Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone – Complete Guide

Yellowstone River
A view of the Yellowstone River from the 1st swinging bridge found on the trail through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park is iconic with a landscape that inspired and birthed the very idea of national public lands. It is the first National Park created in the world and is home to countless wonders of nature. It has massive waterfalls, deep canyons, beautiful lakes, an abundance of wild creatures, and of course the world-famous geothermal pools and geysers. Visitors flock to this massive 3,472 square mile park but few ever venture very far off the roads. If you truly want to experience this massive landscape you will need to strap on a backpack and head into the wilderness. One of the best trails follows the flow of the park’s namesake the Yellowstone River as it meanders northwest through the park. This Backpacking guide to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone will help you prepare for an amazing journey.

Backpacking Guide to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone

Stats for Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone

  • Trailhead: Tower Junction or Eagle Creek Campground (Outside the Park Boundary)
  • Type: Thru-Hike
  • Rating: Difficult
  • Distance: 22 to 26-miles
  • Total Elevation Gain: 3,052’
  • Tower Junction Elevation: 6,264’
  • Eagle Creek Campground Elevation: 6,094’
  • Recommended Time: 3 days, 2 nights
  • Backpacking Season: Mid-May thru Early-October
  • Camping Permits: Required. Reservations are by lottery.
Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Elevation - Combined

Backpacking Season

Flowers on the Yellowstone River
Summer wildflowers bloom alongside the Yellowstone River inside the Black Canyon.

The backpacking season in Yellowstone National Park typically starts when the snow melts enough to allow easy passage. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone is found at the lowest elevations in the park and is one of the first trails to open and one of the last to get snowed in. Typically the season gets going in early May and runs through Mid-October. However, the early spring has a lot more risk of bear encounters and the streams run high from the meltwater. July and August can also be unbearably hot in this part of the park so we recommend planning your backpacking journey in June or September.

Dangers

The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
There are so many animal bones found inside the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone that Jennifer and I refer to this trail fondly as “the graveyard.”

There is a certain allure and fear of Yellowstone’s backcountry because of its bears, wolves, and other wild creatures. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone actually looks like a graveyard with all the various skulls of wild animals strewn about. It is enough to make even the most ardent outdoorsman question camping in this canyon. Do not fear too much as the abundance of skulls is due to the fact that many creatures winter in the canyon and ultimately die there. However, the bears are aware of this and visit the canyon to pick the carcass clean after waking from their hibernation. If you are averse to the idea of running across a bear in the wild then skip the spring and take this trail on in the fall. Regardless of when you choose to backpack the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, you should carry bear spray.

The other great danger is the river and its tributaries. The Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the continental United States making the river unpredictable, especially during the spring melts. The trail stays well above the river but does require crossing several creeks. All of the tributaries have footbridges but the one over Hellroaring Creek adds over 3.5-miles to the journey. Instead, many backpackers choose to ford the wide creek. With water shoes and hiking sticks, this is easy enough in the late summer and fall but in the springtime, it is best to make the journey via the bridge.

Fording Hellroaring Creek
We choose to ford Hellroaring Creek on our journey of backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Direction for Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone (2K2 to 1N7)

There are many ways to hike in and out of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Hellroaring Trailhead (2K8) west of Tower Junction is one of the most popular. But starting (or ending) at the Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2) instead allows for an easier and more scenic traverse. The South Western side of the Garnett Hill Loop Trail adds 2.5-miles to the overall length of the Black Canyon traverse and saves several hundred feet of steep decline (or incline). It starts at Tower Junction and connects to the Hellroaring Creek Trail just above the swinging bridge that crosses over the Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone River and the Black Canyon
The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Trail (upper right corner) climbs over a rocky outcropping adjacent to the river.

A Change in the Trail

The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Trail used to follow the flow of the Yellowstone River all the way into Gardiner, Montana making the entire traverse mostly downhill. But the trail was rerouted after a landslide and rerouted a second time to avoid private land. The trail now ends (or begins) at the Eagle Creek Campground (1N7 trailhead) in the Gallatin National Forest. This campground is located 900′ above the Yellowstone River making the final two miles of the trail some of the most difficult trail to do.

Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail 313
Jennifer descends the last quarter mile of the trail with our truck waiting in the distance at the Eagle Creek Campground parking area.

