campground to Yellowstone River
Length: 4 to 5 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate with 800-foot elevation change
Duration: 3-4 hours
Trailhead: 2 miles northeast of Gardiner at Eagle Creek Campground
For sweeping views of surrounding mountains and valleys hike from Eagle Creek Campground down the Bear Creek drainage to the Yellowstone River. This portion of the Yellowstone River Trail, which is on the national forest, remains opens to the public. The trail crosses high-mountain desert before descending sharply toward the river. Enjoy views of Bunsen Peak, Electric Peak, and the far-away travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. As you descend the switchbacks into the Bear Creek drainage look for deer, elk, and other wildlife. You may even see bear, wolf, and mountain lion tracks on the trail. As the switchbacks subside and the trail encounters Bear Creek historic mining equipment is scattered about (please leave all artifacts where you find them) and cool pools of water offer shady respite. For those who’d like to hike a bit longer, another sharp descent takes you to a bridge spanning Bear Creek as it enters the Yellowstone River, which is known to be dangerous due to swift currents. To learn more about Montana fishing permits and regulations and which types of flies to use please visit one of our local flyfishing companies. * PLEASE NOTE: The Yellowstone River Trail is closed to the public at the Yellowstone National Park border approximately 2.5 miles into the hike.
Length: 9 miles roundtrip *
Difficulty: Moderately Difficult due to length
Trailhead: Bear Creek Campground
Half the adventure (maybe) is getting to the trailhead for this classic mountain hike. Approximately 10 miles of driving on dirt roads northeast of Gardiner takes you to Bear Creek Campground, after which the road is currently closed to vehicles due to bridge damage resulting from the flooding in the Greater Yellowstone area. From Gardiner, travel approximately 5 miles on Jardine Road where a bridge on your right takes you across Bear Creek and onto Bear Creek Road. Travel this road 5 additional miles until the bridge at Darroch Creek where you’ll find a barricade blocking vehicular traffic. Wide shoulders on either side of the road here offer ample parking. Walk the remainder of the road to the trailhead (about half a mile). From here, the 8-mile, round-trip hike to Knox Lake features old-growth forest, opportunities for wildlife sightings, and mountain scenery. The high-alpine lake teems with fish and offers quiet reflection in a wilderness setting. The trail travels steadily uphill and eventually gains approximately 2000 feet. After enjoying the beauty of this remote area return to your vehicle by retracing your route. The trail you are looking for is labeled Trail #64 and you can obtain maps online here in advance or from the Custer Gallatin National Forest office on Scott Street in Gardiner where you can also learn about current forest conditions.
Always remember, all of Yellowstone is bear country. Follow recommendations for hiking safely and carry bear spray and know how to use it. For additional information on this subject please click here. Very few visitors to Yellowstone get out of the car to hike so—to beat the crowds—lace up those boots and get out there and enjoy!
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.