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More than 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, though for most of them it’s enough to just enjoy the roadside attractions such as the wildlife and geysers. But for some visitors, it’s all about the allure of Yellowstone National Park backpacking.
Backpacking Yellowstone visitors have a veritable treasure trove of hiking options, with numerous trails and Yellowstone backcountry campsites to choose from. You do need a Yellowstone backcountry permits for overnight Yellowstone National Park camping reservations, but the fees are minimal for Yellowstone overnight hikes.
Backpacking Yellowstone in May (or at least Memorial Day) up to September 10 will cost just $3 per person per night.
All reservations will also cost $25, and this is nonrefundable.
The only real question is where you’ll want to go when you plan your hike. You have about a thousand miles of hiking trails available, and you have more than 300 campsites to choose from. What you may need is a bivy sack if you're going on your own or a tent which is big enough for the whole family. Oh, we also recommend sleeping bags for ladies like these and if you're bringing a toddler along, we reviewed bags for them to sleep here.
Gear aside, when it comes to the trails and places to go and see, you won’t go wrong if you start off with these recommendations:
Sure, you have lots of Yellowstone backpacking loops to try out. You should try the Lewis Lake Channel Loop, as this is a moderate hike to Shoshone Lake which is the largest backcountry lake in the US mainland. You can even go fishing here, on the north end of Lewis Lake, Shoshone Lake, and the Lewis Channel. Among the Yellowstone loop hikes, this loop won’t give you any elevation issues, as you have less than 500 feet of elevation changes to deal with.
The trail starts at the Shoshone/Dogshead Trailhead, and then you have an 11-mile hike to Shoshone Lake before you loop back. You can enjoy contiguous stands of lodgepole pine, with a fantastic view of the Red Mountains to the east and the Grand Tetons to your south.
You’ll cross the north shore of Lewis Lake and then drop off the Lewis River channel. This channel will then go through just below the Pitchstone Plateau, where any fishing enthusiast will be tempted by the clear waters and deep blue pools.
If you’re a boater, then the channel gives you access to the 20 Shoshone Lake campsites in the area. Those who like to go swimming can enjoy the swimming holes at the 5-mile mark.
Try to reserve campsite 8S1 if you’re staying overnight. This lakeside campsite is utterly gorgeous, and it has a short trail leading to a rocky beach on the lake’s southeast shores. A little past the campground to the north you’ll find a patrol cabin, offering you lake access as well as a handy picnic table.
Summary: The swimming is fantastic, and the views are great. You do need to deal with mosquitos.
In one single hike, you get to enjoy some of the best attractions that Yellowstone backcountry camping has to offer. You have wildlife and waterfalls, hot springs and geysers, and alpine meadows. Of course, you have mosquitos too. Just try an overnight trip to Firehole Meadows and you’ll definitely be amazed.
It’s a moderate hike, and you won’t even notice the 17 miles going by. That’s because so many attractions will occupy your mind. You’ll need to reserve an extra 2 hours in your Yellowstone backcountry planner so you can check out all the terrific sights.
The trail starts at the Biscuit Basin Trailhead, which can be quite busy. That’s why you need to start early. Here you have 2 boardwalk loops that let you through the basin so you get a chance to see these terrific geysers. You should reserve at least half an hour for this.
After that, you can head west on the trail heading to the Madison Plateau. A short distance after leaving Biscuit Basin, the trail will fork and you have a choice to make. You can go left to Mystic Falls, or turn right for the Upper Geyser Basin Overlook. Both these trails will again merge in just a mile.
The Mystic Falls option has gorgeous falls, falling 70 feet from the Madison Plateau into Biscuit Basin. If you turn right, the Upper Geyser Basin Overlook gives you a view of the awesome basin and lets you watch the eruption of Old Faithful.
There’s also the option to see both Yellowstone backpacking trails. You can turn right first for Old Faithful and then get on the trail for the Mystic Falls. This adds 2 miles to the hike, but it’s worth the effort.