The Climb to the Eagle Creek Campground

During the cooler months, it is best to start at Tower Junction and hike to the Eagle Creek Campground. This saves a little elevation gain overall and it follows the flow of the river. It also saves the most scenic areas for last. However, if your itinerary begins in the heat of July and August plan on going against the flow of the river and hike from the Eagle Creek Campground to Tower Junction. The steepest section of the trail is the two miles from the Yellowstone River to the Eagle Creek Campground. You do not want to be climbing this exposed canyon wall at mid-day in the heat of summer. We know first-hand that it is not pleasant.

Alt: Blacktail Creek

Backpackers could also exit the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone via the Blacktail Creek Trailhead (1N5), but this would cut off some of the best scenery found in the canyon. We recommend continuing down the trail or doing a base camp and exploring the entirety of the canyon before backtracking to the Blacktail Creek Trailhead.

Trailheads Identification

Like the campgrounds, Yellowstone Trailheads use a 3-digit code. You must list your intended starting point and endpoint on your reservation and/or permit application. There are four possible trailheads when backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

  • Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2)
  • Eagle Creek Campground (1N7)
  • Hellroaring Trailhead (2K8)
  • Blacktail Creek Trailhead (1N5)
Butterfly Wheel
A butterfly rests on a wagon wheel at Yancey’s in Yellowstone. Getting to visit the old stagecoach inn area (the inn no longer exists) is one of the benefits of starting the hike from the Tower Junction Trailhead.

Parking & Shuttle

Parking at either trailhead is very easy. The Tower Junction parking area is relatively large for the few tourists that stop here. On the Eagle Creek side, the campground has a small parking area at the very top of the campground for those heading out on the Yellowstone River Trail 313 (the access trail for the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone). The park service asks that you leave your permit number in the window of your vehicle when parking it overnight.

Shuttle

As often can be the case with a thru-hike, the most challenging part of backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone is getting from one trailhead to the other. The Eagle Creek Campground is located 26 road miles from Tower Junction. It isn’t even in the National Park. Shuttling with two vehicles is obviously the easiest way to make this hike work. However, we managed to hitchhike from the campground to Mammoth (in Yellowstone) and then caught another ride from there to Tower Junction. This was in the summer of 2021. There was still a lot of Covid trepidation and we had to wait about 20 minutes to find our second ride. I think it would be harder to hitchhike in the opposite direction as few people travel towards the Eagle Creek Campground but most people staying in the campground are headed into the park every morning.

Elk in Mammoth
Although it took us a while to catch a ride in Mammoth we had this elk and his friends to keep us company.

Commercial Shuttle

If hitchhiking is out of your comfort zone there are several outfitters that do commercial shuttle services for backpackers in Yellowstone National Park. They can be very expensive. As of 2021, our research suggests that the Yellowstone Road Runner company is the most cost-effective.

Ride Shares

We attempted to get an Uber and a Lyft and neither had drivers in our area. We tried to schedule them well in advance as well as hailing them the morning of our adventure, but neither was successful. This was during the labor shortages of 2021 but I have my doubts about drivers going that far into the park as cell service is needed to pick up additional fares and cell service doesn’t exist west of Mammoth.

Camping Permits

Camping permits are required when backcountry camping in Yellowstone National Park. Permits are only issued within 3-days of a trip. However, reservations for the summer backpacking season permits can be won in a lottery. Applications for the lottery are typically accepted throughout the month of March and drawn on April 1st. The park service usually issues the successful reservation emails before the end of April. The catch to all this is that Yellowstone is behind the times and the form for entry into the lottery must be mailed or faxed to the Yellowstone Backcountry office.

Rocky Cliffs in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
Much of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone terrain is inhospitable to camping. Luckily the park service has developed campsites and requires that you camp in those designated sites.

Cost

The reservation fee is currently $25 per trip and will be charged if your lottery application is chosen. When you go to collect your permit you will be charged an additional $3 per person per night. If you are going to spend more than nine nights in the backcountry, purchase one of Yellowstone’s $25 Backcountry Annual Passes. This allows you to forgo the cost of the permit (for the pass holder only). However, the reservation fees will still apply for each trip.

Check out the backcountry section of the park’s website for more details or to get the lottery application form.

