If you’ve visited Yellowstone, chances are you’ve waded through crowds on a packed boardwalk to snap people-filled pictures of the famous geothermals. It’s undeniably an amazing place — and one you’ll never have to yourself. But there is another way. Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park gets you away from the crowds, far from the nearest road (or even the nearest other campsite).
The overwhelming majority of space in Yellowstone is backcountry. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the park’s visitors visit these areas. On my Yellowstone backpacking trip, I saw three other people in four days, on a holiday weekend in peak season.
Yellowstone is an easy and beginner-friendly place to backpack, and an intimidating place to be in the backcountry, and presents logistical challenges to leaving the main roads. In this post I’ll set you up with all the information you need to plan a trip out into the wild, remote and heartbreakingly-beautiful corners of America’s favorite park.
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Why should you go backpacking in Yellowstone National Park?
The ability to get away from the crowds is the #1 draw for visiting Yellowstone’s backcountry. But it’s not the only appeal.
Here are a few other reasons why backpacking in Yellowstone is magical:
- You can soak in hot springs, safely and legally
- You’ll see a ton more wildlife
- There are remote waterfalls to explore, many with epic swimming holes
- The scenery is simply unreal
- See completely undeveloped geothermals that are just as beautiful as the Upper Geyser Basin
- Weather-wise, it’s about as perfect as it gets for backpacking
- Yellowstone’s car-camping campgrounds suck. But its backcountry campsites are spectacular.
- The stargazing is as good as it gets — there is zero light pollution
If you aren’t an experienced hiker, that’s totally ok in Yellowstone! Unlike many other national park backpacking trips, the trails you’d be backpacking in Yellowstone National Park are easy-moderate. It’s rare to have more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain in a day. (Compare this to the Smokies, where there is basically no hike in the park more than 5 miles that doesn’t require a 3,000-foot climb — or the Tetons, where any 3+ day trip requires hauling your stuff all the way up the canyons.)
You might be thinking, ok, but Yellowstone’s scenery is just a bunch of big fields. It doesn’t have the super-epic jagged peaks or alpine lakes that most Rockies backpacking trips feature. That’s what I thought too — I was fully expecting to be underwhelmed by the scenery. And I was so wrong. Yellowstone’s calderas, fields, pine forests and rivers stole my heart, to the point where I thought the Tetons were just “meh” after backpacking in Yellowstone National Park.
Best Yellowstone National Park backpacking trips
So you know you want to get into the backcountry. With so much trail out there, how do you decide on a route?
If you’ve never visited the park and have no idea where you’d like to backpack, a good place to start is by looking for inspiration from commercial operators’ routes. REI Adventures and Wildland Trekking are two of the biggest operators in the park.
If you’re a more experienced route-planner, pick up a copy of the National Geographic map and start planning! Note that off-trail travel is permitted in Yellowstone, but camping must be in designated sites, and if you’re in a bear management area during mating season you must stay on trails.
Unfortunately the floods in June 2022 have wreaked havoc on many of the park’s most beloved backpacking trips. Some are scheduled to reopen in 2023, while others will be closed for years to come.
Here are a few of the top routes:
- Bechler River: 35 miles, typically done over 4 days
- Heart Lake to Snake River: 25 miles, typically done over 3 days
- Black Canyon: Reopening in 2023, 20 miles, typically done over 3 days
- Lamar Valley to Pelican Valley: Closed indefinitely, 40 miles, typically done over 5 days
I did the Bechler River route and would highly recommend it. I’m dying to go back to do Lamar-Pelican Valley when it reopens.
If you’re looking at that per-day milage and thinking it seems short, you’re not wrong. You could condense these trips into 2-3 days. But keep in mind you’ll have long drives on your first and last days, and you’ll want time to enjoy things like the backcountry hot springs and wildlife viewing.
