A common saying at some national parks, including Yellowstone, is that 98 percent of visitors see 2 percent of the park. If you want to be one of the 2 percent who sees 98 percent of the park (or at least more than the gift shop), read on.
"I sometimes have to laugh when people tell me they've avoided backpacking in Yellowstone because it's too crowded," said Ivan Kowski, the park’s backcountry program manager. "It's true that it may not feel like a wilderness as you're huddled shoulder to shoulder waiting for Old Faithful to erupt or as you're creeping along at two miles per hour in a two mile long traffic jam waiting to get your chance to pass through a herd of bison or to glimpse a grizzly bear, but if you're willing to get out of the car and hike down a trail then you can have the place to yourself. Relatively few of the three million people who visit the park each year ever get further than half a mile from a road."
Here's the inside scoop on the best backcountry treks and trails to ensure you see more wildlife, thermal features and mountains than Old Faithful keychains. Warning: if you do see a grizzly, it probably won’t be on a postcard. Practice using your pepper spray BEFORE you go.
In the Thorofare area of the park in the southeastern corner, you’ll find yourself in true wilderness: it’s the most remote area of the park, and possibly the furthest point from a road in the Lower 48, Kowski said.
“You’re not going to run into any people,” said Jeff Welsch, communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Hike to Two Ocean Plateau, where you can enjoy the solitude and the fact that you’re in a marsh where some of the water ends up in the Atlantic Ocean and some ends up in the Pacific.
This southwest corner of the park is "loaded with waterfalls and hot springs," Welsch said. It’s also loaded with mosquitoes in June and July, so bring nets or repellent. Hike onto Pitchstone Plateau, where the water pours into falls, and you can gaze at the Absarokas mountain range to the east, the Tetons to the south, and into the upper Snake River Plain to the west. Or do an overnight and end up in the Old Faithful area.
Welsch snapped this photo of the entombed remains of a redwood tree on Specimen Ridge, where he likes to head on day trips. Prior to volcanic eruptions in the area, redwoods and breadfruit and mangrove trees grew in a more tropical climate. If you can find the unnamed trailhead across the newly constructed bridge over the Lamar River before Slough Creek, you can hike almost straight up to the ridge. About halfway up you’ll find the remains.
The Howard Eaton Trail is no longer maintained, but Welsch loves the challenges of following its zigs and zags. It's hard to find; Welsch calls it "a wonderful challenge for inventive backcountry hikers." In other words, not for beginners.
Like much of the park, this is known grizzly bear territory. Travel in groups of four or more, Welsch said, and talk or sing as you hike. Follow park rules for food storage if you’re camping.
"If you do come across a (grizzly) bear, avert your eyes and back away slowly," Welsch said. "Talk in a low, non-threatening voice, and leave the area. If it charges, use the bear spray. Last-case scenario: play dead, lay on your stomach, cover your neck and keep your pack on."
On this overnight hike, you’ll pass through a lodgepole pine forest and several small thermal areas. Check out Rustic Geyser, which still has logs around it that were placed by native Americans or early explorers. When it’s not dormant, water will rise to the rim and erupt in 20-45 foot streams (and you’ll likely be the only one to witness it).
Take a side trip to climb 2,500 feet to the summit of Mt. Sheridan. From your campsite at Heart Lake, you can connect to trails leading to Two Ocean Plateau, Yellowstone Lake and Thorofare of the Snake River area.
Lone Star Geyser is an easy, 2.7-mile hike along the Firehole River to a geyser that erupts about 50 feet high approximately every three hours, Kowski said. Bonus: It’s one of the few trails in the park that you can bike.
This 21-mile loop is strenuous because of the elevation change, but it follows the ridge line (no switchbacks!) and offers spectacular views, Kowski said. It’s popular for wildlife, too, including elk herds.
"To me, a trip into the backcountry of Yellowstone is to truly experience solitude, to experience true wilderness where at any time you could come across a herd of elk or bison, follow grizzly bear tracks down the trail, or catch a glimpse of a grey wolf," Kowski said.