Crisp mountain air, cool temperatures, and eye-catching colors make autumn in Yellowstone a hiker’s paradise. Animals on the move for easier forage and migrating raptors provide an unparalleled opportunity for visitors to witness the wildlife that make the area famous. Stunning panoramas showcase mountain scenery and fall foliage. Even the park’s hydrothermal features are exceptionally scenic, with cooler temperatures resulting in dramatic steam plumes from their superheated waters. Below are a few of our favorite fall hikes for you to explore listed in order from shortest to longest:
Length: 1.2-mile lollipop loop
Difficulty: 150-foot elevation gain
Duration: 1-2 hours
Trailhead: 1.5 miles southeast of Pebble Creek Campground on the Northeast Entrance Road
Trout Lake is a pristine lake located in the park’s Northern Range around Lamar Valley. The paved trailhead parking lot is located east of the valley and fits between 5 to 10 vehicles. Pack a camera, layers, bear spray, and perhaps even a book or flyrod for a steep-but-short ascent to this hidden treasure. The lake’s crystal-clear water reflects the blue sky and surrounding mountains and is teeming with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Look for ducks and geese on the water and along the lake’s shoreline; watch red squirrels harvest pinecones for the winter; and keep an eye open for the occasional river otter. Fall foliage abounds in the surrounding shrubbery and aspen groves. Once you’ve explored Trout Lake continue upstream to Buck and Shrimp lakes or return to your vehicle the way you came. For information on Yellowstone’s fishing regulations and how to obtain a fishing license click here. To learn more about what types of flies to use on various bodies of water throughout Yellowstone please visit one of our local flyfishing companies.
Fall reflections at Trout Lake, courtesy of Yellowstone NPS
Length: 4.6 or 7.6 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: 1,300-foot elevation gain
Duration: 2-4 hours
Trailhead: 5 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs on the Grand Loop Road
For sweeping views of surrounding mountains and valleys ascend Bunsen Peak south of Mammoth Hot Springs. The mountain—actually the remains of a now inactive volcano—features a well-marked trail through sagebrush and pine-fir forest that later switchbacks up a talus slope before topping out. Here you will find a station for radio relaying equipment. The peak’s 360-degree views showcase the Gallatin Mountain Range, Swan Lake Flat, and the Yellowstone River Valley far below. Look for grouse, golden-mantled ground squirrels, hawks and eagles, and the occasional mountain goat along the trail. You’ll want to pack a jacket, binoculars, and snacks if you plan on pausing at the summit. You can descend the way you came or lengthen your walk by about three miles by descending the opposite side of Bunsen Peak through forest heavily burned by wildfires in 1988. The trail intersects a dirt road where you turn right to walk the ensuing three miles back to the unpaved trailhead located across from Glen Creek Trail. Many local hiking companies include Bunsen Peak in their trail offerings.
Views from atop Bunsen Peak, courtesy of Yellowstone NPS
Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser
Length: 6.7 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Flat (except the Overlook)
Duration: 4-5 hours
Trailhead: 1 mile south of Midway Geyser Basin on the Grand Loop Road
Arrive early to find a parking spot at the Fairy Falls Trailhead a mile south of Midway Geyser Basin, home to Yellowstone’s most famous hot spring, Grand Prismatic Spring. Overflow parking is also located nearby. Walk the short distance from parking across a bridge spanning the Firehole River and follow the wide, gravel path past numerous small hydrothermal features. For your safety and the safety of the fragile features, never leave the path to approach a hot spring and never stick your finger into the water to test the temperature as they are hot and can scald you. After approximately a mile on this gravel path—which offers scenic views of the colorful runoff waters of Grand Prismatic Spring and trees encased in porcelain-white siliceous sinter—the route makes an abrupt left onto a narrow trail through lodgepole pine forest. The trail continues approximately 1.6 miles to the base of Fairy Falls, which tumbles nearly 200 feet from the edge of a rhyolite flow. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can cross the creek at the base of the falls (no bridge is present) and join a lesser-traveled trail to Spray and Imperial geysers, two backcountry geysers. Be sure to respectfully maintain distance from these beautiful, yet dangerous, hydrothermal features. Return the way you came and make a short ascent to an overlook of Grand Prismatic Spring, which offers an aerial perspective of the “must see” Yellowstone hot spring. This hike is exposed to sun and wind so be sure to pack a jacket and sunscreen. If you forgot to pack these items they may be available for purchase at one of the area’s gift and sporting good stores or grocery and supply stores.
Hikers below Fairy Falls, courtesy of Yellowstone NPS
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.