As you’re planning your trip, keep the following safety and comfort elements in mind:
- Many routes in Yellowstone require river crossings, which are often dangerously high until mid-July
- Anything along a river is hellish in terms of mosquitoes until August
- If you plan to traverse a bear management area, there are special rules for hiking and camping. Check in with the rangers for details and make sure you’re comfortable with the impacts on your route before reserving your permits. As one example, you must be able to hike at least 12 miles — but often more like 15 — out of Pelican Valley on your last day late in the season, because camping in the bear management area is not permitted.
- Additionally, consider your comfort level with wildlife and the size of your group. If I were backpacking solo, I would not want to camp in areas with high grizzly density during mating season, and I’d want to be extra-cautious in elk territory during the rut.
- Some parts of the backcountry are extremely remote. At one point on my trip, there was a sign that pointed to the nearest roads in any direction – it was at least 15 miles from anything. There is no cell service in most of Yellowstone and it can take hours for a rescue team to reach you even if you have a beacon. If you aren’t comfortable with that level of self-reliance, stick to routes that stay closer to the frontcountry.
Getting Yellowstone backcountry permits
Yellowstone National Park’s permit system is far less competitive than most Western parks. You still need to plan in advance, but you have a very good chance of getting what you want, especially if you have a +/- two day flexibility window.
On any backpacking trip, you must stay at designated backcountry campsites that you reserve in advance.
All further detail below is for peak-season permits. If you’re planning a winter or early spring trip (good luck!), contact the backcountry office for details on getting a permit.
If you have your heart set on a certain itinerary, your best bet is the Early Access Lottery, which is typically open for the month of March. It doesn’t matter when in March you apply. If you win the lottery — which you’ll find out in early April — you get first access to campsite reservations, which you can reserve through Recreation.gov.
If you do not win a lottery space, you’ll have another chance at the end of April to snag any sites that haven’t been taken. Again, this happens through Recreation.gov.
If you are less than three days out from the start of your trip, you can try to get a walk-up permit — about a third of permits are reserved for walk-ups. Visit a backcountry office to reserve.
What are the Yellowstone backcountry campsites like?
One of the best parts of backpacking Yellowstone National Park is that you will be the only group at your campsite. All campsites are spread out by at least a mile. That means you’ll be totally on your own at camp, a mile away from even the chance of another human. It’s awesome and a little scary to be that isolated, and there is nowhere else in the national park system like it.
Every site has a bear hang, although many hikers choose to use canisters instead. You need to supply your own rope and some of the hangs are laughably high. You do not need to do a PCT hang in Yellowstone; you can just tie off the rope on a tree.
Many sites have long-drop toilets. Be sure to pack out your toilet paper.
Every site I saw and stayed at had good water access, but check with the rangers when you pick up your permits to verify you’ll have water at camp. All water should be filtered in the backcountry.
Campsites have lots of flat space to pitch a tent. Ideally you want to be at least 40 large steps away from the bear hang, and there’s more than enough room to make that easy.
Campsites are generally far away from any geothermals, but just in case it’s not common sense: never collect water from a geothermal feature, and don’t put any part of your body or gear into one unless you’re 100% positive that it’s one of the handful of features in the backcountry that are safe to swim in (there aren’t many! so probably it isn’t!). Most geothermals are not marked on the topo maps so use common sense.
You can have a fire at some Yellowstone backcountry camping spots, but not all of them. Fire regulations are clearly posted when you book sites and at the sites themselves. In sites where you may have a fire, any dead wood is fair game to burn. Fires must be cold to the touch before you leave the site — wet, stir, repeat.
Weather and best time of year for hiking in Yellowstone
Most backpackers planning a Yellowstone trip visit in the warmer months of mid-July-early September. Unless you’re a highly experienced winter backpacker, this is really your only weather window.
During the summer, expect highs in the 60’s-70’s and lows in the 30’s-40’s Fahrenheit. Rain is common, although severe storms are not as common as other Rocky Mountain areas. Late summer means more haze from wildfires, but fewer mosquitoes.
