When you think Yellowstone National Park, you probably immediately envision geyser basins, and herds of bison. While there is nothing wrong with that there is so much more to this amazing, massive park. Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail as it flows from Tower Junction out of the northwest corner of the park is a great way to experience the hidden side of Yellowstone. We backpacked the trail in the middle of summer which as it turns out isn’t the most ideal time to take on this moderately difficult trail. But we still had a blast on what we affectionately refer to as the “graveyard trail.”
Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail – Trip Report
This trip report is our first-hand perspective of hiking the Yellowstone River Trail in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. Hopefully, it gives you a better idea of what to expect on a journey through the canyon. We’ve also written a guide for backpacking the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River Trail to help you plan your own trip.
Stats for Our Hike on the Yellowstone River Trail
- Trailhead: Tower Junction (6,264′)
- Type: Thru-Hike to Eagle Creek Campround
- Rating: Difficult
- Distance: 24.5 for our route
- Total Elevation Gain: 3,052’
- Eagle Creek Campground Elevation: 6,094’
- Time: 3 days, 2 nights
- Season: mid-July (not the ideal time)
- Camping Permits: Required. Reservations won in the lottery.
- From Tower Junction (6,264′) to the 2H1 Campsite (5,758′)
- Distance: 6.75 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 215′
After spending much of the morning hitchhiking first from the Eagle Creek Campground where we left our vehicle, we finally arrived at Tower Junction just before mid-day in the heat of summer. We synched up our backpacks and set off following the gravel Stage Coach Road northwest through a meadow full of wildflowers. A few bison even grazed on the grass in the distance. We actually had to go off-trail to give one of the massive beasts the proper 25 yards of separation that is recommended by the parks service.
After about 1.5-miles of dusty flat terrain, we came to what looks like a picnic area complete with benches, tables, and most importantly shade. This is the historic location of Yancey’s Stagecoach Inn and we found it the perfect spot to stop for lunch. Today the area is used as a staging area for horse rides and many ground squirrels call the area home. We even had some rather noisy ravens keep us company during our lunch.
West Garnet Hill Trail
Leaving the Yancey area the trail cuts north through the tall grass and enters into the trees. We found the trail to be very narrow and hard to follow at times through this area. There is one sign posted at the trailhead leaving Yancey making it easy to locate the start of the trail. Regardless I was happy to have maps.me to ensure we were headed in the right direction. This section of the trail has a fairly consistent moderate downhill slope as it follows the flow of Elk Creek and skirts the west side of Garnet Hill. It is beautiful and feels remote although we passed several day hikers making the loop around the mountain. This is the only area of the entire trail where we saw fresh bear scat.
Hellroaring Creek Trail
After about 3.5-miles of hiking, we came to the trail junction leading left away from the Garnet Hill Loop and towards the Hellroaring Creek Trail. We easily crossed over Elk Creek and ascended a small hill before coming to the junction with the Hellroaring Creek Trail. This is where we caught our first glimpse of the Yellowstone River cutting through the backcountry of the park.
The 1st Yellowstone River Swinging Bridge
Ahead, it was a quick moderate descent to the beautiful swinging bridge crossing the Yellowstone River. This bridge spans a section of the river that feels more like a gulch than a canyon. It has sharp and steep rock walls and the river crashes flow violently through it.
Hellroaring Creek Ford or Bridge?
After crossing over the river, the trail enters a large wide meadow at the mouth of the Black Canyon. After 5 miles on the trail, we arrived at the intersection for the Hellroaring Bridge route or Hellroaring Ford crossing. There is a quaint-looking pond just below the intersection. The flow of meltwater will determine the way ahead. Either a 3.6-mile detour up the creek or the direct ford across. We took the ford. The creek stones can be slippery and the water cold and fast but with good footwear and hiking sticks it is no more challenging in midsummer than any other creek crossing we’ve done. The park service states that fording Hellroaring Creek is inherently dangerous and recommends taking the bridge so we won’t tell you otherwise. Use your best judgment.
The 2H1 Spur “Trail”
Once on the other side of the creek, we continued our way through the meadow. There are signs of ancient volcanic activity in the blackened earth on the cliffs overhead. As we approached 6 miles on the trail we arrived at a small marker indicating that we take a left to head towards our 2H1 campsite. While the sign was there, no path existed. This 1-mile route is solely used by the campers staying at 2H1 and as a result, isn’t well established. We cut across the terrain of sage bushes towards a pole rising in the distance. Two poles later we found the flow of Hellroaring Creek and another sign directing us to the right toward 2H1. The remainder of the trail is route finding but it was easy enough as we simply kept the creek to our left.
