Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park barely see the park beyond their car. When they do stop, it is often to visit one of the roadside highlights which tend to be crowded with visitors. To truly experience the park as it was meant to be seen, you’ll want to set aside some time to head out for a hike.
You don’t have to go on an epic multi-day or even day-long hike (such as Mount Washburn, the most popular dayhike in the park) to enjoy some of Yellowstone’s most stunning landscapes. Many of Yellowstone’s best short hikes are family-friendly, easy hikes that are suitable to hikers of all levels, including kids.
Choose among hikes that lead to lesser-visited geysers, get you up-close to misty waterfalls and fascinating thermal features, or offer stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges and geyser basins.
Here are our picks for the nine best short hikes in Yellowstone that pack in the best scenic punch per mile.
1. Grand Prismatic Overlook
Extremely hot water bubbles up from an underground chamber 121 feet below the surface of the Earth to create this wildly colorful spring.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States and it discharges an incredible 560 gallons of water per minute. The center of the pool is a beautiful shade of deep-blue, but as the water spreads out and cools it takes on every color of the rainbow thanks to the heat-loving bacteria which inhabit each band around the spring.
For a unique view of Grand Prismatic Spring, take the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail from the Fairy Falls Trail, the newest one to hike in Yellowstone.
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This 1.2-mile out-and-back trail gradually climbs 105 feet to a viewpoint overlooking the spring. Parking is very limited at the trailhead so head there early in the morning for your best chance at scoring a spot.
2. Lone Star Geyser Trail
This flat, paved trail meanders along the Firehole River to a lonely geyser standing tall in a clearing in the middle of the forest. Lone Star Geyser regularly erupts around every three hours and there’s a logbook near the geyser where visitors note eruption times.
Even if you don’t stay to see it erupt, this 4.8-mile roundtrip hike makes for a lovely jaunt along the river and the dramatic cone-shaped geyser is a sight in itself.
The Lone Geyser trailhead is about three miles south of Old Faithful near the Kepler Cascades parking lot. Bikes are allowed on the trail but are not allowed on the boardwalks near the geyser. The Lone Star Geyser Trail also connects with the Shoshone Lake Trail and the Howard Eaton Trail to Old Faithful.
3. Geyser Hill Loop Trail
Old Faithful is just one of many geysers in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. In fact, this basin has the largest concentration of geysers in the entire world including many of the world’s largest.
The 1.3-mile loop is one of the easiest yet most interesting trails in the Upper Geyser Basin and winds through several thermal features in the hills above Old Faithful including the Anemone Geyser and the Doublet Pool.
You can also add on the quick trip up to Observation Point, which allows a bird’s eye view of Old Faithful. Check the estimated time of Old Faithful’s next eruption time at the visitors center and aim to get up to Observation Point for the eruption.
It’s about a one-mile hike from the visitors center and is a great place to watch Old Faithful erupt and with much fewer people than the viewing area near the geyser.
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4. Lamar River Trail
The Lamar River Trail runs through the heart of the Lamar Valley, the northeastern corner of the park, and a prime location for viewing wildlife such as bison. Hiking this beautiful and gentle trail is a great way to see wildlife away from the busy road, and enjoy meadows filled with wildflowers.
The trail follows the Lamar River for 3.5 miles to its junction with Cache Creek and you can hike as little or as far as you want along the trail. The entire trail runs for nearly 17 miles and is one of Yellowstone’s top backpacking trails.
5. Artist Paintpots Trail
If you only have time for one hike in the Norris Geyser Region of the park, make it the one-mile Artist Paintpots Trail. This mostly level trail winds through a very active thermal area featuring colorful pools, steam vents, mud pots, and bubbling geysers. The features exhibit varying shades of blue, purple, orange and red, and change color depending on the amount of water and time of year.
6. Uncle Tom’s Trail
This short hike involves a steep descent down 328 steps from the top of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the base of Lower Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park. Built in the late 1800s by a park concessionaire known as “Uncle Tom,” this trail is the oldest and possibly the most famous hike in the park.
Although the hike is just under a mile round trip, the hike is quite steep and strenuous. For a longer hike, park at Artist Point and hike along the South Rim Trail until you get to the junction with Uncle Tom’s Trail. This will give you many more views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
7. Mammoth Hot Springs Trail
A series of boardwalks and trails wind through the beautiful terraced formations and bubbling hot pots at Mammoth Hot Springs. These formations are unlike any other in the park and some people describe them as a cave turned inside out.
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You can start from the Upper Terraces or Lower Terraces parking area and wander as far and in any direction that you wish. The entire boardwalk covers about 3.5 miles, which makes for a really nice hike in Yellowstone.
8. Bunsen Peak
Bunsen Peak is the most prominent peak south of the Mammoth Hot Springs. It was a favorite hike of early Yellowstone explorers thanks to its impressive views of the surrounding area. The peak got its name from a German scientist, Robert Bunsen, who studied geysers and also invented the Bunsen Burner.
The Bunsen Peak Trail has an elevation gain of 1,300 feet to the summit in just over two miles, making it the most difficult hike on this list, but doable by most beginner hikers if you take your time.
The trail passes through sagebrush-covered hills and a patch of forest burned in the 1988 fire before arriving at the rocky summit. The summit is very exposed giving an unobscured view of Mammoth Village and the distant Absaroka, Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges.
9. Mystic Falls Trail
This trail is a bit off the tourist radar and is a ranger’s favorite. The trail starts at Biscuit Basin and leads to a lovely waterfall on the Little Firehole River. The 70 foot waterfall, called Mystic Falls, cascades through a particularly narrow part of the canyon and there are several good viewpoints that tower high above the falls.
Also, be on the lookout for steamy hot springs along the river banks. The hike is two miles roundtrip or you can make the hike a longer loop by connecting with the Fairy Creek Trail before returning via the Mystic Falls Trail.
Other good shorter hikes in Yellowstone to consider include Beaver Ponds Loop, Storm Point Trail, and Midway Geyser Basin Trail.
This article was originally published in November 2020.