If you visit before July 10th or after September 10th, you’re gambling with winter weather. My trip ended September 4th, and the park was already preparing for major snow by then. You’re likely to have mornings in the 20’s or colder.
River-crossing-heavy routes are often dangerous until later in July. For example, the Bechler route could involve cold swims in fast-moving water until July 15th or so.
Safety when backpacking in Yellowstone National Park
Now that we’ve talked about why Yellowstone is such an amazing backpacking destination, let’s go over some of the barriers.
While the hikes in Yellowstone are easy, the remoteness makes backpacking here more of a challenge than in most other parks. If anything goes wrong, you are really on your own.
Obviously accidents happen to the most careful and experienced backpackers. But we all — intentionally or not — take stupid risks in the backcountry sometimes. (Like seriously, have you always carefully studied the topo? Do you have a 100% perfect track record of remembering to put all your smellables in your bear bag? Have you worked out your transport logistics so reliably that you’ve never had to hitch? Are you super-careful about scouting rivers for the safest place to cross? I’m sure not.)
The thing about backpacking in Yellowstone is all of those risks and mistakes come with much higher consequences.
I’m certain that the biggest reason Yellowstone doesn’t get more backpackers is because people are put off by these risks. But you don’t have to be! If you follow the safety protocols below, you have very little chance of problems.
Let’s talk about bears. Yes, they’re out here. No, they don’t care that you are too.
The fear of running into a grizzly is probably the #1 barrier to backpacking in Yellowstone. And that’s fair — the park has one of the world’s highest densities of grizzly bears. And they can be highly dangerous animals.
But Yellowstone’s bears are not predatory. They won’t stalk you, attack you just for the hell of it, or go way of their way to steal your food. They really just want to be bears, minding their own business, staying at least 100 yards away from you.
Under absolutely no circumstances should you hike in grizzly territory without bear spray. I know it’s expensive, and I know it feels wasteful if you’re flying home at the end of the trip. But it’s the only thing that can reliably save your life in a dangerous bear encounter — it’s far more effective than firearms (and killing grizzlies is often illegal anyway). On the other hand, skip the bear bell; they’re so quiet as to be utterly useless.
Your best chance of avoiding an attack is to never see the bear in the first place. The front lines of bear defense include:
- Singing, making noise, talking, or shouting “hey bear” anywhere you don’t have 100 yards of visibility.
- If you see a bear from any distance, stop and watch what it’s doing. If it’s not paying attention to you and you can pass it safely, continue slowly while making noise. If it does notice you, slowly back away.
- Never intentionally get less than 100 yards away from a bear. If you hold up your thumb and your thumb doesn’t cover the bear, you’re too close.
- If you’re in an open field — like Pelican Valley — and you see something in the distance, use binoculars to check whether it’s a bear, bison or rock.
If you encounter a bear at close range, you’re still probably fine. But now it’s important to show the bear you aren’t a threat.
- Back away slowly — never, ever run
- Don’t shout, raise your trekking poles above your head, or do anything to threaten the bear
- Get your bear spray ready to deploy
Chances are if the bear charges you, it’s a bluff charge. But any charge is a scary charge, and at that point you’d need to deploy your bear spray. Wait until the bear is about 25 yards away, unclip the safety, point at the bear but slightly downward (so the spray doesn’t go over the bear’s head), and spray away. This will almost certainly deter the bear.
If the bear does make contact — again, extremely rare — lie on your stomach with your legs spread far apart so it’s hard for the bear to flip you. Keep your backpack on for protection. Put your hands over your neck. If the bear does flip you, keep rolling until you’re back on your stomach.
Bear attacks do happen in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but they’re most common during encounters between hunters/fishers and bears.
Black bears vs. grizzlies
Both black bears and grizzlies live in Yellowstone. You’re more likely to see a black bear — and overwhelmingly likely to scare her away immediately.
