Nestled at the west entrance to the America’s first national park, West Yellowstone is a veritable outdoor hub, perfect for anyone looking to enjoy the scenic beauty of this corner of Montana. In the warm months the town hosts an array of sightseers, fly fishing enthusiasts, nature photographers, and vacationing families looking for a little something out of the ordinary. In the winter the area draws its fair share of cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and adventurers hoping a snowcoach ride into Yellowstone National Park.
There is arguably no better way to explore the region than by foot—trekking through the Rocky Mountains offers a full immersion experience into the flora, fauna, scents, and sights of the mountains. And while Yellowstone’s roadways may be tourist-filled in the summer and the pathways busy, when using West Yellowstone as your home base, it’s easy to go beyond the park and escape into the surrounding national forests. Here are seven hikes worth exploring during your stay in West Yellowstone, all accessible without ever setting foot in Yellowstone National Park:
1. South Tepee Creek Road Trail
The South Tepee Creek Road Trail winds for 13.9 miles paralleling a creek for the first several miles. Only 15.5 miles from West Yellowstone, the easily accessible trail offers stellar wildflower viewing in the spring and early summer as it winds through lush meadows with stunning mountain views. An elevation gain of 1,551 feet means it’s a bit of a workout, especially for those unused to the area’s elevation (though it’s still rated an "easy" trail); bring along the dogs and make a full day of it. Horses are also allowed on the trail, so keep an eye on dogs not used to equine companions.
2. Johnson Lake Trail
The moderately difficult Johnson Lake Trail winds 5.5 miles through the Gallatin Custer National Forest, eventually winding up at a small, scenic mountain lake. The 15.5-mile drive from West Yellowstone is scenic and largely on paved roads. Johnson Lake Trail climbs 1,381 feet over its length and is a popular out-and-back option for birdwatchers and photographers thanks to the lake and vast fields of wildflowers in the late spring and early summer months. June is the perfect time to enjoy the storybook-like scenery.
3. Horse Butte Lookout Trail
Just five miles from West Yellowstone, the Horse Butte Lookout Trail is just north of the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake. The four-mile round-trip hike is best known for providing access to the historic 40-foot fire lookout tower, which offers excellent views of the lake and mountains. A good family hike, the area around the fire tower even has picnic tables where you can stop for lunch. There is a bit of climbing involved to get to 450 feet above lake level, but it should be manageable for older kids. It’s known for excellent bird watching as well, so keep your eyes open for bald eagles and osprey, among others.
4. Coffin Lakes Trail
Don’t let the name scare you off—the Coffin Lakes Trail is a 11.3-mile, moderately rated trail best explored from June through September. Snow can last quite late on parts of this trail, thanks to the 2,483-foot elevation gain, but the calf-burning climbs pay off with stunning views, small stream crossings, and solitude. A mere 20.5 miles from West Yellowstone, the Coffin Creek Trail is an out-and-back hike offering fishing opportunities along the way (pack the rods) and a swim-worthy lake. Be on notice, animals are often sighted on this hike as well.
5. Cabin Creek Trail
A favorite of area locals, the Cabin Creek Trail is an easy, 4.9-mile, out-and-back trail leading to a scenic lake with excellent fishing. Book the Forest Service Cabin at the lake and make it a weekend. The trail gains 764 feet over its length, but much of the climb is on shale and rock, so be prepared for slick conditions in rainy weather. Popular with all skill levels despite the sometimes-tricky footing, the trail is often used by hikers, trail runners, anglers and—in the autumn—hunters. The trailhead is only 22.4 miles from West Yellowstone, meaning it’s easy to get off the trail and head into town for a burger and beer.
6. Red Canyon Trail
Located in the Custer Gallatin National Forest not far from the Cabin Creek Trail, the Red Canyon Trail is a bit longer, giving hikers a 9-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 1,900 feet. If you’re not up for a lot of climbing, the first section of the trail provides some nice, easy walking through the canyon and along a creek before you start ascending. The climbing is worth it, however, as you reach a subalpine meadow with whitebark pines and an abundance of wildflowers in season (which is from early July to mid August). Keep rising to reach the ridge, where you’ll find some excellent views of the surrounding mountains and Hebgen Lake. Be aware that this region is home to grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, and moose. Read forest service guidelines about the best way to stay safe among these amazing creatures.
7. Targhee Creek Trail
Four-mile-long Targhee Creek Trail is a moderately-trafficked, out-and-back trail perfect for families. A mere 11.8 miles from downtown West Yellowstone, the easy-rated trail follows a creek through most of its length and can provide promising wildlife sightings. A meager 331-foot elevation gain and short-ish length means even younger children will find the hike attainable, and its close proximity to town means an ice cream stop in West Yellowstone is mandatory afterwards. On-leash dogs are allowed.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with West Yellowstone Chamber.