Campsites

2H1 Elk Skull
An elk skull rests against the 2H1 campsite marker inside the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

According to the park, Yellowstone has 293 established backcountry campsites. These individual campsites are well spread out along the trails. These are not clustered backcountry campgrounds but actual individual sites. Your nearest neighbor maybe a mile away and rarely closer than a quarter of a mile. Unlike many other parks, Yellowstone does not name the individual sites but rather codes them. All the campsites have a three-digit code. The first digit is typically a number but could also be a W or an O. It defines a backcountry section of the park. The second digit is a letter that often defines a landscape feature like a river, lake, or ridgeline. The third digit is always a number indicating the specific campsite number.

Campsite Areas in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone

While backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone you will traverse three different backcountry camping areas. The first will be the Hellroaring Creek (2H) area where the campsites are all found within earshot of the water and the creek is used as a reliable water source. The second is the 1R area which we believe stands for the ridgeline. While these campsites overlook the Yellowstone River they are well above it making tributaries the primary source for drinking water. These seem to run dry early in the summer so we do not recommend booking any of these sites beyond the end of June. The third area is the 1Y section which are campsites located within earshot of the Yellowstone River and where the river is accessible as a water source.

Campsite Recommendations

All the campsites between 2H1 and 2H8 make for great campsites on the first night of your journey. Which one will be right for you will depend on your chosen itinerary. See our recommendations below. For the second night of a 3-day journey, we recommend sticking to 1Y2 through 1Y6. 1Y6 & 1Y8 are found on the south side of the Yellowstone River and require backtracking along the river. This isn’t a huge deal if they are available but 1Y8 especially will add some extra mileage. 1Y7 and 1Y9 are also not ideal as they aren’t well spaced for a 3-day itinerary. They would make better sites for a 2-day journey when backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Favorite Campsites

2H1 and 2H2 are two of our favorite campsites along the entire Black Canyon of the Yellowstone backpacking route. They are located on either side of the Hellroaring Creek at the confluence with the Yellowstone River. This is an amazing area with beautiful scenery and the constant crash of the creek water permeating the area. There are local marmots that call 2H1 home year-round. Both sites are located about a mile from the main trail but it is relatively flat terrain.

1Y4 is our favorite Yellowstone River campsite. It is located on a tranquil part of the river with lots of tree cover. It is also a very nice location for breaking up the overall distance. 1Y5 and 1Y6 are good alternatives. 1Y1 and 1Y2 are also nice campsites but will feel very remote and add substantial distance to the 2nd day of a 3-day journey.

Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
The view down the Yellowstone River from the area below the 2H1 campsite.

Backpacking Gear & Logistics

The weather can change quickly in Yellowstone National Park and the forecast is unreliable. Summer days can be brutally hot while the nights can be very cold. If you are new to backpacking check out our backpacking gear guide for what is needed for a successful backcountry adventure. Beyond the usual tent, pad, and bag, we list below a few other things to consider when getting packed.

Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Overlook
Jake stands atop an outcropping looking over the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Weather Forcast

Despite being larger than the states of Deleware and Rhode Island combined, this massive park only issues one weather forecast. That is crazy and almost useless when preparing for a journey into the backcountry. The park service recommends packing for every kind of weather which isn’t a bad idea. But rather than rely on the park’s inefficient forecast look up the weather for Gardiner, Montana as it is located close to the northwest corner of the park and is at a similar elevation as the floor of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Mouth of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
The mouth of the Black Canyon is a very wide valley.

Cooking

Open fires are NOT allowed in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone campsites. You will need to bring a backpacking stove for food prep or plan to eat things that do not need to be cooked.

Bear Boxes

All of Yellowstone National Park is bear country and as such proper food storage is essential to having a safe journey. All of the campsites on the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Trail come with bear hangs so you can bring a bear sack with your own rope. If you aren’t experienced with proper bear hang technics make sure you study up or bring a bear canister.

Water

Water is surprisingly sparse in certain areas of this trail. It does roughly follow the flow of the Yellowstone River but there are long stretches without access to the river. That being said, all the 2H and 1Y campsites have easy access to the river or Hellraoring Creek making refilling your reserves easy. All water should of course be filtered or treated before consumption. The 1R campsites have access to water early in the season but these water sources are unreliable by mid-summer.

The Yellowstone River below the Black Canyon
While the trail through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone follows the flow of the river, the water isn’t always easy to reach.

Toilets

There aren’t any toilets in the Yellowstone backcountry. Bring your own towel and toilet paper. Bury your waste at least 6 inches deep. Make sure you are 100′ from water sources as well as your campsite.