While black bears behave differently, the best practices for bear encounters in Yellowstone are the same regardless of species. If you’re from black bear habitat this may feel weird to you — most places treat black bears as predatory and train you to aggressively fight back against black bear attacks — but because Yellowstone’s black bears don’t encounter humans/trash as much, they are extremely unlikely to be predatory. So the “play dead” method still works if they make contact.
This uniformity of how to respond to bear attacks makes things easier, because you can’t always tell what species you’re looking at from a distance. Grizzlies can be a range of colors from very dark brown to blonde, while black bears can be black, brown or cinnamon. Male black bears can be larger than female grizzlies, so size doesn’t help either.
If you’re curious, the distinguishing features are grizzlies’ longer snouts, more rounded ears and the hump on their backs/necks. But you have to be looking pretty closely to tell whether the brown bear staring back at you is a black bear or a grizzly.
Safe food storage in bear country
Bears have astoundingly good senses of smell. And everything smells good to a bear. So sometimes, the critters will decide to explore your campsite to see if they can get an easy meal.
It’s extremely important to keep your food away from bears. When bears develop a taste for human food, they become more aggressive — often resulting in a need to kill the bear to prevent it from attacking people. Plus, of course, having a bear eat your dinner in the backcountry would really suck.
When backpacking in Yellowstone National Park, you’ll need to hang your food and anything else that has a smell before you go to bed, on the established bear hangs, or use a bear can. Things that need to go in your bear hang include:
- All food
- All trash, including used wet wipes (be sure to check all your pockets — in your clothes and backpack — for wrappers!)
- Sunscreen, lip balm, toothpaste, and any other toiletries
- Soap and laundry detergent
- Your cookware
- Your eating utensils
- If you want to be extra-safe, put the clothes you cooked/ate in in your bear hang. This isn’t absolutely necessary but if you spilled food on yourself, I’d definitely hang those clothes.
Additionally, it’s important to keep a clean camp. If you have food scraps or waste, pack it out. For things like dishwater and rinsing out the remnants of your coffee cup, dig a cat hole 6″ deep in the vicinity of the bear hang. Brush your teeth in that same area and do your best to disperse the toothpaste when you spit.
When I backpacked Yellowstone, my first stop on arriving at camp each day was the bear hang. I immediately unloaded my bear can and anything that needed to go in it, and left it there while I set up my tent 200 feet away. This way there was no chance of even bringing food smells temporarily to my tent site. (If you’re not using a can, make sure you keep an eye on the stuff you leave by the hang — you don’t want a bear to come nab it while you’re setting up.)
Other wildlife: Safety around bison, elk and (if you’re very lucky) moose
Bears get all the “dangerous-wildlife” attention in Yellowstone. But bison probably attack more people every year in the park. This year, there were even two goring incidents in a month!
We all love to criticize the tourists who got way too close to bison, and of course, you should never try to get a selfie with a wild animal. But trust me — it’s super easy to accidentally stumble upon them in Yellowstone’s backcountry. In remote areas of the park, bison pay humans no mind. They blend in with their surroundings. I had three separate instances of bison I couldn’t see in advance wandering onto the path less than 10 yards in front of me, and one instance of a bull elk doing the same.
When it comes to bison, elk, moose (rare in Yellowstone but there are a handful of them), pronghorn, etc., the rule is to stay at least 25 yards away. If you end up closer by accident, stop and back away slowly. Wait for the grazer to move on. Pay close attention to their behavior — if they seem agitated, stay further back. Bison will sometimes kick the dirt if they want more space than you’re giving them.
Be especially cautious around large herbivores in September — rutting season for both bison and elk. Males can be highly aggressive at this time of year.
Bison and elk move pretty quickly, even when you encounter a large herd. So if you have to wait, enjoy the moment and don’t worry about being stuck there for hours — it’ll probably be more like 15 minutes.