Once we reached the end of the “trail” there was an additional sign indicating a campsite with a bear hang nearby. The site had great access to the confluence of Hellroaring Creek with the Yellowstone River. There were even resident furry marmots darting about and chirping at us to keep us company. The downside of this site is that it resembled a graveyard and an animal outhouse simultaneously. There are bones strewn about all over the area, bison and elk alike, as well as a large amount of bison droppings.
This area of Yellowstone gets snow late in the season and melts earlier than the rest of the park. As a result, many animals winter near the river and subsequently die here as well. Apparently, the bears are in the know about this and are common in the springtime when they first awake from their hibernation. The clustering of bones was a bit unsettling at first but as we continued hiking the Yellowstone River trail through the Black Canyon we began to realize this is common for the area. We even began to refer to the trail as the graveyard.
End of Day 1
Regardless of the bones and dried poo the area provides amazing tranquility as the waters of the Hellroaring Creek cascade across the stones and crash into the river. It is beautiful and feels completely remote. It was a great place to relax at the end of an amazing first day of hiking the Yellowstone River Trail.
- From 2H1 Campsite (5,758′) to 1Y4 Campsite (5,569′)
- Distance: 9 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 985′
- Highest Elevation on the Day: 6,330′
Having survived a night in the graveyard, the biggest threat ended up being the mosquitos that came out in full force at dusk, we took our time enjoying the tranquility of the spot. We eventually had breakfast and slowly packed up our site before setting off in the late morning. We retraced our steps across the trail-less wilderness back to the main trail.
Climbing the High Point
Once back on the main Yellowstone River Trail we turned left and began a 500′ climb over the next 1.5 miles up and over the highest point for the day. The river is rarely seen along this stretch but there are ground squirrels and we also saw a few hawks, no doubt hunting the squirrels.
Dry Creeks and Campsites
On the other side of the hill, the trail descends quickly through the wide canyon as it descends towards the unseen river below. About a mile past the high point we passed by the 1R3 campsite and over a dry creek bed. Shortly after which is a rocky outcropping where the Yellowstone River comes into sight still far below. We continued our descent for another mile and passed by the 1R2 and 1R1 campsites both located on a ridge well above the river. There was a dry creek bed located near these campsites as well but no discernable way to get to the river water other than continuing along the main trail.
Valley, Canyon, or Graveyard?
Shortly after 1R1, the trail does finally descend to within a few feet of the river but it isn’t until campsite 1Y9 located over a mile and a half past 1R1 that the river is easily accessed. The terrain from 1R1 to 1Y9 and on to 1Y5 is relatively flat as it follows the river’s flow. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone is still fairly wide and the landscape surrounding the river at times feels more like a valley than a canyon. In a certain area nearing 1Y9, the canyon walls on the north side have exposed volcanic basalt columns similar, but much smaller, than the walls of Devils Tower in the northwestern corner of Wyoming. We found so many animal bones through this section of the trail that Jennifer and I began to refer to this as the “graveyard trail.”
The 2nd Yellowstone River Swinging Birdge
After reaching 1Y5 the trail climbs about 90′ in a quarter of a mile before coming to the intersection for the Blacktail Creek Trail. We choose to take the trail a quarter of a mile down to the second swinging bridge across the Yellowstone River. It is located on a more tranquil section of the river than the first. The river flows peacefully along its way and a few fly fisherman plied the waters nearby.
We returned to the trail and finished the last half mile of our day’s 9.5-mile journey to the 1Y4 campsite. Along the way, we skirted the eastern edge of the beautiful Crevice Lake. It is a beautiful and peaceful-looking lake wedged into the canyon. The 1Y4 campsite is located below the lake right on the Yellowstone River. It is the perfect location for a campsite buried in the trees. Located just far enough from the main trail to not be bothered.
Serenity of 1Y4
After setting up camp, filtering water, and making dinner we sat on the river shore and watched a family of six geese as they preened themselves on the rocks nearby. An osprey called out from the dense trees above the river and fish jumped out of the river to snag flies. It was a serene and peaceful way to end the day.
- From 1Y4 Campsite (5,569′) to Eagle Creek Campground (6,094’)
- Distance: 8.75 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 1,852′
After a great night’s rest, we arose with the sun in an attempt to finish the trail before the heat of the summer day had a chance to fully set in. It was forecasted to be the hottest day of the week and we didn’t want to be climbing the last 2 miles in the mid-day heat. We were not successful. Regardless, today was an amazing journey full of beautiful canyon scenery that easily surpasses everything else the trail had thus offered. We had a quick breakfast, packed up our site, bid our geese friends goodbye, and set about finishing our journey hiking the Yellowstone River Trail.