Bears and Bugs

Carry your bear spray when Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. Although, bugs are much more of a concern. This trail has ticks, mosquitos, and biting flies in abundance. It is advisable to wear long pants, long sleeves, and a bug net throughout the summer. Ticks are bad in May thru July. The mosquitos aren’t as bad in the heat of the day but when the cool sets in they come out in full force. However, the real reason to stay covered is the biting flies that inundate most of the trail. They are relentless and bug spray does nothing.

Yellowstone Grasshopper
Grasshoppers can be found chomping away at the grass lining the trail. We actual hand feed this one a piece of grass. Weird right?

Recommended Itinerary – 3 days, 2 nights

The ideal itinerary for a backpacking guide to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone will depend greatly on your backcountry experience and the time of year you choose to go. While this 22 to 26-mile journey could be completed in two days it is much more enjoyable as a 3-day backpack. We are listing four different options based on the time of year as well as reverse options based on expected temperatures. As a reminder, hitchhiking from Tower Junction to the Eagle Creek Campground (reverse option) would be very difficult.

Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail Boulder Field
Jennifer hikes through a boulder field while backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone.

May to June (Or reverse during July)

  • 1st Day: Start by backpacking 8.25-miles from the Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2) to the 2H5 campsite via the Hellroaring Creek Bridge.
  • 2nd Day: Hike 9 miles from the 2H5 to 1Y4 campsite. Visit the second swing-bridge (adds 0.4-miles)
  • 3rd Day: Finish the journey by traversing the final 8.75-miles from the 1Y4 campsite to Eagle Creek Campground (1N7).

July

  • 1st Day: Start by backpacking 9.25-miles from the Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2) to the 2H3 campsite via the Hellroaring Creek Bridge.
  • 2nd Day: Hike 11.25 miles from the 2H3 to 1Y1 campsite.
  • 3rd Day: Finish the journey by traversing the final 6-miles from the 1Y4 campsite to Eagle Creek Campground (1N7) in the early morning when it is cool.

August

  • 1st Day: Backpack 5.75-miles from the Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2) to the 2H3 campsite via Hellroaring Creek ford path (at your own risk).
  • 2nd Day: Continue the journey 11.25 miles from the 2H3 to 1Y1 campsite.
  • 3rd Day: Finish the travers with the final 6-mile push from the 1Y4 campsite to Eagle Creek Campground (1N7) in the early morning when it is cool.

September to Early October (Or reverse during August)

  • 1st Day: Backpack 6.75-miles from the Tower Junction Trailhead (2K2) to the 2H1 campsite via Hellroaring Creek ford path (at your own risk).
  • 2nd Day: Hike 8.75 miles from the 2H1 to 1Y4 campsite. Visit the second swing-bridge (Add 0.4-miles)
  • 3rd Day: Finish the journey by traversing the final 8.75-miles from the 1Y4 campsite to Eagle Creek Campground (1N7).

After Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone

Once you have successfully finished backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone you can get a shower at the North Entrance Wash Tub in Grainer, Montana. It is a laundromat that has three coin-operated showers. The pressure and heat are great.

Boulder above the Yellowstone River
A view of the Yellowstone River as the flow nears the end of the Black Canyon.

Food

Once you are washed up, walk around the block to the Yellowstone Pizza Company and refuel on a pie. They not only make great pizza but have locally sourced toppings like bison and elk.

Campgrounds

If you are looking to stay in the area and haven’t locked down your accommodation grab a campsite at the Eagle Creek Campground before you head into Gardiner for your shower. There is even a free campground located 17-miles down river known as the Carbella Recreation Site. It is first-come, first-served as well so plan to arrive relatively early—especially on weekends.

Hotels

If you are planning ahead and prefer a room to a campground, check out the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. It is located in the park near the Mammoth formations. This allows you to beat the crowds to one of the Yellowstone hot spots and elk tend to hang out around the hotel. However, if you prefer to be closer to more dining options check out the Park Hotel Yellowstone located in Gardiner. It is within walking distance of great food and shopping.

Backpacking Guide to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone

Backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone Guide
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Any backpacking trip through Yellowstone National Park is liable to be a memorable one. This is an iconic landscape. However, backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone along the flow of the park’s namesake river might be the best way to experience the park’s backcountry. The canyon is beautiful with swinging bridges, meadows full of wildflowers, amazing wildlife, and of course the raging Yellowstone River. Backpacking the trail does have its challenges but the trail is amazing. Hopefully, this guide helps you prepare and makes the logistics of backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone for yourself that much easier.

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