That’s just the start, as you will also encounter various falls, pools, geysers and other attractions along the way. You can use campsites too, where you can gaze at stars, watch birds, and even go fishing. The hike ends at the Freight Road Trailhead.
Summary: You enjoy an alpine meadow campsite with hikes that come with waterfalls and fantastic geysers. The mosquitos will be a problem again, however.
If you’re looking for early season backpacking in Yellowstone, then the Black Canyon is a favorite option. You have 12 different campsites within the area, and you can really enjoy a stay of 1 to 3 nights. This Black Canyon is a river canyon that’s 2,000 feet deep, and it’s somewhat hidden on the northern side of the Blacktail Deer Plateau.
The hike goes for 14 miles, and it includes crossing on an awesome suspension bridge to get to the other side of the river. The trail goes east towards the Hellroaring Trailhead, but you have other Yellowstone backpacking trips to pick along the way if you have the endurance for extra miles. One of these options lets you see the Knowles Falls, though you add 4 miles to your trip.
Backpacking through Yellowstone on this trail won’t have you deal with too many other people in the hike. Use the private campsites along the river and its tributaries, as their placements offer fantastic views for your overnight stays.
Summary: Aside from the mosquitos, the flies bite too while the heat can be annoying. But it’s the best choice for early season backpacking, with terrific campsites and large game. What you need to take with you is a reliable backpack for hiking and a comfy pair of boots for hiking, as well.
Trails in Specimen Ridge and Agate Creek
This is a great choice for those who love adventures, and no list of the best backpacking in Yellowstone will fail to include it. This day long hike covers some of the most iconic locations in the whole area. It climbs more than 3,000 feet to Amethyst Mountain before it goes back down into the Lamar Valley. It then ends at the Soda Butte/Lamar Valley Trailhead.
At any point of the hike, you can stop and be awed by the fantastic views in every direction.
It’s a budding nature photographer’s version of paradise. You also stand a very good chance of seeing large animals, such as bears, antelope, elk, and deer.
Note this in your Yellowstone backcountry trip planner: you do need to understand that route finding will be a necessary skill for this hike. The trail can be overgrown in places, and various large game trails can wind through in many different directions. This isn’t for the newbie hiker. So download the Yellowstone backcountry campsite map and use GPS if you have to.
At the mile 16 mark, there’s a ford across the Lamar River. The problem is that the ford may not always be manageable. If you’re unable to cross, you’ll have to turn back so that’s a 32-mile hike.
With all these issues, how is this among the best backcountry camping in Yellowstone? It’s considered as one of the best because you simply can’t resist the views. They’re absolutely gorgeous at any point of the hike. It doesn’t hurt that the wildflowers are also abundant, making the scenery even more beautiful.
Summary: Great views and large game, though you need route finding skills.
On the downside, your Yellowstone backpacking itinerary involves going through bear country with this option. But then it’s a worthwhile risk to take as the canyon views are downright spectacular, while the lakes are utterly gorgeous.
This Yellowstone backpacking trip goes for less than 5 miles, so it’s not going to take the whole day. The continuous views of the stunning canyon walls will enthrall you, and if you love high places then you’ll love the rocky promontories. The secluded Ribbon Lake is quite beautiful, and so are the nearby marshes.
You do have several dispersed camping Yellowstone campsites by the shore, so you can stay overnight.
You’ll also see osprey and great blue heron, but then you may also encounter black and grizzly bears. For this backcountry hiking Yellowstone option, you need to be always aware. Make lots of noise, travel in a large group, and bring some bear spray with you with this Yellowstone backpacking adventure.
Summary: Spectacular lakes and gorgeous canyon views will be worth the risk of a bear encounter.
These are just some of the best that Yellowstone has to offer, and the list is by no means complete. Others love options like Sublime Point, Cascade Lake, Avalanche Peak, and Coyote Creek Trail. But try out our recommendations first—these are the options that always tend to impress people the most.