The trail passed through the woods along the river shore for a short distance before climbing a small hill and crossing over a tributary where an unnamed waterfall cascaded down through the dense trees. It is a beautiful waterfall and my favorite found when hiking the Yellowstone River Trail.
At 1.4 miles on the day’s adventure, we returned to the Yellowstone River at a rocky outcropping overlooking the 15′ tall Knowles Falls. While not as awe-inspiring as its 108′ big brother upriver, the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, Knowles Falls, is still beautiful in its own right.
The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone
The next mile of the trail is relatively flat as it follows a long curve in the river. The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone at this point has narrowed a lot. While not a gorge it definitely feels more like a canyon than on the previous days. As we passed along this section we came across another family of six geese. They looked so identical to our 1Y4 family that Jennifer is certain they flew downriver to see us off.
At 2.5 miles on the day the trail passes by the 1Y2 backcountry campsite which sits rather exposed on a ledge just above the river with no tree cover. The bear hang and cooking area is found in a small cluster of trees adjacent to the main trail. It is a very isolated and remote site.
Steep Bouldery Traverse & the 1Y1
The trail immediately begins a steep climb just beyond the campsite. The path ahead rises quickly 160′ over a quarter of a mile through a boulder field on a narrow section of the canyon. On the other side, the trail descends just as steeply through the boulder field back towards the river before finding the 1Y1 campsite shortly thereafter (3.25-miles on the day). The 1Y1 is tucked inside a wide turn in the river where the canyon widens. It looks like a very nice, remote, and quiet spot of the canyon to camp in.
The Last of the Narrow Canyon
The path ahead returns briefly to the river’s edge before once again the river passes through a narrow section of the canyon and the trail climbs over an adjacent rocky ledge. I really enjoyed this section of the canyon and found it to be some of the most beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, on the other side of this turn in the river, the canyon begins to widen out.
The Yellowstone Boundary
The next mile and a half of the trail traverses a wide, exposed bench above the river where sagebrush reigns. The river at times can’t even be seen and the canyon began to feel more like a desert in the summer heat. During this long traverse, we began to see white posts with orange flags indicating the park boundary. The trail weaves in and out of the park crossing into the Gallatin National Forest.
Bear Creek Bridge
At 6.25 miles on the day, we topped a rocky ridge and began a quick 150′ descent down to a bridge crossing over Bear Creek just above the confluence with the Colorado River. We stopped here for a moment to rest in the shade of a small bush and enjoy the scenery before starting the long, hot ascent up the side of the canyon.
Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail 313
Less than a quarter of a mile beyond the bridge the trail turns onto the 313 trail. The old trail that used to lead to Gardiner is haphazardly blocked by a few large rocks but the well-worn trail can still be seen crossing the terrain. We turned to the right and began the slog up the hill in now 90+º weather.
Bear Creek Oasis
The first hill is moderately steep gaining 250′ in less than half a mile. It quickly tops out and begins to round the canyon wall as it heart-breakingly gives back 100′ of elevation on a descent back to Bear Creek. Despite the loss of elevation the trees along the creek and the shade they provided was a very welcome reprieve from the heat of mid-day. There is also some old mining gear located along the creek that is worth exploring more fully on a cooler day.
A Sweltering 750′ Climb
We pushed on up the canyon wall leaving the oasis of the shaded creek behind. The trail ahead looming overhead as it switchbacked a handful of times up the canyon wall. The heat was relentless making the 750′ climb over the next 1.25 miles grueling. We have backpacked over mountain passes that gain more than 2,100′ in less than a mile but in this stifling heat, these 750′ felt every bit as difficult. Regardless we slowly crawled out of the canyon. At just under 8.5-miles we found ourselves at the top looking at the last quarter mile of descent to our truck waiting in the Eagle Creek Campground.
Popsicles, Showers, & Pizza
Upon our arrival we threw off our bags and grabbed some popsicles from our highly efficient 12V Dometic fridge/freezer. We sat in the shade of the truck and cooled off enjoying the icy treat. After cooling down, we set off to grab showers at the North Entrance Wash Tub in Grainer before heading over to the Yellowstone Pizza Company to gorge ourselves on some amazing grub.
Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail
Hiking the Yellowstone River Trail through the Black Canyon is an amazing trip that we highly recommend when visiting the iconic park. The journey would have been a relatively easy backpacking trip had we picked a cooler time to go or a smarter itinerary that allowed us to climb out of the canyon during cooler hours. It can be difficult to plan a backpacking journey like this months in advance when you are unfamiliar with the terrain and weather conditions. That is why we have created a guide to help you do just that and avoid potential problems like heat exhaustion. We even created four sample itineraries based on the month you choose to hike the Yellowstone River Trail. We hope it helps.