You may also encounter coyotes and foxes in the backcountry. They tend to be shy, but don’t push your luck — keep your distance. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll encounter a wolf, but if you do, stay at least 100 yards away.
Yellowstone backpacking trips give you the chance to get up close to the park’s iconic geothermals. These include mudpots, geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and steam vents.
Geothermals are awesome to look at. But they can be extremely dangerous. And unlike in the Midway and Upper Geyser Basins, in the backcountry you don’t have the benefit of signs and boardwalks showing you a safe path.
You can identify geothermals by paying attention to the landscapes around them. Is steam rising from that spring? Is the ground around it colorful (usually orange or yellow) from the bacteria that relies on the geothermals? Are there lots of animal tracks in the area, but none around this particular river? Can you hear the gurgling of water under your feet, and does the ground look crusty beside the trail?
Your best safety bet when you’re in a geothermally active area is to stay on the trail. Often in areas with fumaroles and mud-pots, the soil is just a thin crust above extremely hot water — so one wrong step could boil your foot.
There are a very small handful of hot springs in the backcountry that are safe to swim in. They aren’t marked, either at the sites or on the topographic maps. Guessing wrong could be fatal. The most famous backcountry geothermal that’s safe for swimming is Mr. Bubbles, along the Bechler River route, but beware — a second, and more prominent, spring is located 50 yards away that is extremely dangerous to swim in. When in doubt, stay out.
If you choose to swim in a geothermal, keep basic water safety in mind. During my trip, a man in another group was climbing out of a spring near Mr. Bubbles and slipped on a rock. He fell into the spring and broke his femur, requiring a complicated and extremely painful evacuation that took over 30 hours.
I know the water in hot springs looks appealing, but it’s highly toxic. Never filter or drink from a geothermal feature.
Route-finding and isolation
One of the charms of the Yellowstone backcountry is how completely remote it is. But that also ups the risk factor. You don’t have many options to get out if something goes wrong.
If you have even the slightest doubts about your backcountry navigation skills, stick to established trails. The trails are fairly well-marked — of course you should still bring a map and compass that you know how to use.
If you do venture off-route, you absolutely must have a topographic map and advanced navigation skills. It’s very easy to get turned around in Yellowstone’s huge open meadows, although the canyons present simpler navigation problems.
Once you’re off the main figure-8 road in Yellowstone, there are basically no roads. So your only options if something goes wrong are to hike out or to be evacuated. In the event of a serious injury, you can sometimes call 911 even if you have no service. Expect it to take at least 24 hours for someone to reach you.
Generally I’m not a huge personal locator beacon fan. I find PLB’s unnecessary for the level of remoteness I’m accustomed to at home. But if I’d been hiking in Yellowstone alone, or with a group that didn’t have one, I 100% would have wanted a Garmin In-Reach. The rangers I chatted with at the end of my trip were very clear: they don’t find people who don’t have beacons, and when they do, it’s body recovery — not search and rescue.
Is Yellowstone backpacking really dangerous?
I’m spending a lot of time on safety stuff here because it’s one of the big questions I get about Yellowstone backpacking. But really — I felt as safe or safer in the Yellowstone backcountry than I do at home.
The things that helped me feel secure:
- I was in a large group (10 people)
- Two group members had PLB’s
- Everyone carried their own bear spray
- We made lots of noise when hiking and at camp
- Nothing smellable ever went anywhere near our tents
- I had binoculars so I could see what was in the distance in open fields
- We stayed out of bear management areas
- I hiked late in the season so the deepest river crossing was thigh-deep
- We stayed on established trails, with the exception of going to Mr. Bubbles
- We chose an itinerary well within the skill level of the least experienced and fit folks in the group — reducing the risk of injury
Logistical challenges when planning your backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park
In addition to safety, the other big barrier to Yellowstone backpacking is transportation. The park is huge, you’ll be headed into extremely remote places, and virtually no itineraries offer loop options.
