Yellowstone is a different park in every season. Winter is hushed and the air hangs heavy with steam; spring brings wildflowers, baby bison and green; summer is bright, lively and full of excitement.
In autumn, the park seems to slow down and recover from the craziness of summer’s millions of visitors. Cottonwoods, aspens, willows and understory shrubs turn umber, gold and red. Elk bugle and spar. The crowds thin, and many of the trails are almost empty. Parking spaces in Mammoth stay unoccupied for more than a minute.
Park Ranger Anna Boykin enjoys fall in Yellowstone for its changing colors.
“The aspen are all starting to turn, and that’s a huge draw for me,” she said.
Boykin recommended hiking the Beaver Pond Loop Trail as it winds through golden aspen groves. She also said there is a good chance of seeing mule deer, muskrats and other wildlife.
“It’s just an agreeable hike,” she said.
The elk rut also draws people to the park, specifically the area around Mammoth Hot Springs and the meadows along the Madison and Gibbon rivers near Madison and Norris junctions.
“It’s an exciting time of year in Yellowstone,” Boykin said.
Jessica Kerr and her family spend time in the park year-round, but they are especially fans of Yellowstone in autumn.
The Lava Creek trail is one of her family’s favorite fall hikes.
“We’re almost sure to see a herd of elk or two,” Kerr said. “The cottonwoods along the Gardner River are just a short walk away and are a perfect destination and turnaround spot for our family. We all enjoy taking in the fall color of the trees while the kids throw rocks in the river. We look forward to this hike every year.”
All the trails in Yellowstone are lovely, but below are a few of the best hikes in the park for spotting autumn colors.
Beaver Pond Loop
Trailhead: Park in the large parking lot just north (to the right) of the Terraces and Liberty Cap. This is the parking area for the restrooms and is south (left) of the gas station.
Distance: 5.1-mile loop
Trail Description: Walk to the left of the private home to find the trailhead. The first three-quarters of a mile are uphill, but the trail mellows out beyond that. It skirts several ponds, eventually following one edge of a larger beaver pond. From there the trail climbs a couple of small hills and turns south through sagebrush steppe dotted with orange, lichen-covered rocks.
Make loud noises as you round corners or head into a treed area to alert bears of your presence.
Lava Creek Trail
Trailhead: Across the road from the Mammoth Campground
Distance: 2 miles round trip or 4.7 mile shuttle
Trail Description: This trail can be done as a through-hike with a shuttle by starting at the Lava Creek Picnic Area, passing Undine Falls, and dropping through open terrain to the Gardner River. From there, cross the bridge and continue to either the pullout across from the Mammoth Campground or the Boiling River Trail where you left a shuttle car.
Kerr hikes it from the other direction with her family. Starting at a marked pullout across from the Mammoth Campground, head down the hill toward the Gardner River. It’s about 1 mile to the metal bridge over the river.
Ice Lake and Wolf Lake Trails
Trailhead: Head 3.3 miles east of Norris Junction or 8.2 miles west from Canyon to the signed trailhead on the north side of the road.
Distance: 0.6 miles round trip to the lake, or 4.0 mile loop
Trail Description: The first 0.3 miles to Ice Lake is wheelchair accessible, so it is wide and pretty flat. Many people walk to this point, or a little farther around the west side of the lake, and then turn back.
You can turn it into a longer, more interesting, less crowded hike by making it a loop. Continue on to the junction of the Howard Eaton Trail at 0.5 miles and turn right (east). From there, it is another 1.8 miles to the junction with the Wolf Lake Trail where you make another right (south). At 0.6 miles from the junction, Little Gibbon Falls cascades into Virginia Meadows. Continue on the trail to the Norris-Canyon road, turn right (west), and walk along the road 0.4 miles back to the trailhead.
Blacktail Deer Creek Trail
Trailhead: Drive east of Mammoth 6.7 miles to a signed parking area on the left (north). There is more parking, and an outhouse, just past the first lot on the right (south).
Distance: 7.6 miles round trip to bridge
Trail Description: Almost immediately after starting this trail, the beautiful Blacktail Ponds appear on the left. Climb a hill between areas fenced for soil and wildlife studies and veer right at the marked junction with Rescue Creek Trail. The trail continues through prairie-like hills until dropping into a canyon. From here, the trail keeps going downhill to a suspension bridge over the Yellowstone River at 3.8 miles.
Just before reaching the bridge, look for a sign for campsites on the right. Follow this trail to a backcountry cabin. Just below the cabin is a nice cobble “beach” along the river. Or cross the Yellowstone on the bridge and continue 0.2 miles to the junction with the Yellowstone River Trail. Turn left (west) and walk another 0.2 miles to Crevice Lake — a deep and steep-sided lake that appears out of nowhere. Return the way you came.
From the Great Falls Tribune, October 14, 2015
For more Yellowstone hikes, see my guide book “Twenty Family Friendly Hikes”
Need help planning a trip to Yellowstone? See my “First Time Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.”