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backpacking the yellowstone trail

Anders and I are getting ready for our annual mother-son backpacking trip, and I was reflecting back on last year’s trip in Yellowstone.

We hiked along the Yellowstone River Trail from Hellroaring Trailhead to the Eagle Creek Campground near Jardine. We walked through wildflowers, biting insects, patches of trees and meadows. We passed waterfalls, lakes, and lots of antlers and skulls left over from a hard winter.

This is a through hike without a good hitchhiking option. We left a vehicle at the terminus of the hike and got dropped off at the starting trailhead by Henry and Finn. They even hiked the first mile to the suspension bridge with us.

The campsites along the Yellowstone River were amazing. We should have spent a week at each one. This is a great trail for anglers, but we were happy strolling through flowers and dipping our feet in the water.

Each day was about 6.0 miles.
There are several beautiful canyons in Yellowstone, including the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, which we passed through on this backpacking trip.

Day 1 Pictures

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Hellroaring Trailhead to 1R1 Cottonwood Creek

Day 2: Cottonwood Creek to 1Y2 Knowles Falls

Day 3: Knowles Falls to USFS Eagle Creek Campground

Day 2 Pictures


Reserve a permit through the mail after downloading a reservation form and sending in $25. In addition to the reservation fee, there is now a small fee for the permit based on the number of people in your party. You can chance it and get a permit from any backcountry office in the park the day before or the day of your trip. I want a guaranteed reservation, so I always pay the money– it would be a bummer to show up all packed and ready to go and then not get a permit.


My favorite guidebook for hiking or backpacking in Yellowstone is Hiking Yellowstone National Park: A Guide to More than 100 Great Hikes. However the western two miles of trail has changed since he wrote this, so talk to a Park Service person about the new detour. I couldn’t find the new trail on any maps, either. It’s hard to miss, though. Keep walking to Bear Creek, then another few minutes until a trail sign points you uphill. It’s a slog for a couple miles before reaching a Forest Service campground where you left your car.

We brought this Trails Illustrated Topographic Map. You’d be hard pressed to get lost on this trail (follow the river!), but it’s nice to see distances and the names of surrounding creeks and mountains. Plus, you should always have a map.

Day 3 Pictures


  1. Such a wonderful photography and amazing scenes. Yellow stone river is such a lovely place to hike and picnic and have fun. Backpacking is a very logical and pondering thing to do. Nice stuff on it.

  2. What a great trip.
    I am taking my two boys to Yellowstone this June. Finalizing my backpacking permit request in the next day, to have it in before the 31st.
    Will only have one car, so shuttle is not an option, so will have to do the Yellowstone River Trail as an out and back (so only able to do half of it).
    Thoughts on which half you’d recommend? Eagle Creek to Crevice Lake & back, or Hellroaring to Crevice Lake & back? 3 days / 2 nights.
    (Also was considering Hellroaring / Coyote Creek loop around Bull Mountain, or Buffalo Plateau / Coyote Creek Loop)
    Thanks in advance

    • You pretty much can’t go wrong with this trip! I’d consider hiking in from Hellroaring as far as you’d like to hike and camp in the same spot for two nights. Then on the second day, you can take a longer day hike down river or make a loop to explore the area to the north.

      • Ed McGovern

        Thanks for the response. I was thinking two days at the same spot (1Y4, 1Y5, 1Y7, 1 Y8 or 1Y9) with an explore further down the caynon on day two as you suggested. Hadn’t thought about a loop to the North for the second day.
        To do that it seems like it would be better to stay not as far in (1R1 / 1R2 / 1R3). Any further advice?
        Primary thing for my 10 & 12 yr olds is to have fun and maybe see some wildlife. For me it is to see the scenery and their joy.

        • Personally, I love the riverside campsites! My favorite is 1Y2 Knowles Falls. 1R1 Cottonwood Creek was great too, if you don’t want to hike in as far.

  3. What time of year did you hike this? I’m trying to plan a backpacking trip with my son, but the only time he has is mid-May between the time his college classes end until his summer job begins. Any suggestions for a mid-May trip in Yellowstone? Everything I read says it will still be snowy/muddy at that time of year. I’ve only backpacked Yellowstone in mid-summer and early fall. Thanks!

    • I think this is the best option for a mid-May trip. You never know with weather around here, but it should be dry mid-May. In fact, right now in mid-April it’s pretty dry in that part of the park. Do check the weather because it can rain or snow any day.

  4. Hi, did you encounter any brown bears during your hike? I’ll be out in Yellowstone in July and I am considering running this route. Thanks!

    • Hi! We did not encounter any bears on this hike, though I know they are out there. That’s going to be the case for anywhere in the Greater Yellowstone area. Make sure you carry bear spray and make some noise (I yell “Hey Bear” when I’m not talking to other people), especially in the areas where you can’t see very far. Have fun!

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