The simplest way to handle transport is to take a guided tour. You’ll be dropped off at the trailhead, someone from the tour company will shuttle your vehicle to the end, and you’ll have a ride waiting. Guided trips are expensive — $1,000 for four days is common — but when you work out all the independent transport options, they’re actually pretty cost effective.
Option 2 would be a commercial shuttle. These are few and far between — especially with the Gardiner entrance closed due to the flood. The park has a list of commercial services.
Typically a commercial shuttle will meet you on Day 1 at the hike’s end point and drive you to the start, so you have a vehicle waiting when you’re done. I scoped out a bunch of services and couldn’t find any that would charge less than $400 for a shuttle from either Pelican Valley to Lamar Valley or from the Bechler ranger station to Old Faithful. Some folks quoted me as high as $800. Add the cost of renting a car just to leave it at your terminus for four days, and it gets pretty expensive pretty fast, especially if you have a small group.
Your final option is to bring multiple vehicles and do the shuttle yourself. This takes the longest on both ends of the trip, and requires you to pay for multiple rental cars if you’re flying to the area.
A couple other considerations:
- If you choose the commercial shuttle or you shuttle yourself, anticipate at least half a day — closer to a full day — of driving on each end. You’ll need to plan very early starts or cap your mileage at 5 miles or less on your first and last days if you want to do the full shuttle on those days too. Alternatively, stay somewhere closer to your trailheads and add a day to your trip to finish the shuttle. (So, for example, if you’re shuttling yourself and end at Pelican Valley — where the bear management area requires a 12-mile last day — reserve a frontcountry campsite in the Lakeshore part of the park that night and pick up your other car the next morning.)
- Some of the backcountry park entrances ~cough Bechler Ranger Station cough~ are down horrible gravel roads. You’d be violating rental agreements if you take a rental car down them.
- I definitely would not recommend using commercial shuttles on both ends. It might be faster to have someone pick you up when you’re done, but you won’t have cell service at the trailheads so you won’t be able to get in touch with our driver if you or they run late.
- Hitching is a baaaaaad idea in Yellowstone. You will see some people attempting it, but waits of longer than a day are pretty common. Even if you get a ride, it probably won’t get you where you need to go — you’ll have to string together several hitches (like for the Bechler trip I did, it likely would have taken four legs). Some of the trailheads only see about 10 cars a day and the odds of one of them picking you up are not good. Plus add the general risks of hitching in remote Montana and Wyoming, especially if you aren’t a White dude or are with a group larger than two. I’m generally not opposed to hitching as backcountry transportation — it’s well-established in some places, and I’ve done it in Shenandoah, the Tetons and along the AT — but Yellowstone is just too spread out for it to work.
Is backpacking in Yellowstone National Park worth it?
After thinking through the safety and logistical challenges Yellowstone presents, you might be wondering if it’s worth all the hassle.
I’ll admit — I was skeptical. Backpacking is supposed to be a cheap and low-stress vacation. Yellowstone definitely isn’t cheap. If you’re comfortable in the backcountry I wouldn’t call it stressful, but you need to keep your wits about you in a way you might not at home, and if you’re not an experienced backpacker you might find it unnerving.
But my four-day Bechler River trip ended up being one of my favorite backpacking trips ever. The sense of journey was incredible, the weather was perfect, and I loved how much wildlife I saw.
Additionally, I got to have this more intimate experience in the park before going to all the major tourist attractions. I was still blown away by Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic and the Hayden Valley — but when I think about my trip to Yellowstone, it’s the backcountry memories I’m most nostalgic for.
Yellowstone’s true magic is in these quiet corners, strolling through a wide-open field to the soundtrack of sand hill cranes warbling and mudpots gurgling, bison grazing in the distance, a light breeze blowing waves through the tall yellow grasses and last of the season’s wildflowers.
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